It’s Been 5 Years Now

5 years ago, my life was changed in a way that I’m not really sure how to explain. It wasn’t one of those immediate life changing moments where one event occurs, and suddenly your life is completely different. In fact, the events that took place between September 10 and 16 of 2013 didn’t cross my mind as consequential until later, some 6 months after the fact. But what happened over those 6 days now haunts me and draws an emotion in me that I don’t find anywhere else.

I’ve already written about this experience once before. In a narrative piece I titled Flood, I discussed mostly the time period of 9/10-13/2013, and summarize what happened in my view after that time. But I don’t know if I told the story the way it was meant to. So now, as we’ve reached the 5th anniversary of that time, I felt the best option I had to try to understand once more that experience was to try again to explain it, and the impact it still has on me today.

On Tuesday, September 10, 2013, it was raining when I woke up. That was a bit annoying, because my final middle school camping trip was starting that day, and no one wants to go camping in the rain. But we were still in Denver then, and it was assumed that the rain would stop soon or we’d leave the storm by the time we got to the trailhead for the campsite. But it was still raining when we got there, and our hike up to the campsite was rainy. It was raining as we set up camp, and the entire first day.

A friend and I had looked at a radar map of the storm on the way up, and it looked pretty big, but a lot of times storms come into Colorado and it rains for a day at most before breaking apart into isolated storms here and there, never really raining that much. And soon after the storm, we’re back to one of the 300+ days of sunshine we get in Colorado every year. So one big storm with rain for 1 day was normal, with just some slightly unfortunate timing.

Here’s the thing, though: the rain didn’t stop. That storm, which, when we saw it on the radar map, was covering pretty much the entire northeast quadrant of the state, didn’t lift for 4 days. And it rained a lot.

The most populated area under the storm’s cover was Boulder, Colorado (Denver was getting rain but was at the edge of the storm and so the storm didn’t really affect anything there). For the entire year, until September 10, Boulder had gotten a little over 14 inches of rainfall, which was about average for that point in the year. By September 17, Boulder had over 30 inches for the year. The storm had dropped over 17 inches on Boulder in just 6 days.

I was camping, at the time, above Boulder, just outside a town called Nederland. We were there until September 13th, and it rained the whole time. On Friday (9/13), when we left, the storm lightened and the rain even stopped at times. The sun was trying to come out. That was generally true of the storm everywhere, and on Saturday, things had just about returned to normal, but rain started again on Sunday, ending in the early morning hours of Monday, September 17th.

Camping in the constant rain isn’t much fun, and for the most part my classmates and I spent our time standing around in raincoats, under tarps, or in tents. One night, one tent flooded, which was certainly unfortunate, but the rain was just an element of the experience, and we really had no concept of the amount of rain that was accumulating. We were at a high point, where we were camping, and so there was little worry of flooding (other than putting a tent in a little ditch, which was why one of them flooded).

But on Thursday, the day that more than half of the total rain for the storm fell, a rumor started spreading that we weren’t going to be able to go home on Friday, as planned, because there had been damage done to the road out of where we were camping, and the parents who would be coming to pick us up wouldn’t be able to get there. While that thought was certainly worrisome, tell a group of middle schoolers that they can hang out with their friends for another day or two without any parents around, and they won’t care about what else is going on.

Well, the so-called “damage” to the road ended up being not too severe on one of the roads, and our parents still managed to reach us on Friday morning when we hiked down, and we returned to Denver, albeit on a slightly different route than the one we had taken up. And that was that.

But that wasn’t that.

Yes, I was camping during the storm, but so were my 30 classmates I was with, and another 120 middle schoolers from our school, spread over 4 other campsites in Colorado. And I’m sure a whole host of other people were, as well. But I have an absolutely bizarre connection to this whole event.

In 1994, my maternal grandmother purchased land, on which she built a cabin, above Jamestown, Colorado, which is not too far from where I was camping at the time. The cabin is one of my favorite places on earth, although I typically only go 3 times a year. But every time we go, the route there goes from Boulder, up along James Creek and through James Canyon to Jamestown (I’m not actually sure who James is), and then from there up much further to the cabin.

So for as long as I can remember, I’ve driven through Jamestown multiple times every year, and it was always the same. The same fire department and fire danger sign, the same houses lining the road, the same mass of bikes outside the Merc (the restaurant on the road that bikers from Boulder stop at after the excruciating ride up there). Jamestown, like many small towns, never changed.

In June of 2014, however, Jamestown was very different. Because everything had been destroyed.

As a result of the massive storm that hovered over Colorado in September of 2013, through many canyons and rivers came walls of rushing water which destroyed everything in its wake, and for a town like Jamestown, where everything lines the river, the results were devastating.

The road was just gone in many places (not in June of 2014, by then a road was in place, thought quite precarious). Buildings lay crumbled in places. At the edge of town, a house that once overlooked the river was now without its back walls. Everything that had made Jamestown what I knew and had driven through all my life was completely upended. And that’s without mentioning the people who actually live there. My god, to have to rebuild your entire life, your entire town after that, it’s beyond imagination. The owner of the Merc was killed as his house collapsed on him and he was stuck there for 6 days before his body was recovered.

Only a month before that day in June had I really come to understand what exactly had occurred over those 6 days the previous September. I had visited the History Colorado Museum, where they had a tiny little exhibit discussing the flood. And it was then that I realized, for the first time, what had happened while I was camping.

I guess what’s been so hard about the last 5 years, of having driven through Jamestown on many occasions to the cabin, has been an element of guilt. See, I have some feeling that I should have known, that I had this connection to this town and yet, for months I had absolutely no idea what happened to it. That I had been able to ignore it for so long. And I still can’t understand that guilt. It’s not as if I could have stopped it if I had known. It’s not like anything would have been different if I had known. But there’s this hurt that sticks with me as a result.

I can’t drive through Jamestown today without seeing the remnants of the destruction. That house without its back wall? Still standing exactly as it did in the weeks after the storm (they did take down a little piece of it earlier this summer). The road is still being repaired. You can see where the river left its traditional route and went elsewhere to cause further destruction. And while most of my family has gotten used to it now, I’m not. I don’t think I ever will be. It’s been 5 years now, but the floods, the deluge, the monsoon, whatever you want to call it, it still drives an emotion in me that nothing else does. And I’m stilling trying to understand why.

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