Several fortunate things happened on Thursday.
First (and what turned out to be the most important), I decided to wear my glasses. Grey clouds dominated when I looked out the window in the morning. Surprisingly, it’s easier for me to see on grey days when I wear my glasses with transitional lenses — there’s not as much squinting, as contacts make greys more intense and sunglasses are no help.
Some color and light appeared when I stepped through the doorway with all my gear (a change of clothes, second pair of shoes, lunch, notebooks, laptop, and camera) for my work after I was finished as a teacher’s assistant at the school. The sun lit up the hills near Otago Harbour. A small blue patch showed sky’s attempt to break through the colorless clouds.
Otherwise, Dunedin and the Pacific Ocean were grey and flat.
After my shift assisting teachers, I drove to the church building where I eat lunch and work on my laptop. By then, more blue sky had appeared. So, in the sunshine of the afternoon, I decided to visit St. Kilda Beach near the southern edge of the Otago Peninsula. I checked the weather forecast. There was to be rain around 5 p.m. and snow around 6 p.m. All good. I left for the beach around 4:15.
I followed the street in front of the building to its end, turned right at the roundabout and parked on the pavement a hundred of so feet above the beach. A triangle of pink sunset still showed, and I hurriedly snapped pictures of it. I sped along the pavement on foot toward the beach access at the far end of the road. I thought, If I decide to walk the beach, I’ve got to be committed. The only access paths were at the far ends with my car parked above the middle of the beach. So if I walked along the shoreline, I’d walk from one end to the other and then have to walk half the distance again to return to my car.
And as soon as I climbed down the dunes to the flat sands and trod the tide line, the only person there, I felt wonderfully small. Rocks protected me from waves taller than me as they rolled toward the shore. The swells stretched far along the beach, crashing waterfalls folding in on themselves..
In that place, the landscape was both endless and closed in. Orange, deep storm clouds stretched over the hills and houses, moving incredibly fast. But they looked like snow clouds and it was before 6 p.m., the time when it was supposed to snow, according to the weather forecast. I’ll be fine, I thought.
Soon, I lost sight of the lead cloud and fortunately decided to climb the dunes back to the pavement rather than walk the beach so that I could take photos of the dark dragon over Dunedin.
It began raining a minute after I reached the tar. I tucked my camera under my oilskin coat and began walking to my car.
The rain had begun quietly. I watched precipitation pound the waves, creating tiny craters, and shroud the hills in front of me. A large rock a few kilometres off shore disappeared. The craters crept closer.
And then, that precipitation pounded me. Salt-water hail rammed into my sweatshirt hood and mercilessly pelted the knuckles of both hands clutching the hood over my winter hat and head. I kept my face toward the pavement, unable to gauge where I was, but the wind still slanted the hail into my face. Sometimes, I tasted the hail.
But my eyes were protected by the first fortunate thing that had happened that day: wearing my glasses.
I tried running, but could only do so briefly. Unprotected by trees or buildings, I was often swept sideways by powerful ocean gusts. Somehow, my feet stayed under me, a wonder perhaps attributed to the floods in my tennis shoes making ballast of my thick wool socks (the decision to wear these wool socks was fortunate, as well, because I had deliberated whether or not I should switch to my thin work socks with sheep pictures).
A soaked runner in a t-shirt and stretch pants appeared behind me. Every so often, I’d peer through the pellets of ice to make sure she was still there.
Then she caught up with me. “You all right?”
“That came out of nowhere!”
We fought our way forward. My hands were freezing, but I kept a tight hold on my sweatshirt hood and hat.
“Did you walk or drive over here?” she asked.
“I have my car.” I offered the runner a ride.
We made it to the car and sat on plastic bags. The fact that they were there was fortuitous. I had just cleaned out my car to prepare it for sale, but there were still three or four plastic bags in the back seat for carrying food. The runner, from England, placed plastic bags on our seats. For a few minutes, we sat recovering and discussing the situation in wonder. I dried my camera with my thin sheep socks.
The runner gave me directions to her house, I dropped her off, and then I headed back to where I’m staying.
Traffic was heavy, and as I waited to go around the roundabout, I marveled at the darkness that had fallen so quickly and reflected on the excitement of what had just happened. I thought of how I sang “Four Seasons in One Day” by Crowded House in my head as the hail hit. The first time I’d heard that song was during the Coldplay concert in Auckland when Chris Martin began singing the first verse, then “forgot the words” and said, “Is there anybody here who knows this song?” A white-haired figure ran up the stairs then, and the crowd roared. I had to ask the man next to me who it was.
“Tim Finn!” he exclaimed. “He’s a Kiwi!”
The song referred not only to life’s challenges but also to the severity of the changes in New Zealand weather, unexpected events that didn’t show up in the weather reports, unmatched by what Americans call “Wait 15 minutes for the weather to change if you don’t like it.” Hiking in the mountains can require gear for spring, summer, fall and winter.
This was definitely a day for that song.
The wind was a knife as I unloaded my car at the house. I headed for the kitchen right away, stepping gingerly in soaked socks. I gave a brief description of my afternoon to my hosts, who marveled at my soaked state, and then took a hot shower to recover. Even my inner layers were wet. My oilskin jacket, zipped in a hurry, hadn’t been closed all the way. I had protected the main part of my camera, but water had seeped down the opening of my jacket into my sweatshirt and t-shirt. While fighting the wind and hail, I didn’t feel it until I had almost reached my car and realized with a start my camera was going to be wet, also. Luckily, the camera was okay and all that was needed was a swipe with a sock.
I was thankful for a warm shower (funny how, after experiences like that, all you want to do is get wet again) and a delicious Kiwi meal of kumara chips, cauliflower covered in cheese sauce, mashed potatoes, roast beef, and ice cream custard. Later, I turned the bedroom heater on high and warmed my feet with the electric pad under the sheets.
And I was thankful for all those fortunate things that had happened.