In just over a month, my friend Josh is getting married. He’s a favorite person of mine – thoughtful and deliberate, curious, intelligent, full of life, and always up for an adventure… So we met up at a state park in central Wisconsin – a bunch of guys who were drawn together for one reason – to celebrate Josh, his friendship, his upcoming wedding, and take some time to have an adventure.
The entire week before I was overwhelmed and feeling swamped with papers and projects that were due – my perfectionism loves to rear its ugly head at times like these – and nothing was quite good enough until I absolutely had to turn it in. (It’s worse when it’s stuff I really care about, which is pretty much all my classes… sigh…) But, I promised myself, if I could get through the week, this camping trip/adventure/celebration would be my reward. Of course, a couple days before, Josh emailed us all and in passing mentioned it was going to be in the low 30’s and raining. But hey, who ever let a little cold and rain stop a bachelor party from being celebrated?
Dan and I pulled into the campsite a little after noon on Saturday, to find most of the rest of the guys already there, huddled in a semi-circle, rain jackets on and hoods pulled high. Gray. Foggy. Drizzling. Humid. Everything was damp in minutes. Windy. And cold. It felt cold.
A quick round of introductions, handshakes and smiles and a few bearhugs, and we were off. Originally, the plan was to go climbing, but the rain made the rocks a little treacherous in places – and no matter what anyone tells you, moss does not turn sticky when it gets wet… Kinda the opposite, actually. So we left the climbing gear in the cars, and instead we just hiked around the lake – through the woods and up the bluff, stopping to play whenever we felt the urge. Some trees just scream out to be climbed (especially when they are growing out of the side of a cliff 200 feet above the valley floor.) And sometimes we just stopped and stared off the cliff edge as the rain fell and the cloids boiled and swirled around us, and we fell silent at the strange beauty… And sometimes, we laughed and told stories and pretended we were hiking through the forests of Lorien, and orcs were about to come streaming over the hill… And sometimes we stopped to skip rocks in the lake and see who could throw them the farthest and who could balance for the longest time on the railroad tracks without falling off… But the whole time was sweet, and full of laughter and that deep sense of joy – of all being right with the world. And the whole time, the rain fell. Sometimes sprinkling. Sometimes drizzling. But always falling.
We got back to the campsite around dusk, and the rain stopped. It’s always easier to set up camp when it’s not raining. It’s also usually easier to set up camp when the ground’s not churned into a muddy froth. But you can’t have everything. Me and a couple other guys set up tents while Dan built the fire, and Josh and Zach and Terry got the venison stew heating up on the camp stove, and we gathered around the fire. Of course, it being December, by 5:00 it was pitch black – by 6:00 it felt like midnight…
The rest of the night was just a bunch of guys around a campfire – telling stories, laughing, eating food, cooking things in the fire… When you put it into words, it loses some of the magic that was there: the smell of wood-smoke, the crackling of the fire, the chill of December air, the glimmering stars peeking through the clouds, the taste of warm stew heating you up from the inside, the pitter-patter of rain falling through the bare branches onto the bed of leaves in the forest around us, sizzling in the fire, slowly drenching through our multiple layers of clothing… And it’s even more than that. You lose some of the magic of a few men who have taken a night to sleep outside in the mud and rain because we love our friend, and want to celebrate him. You lose the magic of hearing Josh talk about the woman he can’t wait to spend the rest of his life with, and laughing about the predicaments he has gotten himself into (and out of again.) You lose the magic of a bunch of strangers gathering and becoming brothers because they are all friends with Josh. There’s so much you miss out on. But that’s ok – ’cause after all, it was just a bunch of us huddled around the campfire, kicking at the darkness, telling stories of hope, and love, and joy, and life. It was life-giving – and just what I needed. I hope it was what Josh needed…
By this point, it was raining pretty hard, so we decided to call it a night. Dan and I went and threw sleeping bags and pads into the tent, only to discover that due to a combination of inferior tent (probably mostly this, if you ask me) and shoddy tent pitching (maybe more of this, if you ask Dan), the tarp that was supposed to keep the bottom of the tent dry had instead captured the water, turning our tent into a miniature indoor swimming pool. Spare clothes were soaked. Sleeping bags were dampened. Sleeping pads were drifting along, crewed by tiny woodland creatures on fantastic journeys of discovery. Thankfully, Dan had an extra tarp that we spread inside the tent in the vain hope that it would prove water-proof enough to let us make it through the night. And it did a pretty good job keeping what was not already soaked mostly dry. Except for our sleeping bags… You know, the things that are supposed to keep you warm when the temp drops below freezing… The synthetic material acted like a sponge, and slowly throughout the night the water wicked its way up the sleeping bags until by morning the bottom third of the bags were sopping wet. Let’s just say it was a long, cold night with not much sleep – and sleep, when it came, was fleeting. Every few minutes I’d wake and hear the rain beating down on the rain-fly, dripping into puddles that surrounded our tent, or rushing in rivulets down the hillside into the lake.
By the next morning, Dan and I were both curled up into balls in the top half of our sleeping bags, trying to keep toes from drifting into the icy depths of wet sleeping bag. And to finally give up all pretence of trying to sleep, and peel the damp wet sleeping bag off your legs and step out of the tent into a dry down coat felt heavenly. It had stopped raining at some point near dawn, and even though the sensation of not having freezing water drop down the back of your neck feels really good (especially after a day of it drip, drip, dripping), I found myself missing the rain.
All day as we hiked through the woods, leapt from rock to rock, swung from branches and sat in silence and awe, I was aware of the rain, and it was God’s love song. All evening as we sat around the fire, and the rain fell on my shoulders and then evaporated into a swirl of steam from the heat of the campfire, I was conscious of the rain falling, and it was God’s whisper. All night as I lay on the cold ground, and heard the rain pounding on the rain-fly, and felt the drips sneak through the sides and soak into my bag, I thought about the rain, and wonder threatened to overwhelm my heart with beauty. All day, all evening, all night, I was thinking of this:
“Water is always an invitation to imersion [for me], an immersion with a quality of totality, since it would accept all of me, as I am…
No rain falls that I do not at once hear in the sound of the falling water an invitation to come to the wedding. It is rare that I do not answer. A walk in an evening rain in any setting is to walk in the midst of God’s loving attention to his earth, and, like a baptism, is no simple washing, but a communication of life. When you hurry in out of the rain, I hurry out into it, for it is a sign that all is well, that God loves, that good is to follow. If suffering a doubt, I find myself looking to rain as a good omen. And in rain, I always hear singing, wordless chant rising and falling.
When rain turns to ice and snow I declare a holiday. I could as easily resist as stay at a desk with a parade going by in the street below. I cannot hide the delight that then possesses my heart. Only God could have surprised rain with such a change of dress as ice and snow…
Most people love rain, water. Snow charms all young hearts. Only when you get older and bones begin to feel dampness, when snow becomes a traffic problem and a burden in the driveway, when wet means dirt – then the poetry takes flight and God’s love play is not noted.
But I am still a child and have no desire to take on the ways of death. I shall continue to heed water’s invitation, the call of the rain. We are in love and lovers are a little mad.”
~ Matthew Kelty, Flute Solo,
Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, pp. 117-19
We broke down camp, loaded up the cars, and drove into town for breakfast and coffee (and dry warmth) at a local greasy-spoon diner – a great end to a time that was just too short. And in spite of my complaints about the cold, and the rain, and how my tent turned into a boat, I’m thankful it was raining. It fits Josh and DJ – who they are, and who they will be. And my prayer for them – my hope for us – is that they continue to take the time to go out and sit in the rain… to notice the poetry of God’s love play, to hear the call of the rain, the call to be in love, and just a little bit mad.