The Making of a Thru-Hiker, Part 5: The Flood!

Hiking & Backpacking

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.

The Storey's flooded gear room. September 11, 2013.

The Storey’s flooded gear room. September 11, 2013.

“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.

Gail waits out a storm on the Pacific Crest Trail.

Gail waits out a storm on the Pacific Crest Trail.

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.


Last modified: October 21, 2013

29 Responses to :
The Making of a Thru-Hiker, Part 5: The Flood!

  1. Gail, I’ve been keen to hear about your ordeal with the flood. Thanks for sharing it here. You and Porter rock! Surely the seventies disco ball survived. Say it’s so!

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Melanie, yes, our disco ball survived, but it’s electric wall switches didn’t. No matter, I’ve found it a better home–a windowless elementary school classroom that the teacher has been trying to brighten up with a few lamps and Christmas lights. The kids will love that disco ball!

  2. Linda Weber says:

    Thank you, Gail. I continue to be inspired by your elegant way of speaking the truth with a perspective that is deeply meaningful to us all.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Linda, I feel the same way about how you speak the truth–you are so forthright and courageous in your own book and blog.

  3. Elisabeth Hyde says:

    This is great, Gail: finding the parallels between life on the trail and life in a flooded house. The photos are mind-boggling. Having spent countless evenings drinking wine and discussing manuscripts in your very organized living area, I find it hard to imagine the chaos until I remember how organized you both are. PorterandGail Meet the Challenge!

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Thanks, Elisabeth, and yes the chaos was hard, but the reimagining the downstairs is proving to be great fun!

  4. pstuckey says:

    Gail, thanks for this beautiful piece on adjusting to the elements, even when they invade your space. Oy, what a mess! Thanks for that phrase “fierce grace.” The forces of nature have to be reckoned with, don’t they? Most of the time we insulate ourselves from that reality. You stepped straight into that reality on the trail, and now you’re so wise to work on bringing the wilderness learning indoors. (And the floodwaters by themselves wouldn’t have been so bad; it’s those sewer lines in your ‘hood that need some big attention!)

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Thanks, Priscilla. I’m contributing to the city’s crowd-sourced flood map. Feel free to let me know if you hear of studies working on the how and why our area got such flooding.

  5. Love this post! Especially the realization that no matter how prepared we are, nature is stronger. That just means we have to be more flexible and resilient, both mentally and physically!

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Laurel, I admire how flexible and resilient you are!

  6. Debbie Mihal says:

    There is a stillness I hear in your words, a deep knowing that through the chaos there are new beginnings. I look forward to hearing about your decorating plans–I’m sure there is something wonderful around the corner, all tinged with the giddy laughter of children dancing under their new, donated

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Oh Debbie, thank you for your wise insight. You’re so wonderfully sensitive to deeper meanings. Yes, the new beginning has already begun! It’s manifesting in our re-imagining of our downstairs as a more spare and quiet space and also in an interior peace.

  7. Jody Berman says:

    Thank you for this, Gail. Beautiful, poignant. Essential reminders for enduring our most challenging times in life. You are a conveyor of goodness and hope.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      And so are you, Jody, a conveyor of goodness and hope. Thank you for your help during the flood–we appreciated it deeply.

  8. Jeannie Patton says:

    Not only is this heartfelt, it is valuable to the rest of us. You have a talent for combining a great narrative with practicality. Now I have some clues (who’d have thought of the paint bucket?) in case disaster hits my home.

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Jeannie, I’m so glad it’s helpful! I hope you never go through a disaster, but being prepared goes a long way in coping with one!

  9. Sue Wang says:

    Gail -wow. I had thought of you often during the floods and afterward. Nature has awesome power and we learned with her. You and Porter worked together so beautifully. Love the mouse quote too…funny. Have you guys thought about going on the Amazing Race. I’d totally watch you in action. <3

    1. Gail Storey says:

      Sue, I’m thinking of the Amazing Nap about now. LOL!

  10. Heather Hansen says:

    As usual, Gail, you’ve showed us how to bring grace to grime and muck and exhaustion; how to fortify our inner mojo from outer turmoil. As I picked through a flooded storage unit on N. Broadway, tears welling, I had to step out into the sun (finally!), breathe deeply and take a page from your book. Life’s true matter remains in our hearts.

    1. gaildstorey says:

      Heather, so glad this was even a little helpful! So sorry you’re storage unit was flooded. We’re beginning to see the light of day after months of reconstruction of our downstairs, and you will too!

  11. Marylee Z says:

    Very inspirational Gail. Thank you!

    1. gaildstorey says:

      Marylee, your good humor in any situation is a constant inspiration to me!

  12. jeannemeeks says:

    Wonderful analogy between the trail and your trial. I believe that backpackers are, as a whole, calmer and more thoughtful, able to handle advertisity in a more matter-of-fact manner. Your story proves that to be true. I hope your home is back to normal by now.

    1. gaildstorey says:

      Jeanne, thanks for your comment, glad that you too feel that the resilience and resourcefulness of backpackers stands us in good stead in a crisis.

  13. Sue Wang says:

    Gail -what an account of an ordeal, yet you and Porter loved and transcended the hardship beautifully, on the PCT and at home. I for one know that your new basement is tranquil, clean, secure -a lovely place for healing. <3

    1. gaildstorey says:

      Sue, one of the blessings we’ve most appreciated in our new tranquil downstairs is your superb Reiki, thank you!

      1. Sue Wang says:

        Such an honor to bring relaxation and restoration to you, Porter. In an atmosphere of renewed calm -beautiful rennovation. 🙂

  14. Dawn Kimble says:

    Thank you for writing about the challenges of the flood and the helpful skills you had practiced on your trek. It seems that remembering to love ourselves and each other in the face of such loss and chaos would be the most important foundation for continued functioning. And, then, just doing the next thing instead of projecting out to the future and overwhelm.

    1. gaildstorey says:

      So true, Dawn, thank you! Your comment resonates with me deeply.

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