Cold rain is coming. The kind that makes your shoulders pucker when it drips down your back. Days of soaking rain. Rain that will clean the skies and fill the swamps. Rain that will knock the leaves off the trees and wash away the memory of summer.
I’m not a meteorologist; so I’m not sure there is scientific evidence that there is even such a thing as an equinox rain. But I believe in this autumnal rain because I experienced it while camping in the Adirondacks.
In late September there was a clergy campout at Stillwater Reservoir. Five days to reflect, renew, recharge, and accept Jesus’ invitation to “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:31)
We left on a sunny Sunday afternoon with smiles on our faces and canoes lashed to the top of our cars. We got to the lake, paddled out to an island and set up camp. It was perfect; the hush of the boatless lake, the leaves in full glory. We sang and chatted long into the evening and feasted on wife made casseroles,
That evening I discover the borrowed tent that was to be my home for the week came without poles. No worries, I just crawled up under a pine, zipped up my bag and went to sleep. In the middle of the night I awoke with a mouse pulling on my hair. Should have known that the mouse’s attempt to line its bunk with my hair was a harbinger of what was to come.
On Monday it started to rain and angry whitecaps appeared out on the main channel. The occasional drips that found their way through the red and yellow leaves that morning turned into a steady assault by afternoon. Staying dry became job one, we donned vinyl ponchos, while our cotton sweat pants and shirts got heavier by the hour. The fire put out more smoke than heat.
That night I took refuge in a friends larger tent, I apologized for invading his space and tried to keep my things condensed in the corner. A corner that soon filled with water as the tent’s nylon fly and made-for- backyard-camping floor gave way to the wind driven deluge. I moved all my gear onto my air mattress, high ground where my things would stay dry.
Tuesday night the air mattress went flat. I woke up shivering; the cold earth had wicked away my body heat. I got dressed and headed for the fire, thankfully the rain had taken a short break, patches of starry black sky backlit the clouds that were driving their way through the night.
I turned over a large log and blew on it, threw on some sticks and managed to get a little fire kindled. Sunrise was still hours away, and when the dawn finally came, it brought with it mist and drizzle. The clouds had reorganized their ranks and pressed down on the wilderness. The lowest hills were shrouded in swirls of gray mist. We spent the day sequestered in our tents, trying to read in the dim light.
On Wednesday we pulled bark off logs and piled it on our fire, we sang and prayed, the blaze seemed to evaporate the rain when we sat close enough. We ate like teenagers, and, when one of my friends got his sodden sneaker too close to the fire, we howled at his melted sole.
I was sad when the fireside ended. I knew I was facing another sleepless night on the cold ground.
Then I had an idea.
I took a hot rock from the edge of the fire, wrapped it in a towel, spooned it like a honeymooner and drifted off to sleep absorbing that delicious heat. I woke up a half hour later to the smell of dank smoke. That hot rock had turned my towel into a smoldering wick. I tossed it out into the rain and told myself I would be warm enough the rest of the night. I lied.
Thursday the sun came out. Dark hulled clouds in full sail raced south and east. The never seen, but often felt, Canadian Clipper system. We knew it was Canadian, because it dropped snow flakes into the lake, arctic currency paying the tolls on the way south.
On our last night on the island we went down to the beach to look at the stars. The air had been scrubbed of summer’s humidity, the wind had died, the frost fell, and the water mirrored the skies in upside down perfection. A Psalm echoed in my soul: “The heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) I silently nodded and mouthed “Yes they are, and so is the lake”.
We drove home on Friday. I dumped my clothes in the wash; they reeked of fire, ash, and damp. I scrubbed and shampooed like I was going on a first date, and stood in the shower until the hot water ran out. It felt so good to sleep between sheets and smell like soap.
A few years later the retreat was relocated to a proper camp with cabins. I stopped attending. I had come to know that I needed some outside time to fix some inside things. I had learned to accept invitations to lonely places and to have some cold rain drip down my back.
– Jeff Ell