Flooded with Memories: Not Quite Ready to Retire
“I seem to have lost the bike path,” I told him as he rang up my milk while the rain began hitting the sidewalk.
My girl and I had set off once again. This time thoughts of our destination warmed me as no other destination ever could. We were going home to Boulder…or at least a few miles east of the eccentric town where I attended undergrad, took my initial graduate level courses, lived out the first few years of marriage, and gave birth to my children.
Our goal: retrieve a few art supplies and books, submit a few resumes, and see what was left of our fractured family.
Since I knew the 60 mile round trip would take a few days, I checked the forecast. Typical Colorado autumn: sunny skies, chance of afternoon thundershowers with highs in the 80’s. Perfect.
Colorado with its reputation for biker-friendly drivers has also invested millions of lottery dollars in an extensive network of pedestrian/bike trails. I had never imagined they would be so accommodating: smooth concrete stretched in front of me, spanning the entire distance across the city, extending into the mountains.
Yes, the roar of two Interstates and one state highway loomed nearby, but it didn’t drown out the call of the herons or the relaxing sound of the two creeks that the well-maintained path followed.
We shared our lunch, and I marveled at the ease with which the girl could cool herself in the creek, luxuriating in the clean waters that passed through Denver’s industrial district of Commerce City. The bucolic scene stood in sharp contrast to our experiences in the littered rural sections of Iowa or industrialized areas of Nebraska.
By the time I reached the third detour sign, the predicted afternoon storm clouds were gathering.
When I had first encountered construction early in the day, the foreman at the site informed me that because summer bikers were no longer on the path and to avoid delays caused by Denver’s harsh winter weather, the Parks and Recreation Department had begun making minor repairs to the slightly weathered concrete primarily along the underpasses. He assured me each of the areas was short and passable if I were willing to dismount if necessary. If these accommodating ribbons of concrete were the end result, I welcomed the few detours along the way.
As the rain continued to fall, the cashier pointed over my shoulder to a fenced-in section abutting the convenience store parking lot. “It is behind the fence. The path runs right along the creek, and it is a bit of a drop, so they protect most stretches with the fence,” he informed me, adding, “There is a park just across the street where your dog can run for a few minutes, and you will find the entry to the path just on the other side of the street.”
By the time I exited the store the rain was torrential. I had left the girl and my rig safely protected under the store’s awning, and she and I watched the water obscure our view of the creek less than 40 feet away. Wave after wave of lightning brightened the sky, an unusual weather pattern since typically thunder announces the onslaught of a Colorado storm, often giving way to a more gentle rainfall once the initial fury of mountain storms have passed. It appeared as though the dark clouds were circling back upon themselves again and again.
An hour and a half later, the bubbles forming on the puddles indicated only a few heavy drops were falling, so the girl and I walked our rig toward what the cashier had identified as the creek path. As we caught a glimpse of the swollen, rushing waters, I was thankful for my poor sense of direction: the path was inundated, and the waters swarmed half way up the underpass where I had originally hoped to wait out the storm.
Two days later, as I sat at the westernmost tip of Boulder listening to the sound of rain tapping on the roof of my daughter’s car, I was reminded of numerous back-of-the-station-wagon weekend camping trips I made with my father and brother.
One of the distinct odors I recall from my childhood is that of musty sleeping bags, army-issued inflatable mattresses and a damp canvas tent.
Before my parents’ divorce, before my eldest brother had enlisted and been sent to the fields of Nam to return as a cold-blooded monster, before too many angry words had been shouted by parents who realized their lives were falling apart, each summer all ten of us would somehow wrestle a family-sized tent, our tightly-rolled cloth sleeping bags, cooking and fishing gear, and enough food for ten days into our hot, overcrowded station wagon.
Young enough not to remember the destinations but old enough to recall arriving at the camp site well after dark, I ran errands, following the commands barked by my Navy-trained father as we struggled to set up the tent by glowing, warm flames of the campfire and sparser, cool light of the smoking kerosene lanterns.
I would jog from car to campsite vainly attempting to keep warm, welcoming the fetid smell of the flannel-lined sleeping bag a few hours later after the tent had been successfully, securely erected.
One of my jobs, after fetching the lighter items from the back of the station wagon, was to inflate the mattresses. While my father and eldest brother pulled and pounded the poles, stakes and ropes of the heavy tent, we younger siblings would sit on the picnic table slowly blowing air into the bumpy mattresses. No pump, so in the thin mountain air, I would blow until I was dizzy, intoxicated and entranced by the sound of my breath rushing into the dreadful, overly large air mattresses.
For ten straight days, I slept little, always shivering, always fearful that my small body would get wedged in the deep crevices of the air mattress I was told to lie upon.
“It will keep you warm and dry,” my father barked at me, but I was convinced I could easily suffocate if I fell into the folds.
“Breathe, Rj,” he would remind me after realizing he had again managed to take my breath away.
“We can inflate our air mattress for you,” each of my generous hosts has offered.
“No, thank you,” I reply, “I prefer to sleep on the hard ground,” silently adding, “I have always feared dying of suffocation.”
On those torturously cold nights with my family, after assuring myself everyone was asleep by counting the number of slow, irregular breaths emitting from each of the others that shared the canvas tent, I would quietly, carefully squirm my body off the mattress, inch by inch, at last relieved to feel the sharp rocks under the tent digging into my skin. Only then would I doze, sleeping fitfully, awaiting the first morning light that would burn off the cold, wet condensation that gathered on the sides of the canvas tent, the same rising sun that would bring the sound of awaking birds, buzzing insects, and the initial stirring of the nine other bodies sleeping beside me.
Fearful of being caught in my act of disobedience and anticipating the harsh punishment that always came with any sign of noncompliance, I would quickly, furtively roll back onto the stuffy mattress, breathlessly awaiting the potential discovery of my deviant behavior.
Breakfast proved to be as terrifying as the passing night had been. My mother’s favored form of punishment had been paddling us with her metal spatula, and one of my older sister’s hands still bear the deep scars she incurred while protecting her bared bottom from my mother’s wrath.
While the bitter smell of coffee percolating furiously in its aluminum pot filled the air, she flipped pancakes and fried eggs for her small army of children. Her perpetual rage and resentment echoed silently across the sheer peaks surrounding the campsite that we had set up alongside the quiet mountain stream.
Her thin 90 pound frame magnified by the misty mountain morning light created a silhouette more formidable than an angry Colorado black or brown bear could ever hope to contrive.
“Shhh,” he whispered in the middle of the night, gently nudging me. “Don’t move quickly, and you won’t frighten her,” he added.
Rather than pitching a tent as we once had, the three of us on our weekend trips opted to stretch across the back of the station wagon, saving the precious hours it took to set up camp for our excursions that always included fly fishing in the nearby stream feeding the still waters of Lake Isabel.
He slowly reached for the flashlight, flipping it on with his hand cupped over the top so he wouldn’t startle her. The station wagon protected us from the damp air and sharp rocks better than any moldy canvas tent or stale air mattress ever could, and the only remnant of our bygone camping trips were the familiar warm, still musty sleeping bags.
My father didn’t realize I hadn’t yet fallen asleep. Rather than being wrought with fear of suffocating in the folds of a too-large air mattress, the thunder bouncing from peak to peak and brilliant flashes of lighting announcing the rain that hit the roof of the car composed a cacophonous, irregular symphony that had kept me awake.
Slowly, as he had instructed, I raised my body to peer out while he directed the still covered beam of light in her direction, wiping the condensation from the window. The moment he uncovered the flashlight, she, too, raised her body, stretching to her full, powerful height, sniffing intently into the clear night air. He quickly flicked off the flashlight, and she, assured we posed no threat, dropped back to the ground, leading her two cubs across the wet pavement brilliantly painted silver by the full moon peeking through the breaking storm clouds.
I smiled, pulled the warm cloth sleeping bag over my tiny shoulders, and quickly fell soundly asleep.
A week ago after checking the forecast, I loaded the trailer with water in the thermos gifted by one of my new friends, adding my computer, camera, leash, lunch for both of us, and a change of clothing.
By three in the afternoon, we were watching the torrential storms as they flood the bike path.
The following morning, I met my son for tea, and as we walked along Boulder Creek Path, dodging the homeless who had taken refuge in the underpasses, he asked, “So, after your adventure, are you more sympathetic of their plight?”
I paused, struggling to find an answer. “No, not really, not for the most part. I don’t like how aggressively they ask for money, how they refuse to bathe, how they defiantly defecate in public. When homeless, none of these repugnant behaviors is necessary,” I added, explaining that along the way, with the exception of the occasional watering of the cornfields, I would always ride far enough to find a location where I could attend to my personal hygiene and was appalled when offered money.
“Are you ok?” my daughter asked the following day when she dashed through the still-falling rain to the car with a file containing a few printed copies of my resume.
“No,” I replied, wiping the angry, frustrated tears from my eyes, “but I will be.”
For two days, I began my day with my girl at the westernmost parking lot in Boulder, sitting in the same parking lot I had once used as a turn-around spot while pushing my infant children in their stroller on our daily walk along the creek. As my dog’s warm breath formed condensation on the windows, I flipped on the engine long enough to let the defroster to clear the windows, watching the car headlights zoom past, listening to the cacophony of nature’s symphony beat out its irregular rhythm on the roof of my daughter’s car, mustering the courage to hand out more resumes or submit more applications, always hoping for the best.
Both days, I had been joined by an older model station wagon. The passengers furiously wiped away the condensation with a cloth, indicating that they no longer had the luxury of a functional defroster or heater in their car. As they dashed back through the rain from the nearby outhouse, we smiled and politely nodded to one another, patiently awaiting the passing economic storm that has circled year after year across America.
As I drag the collapsed trailer, computer and dog food bag, camera, books, art supplies and change of clothes from my daughter’s trunk a week later, I reach for my worn tennis shoes.
From an apartment perched above the Coal Creek, my grown children and I survived the flood, with only a few items sustaining water damage from a leaky roof. We were among the more fortunate ones.
As my daughter and I drove along the two Interstates I had passed a week earlier and noted signs of flooding along the paths, particularly near the underpasses, I realized it isn’t time to retire my putrid shoes quite yet.
Although I no longer have boots since I left mine at the side of the road early in my journey, my worn tennis shoes will suffice as I head back up to volunteer with Boulder’s cleanup.
I hope somewhere along the way I will glimpse the station wagon that had shared the parking lot on the morning before the raging creek swept through Boulder Canyon.