Worth the walk

Sun, 11/06/2011 - 1:27am
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Twenty years ago this weekend we were in the throes of the Halloween Gale, or the No-Name Hurricane, or the Perfect Storm, or some other variation on the nor’easter that would not go away.

It was the storm that begat the book, and later the movie, both focused on a pleasure boat that should not have set sail, an extraordinary storm of truly epic proportions and, especially, a working fishing boat that went out beyond the Grand Banks and was lost, presumably to the sea. It seemed an impossible story to tell, so lacking in the hard facts of what really happened to the Andrea Gail, the commercial vessel sailing from Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The book is one of the few that is actually where I think it should be, or at least in the second place I look. It was compelling in a way I had not expected. It went to great lengths to explain the storm, or storms — a hurricane swallowed by a nor’easter, following a track that seems impossible but is the same on every map, an odd looping, tracking backwards, turning. I would not believe it but I remember the weather.

It was, I have long maintained, Nature’s revenge for the lack of respect accorded Hurricane Bob the previous August. The New Harbor was a mess but, generally, we were very, very lucky. Bob made landfall here but was racing, gone hours before it had been predicted to hit the night before.

The storm that came the end of October and pushed into November 1991 set a record off Nova Scotia with a 100-foot wave. It took out a chunk of Spring Street, leaving one lane for it seems a year. The tides ran high and broke through the fragile barrier of sand that separates Sachem Pond from the ocean, reopening the cut made by the hurricane. I had cause to fly off island when the weather cleared and recall the cliffs on the northeast curve of the island cut, sliced, sheared, 20 or 30 feet up, and the salt water still running in a short-lived channel north of Settler’s Rock.

There are reports, threats of snow this weekend, record breaking weather to commemorate that storm 20 years.

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We dodged yet another bullet.

The storm raged around us, stirring the sea, shutting down the boat service. Coming out of the Neck, past the turn to the New Harbor, where the dunes drop away to a low embankment between the road and the white water ocean, my car began to shudder. All the years I have lived here it is always an instant before I realize it is not my car but the wind, slamming in off the water. The earth deposited not so long ago seems so fragile on days such as these.

Then I reach the haven of the last curve and, suddenly, the storm seems to have abated, even ceased. It has not, I know, and when I stop in the little parking lot in front of the library I step into not just driven rain but wind, amplified, blasted through the wind tunnel between the Surf and National hotels.

After the storm the beach behind the Surf is narrow, the black sand that is usually shades of dark purple is altered, a layer of thick and pure iron with grains of ground quartz. It is as though a super magnet, many times more powerful than my childhood toy, had been passed over the beach and had pulled out the ore for an invisible hand to spread on the sand from which it had been extracted.

But we had no snow, we suffered none of the perils of the mainland. Out here, unprotected, beaten, we again did not find ourselves facing week-long power outages. I have to wonder if the extreme weather of these past springs and summers, wet and warm, gave too much growth to the trees that were uprooted and broke in Irene, and that were heavy laden with snow and broke last weekend. In 1991, it was 38,000 that lost power; this year it is millions.

Here, it was cold and it was gray and it felt like winter. It will be warmer again, the forecasters said, and I chose to believe them.

Today the sun shone, the air was warm, and the Neck Road at midday felt more like spring than fall. It was a fine day for a long walk, for seeing the things that are missed: the egret heads peaking out of the tall grass on the far side of the channel to Harbor Pond, and a deer crossing to the beach in broad daylight, just walking across the road and disappearing into the dunes north of the beach parking lot.

The dunes have shifted; paths that used to be have filled in completely, and in other places new ones have opened. It is not, I have long been convinced, that they are any lower; rather that the expanse of land between them and the road has gradually filled and risen. There used to be a drop to the parking lot, it used to be a great basin that held the sea that would push through on a storm high tide. Now, it is nearly the level of the road.

Further down the Neck, where the phragmities, they say, have grown to block the view of the pond, I look out to the empty pond and see it is more than tall grasses, there is a low wall of bayberry and roses, these things that grow everywhere while we are worrying about something else. The discarded tire is gone from the road but no one has removed the dead muskrat, poor thing, a flattened pelt on the pavement.

Another day, perhaps, but now, in warmth that will not last, I’d rather look for egrets and be rewarded by a flash of white through the greenery north of the Breakers, an elegant bird and its reflection in a sliver of a gap in the brush. Such sights make it worth the walk.