In the middle of the night of September 11, 2013, floodwaters began to pour through our downstairs half-basement of five furnished rooms. A storm had stalled over the Front Range of the Rockies, and it had been raining for days. Before it was over, eight people would die, mountain towns would be evacuated, hundreds of homes would be washed away, thousands more would be damaged, roads and wastewater infrastructure would be destroyed.
We’d actually been out hiking that day in the drenching rain. Pacific Crest Trail hikers who had survived all kinds of weather on our 2,663-mile trek, rain never kept us from our hikes. Hadn’t we raced down mountains in the High Sierra ahead of the daily thunderstorms? We’d pitched our seven-and-a-half-ounce tarp in bruising hail, and dug trenches to channel the run-off.
It was one thing to surrender to the elements—searing heat, blinding snow, pelting rain and hail—while living outside in the wilderness for six months. But it was quite another when the elements invaded what we thought was the security of our home. The street flooded, then the yard. Sewage burst from the floor drain, then the tub and toilet drains. Water poured in through the foundation floor, walls, and baseboard heating. We cut off the electricity at the fuse box so we wouldn’t get electrocuted. We waded through the rising water to move valuables from the lower cabinets to the counters.
“I can’t imagine it will rise to higher than a foot,” Porter said.
It rose to four feet. Our downstairs furniture—bed, sofa, chairs, refrigerator—floated by. Porter waded through water up to his waist to hand mementos, electronics, books, and gear to me up the stairs. I desperately looked for places to put them.
What could we call on in ourselves and each other to get through the challenges of the coming days of household chaos, weeks of water remediation, months of reconstruction?
Take care of the practicalities for daily living.
Our experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail stood us in good stead. We attended first to the practicalities. Although we could still live on our main, second floor, we had no use of our upstairs drains for six days—toilet, washing machine, dishwasher–since the wastewater would just wind up downstairs. Flooded neighbors who continued to use their drains anyway had to move out because of the smell. We used an empty six-gallon paint bucket equipped with a plastic snap-on toilet seat for a toilet, added enzymes to deodorize the waste, emptied it into our compost heap, and covered it with sawdust and soil.
“You think what happened to your house was bad,” the mouse who lives in our compost heap said. “You should see what happened to mine!”
Just do the next thing.
Life on the trail is one small feat of organization after another. Each morning we dismantled our tarp and organized our sleeping bag, cooking gear, clothes, food and water in our packs. All day we paid attention to keep track of our stuff, lest we leave a trekking pole or pair of sunglasses behind after stopping for lunch. Each evening we organized ourselves and our camp for cooking and bed.
But what to do when the downstairs contents of your household is scattered in soggy chaos throughout the upstairs? We stepped over, around, and through it, just as we had with fallen trees, boulders, and rivers.
As methodically as we’d loaded or unloaded our packs, we sorted through what had been salvaged from the flood: dirty clothes and gear that could be washed and disinfected, dry clothes and household goods to give away to people who’d lost everything, clean canned goods to go to shelters. Friends arrived to help. Exactly like trail angels, three children down the street brought us home-baked chocolate chip cookies.
Quite a lot that had sat in sewage for days—mattress, upholstered furniture, books, wooden shelves and cabinets, light fixtures, drywall, doors, trim, and carpet—had to be hauled away by the water remediation people. We let it go.
Love each other through it.
We had a lot of close calls on the Pacific Crest Trail, from my near-drowning in swollen rapids to animal encounters, getting lost, injuries, and Porter setting himself on fire while lighting our alcohol stove. We’d come to understand in our very beings that what mattered was that we were still alive. We had loved each other through so much on the Pacific Crest Trail. We loved each other through the flood itself, and we would love each other through the havoc and confusion of the next few months—tear-down, insurance challenges, the countless decisions that would have to be made for reconstruction.
Just as we’d made continual improvements to our backpacking gear, we’re making our downstairs more floodproof with a sewer check-valve, sump pumps, waterproof flooring, steel cabinets and shelves. We’re building a dry creekbed outside for better drainage. But no matter how well we prepare, nature will always be more powerful. The trail was an ever-shifting landscape of terrain and weather, and we were transformed by its beauty.
We learned on the Pacific Crest Trail to not only respect but appreciate the forces of nature. We’ve come to love its fierce grace. Nature is resilient, and, as intimately part of nature, so are we.