Stormy Weather

I am driving along the gulf coast when the rain starts. It isn’t bad, and after ten years of driving in Seattle I have no trouble in wet weather. The road curves up into the hills, and when it returns to the water I see the storm in the distance. It’s a dark and fantastic display, but it’s centered over the ocean so I’m not too concerned. I should be able to get a good view of it up ahead, but the weather on the road won’t get much worse.

The rain gets heavier and heavier, and I look out along the beach to my right. No one is playing on the beach in this weather. There’s standing water on the road and I start to worry that it’s getting to be too much. The lightning is closer than I thought it would be, and the thunder is drowning out the radio. I look on the side of the road to the small parking lots meant for beach goers. Every lot is full. I realize that they have all decided it isn’t worth it, and pulled over. My brain begins to run through all prior knowledge of lightning strikes, and I realize I have no idea if a person is really safe inside a car.

I see a Walmart on the left and pull into the vast parking lot. There’s standing water everywhere, and I can barely make out the white lines on the cement to find a proper parking place. I am suddenly grateful that I store all my shoes in the footwell of the passenger seat, because the pair I am wearing will never survive the 40-foot, puddle-filled dash. I grab my purse and run inside, getting drenched in the process. I’m still not sure if I would have been safe in the car, but I feel certain I will be safer inside the Walmart. I go straight to the bathroom and take a few minutes to flatten out my soaking hair. I take out my phone and look up instructions for what to do in a thunderstorm. It turns out I was probably fine in the car, though certainly better in the store.

I slowly make my way back to the door, and stand with a few other weather spectators staring out at the stormy ocean view. It seems to be letting up. I wait a few more minutes before running back out to my car. There’s more water on the ground but less in the air, and I make it without too much of a problem. When I get to the end of the parking lot I see that most of the beach lots are empty again. The rain has stopped and I continue on my way.

Empty PoolThe next day I am on my way towards Birmingham and decide to camp halfway up the state rather than attempt such a long drive. I look up┬áChickasabogue State Park, which has a campground and seems well situated between Mobile and Birmingham. Chickasabogue is a very small park. It’s laid out right next to the highway, and is made up of a handful of pavilions, BBQ cookers, and a play set for the kids. There seems to be a shallow pool as well, but there is no water in it. The registration board says I need to go across the road to register with the park manager. I drive up the the house and knock on the door. Nothing. I wait and knock again. I go to the back, wonder around, and eventually give up. There’s a phone number on the registration board which takes me to an answering machine. I leave a message indicating my camping intentions and assume if they want to collect my eight dollars they will come find me. The campsites in Chickasabogue are not well marked. They are not marked at all, in fact. The whole park is mostly open and grassy without so much as a fire ring to tell one site from the next. There’s a map on the registration board indicating where each site should be, but it only roughly corresponds to the layout of the park. Of course, none of this matters all that much, since I am the only person in the park. I pick out a spot near the bathroom that seems to generally match the map, and figure I’ll wait on setting up the tent just in case. I have plenty of time so I pull out my computer on a picnic table and get some writing done.

After about an hour an old man and a teenage girl pull up in a pickup truck. He says he got my message, I give him my eight dollars and he gives me a paper permit for my dashboard. He asks if I was planning on setting up my tent on the grass or in the pavilion. I say the grass, since it seems like it would be softer than the cement. Not to mention the pavilion is full of heavy picnic tables that I would have to move to make room. He tells me that either one is fine, and I’m welcome to change my mind later seeing as I’m the only one in the park. During our conversation a black man pulls up in a second truck and proceeds to empty the trash cans. The old man greets the trash collector by name, and we all part ways. Later on in the evening the old man will call me back to let me know that he’s sending his granddaughter over to make sure the gate is locked. He explains that it is supposed to be locked at night and he’s not sure “that black guy” did it after he left the park. This will prove to be the most overtly racist thing I hear in the entire state of Alabama, but more on that in future posts.

I set up my tent on the grass next to the pavilion, cook some dinner, and continue writing. Another hour passes and I hear the thunder in the distance. Then I here it much closer. The cicadas have gone quiet. I pull out my phone to check the weather, and I see there’s a thunderstorm headed straight for me. And I’m alone. With a tent. I scramble to push the picnic tables around in the pavilion as I count the seconds between the lightning strikes and the sound of thunder. I make just enough room to squeeze my tent in, and I lift the entire assembled contraption off the grass and onto the cement. The thunder and lightning seem to be right on top of me now, but it’s still dry. I am grabbing the last few needed items out of my car when the rain starts. It pours for all of three minutes before it stops. The storm passes. Nothing else happens. There are no lightning strikes, and there is no more rain. Not wanting to tempt fate I leave my tent where it is, and sleep on the hard cement.

When I tell people I’m from Seattle the first response I get is, “There’s a lot of rain up there.” This is true. There is a lot of rain in Seattle. I knew this growing up as well, but never understood why rain was so bad. The more I travel around the country the more I understand. Rain is bad – everywhere else. I’m learning that when you feel a couple drops it’s time to run towards shelter or you will get soaked. I’m learning that dry thunderstorms are not only possible, they are the norm. I’m learning that rain can make you and your city feel (and smell) like a wet dog. None of this is true in Seattle. Sudden downpours are very rare. Dry thunderstorms are unheard of, and thunderstorms in general are looked on with a sort of wondrous anticipation. The weather is predictable. If you look outside in the morning, that is how it is likely to look until at least the afternoon. If you look out in the afternoon, you’ll see what to expect the rest of the day. Seattle weather comes in minimum half-day chunks. And I never realized that the sort of consistency and mildness I grew up with is so unusual. When it rains in Seattle, it’s like the city took a shower. I can’t remember a time growing up when the rain was so heavy we had to pull over. You never need to run under and awning to “wait it out,” especially since most rain in Seattle outside of the month of November is so light you don’t need an umbrella. Even in November when the rain is heaviest, you’re never surprised by it. After all, it was already raining when you got up in the morning.

How truly horrific it would be to have rain in the style of the rest of the country but in the volume of Seattle. I can understand why people comment. I’ve heard more than one city on this trip claim the saying, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes.” In Seattle the phrase would have to be, “You don’t like the weather? Huh. Well, it’s nice in the summer.” And the gorgeous Seattle summers might be the reason the city is perfectly content letting the rest of the world think of us as “the rainy city.” While my new adventures in weather have been fun, I am missing the beautiful Seattle summer. The summer that gets warm but not too hot, never dry, never humid. Where the sky is clear and the lakes are shinning. Most of all I miss the idea that if it looks like it’s going to be a gorgeous day, it really will be a gorgeous day. All day long.

Down South in New Orleans

New Orleans was a whirlwind. I can barely remember all the things I saw and did.

TerrancesMy parents introduced me to some friends they know through their yearly work trips down to New Orleans. In case you weren’t aware, the citizens of New Orleans are still rebuilding eight years after the hurricane. Unfortunately Connie would be out of town while I was going through, but Mark was ready and able to play tour guide. He works as a chef for a nearby school, so his time is fairly free during the summer. When I arrived at their house at 7PM, Mark was putting the finishing touches on the four different dishes he had “whipped up” for dinner. Everything was absolutely delicious, and I got to meet their daughter who was spending the weekend there in order to study for her nursing exam.

After dinner, Mark insisted we get cannollis at his favorite local Italian bakery and began to tell what would be the extensive and reoccurring story of his family in the city. His grandfather owned an Italian import company in New Orleans back in the 1920s, helping to bring Italian goods like olive oil into the city. He also made traditional Italian soups, and in 1925 he merged with a fellow importer to form a new company called Progresso. Yes, that Progresso.

The next morning Mark decided we should take his convertible out for a drive, insisting it was the best way to really see the city. We stopped for beignet and coffee at the cafe in the park, then went down a few main drags to check out the architecture while Mark related the city’s history to me. He was constantly pointing to buildings and parks and statues, saying, “That’s another one we rebuilt after Katrina.” We stopped in one of the nicer areas of town to visit Mark’s mother and see the house he grew up in. You know, the giant one across the street from the French Consulate. It was a gorgeous place that fortunately wasn’t subject to any flooding during the storm. There were solid marble tables and gold leaf on the built-in closets. His mother was a real treat, too. She talked about being a little girl in her mother’s store, and how she once saw Helen Keller come into the shop. She described the way Helen picked up objects to feel them, and said she ended up buying a china cup from them. Mark had never heard this story before.

We drove into the city where we had lunch at Mother’s, yet another fine establishment with a line out the door. Mark insisted I get the combination platter so I could try the red beans and rice, gumbo, jambalaya, etc. He got a fried shrimp and oyster po’boy specifically so I could try that too, and lamented that he couldn’t get me a fresh oyster as it wasn’t the season.

Katrina WaterlineThe IMAX theater was playing a short film called “Hurricane on the Bayou” that Mark recommended we see. Originally the filmmakers meant to tell a story about musicians and the wetlands, but Hurricane Katrina hit during filming. As a result, they have some amazing before and after stories of local musicians who lived through the storm, and the devastating effect it had on their homes and lives. Mid-way through the movie Mark leaned over to me, pointed to the screen, and said, “That’s our house.” And there it was, six feet under water with a boat going down the street in front of it.

We saw the house where Jefferson Davis died, walked through an old above ground cemetery, and rode the rail car into the French Quarter. That night the Summer Lyric Theater at Tulane University was performing A Little Night Music, and we managed to snag some pretty good seats despite purchasing them at the door last minute.

Olice Oil The next morning Mark convinced me to stay a bit longer before heading east, and we went to the Bastille Day celebrations at the French Market. We stopped at Central Grocery, an Italian place that still has old empty olive oil cans lining the walls from the days when Mark’s grandfather was importing them. At Mark’s insistence I tried the Muffaletta, a sandwich that I truly enjoyed despite normally hating almost every ingredient. There was a free walking tour of the city which we gladly joined, and I actually managed to run into someone I already knew. The morning I left Memphis another couch surfer had just arrived. Her name was Michelle, and she was traveling the country alone by train. Our host had picked her up at the train station before work, and I offered to take her back into the city that afternoon on my way out of town. We stopped for coffee and talked a bit, swapping stories and relating the way everyone seems so worried about women traveling alone. I said goodbye and figured I would never see Michelle again, until she was standing at the base of the Joan of Arc statue in the French Market waiting for a free walking tour.

Snow BallsAfter the tour Mark bought the three of us Snow Balls to help beat the heat, and Michelle eventually retreated into the local museum to grab some air conditioning. Mark showed me a bit more of the area before driving us back home. And everything I just said feels like it encompasses maybe half of what I did while in New Orleans. I know there were so many places we went, so many things we saw, so much history that Mark explained. New Orleans is alive and well, as it’s historical reputation would indicate. I had been to the city once before as part of an ecumenical conference. I remembered taking a bus tour of the city, and there was so much devastation even though it had been more than a year since the storm. You could still see the spray painted circles high on the houses that were left by the national guard boats. The circles were a system to indicate which houses had been searched, and if they found anyone inside. One corner of the circle was for the number of living people found, another corner was for the dead.

Star Memorial But all of that is gone now. Even in the 9th Ward, which never really recovered, there are no destroyed houses, simply empty lots. And most of the city has been rebuilt to be better than it was before. According to Mark, “Katrina was the best thing that could have happened to this city. There were so many things that needed to be fixed that would have never been taken care of if it wasn’t for that storm.” It is a much better New Orleans to keep in my memory than the one I saw before. It is a city again. It still needs work, probably more than most people outside the city know or would like to admit, but it’s not longer a site of devastation.

And selfishly, it’s nice to hear my name attached to a positive sentiment again.