Over Memorial Day weekend a group of us decided to head down to Ocracoke Island in North Carolina's Outer Banks and spend the weekend camping near the beach as we had last year. The island is a gorgeous and relaxing place and so the idea was a popular one. About 20 of us packed our cars with tents and sleeping bags, coolers full of food to grill and beer, our dogs and our favorite beach reading material, and were off Friday afternoon. Most of us took the Swan Quarter ferry - a roughly three hour drive from Chapel Hill and then, once you're on the boat, another 2 and a half hours. It was glorious. We emerged from our crowded vehicles and passed margaritas and beers around. Just before docking on the island we spotted a group of dolphins swimming beside us. The sky was slightly cloudy but we weren't too worried.
After unpacking and pitching tents all around our campsite, about 14 of us decided to head into the small town and have dinner. We picked a seafood place and due to the large number of our party, had to wait a while. But we settled in with drinks and waited our turn. By the time we got to the table a lot of us were so hungry and tired that all we could think of was a big dinner and the long night of sleep ahead. But you see, that's where we got ahead of ourselves. Thinking we were so worthy, so special, that we deserved anything other than complete and utter hell.
When we arrived back at the site, some three hours after departing, the skies had darkened considerably, the wind picked up, and as we were all dutifully marching back and forth to the muggy bathrooms to brush our teeth, the rain began to fall. J and I were borrowing a two-man tent from friends, and although it would be a tight fit for me, him, Mina and Cecilia, humans and dogs alike were so sleepy by this point that I was pretty sure it would be no problem. It wasn't. Not at first. We snuggled in - Cecilia, after she came to realize that laying her heavy, hot body across the midsection of our sheets and covers (as we did not have sleeping bags, waterproof or otherwise) was not acceptable, went to lay at our feet and Mina curled up tightly in a corner, having heard the distant roar of thunder and getting a little worried.
As we settled in it was raining hard. I felt certain it would taper off as these warm-weather storms so often do, but contrary to my amateur meteorological guess, the rain actually got harder. The lightning and thunder increased, too, tenfold, and pretty soon we were in a full-force gale and I was wondering how in the name of God our tent was holding steady. But it was, and somehow - by some mixture of true fatigue and those margaritas on the boat ride over I fell asleep. That is, I fell asleep until I woke abruptly in the middle of the night to find J sitting up and inspecting his surroundings by the light of a single flashlight. When I asked him what the matter was he informed me "our tent is leaking," and I laid back down, because I was pretty sure that for J, a more prepared and neurotic camper than I, "leaking" meant nothing more than some damp spots here and there. But that's when I felt the distinctly unpleasant and unmistakable chill of sodden bedsheets; the water was coming through the ground and into my pajamas. Our tent had become lagoon-like, and I knew we couldn't sleep there any longer.
J and I decided we'd have to sleep in the car, but to say it that way you might think we were getting along and working proactively in order to come to a solution. Perhaps I should put it more like: J and I decided, using harsh tones and cursing our fate, to sleep in the car, after basically accusing each other of being no help in the matter - which is funny, if you think about it, because really, what were we going to do? We put on our shoes and faced the very extreme elements to run over to J's Saturn. In a moment of that poignant dog loyalty you're always wishing your own dogs would showcase but they rarely do, Mina and Cecilia obediently followed suit and hopped into the back seat which was crowded with ropes and our clothes, backpacks and beach chairs. They proceeded to make themselves as comfortable as possible (not very) and fell asleep without a whine or questioning look, as if to say, "Look, people, this is what we've got to work with, so shut it, and make the best out of the situation."
The situation, however, was dire. As the windows fogged we wondered how we'd crack them and be able to breathe freely, what with this yet-unnamed hurricane or tornado bellowing just outside. Our clothes were wet and we were cold, but it was hot and stuffy inside the car. I thought about our shower and bed at home and wondered just who we were, thinking it was an ok idea to sleep outside with just a thin layer of nylon to protect us. I could get my seat back a little, but J had to try and sleep sitting straight up since the bulk of our materials was stacked behind the driver's side. It was 2 a.m. and the only semi-positive thing I could think to say was that in 3 hours it would be 5, and then we could get up and go for a walk.
Luckily, J and I both have a gift, a gift of extreme value in such a situation and that's the gift of being able to fall asleep easily. At home it's usually only minutes before we both begin reading in bed that we've tossed our books aside and are out for the night. So when I awoke about three hours later I felt proud that we'd somehow been able to make it, sort of, through the night. We even drifted off for a little longer until the sun was beginning to finally shine, and fellow campers were emerging.
I was primed to tell them all about our nightmarish evening. The evening we'd spent in a half-flooded tent and the cramped and humid car, dogs and all. "We had to sleep in the CAR," I'd tell them, and we'd certainly have had the worst of it, they'd decide.
But when we got out and began to walk around, I found that our story was not the dramatic tragedy I'd thought it would be when compared with the others' tales. First of all, Nate and Ginnie's tent was rippling gently in the wind, sort of sideways, almost, a tarp dangling off the top like a wild beast, some bear or bobcat, had grabbed hold of it. Since they were both still inside, I wondered if maybe their night hadn't been so peaceful, either. Others were greeting each other with wild-eyed stares, no "Good morning" or "How'd you sleep?" as a salutation, but instead, "Oh my GOD WHAT WAS THAT!?" followed by their recounting hours of sleep vs. non-sleep, the latter beating the former by a wide margin.
It seemed, in fact, that while J and I had been angrily running through the mud and wind to the safety of our family sedan, the others, unseen and unheard, were trembling in their own tents, sleepless, being rained on, too. And that, inconceivably, we may have slept better than them all. Except Max, who'd wisely not succumbed to fatigue after a long day, and had just kept drinking at the site long after we others, we who thought ourselves "smart," had drunk big glasses of water and called it quits for the evening. Max, the only smart camper, who'd apparently slept a deep and dreamless sleep, who had the audacity to ask - upon waking up and greeting the rest of us, who, inevitably, at some point the night before, had thought about getting back on that ferry and going home or perhaps plunging our bodies into the icy waters of the Atlantic and letting nature take its course - "Did is rain last night?"