The Most Extreme Weather I’ve Experienced

Biking along the paved ocean front walk in beautiful Southern California is usually a wonderful experience. The sun is almost always shining, the light coastal breeze keeps the temperatures balmy, and dolphins are often jumping and playing in the surf close to shore. The other day, however, was the extremely rare experience that was, well, not wonderful. Or even close to wonderful.

I had ridden my bike to work in the early afternoon and set out to return home in the early evening. It seemed a bit windy at first, but I pressed on toward the ocean front walk, as it was the only route I knew, and one that was easy, convenient and void of vehicular traffic—always a plus while biking. When I reached the bike path, a large gust of wind immediately knocked me a kilter and, being on the beach, spewed a heaping spray of sand at me as well. It was then that I realized what is usually a popular path at that time of day—one humming with other cyclists, rollerbladers, skateboarders and joggers—was nearly void of any life forms at all. Even more desolate was the surrounding beach, which was rife only with dust devils and sand dunes growing bigger by the minute. I forged on, knowing it was my only option to get home, lest I rerouted and fought my way through rush-hour traffic on clogged streets I didn’t know that well.

While plodding along at a dreadfully slow pace, one I’m sure a snail could have maintained, I decided to focus on something productive, or at least more positive than the curses that were running rampant. On the bright side, I won’t have to eat dinner because my stomach is so full of sand I’ve ingested! Nice try, but not quite. Well, my thighs are burning and I’m barely making any progress, but at least I’m getting a great workout! Okay. Better. Oh, I know! I’ll think of a list! Now we’re talking. This list is the result of that aggravating, challenging, sand-ingesting ride through gale-force winds.

1) Cold: Fairbanks, Alaska

Having grown up in Alaska, this one is almost too easy. While my hometown of Juneau does not get as cold as a lot of people might think, I didn’t experience only that more temperate part of the state. As a downhill ski racer, I often traveled to series in Anchorage and Fairbanks, the latter being six and a half latitudinal degrees further north than Juneau. To put it in perspective, that difference is nearly identical to the latitudinal difference between Los Angeles and Redding, CA. On a somewhat related note, Alaska’s latitude spans seventeen degrees, while California’s spans just nine and a half. Yes, Alaska is that huge. But, as much as I like to inform people of Alaska’s enormity, it is not particularly relevant to my coldest experience. Nor is the fact that Juneau is not as cold as people tend to think.

Yes, that's me. Without good form or the "condom" suit, but it gives you an idea...

Yes, that’s me; without good form or the “condom” suit, but it gives you an idea…

What is relevant is that I was in Fairbanks. In the winter. In a zoot suit. (Of the “ski racing speed suit” variety rather than the men’s suit variety, though the warmth one of those would have provided me would have likely been the same). If you don’t know what a zoot suit is, and you’ve never seen ski racing, imagine a pair of footed pajamas. Only footless, skintight and made of Lycra, or some variation of fabric that is nothing like that used for pajamas. For a more accurate description, someone once called down from the chairlift as I skied underneath, “You look like a condom!” I couldn’t even argue. Virtually nothing can fit under a zoot, save for maybe a condom. Suffice it to say, wearing a zoot is great for aerodynamics, but horrible for fending off the cold. And cold isn’t even the word I would use to describe that day on the slopes in Fairbanks. Freezing. Glacial. Hostile. Those are more fitting words.

The ice that most assuredly formed over my brain that day no doubt resulted in a temporary failure to retain any new knowledge so, while I don’t recall what the exact temperature was as I stood at the top of course, shivering in my condom, teeth chattering uncontrollably, lips bluer than the Pacific Ocean, I do know it was the coldest weather I have experienced. I also know that the average temperature that time of year ranges from one degree to negative fifteen degrees (Fahrenheit), and that the record low is sixty-six degrees below zero. I’d like to think that day was somewhere around the record low.

2) Rain: Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Having grown up in a rainforest, this one should be easy as well. But wait, I thought you said you grew up in Alaska? Correct. Juneau, Alaska, is a rainforest. Sure, there are no monkeys swinging from vine to vine, nor do mangoes grow from the trees, but it is a forest. And it rains. A lot. So much so that it qualifies as a temperate rainforest, which is characterized by an annual rainfall of more than fifty-five inches. On average, rain falls about two hundred and thirty days in Juneau and drops roughly sixty-three inches on the capital city every year. Comparatively, Seattle receives just thirty-seven inches of rain per year. As informative (or mind-numbingly boring) as that may have been, the wettest day I have experienced took place far from the evergreen-laden forests of the Pacific Northwest.

While vacationing in Colombia, twenty-one adventurous travelers, myself included, signed up for a four-day trek through the jungle to La Ciudad Perdida, also known as The Lost City. Judging by the ordeal it took to get there—an hour’s drive from the nearest city to a village in the middle of nowhere, followed by roughly thirty-two miles of trekking in nearly inhospitable terrain, ending with a climb up something like twelve hundred stone steps—it’s a wonder the place was ever found.

In various blogs, previous trekkers warn that the trail can get wet and muddy, which makes sense considering it’s in a tropical rainforest. What I don’t think any of us were anticipating, however, is just how wet it could get. Sure, we expected rain, but what occurred on day three wasn’t mere rain.

In the early afternoon, gray clouds rolled in and blanketed the sky. Not long after, their saturation became too heavy and they started to leak. Most of us were already drenched with sweat, so the slightly cooler temperature was a nice respite, as was the moderate sprinkling to wash the sweat away. The small drops, however, quickly grew larger and started falling faster. Soon, we were being hammered with a torrential downpour. Our shoes were waterlogged, our fingers were pruning and there seemed to be no end in sight.

The last one to cross...

The last trekker to cross the river…

We finally reached a river we had to cross in order to reach the Lost City, though the usually shallow water had become white with rapids and muddy brown. With no alternative routes, we stood on the bank–drenched, soggy and getting chilly–and waited for the buckets of rain to stop dumping. Eventually, just as many of us were questioning what we were doing out there in the middle of nowhere, the clouds closed up.

While grateful for the rain to have ceased, we still had to cross the gushing, waist-high river. One by one we precariously made our way across the murky river, holding our shriveled hands tightly to a flimsy, loose rope that spanned the water. Luckily, all of us humans made it to the other side, but sadly we never again saw our four-legged friend, Gomez the wonder dog, after he jumped into the river to try and cross it.

3) Blizzard: British Columbia, Canada

As with the previous two experiences, this one should be fairly easy given where I grew up (and I know you don’t need a reminder). However, as with the rain experience, the craziest blizzard I have experienced didn’t take place in Alaska either, though I was on my way to that wonderful state.

In 2004, after attending my second year of college at the University of Nevada, Reno, I decided to go home for the summer as I had done the previous year. The difference that second year was that I had my own car, and would therefore be driving home rather than flying. Though I had never before taken an extended drive by myself—something I would consider more than one day—I had been driving for nearly six years: two with my learner’s permit, which can be obtained in Alaska at the age of fourteen, and almost four with my license. Furthermore, having learned to drive in Juneau, and then having done it in Reno for a handful of months, I was comfortable behind the wheel in all kinds of weather. Rain, snow, wind, fog, ice, heavy traffic, speedy traffic, drunk drivers, I felt like I’d experienced it all. Finally, I had ridden as a passenger on the Alaska-Canada (ALCAN) Highway a couple times—the road I would be taking—and was somewhat familiar with it. I knew I could expect to see deer, moose, bison and bears on the side of the road or even in the road, which was a frequent hangout for the bison in particular.

I set out for the two thousand-mile drive shortly after summer break began, in the last week of May. The first three days were easy: I had beautiful weather and there was minimal traffic. As I had expected, by my fourth and final day of long driving—ten hours or more—I had encountered bison resting in the middle of the road, deer grazing alongside the highway, a black bear trying to hide in the trees, and friendly Canadians working at the gas stations and motels at which I patronized. In addition, I was sick of hearing myself sing the same songs over and over. Not bringing enough CDs? Rookie mistake; one I told myself I would not make again.

That fourth day started off much like the rest. Early in the morning, before the sun was up, I pulled out of the parking lot of a lodge in Somewhere-Canada (I’ll blame my inability to remember on the terror I experienced that day, thereby rendering my memory useless) and got on the nearly-vacant highway. A few campers passed here and there, but I pretty much had the road to myself. I should have taken that as a sign.

As Somewhere-Canada became further away, the highway became more desolate. In one hour I saw just one truck, and it was headed in the opposite direction, though it shouldn’t necessarily have been cause for alarm because that highway can be pretty lonely at times. I turned my music up louder to fill the emptiness that was suffocating me, and I started to climb. I quickly gained altitude, which is common in the mountainous regions of northern British Columbia. Out of nowhere, on that initially bright, sunny day in almost-June, a snowflake dropped from the sky and graced my windshield. Huh. That’s – Then another. What the – And another. Soon so many were falling I had to turn my wipers on. I figured it probably wouldn’t last long, and I really couldn’t rationalize driving the hours back to Somewhere-Canada, so I forged ahead.

What my childhood dreams were made of. Minus the shoveling, of course.

What my childhood dreams were made of. Minus the shoveling, of course.

While I was trying to convince myself that my potentially perilous decision was the right one, and that all would be well, the sky opened up and started dumping snow. Like a dead-of-winter-in-Alaska dumping. The kind of dumping adults loathed because it meant more snowplowing and back-breaking shoveling, but the kind I often dreamed of as a kid in the hopes that it might cause school to be cancelled and I could spend the day sledding.

Except this wasn’t my childhood dream. And I wasn’t in Alaska. I was in the mountains of Nowhere-Canada. Driving a front-wheel-drive Kia Rio. By myself.

With limited options, as in one, I slowed down considerably and kept driving onward. There was no place to turn around, and for fear of getting stuck, I wasn’t about to stop in the middle of the road, which was fast turning into a skating rink the higher I climbed in elevation. I turned off my music and clutched the wheel tightly, my knuckles soon transforming into the color of the falling snow. Though I knew I had to be the only one out on the mountain at that time, I couldn’t much tell anyway due to the fog that moved in and enveloped my car. For the first time in my driving career, I was terrified. I could easily slide on the ice, lose control, and not even see beyond two feet as my trusty Kia and I plummeted down the side of the mountain, all to no one’s knowledge. I was even going to burn more CDs for the drive back to school!

After a frightening amount of time driving through the worst blizzard of my life, thinking horrible thoughts, and debating which musician I wanted to be the last I ever heard, I saw a savior up ahead in the form of a yellow Rabbit. The fog had lifted enough to see a little further than two feet, and I spotted the small car parked on the one pullout I had come across in hours. I questioned whether or not to pull my car over as well, obviously not knowing what kind of person was in the Rabbit, but I naively and optimistically bet he or she was safe and not out to kill random people driving through Nowhere-Canada. Luckily, two nice guys around my age were in the car—one with his arm and hand out the open window trying to scrape ice off the windshield wipers—and they kindly let me follow them, at a close but safe distance, out of the pass and back to dry, safe roads.

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