Sometimes you beat the wind, and sometimes the wind beats you
It had been windy all day. It was a warm wind, and we’re from Wyoming and Montana, places known for gusts. The first word Miriam learned to associate with weather was “windy.”
But by night the wind at Badlands National Park in western South Dakota had died down and stars were out. The moon shone like a headlamp in the sky. We would finally sleep.
At 10:30, a burst of lightning woke me up as thunder cracked into the darkness. The enormous, family-size tent I co-opted from my parents to fit Miriam’s Pack N Play was bowing down and shaking.
I’d staked it well enough, I told myself. I knew I had.
But I’m also a chronic worrier, so alone in my tent with a gently snoring 22-month-old I rolled through every worst-case scenario: What if the poles broke? What if lightning struck? What if a tornado came through? What if there was a flash flood? What if the tent started to tear? What if it hailed?
Miriam kept sleeping as I frantically held up the tent poles to try and keep them from breaking. Then I abruptly let go: Don’t hold metal rods in a lightning storm, Christine.
I laid back down. Reading would make the questions stop. I turned on my headlamp and tried working my way through John McPhee’s “Rising From the Plains.” I got to a story about a pioneer woman who died in a carriage stuck in deep snow and her rider who lost his leg and six fingers from frost bite.
At least it’s not snowing.
Please stop, I thought, staring at the top of the tent as it inched closer to my face. Please stop.
Then I heard a snap and crack that sounded like a small bones breaking. The tent collapsed on the Pack ‘N Play. The side that remained partially propped up bowed down within inches of my face then popped back up with each gust. The rain fly, now secured only by the clips on the four corners, flapped desperately against the tent wall.
Miriam, somehow, kept sleeping.
I tried laying down, but the rain kept pooling above her crib requiring I push it up and dump it. Then hail started.
I tried reading more.
I checked my phone for the 100th time to look at the weather forecast. When would it stop, I thought.
I called my husband. I needed someone to tell me it would be fine. He obliged, and as he has every other time I’ve called during bad weather to ask if this would be the time Mother Nature takes me away.
The rain finally died but wind continued. I couldn’t handle it anymore. The flapping would make me lose my mind. My head started to hurt and the worry continued. I couldn’t sleep in here.
I packed up my sleeping bag and threw it out of the tent, lifted a still-sleeping Miriam and out of her Pack ‘N Play and slid out from underneath the rainfly and tent that now rested mostly on the ground. We fought the wind to my car and climbed in.
“Windy,” she said.
With the car door closed and my toddler on my chest wrapped in her sleeping bag, I reclined the seat and stared out at the lightning.
It was 12:30 a.m. We were safe, barring a tornado which I assured myself would have come as an alert in my weather app.
Insomniacs are probably good at spending hours at night laying awake. I’m not. If it’s dark and I’m awake, chances are I’m worrying. I’d reconciled the tent might be thrashed in the morning. My friend’s more reasonable-sized tent was still standing.
I thought about waking her up to pack and leave, but we wouldn’t be able to get our tents down without losing them to Nebraska, or wherever the wind was blowing.
So for four and a half hours I laid in the passenger seat of my Subaru Outback and didn’t move. By 5, the day’s first light began to glow. The wind continued, but not quite as strong as earlier in the night.
We survived, even if our tent poles didn’t.
Most importantly, Miriam appeared unfazed by the experience. It was our first camping trip of the year, and not at all how I thought I would spend the first weekend of my new freelance life.
But by mid-day, tent with broken poles packed and everything else accounted for, it felt less traumatic.
Next time I’ll worry less, I resolved. And maybe next time Miriam will be old enough to tell me everything will be fine.