The Saturday before Katrina hit New Orleans, Jon and I were on our way to Yosemite. It was a bright day and we got a very early start, cruising towards the Sierra Nevada and Jon's estimation of Heaven. We talked about a zillion things: why we shouldn't allow car traffic in Yosemite Valley, when Barry Bonds will retire, how sad it is that Jose Canseco chose to do The Surreal Life now that he's a 'has been' and a 'tattle tale', whether the voting age should be upped to 21, where we were when the 1989 earthquake hit, etc.
Because it had been a short night, I decided to get some sleep. Jon switched on the news. Every other second someone was broadcasting warnings about Katrina. 'She's a Category 4 and getting bigger by the second. People need to leave their homes in an organized fashion.'
Jon switched off the news.
'People will leave,' I said naively. 'They have plenty of warning.'
Jon didn't argue with me, but I knew he didn't agree. Sometimes I think he's cynical, but most of the time he's right. The stupidity of the masses comes as no surprise to Jon. I hoped the body count would be less than 100.
Our time in Yosemite was wonderful. The hike to Cathedral Lakes was strenuous, of course, but only 7 miles round trip. I took a nap at our destination, lying on the warm rock at the edge of the lake. When I woke up Jon was sitting next to me. He'd taken a zillion photos of the water, the sky, a deer he'd chased around the lake, the trees, the mountains. My photographer. There were even a couple of pictures of me sleeping.
For dinner we drove out of the park on the east side and stopped in at a little diner in Lee Vining. The food was awful. On our way back into the park I turned on the radio again. We have XM Satellite Radio and it's awesome. The news stations wouldn't talk about anything but Katrina. 'Hundreds of people are evacuating.' 'Could be a Category 5.' 'Some folks think they'll be able to ride this one out.'
Jon reached over and turned it off again.
'Why do you do that?' I asked. Part of me wanted to listen to the news very badly, even if there wasn't anything especially new. If I listened I could tell how many people were getting out of harms way. I could will people out of the endangered city.
'They need to talk about something else.'
'But this is the biggest news,' I said.
'It's all sensationalism,' he countered. 'This isn't the actual news. Hurricanes hit the South every year, and every year they say, 'This is gonna be huge!', and then it isn't huge. And we all just nod along when they look at the results and say, 'It's a good thing it wasn't worse.''
Again, he was right. That is what the anchormen do when a tropical storm is upgraded to hurricane status. Immediately they try to guess how big it'll get. They slap a name on the storm and then try to predict how bad that storm is going to be when it grows up. Will it be a delinquent or a felon?
'Jon,' I said, 'The problem is that you're not the only person to think that way. And because people think that way, because they've seen the other storms slow down or weaken when they hit the shore, they'll choose to stay. It's not wrong to heed a warning.'
The next morning dawned beautifully. I'd had a hard night, hearing noises around the tent and absolutely believe there were bears surrounding us and mounting a surprise attack. It was a nightmare. I pressed my face into Jon's shoulder and his heartbeat lulled me back to sleep. When sunlight streamed in through the yellow walls of our tent, I couldn't wait to be awake. It was my day. I got to choose what we would do.
Packing up we now have down to a science. In a short while everything was done. We started brushing our teeth. Now, we were facing each other as we brushed, and we made faces at each other, stuck our tongues out and crossed our eyes. Real mature, married adult behavior. Then Jon swore.
It was loud, blunt, and it snapped me to attention because Jon doesn't swear in front of me. Ever.
'Audrey, get in the car.' I didn't hesitate. When I reached the car I swung the door open and turned to see whether Jon was behind me. What I saw instead made my heart stop.
A bear. A big healthy bear was lumbering fast right through our campsite. I couldn't take my eyes off him, the way his big paws hit the earth, inspiring little puffs of dirt, and the way his giant head swung side to side and matched his gait. He never looked at me, just went right on through. Jon was on the other side of the car messing with the camera.
'Jonathan,' I hissed, 'Get in this car!'
He looked at me like I was crazy. That's when I realized that I wasn't actually in the car either. I'd frozen mid-sit, mid-heart attack, to watch the bear move through. In thirty seconds he was past us and up in the rocks. I could see a gleam in Jon's eyes that said he wanted to follow and get a better shot (the one we got was a tad blurry), but I nixed that idea fast. When my hearts started again we finished our packing and hit the road.
Lunch was again outside the park, but this time we stopped at the Tioga Pass Resort and sat at the counter in the cafe. The little place was full of rustic charm, wood accents and a menu that gave the history of the lodge in detail. My sandwich was one of the best I'd ever had. We finished the meal off with some freshly baked apple pie.
We found a large meadow just inside the park. Deep blue ponds dotted the landscape and tiny yellow and purple flowers flecked the undulating green field. It was the perfect spot to put out a blanket and play a game of Go. The breeze kept the sound of traffic from reaching us. It was just cold enough to keep us in our fleece pullovers, just warm enough to keep us from shivering. The air was fresh and the mountains were clear, big enough to touch the sky. Jon pointed to the ones he has been to the top of, and I made sure to be verbally impressed.
The fact is that I am more than proud. I'm amazed. The man has topped mountains. He's determined and strong, steadfast. Nothing he does surprises me. If there is a field of rough, red gravel spanning three hundred yards between him and the top, he'll trudge on without hesitation. The goal must be met. No trail necessary.
He gazed at the top of a particularly intimidating mountain, one he had already conquered. I, in turn, gazed at him. The wind caught his hair and flipped it back, twisting it up and then letting it fall again. In the sun he looked blonde. He squinted up at the craggy outline of the summit.
'I'm very proud of you.' I've said it before, but it never hurts to say it again.
He looked at me and smiles. 'I know.'
'And I'm sorry I don't go with you more.' We don't talk about that a lot, the fact that I only go with him on his long, strenuous hikes about one out of every five times. But sometimes I feel guilty about it. Wouldn't a better wife suck it up and deal with the waking at dawn, hauling her weight in water, following her husband to the highest peak and back again?
'It's okay,' he said.
We played our game. At first it looked like I was going to lose, badly. Then the tables turned and I won. He looked sad. Neither of us is a terribly good loser. After a while he said, 'I like it when you come with me because then I get to show off.'
It took me a second to realize he's continuing our earlier conversation. He was so sweet I wanted to reach out and touch his face. So I did. Then it was time to go. We had a long drive ahead of us.
The name Katrina will never denote anything besides destruction. She came just as the weathermen said she would, on Monday, taking no prisoners. Levees broke, people drowned, gas lines leaked, fires started. The president flew low over the devastation in Air Force One, and he had tears in his eyes.
Many thousands are homeless. Thousands died. People are desperately trying to find someone to blame. Fingers point in every direction. It's as if they've decided that holding their hands out to receive help is not enough.
Around the dinner table with Jon's parents, the storm came up in conversation. I didn't know that the whole city, besides the French Quarter, was below sea level. I didn't know that millions of Louisiana's tax dollars were spent to build up the levees each year, just to hold back the Mississippi. I didn't know that there were so many impoverished people without the means to leave the city. Jon's dad described what he knew about the construction of the buildings, the wood frame houses that were complete ruined, and the gas tanks that couldn't be buried and were now floating, contaminating the water.
At the beginning of the summer, Jon and I mutually decided to give up our satellite subscription, thus stripping ourselves of the TV. It was the best choice we ever made. With our free time uncluttered by Friends or Gilmore Girls or the History Channel, we spent time talking, cleaning or playing Go. But now we have found another plus. I still haven't seen any footage of the flood, the damage, the dead, the dying, the sick, the helpless.
Am I in denial? Perhaps. But I have money and clothes to donate, and the guilt that plagues me because I can't give more is overwhelming when I even think about the magnitude of the storm and its wake. Better not to see what I've been hearing about. My imagination is enough for anyone.