I spent several days hiking the Devil’s Path this weekend, and when I got back I needed to attend to some internet matters and go to the supermarket. So I spent the greater part of a day in Liberty, where it was raining very impressively. I drove back not terribly worried.
I didn’t realize that the rain might be a problem until I arrived in the valley. The river was a charybis of brown thunder, and water had puddled up in all the low spots in the floodplain. At one point where the road passed under a steep mountainside, a torrent normally routed under the road via a culvert had burst its bounds and was pouring across the road like a firehose. There were all kinds of odd ripples in the water – I couldn’t tell what they were – but I drove over it anyway. The ripples were apparently caused by large rocks – sixteen-inch-diameter boulders – which the water had the power to move into the road but not all the way across it. My car made some odd crunching sounds as I drove through, but if there’s any use for a beatup pickup, it’s this, so I wasn’t worried about it. I was worried, however, about people behind me – it was just about “rush hour” – and so I pulled to the side of the road and decided to move the rocks. At first I picked a few rocks from the edges – going further would mean getting completely soaked – but the approach of a car shamed my hesitancy and I waded in, pulling big rocks out of the water. It is easy to be dutiful when other people are watching. I cleared the road and waved a car through. As I did so, of course, new boulders came down the mountainside, and so I continued, controlling traffic and moving rocks.
Eventually I got to the source of the problem, a mound of rocks the torrent had built up on its side of the road, and from which occasional new rocks would come cascading down. Once that was more or less stable I went to the other side of the road, where a large number of smaller rocks pushed across the road had accumulated, damming the flow of water, keeping it from crossing the road quickly. I tossed these rocks into the river below. I did this for about half an hour, completely soaked, of course, when one of the town’s emergency vehicles came through. They told me to go home. They were closing down the road.
So I hopped in my truck and drove down the valley. Parts of the road had turned into a lake, and other parts into a river. As I passed by Claryville Pottery I saw the owner, Anne-Marie, out walking her dog, and as she is a friend and one of the best people in town to talk to, I slowed down to chat for awhile. There’s nothing like a little neighborhood crisis to loosen the tongue. She was doing what good people do, going to check on an out-of-town neighbor’s place. The thundering of the river – which really was impressive – formed a backdrop to the conversation that made us aware that we should get our business done and get home, so after a bit of back and forth I continued on my way. I drove to town hall, where I saw some cars stopped at the bridge. A power line was down right on top of the all-metal bridge. The Town Supervisor showed up, looking very glum. The town had, in part thanks to his financial wizardry, managed to make repairs after Hurricane Irene (which devastated the town’s roads) while remaining in good fiscal shape. Now the town was staring at new roadwork for which no money existed. The “hundred-year-flood” had become the annual flood. He just stared at the river and shook his head, standing silent in the rain.
The power company would have to come to clear the bridge, and as the road in to the valley was already closed, it was unclear when that would be happening. There was no way for me to get home. I turned the truck around and headed back to Anne-Marie’s. She was happy to see me, as a little company in the midst of a storm is pleasant. “I’m just coming from Shoprite,” I said. “Can I put some stuff in your refrigerator?”
“Sure but I don’t have any power,” she replied. Power was down in the valley.
“Well I just bought some mozzarella to help me eat all the tomatoes I have. If you have tomatoes, we can start on it right now.”
“I can go get some from the garden. This sounds like a plan. What do people do in a time like this? Make food.”
And shortly after I arrived two other neighbors walked in the door. I mulled this over and it made sense to me: Anne-Marie has a great deal of wisdom and inner poise, and is the sort of person people seek out whenever something interesting is going on. So now we were four, and out came the bottles of wine. We were making a regular feast of it. Anne-Marie brought out an odd, curved cucumber from her garden and cut it up, and it was the world’s final, ultimate cucumber, as crunchy as an apple and juicy as a watermelon. The candles were lit and the stories started, the general theme of which was the strange radiance of a life lived according to your deepest desires; even in its dissatisfying mundaneness, even in the loneliness of being different, even in the poverty of doing what is precious only to yourself, something shines through it.
Since there was no power, I suggested we get started on the ice cream. Anne-Marie had none; but Scott did; so we opted to walk down the road to Scott’s place to polish off his ice cream. On our way there we stopped at a bend in the river to watch its flow. It was amazing. It had filled the entire channel, splashing up in waves onto the road. Giant trees went zipping by, crown, trunk, root ball and all. It was hard to believe that mere gravity could do such a thing. The river was moving faster than the town speed limit.
“Where did all this water come from?” I asked. “Just yesterday it was sunny.”
“Just yesterday this was just rocks,” Scott replied. “There was barely any water at all! I’d love to put my kayak in this thing, you’d be down at the reservoir in no time.”
“Just don’t get flipped over.”
“Oh yeah you get flipped over you’re dead.”
Emily, who was also with us, was just mesmerized by the river, watching its speed and the giant logs and trees rush by. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “I could just sit here and watch it all day.”
It was beautiful, indeed. It was sublime – a display of power beyond human measure. If we were giants we could play Pooh Sticks with telephone poles.
“The funny thing is that the Stream Buffer people were just here trying to rearrange the course of the river,” Scott said. “Just today! Now all the stuff they did is gone I’m sure. They’re lucky they got their machines out of the river, they’d be down in the reservoir now otherwise. They just took them out of the river today. Now they get a chance to see the kind of power they’re dealing with. They think they’re going to keep back mother nature by planting a few shrubs. No chance. You can’t hold back this kind of power. No way, no how. They were talking about giving the river a twelve-foot channel. I told them, ‘I’ve seen this river up to the center line of this road here!’ They looked at me like I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
But it was raining, and we were getting wet, so into the house we went. Scott still had power, for whatever reason, which impressed everyone. We were able to make phone calls even. The ice cream was forgotten somehow, because Scott busted out a bottle of very good scotch. I ended up spending the night at Scott’s place. The river rose high enough to completely cover the road, but then it receded. By the time I drove home in the morning there was traffic moving on the road. I walked out to look at the river before getting into my truck. Someone slowed down and stopped to talk with me, someone I had never met before.
“Terrible, isn’t it?” she asked me. “This is getting to be every year.”
“That’s true. It looks exactly like last year,” I said.
“‘But it’s not global warming! No way! Can’t be that!’” she said, in bitter derision. “This never used to happen. Now it’s every year.”
“Do you know if the covered bridge is still up? I figure with this kind of water it got washed away.”
“I didn’t notice, no.”
“Hmm… I’ll go take a look I guess.”
And after a bit more small talk, and introductions, she drove off and I drove over to the old covered bridge. This bridge, an old wood bridge built exactly a hundred years ago, was severely damaged by Hurricane Irene: almost half of its southern stone pier was ripped away, and it seemed to be defying gravity by standing at all. Nothing looks less secure than the jagged edge of a stone wall half ripped apart. A group of civically minded citizens have led an effort to save the bridge, an effort which has met with only half-hearted support. The bridge is now technically on private property, and posted signs indicate this in no uncertain terms. Consequently, the bridge, though quite pretty, is not quite so beloved as it might be. I went swimming there one day, and got kicked out by a neighbor who apparently is not even the owner, and is one of two town residents known locally as “the asshole.” I’ve heard this so often I’ve forgotten his real name.
The county had, eventually, decided to fix the bridge, and repairs were underway. There was reason not to: the bridge is no longer part of the county’s road system, and after Hurricane Irene there were a lot of other things for the county to worry about. Sullivan is the poorest county in New York State. These considerations led to a great deal of delay, and when last winter came and the bridge had not yet been fixed, it seemed certain to collapse in the spring floods. But as fate would have it there was no snow last winter and no spring floods. So the bridge was still there this summer, and the county started work on building a new pier. It was doing it on the cheap, using a concrete pier rather than the original stone, but even so it was an expensive fix for something that is not a road and not a public space either. But who knows, in the future it may be both again; proprietors pass on, and new ones with new priorities take their place. New York state has only twenty-four covered bridges left, and saving the ones we have may be worth it for the future.
But now a major flood had come, and the pier had not been poured. But amazingly, as I saw from the road, the bridge was still there, looking as precarious as ever. It looked like it was going to fall into the river immediately. But it looked like that before too. The stones were fewer, but they were hence supporting a proportionately greater weight, and the river was still unable to move stones that heavy. Hunter Road, however, the road the bridge was on, was closed, I don’t know why.
I returned home. Wildcat Mountain Road – which had just been repaved – had been severely damaged. A neighbor at the bottom of the road had had her lawn turned into a stony riverbed: what had been lawn had large stones all over it. That was going to be some clean-up effort. The road was similar: large rocks were scattered everywhere. A town highway truck had been fixed with a snowplow, and had cleared a way in the middle of the road. In certain places big piles of river rocks had plugged the channels on either side of the road. In other places the channels had been dug six or seven feet deep and the sides of the road had been eaten away. I drove with caution, afraid that an intact road surface was hollow underneath. Several private bridges had been washed out. I ran into R.J., a local mountain man who was zipping around on his fourwheeler.
“The road got quite a bit of damage,” I said.
“This is worse than Irene,” he said, which in reference to this one road is true. “It’s crazy.”
“I see John and Rebecca’s bridge got washed out.”
“All the bridges on that side got washed out – every property, all the way down. I’ve never seen anything like that. Those bridges have been there for years.”
I could see a lot of road damage up ahead. “Can I get back to my house?”
“Yeah, you can get through. Be careful though, the road’s eaten away a lot up there.”
We could both see the town highway truck coming down, now clearing the right side of the road of rocks. We parted and went back to our business.
I drove to my cabin with a bit of trepidation. I relied on a bridge over the same creek that had washed out the others. But as I got onto the flat top of Wildcat Mountain the flood damage decreased considerably. It was the concentration of the water in the ravines that caused the big problems. On the mountaintops it was just a lot of rain. That said, the water had washed a lot of brush into my creek, and it was up to the top of the bridge: water had clearly flowed over its top. I started to clear the branches, but they were so tangled I couldn’t do it without a saw, so I parked my truck at the bridge and walked in.
The cabin was fine. My water cisterns were full, as you might imagine. I wish I had a rain gauge to tell how much rain fell. I had a spackle bucket in the open which was completely full of water, but I don’t know how much it had before this storm. I had used my wheelbarrow the day before, however, and it was completely full of water, which must mean that at least nine inches had fallen. That probably counts as a freak storm. But this is now the second consecutive year that the town has had a “hundred-year-flood.” It seems like those categories may be outdated.