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  • Writer's pictureSteph Shuff

Desert Hurricane

Updated: Dec 22, 2019

There is a kind of creative vacancy that has settled in my body this week. Writer’s block is a simple way to put it, but I feel that phrase mischaracterizes the affliction. It is not a block. A block suggests an impasse - something can’t get through. What about when there is no something?

A hurricane is spinning just off the coast of Florida. I would be lying if I said that my depletion isn’t feeding off the equally low pressure of the approaching storm. A friend suggested I write about the hurricane, and so this is what I’m doing. What is the best way to describe what it’s like to live through a hurricane? It turns life into a series of immediate next steps. It is survival. Is there room for creativity when we must instead focus solely on our own survival?

This question makes me think of politics, and power, and the nature of government. What if we were actually taken care of by our health care system? What if minimum wage could afford us a lifestyle that allowed for a little bit a leisure time? What if we weren’t bracing against physical and emotional and ideological storms all the time? What if we didn’t feel so afraid, what kind of world could we create? Perhaps my friend was on to something in his suggestion.

I am scattered. It shows in my writing. The structure is off. The sentences incomplete. I can barely put a thought down on paper before some other thought comes barreling in through my peripheral vision. Am I making a mistake by staying here? Will my house survive a Category 4? What is the worst case scenario, and how can I best prepare for it?

Worst case scenario, a Category 5 hurricane rips directly through my sleepy little town. Worst case scenario, the storm surge breeches A1A and fills the streets with saltwater. Worst case scenario, the roof rips off my house, and I must hide with my parents inside an interior closet with a mattress over our heads. I will clutch onto my animals, shielding their little bodies with my body as if they were my own children. Worst case scenario, we must ride out hours of whipping wind with the sky exposed overhead and the sea rising up under our feet.

I am not worried about my life. At 31, I am in my prime, still young enough to be resilient and strong, but old enough to have some experience. I can survive storm surge and high winds and an emergency evacuation if I need to. But I’m worried about my pets. And my parents. And the vulnerable people in this town. The babies and the grandmas and all the at-risk people in between. What is worse? To know that your life is in danger, or to know that your survival is all but guaranteed while the suffering of countless others is inevitable?

The storm won’t hit till Monday, but the gas stations have been empty since Wednesday night. I can spot the yellow bags taped over the fuel pumps as I drive down US1. Whatever gas stations still have fuel inspire lines that wrap around blocks and down highways. The stores are out of water, and the lines of customers filling their carts with nonperishables parade in slow motion down the aisles.

For now, we come together. We stand around in garages, sweaty and sunburnt as we put up shutters. Neighbors stop by in ones and twos to check on us and learn our plans. Are you staying? Evacuating? The consensus is mostly the same: by the time we know if we should leave it will already be too late.

We are all expert meteorologists today. We talk about pressure in millibars and eye replacement cycles and cones and model probability. We talk about high pressure systems and wind sheer and approaching fronts that could make or break our livelihoods. We go out for dinner because we’re too tired to cook. We all get the same look in our eyes, fear covered in a thin but honest layer of good humor. Every farewell now includes an instruction: “Be safe.” For some, love and kindness and patience will weave through every interaction because we’re all in this together. For others, the fear of suffering takes over and the solution isn’t us, but me versus you.

As the storm gets closer, the towns will go quiet. The airports will shut down. Vehicle traffic will all but stop. The sounds you don’t even hear anymore will fade - no more trucks on the highways, no more airplanes in the sky. Even the birds will settle and go silent. The crickets will stop chirping. Some people call it eery. I think it is beautiful, an oppressive kind of quiet, like the way it used to be. All you can hear is the wind blowing through palm fronds.

The storm will hit. I’ll put on my noise canceling headphones and turn on a movie or some music because the sound is terrifying. It’s not the roaring wind that bothers me so much. It’s the creaking of the wood frame house. I can hear it moan and shudder in the wind. How many more of these storms will this old house survive? I can’t stand to hear this house in pain as it shields me from the storm.

Sleep will come but it will be light and tormented. Mostly, I’ll lay awake in bed and listen to the wind and tell the house that everything will be ok. Just hang on a little longer.

After the storm, there will be mess. Destruction, even. Houses will need rebuilt and roofs will need re-shingled and streets will need repaved and stores will need restocked. We’ll sweat in 98 degree weather and live our lives outside because the power is out and the house is too hot. We’ll cook the last of the frozen meats on outdoor grills and walk down the street surveying the damage to our neighbors. We’ll avoid downed trees and downed power lines and we’ll have to piss in the yard because the toilets won’t flush. We’ll bathe in the swimming pools and some people will be able to drive boats out their front door. The death toll will rise. The hospitals will balloon. Babies will be born in unusual circumstances, little miracles brought into a world of chaos.

People will be homeless and insurance companies will deny their claims because they didn’t have a hurricane rider or a flood rider or a natural disaster ride on their policies. What else is insurance for in Florida if not to cover these things? They won’t get the money to fix their houses. They’ll take out loans to rebuild their lives and suffer under the endless debts of being poor and vulnerable. Some faceless bank will collect the interest on their loans and deepen the pockets of a billionaire who paid my dad to prep his yacht for the storm, but who doesn’t actually care if it sinks because he can write it off as a business loss.

The rich will get richer after the storm. Only the poor people will suffer. All the creativity will get sucked out of this little town. For months, or even years, we will be focused on survival.

I can hear a drill in the distance - the unmistakable sound of a hurricane preparation underway. It pierces the otherwise calm and sunny morning. The only other sound for now are crickets chirping in the heat. Tomorrow, my dad and I will put our own shutters up on the windows of my house. I’ll spend the final days before the storm outside in the heat because the daytime darkness feels oppressive. By Sunday evening, the town will be quiet. Hurricane parties will be well underway. We’ll spend the night awake, pretending to sleep but laying still and silent in our beds. For the next 12 - 24 hours, we’ll be listening to the constant roar of 100+ mile per hour winds outside our windows, like the sound a roller coaster makes. We’ll hear the crashing of trees, the whipping of palms, the surge of electricity just before we lose power.

I know I should feel afraid. It would be the reasonable, human emotion in this situation. In the past, I would have felt afraid. Three years ago I was in Florida for the summer, and at the first threat of a hurricane, I insisted that we evacuate. The hurricane chased us all the way into the Carolinas, forcing my family and I to drive to Ohio to escape its fury.

I’m a different woman now. Three years isn’t always a long time, but it has been a long three years.

Seven months ago, I was living out of a truck bed with a boyfriend on a month long camping trip through the American West. We left Colorado and ventured across Nevada and Utah to California, making stops along the way in Moab and Elko and Lake Tahoe. We drove all the way up the California coast to the Pacific Northwest to visit Redwood National Forest. Then, we turned south and drove back down through the warm, fertile valleys of Central California. We stopped for a few nights just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada to hike and climb through Red Rock Canyon State Park. Though we had already spent plenty of nights sleeping in random pullouts across Nevada, Utah, and California, on this particular stop we were set up at a pretty nice campsite just outside the park, where most of our neighbors had airstreams and converted vans and RVs. The bright lights of Las Vegas glowed in the desert night over a hilltop to the east. Our campsite consisted of a pavilion and a large, steel, 10-person picnic table bolted to a concrete pad. I spent most of the cool days laying in the hot sun with the dogs, spread out on my yoga mat, staring at the metal bolts of the picnic table.

Up until this point, my boyfriend had been able to keep his alcoholism at bay. It was one of the requirements I had given him when I agreed to go on this trip. No drinking. For two weeks, he had kept his promise. But I should have known better. A switch flipped in Nevada, and one night he came back to camp with several bottles of wine and a pretty clear indication that he had already started drinking.

"I'm going to drink tonight," he declared.

"Please don't," I begged him. "Please." I started crying.

My begging was futile. He had made his choice. He was no longer in control. The monster of his addiction had taken the wheel. I could always see it in his eyes when he got this way. There was a glint, a clouding, a sharpening. A madness. The kind and delicate heart of the man I had fallen in love with turned black with madness. Was that the scariest part of being with him? Watching this sensitive man be swallowed whole by a beast from within his own body? It was like watching a child get dragged away by a bear.

He drank for two days. On the night of the second day, after the wine bottles had been emptied, I lay next to him in our bed underneath the thin topper of his truck, our temporary home. It was cold that night in Vegas, but next to me, I could feel the fever of withdrawal radiating off his large, muscular body. He shook and shivered and every so often, clambered out of the truck, naked and covered in sweat, to piss or vomit or both.

By midnight of that same night, a wind storm was raging outside. A violent front of winter weather was moving across the Las Vegas desert. The gusting winds shook the truck as though we were in the middle of an earthquake and roared outside like an airplane engine. I remember laying in bed, not sure what made me feel more afraid: the unpredictability of the withdrawing alcoholic next to me or the raging storm outside. I had never felt so much fear in my life. I held onto the lip of the truck topper, worried it might rip off at any moment. At one point, I tried to calculate in my head the force of the wind and the required speeds and direction to flip the truck. I made contingency plans to hide out with the dogs in the bathroom structure of the campground if we found ourselves suddenly without shelter. At one point, I heard a magnificent crashing - like metal on concrete. I wondered if one of our neighbor’s airstreams had been crumpled by the wind like a tin can.

By four o’clock that morning, the wind had died down to manageable levels, though it was still loud and gusty. I finally fell asleep, certain that we had survived the worst of the storm.

In the morning, I climbed out of the truck to survey the damage. The wind was still strong and gusty and the air was cold and crisp as the sun rose over dusty hills. The concrete pad of our campsite was empty except for a few plastic bins filled with my belongings. The large steel picnic table was no longer bolted to the concrete pad - instead, the table lay upside down over 100 feet from where it had been the day before. The wind had gusted so strongly that it ripped the huge, metal table out of its bolts and tossed it like a piece of plastic onto the dirt road of the campground. The angle of its new resting place suggested that it barely missed smashing into the truck, by a distance of maybe ten or twenty feet.

Upon further inspection, there were other things missing from our campsite. While the bins filled with my clothing and climbing gear lay untouched on the concrete pad, my boyfriend’s things had been picked up and blown away along with the picnic table. His bins had broken into shards, his clothes and camping gear lay scattered across the campground. We spent two hours combing the campground that day, picking his tee shirts and sweaters and boxers out of dried desert shrubbery.

After taking a long walk around the campground, I noticed something else. None of the other campsites had been damaged or disturbed. It was only our picnic table that had been tossed. Only my boyfriends things that had been scattered.

I have said it before, and I’ll say it again: I don’t believe in God. Not in the way other people do. But I believe in signs, and I believe in nature. I know without a doubt that I received a message from something powerful that day. I listened. Two days later, I found my opportunity and escaped from the clutches of an abusive relationship on the edges of the Grand Canyon. That week was the most haunting, terrifying, and spiritual week of my life; divine intervention that felt larger than life at the same time that it felt deeply personal.

I consulted with other campers the morning after the wind storm in Las Vegas, people who had been just as terrified as I was the night before. Nearby weather stations had recorded sustained winds over 100 miles per hour that night - the same as what you might find in a hurricane. I laugh about it now, the idea that I rode out a desert hurricane in a truck bed, covered by little more than a thin piece of plastic, laying next to a sick and angry man who couldn’t have protected me even if he had wanted to.

Will I ever feel that afraid again? I’m not sure. I have yet to map the new boundaries of my fear - the territories of my courage are a luxury I have earned through adversity, much of which I have entered into with my eyes wide open. I climb mountains and tame oceans and love monsters. I face fears as a personality type, as a casual hobby, as a creative pursuit. It is research for my novel. Perhaps now you understand why I am choosing not to evacuate. I may be sober these days, but hubris is a hell of a drug.

Maybe it’s not pride. Maybe it’s that my worst case scenarios no longer include my own suffering. I have matured beyond the fear of my own suffering, or perhaps, theologized my way out it. I have suffered and survived. I know that the fear of suffering is greater and far more damaging than the suffering itself. Instead, the worst case scenarios of my life are that I have to watch the suffering of those I love, the same way I have to watch, idle, as this hurricane inches closer. I am helpless, out of control, keeping time as the seconds, minutes, hours pass.

I have friends who say they would like to know what it’s like to experience a hurricane. What they don’t understand is, if they have ever watched a loved one suffer, they already know. It is a helplessness, a coming together, a ripping apart. It is the unavoidable realization that life is fragile. Everyone responds differently, but there is no opting out.

This post isn’t about politics, but perhaps it should be. There are two types of people in the world: those who want to help the vulnerable, and those who can’t get past the fear of their own suffering. Our politics seems to be dominated by the latter, a grouping of financially, intellectually, and physically strong individuals who feel disdain for the weak and the vulnerable and the insecure, rather than compassion. It makes me realize that as a nation, as a political system, we are woefully immature, like that girl I was three years ago, terrified of my own suffering. We fear our own suffering more than we love our shared humanity. We cling to the false promise that if we lead with selfishness, we can avoid suffering altogether. We keep our fear of suffering close to us and push our compassion further and further away.

A storm is brewing. Can you feel it? Out beyond our ability to see, out beyond our ability to map, out beyond our ability to predict, a hurricane is spinning. It is coming for us all. It is a wind storm in the Nevada desert, threatening to smash us like a tin can. It is an abusive alcoholic, threatening to drive us off a cliff into the Grand Canyon. It is an existential storm on a global scale, and it is big enough to end us all. I can’t see it, but I can feel it coming. Divine intervention is coming to save us from ourselves.

I wonder, what kind of desert hurricane will we have to survive before we learn to push our fears away and pull our compassion closer?

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