Living Through The El Nino Of '98
by Kristen Fox and John McNally
It was a dark and stormy night. Heh heh. Actually it was a dark and stormy day too. It just poured and poured....drop after drop after drop after drop....What? You want the executive overview? * SIGH * Okay...
We live in a converted schoolhouse in Paicines, California, just south of Hollister, WAY south of San Jose, and even FURTHER south of San Francisco. Paicines has a total population of 100 people, and probably a hundred times more cows than THAT, but cows make pretty good neighbors if you train yourself to watch where you step.
On February 2nd it poured all day. We were quite surprised when we looked out the window of our schoolhouse and could actually SEE the water in the river, running all around us. Exciting and a little scary too. For some reason though, we both felt that we'd be just fine, so we didn't pack up the cars and head for "dry" land. As night came on, the roar of the river grew louder as the rain continued to fall. Occasionally we'd shine a flashlight outside to check the water levels, which at this point were extremely high, so high that we could actually see them from the house, but still flowing in their usual path. One time, Kristen got the impulse to shine her flashlight along a certain stretch of river and the light glinted red as it reflected in the eyes of a mountain lion (cougar) prowling the bank!
Later, as our nerves got a bit more frazzled and the night wore on, John turned on the bright lights of Behemoth's (our van) headlights, which pointed out to our back field. At first, it reflected off the green hill in the grove of old oak trees and we were relieved that we still saw grass there. Then we noticed that the river had rolled AROUND the grove and an eight foot wide stream was hurtling along just behind our fence! Okaaaaaaay! As a precaution, we moved the cars to the highest spot on our property, and then decided to take a walk down to our front gate and see what was happening up at the road. [click here for map of flooded areas]
So, through the pouring rain and six or seven inches of water rushing down ourroad, we slogged toward the gate. We found that actually DOING something was strangely envigorating, even if it involved getting soaked - after all, this WAS an adventure, wasn't it? We got to the main gate and stopped dead in our tracks. From what we could see in the dark, water was POURING down the road and through the fence and gate, and rejoining the river. But wait, there was no river here before! The river had spilled it's banks and cut itself a new path, eating away a huge pasture and lapping up against our driveway near the gate, and Panoche Road. We knew we weren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Back at home, probably about 4 in the morning, by some miracle we still had electricity. We probably would have freaked out COMPLETELY if that had gone. (We'd lost the phone earlier in the evening, but that hadn't really surprised us.) Since we certainly knew we weren't going to sleep at ALL, we kept ourselves busy by digging a trench by the back fence just in case that tributary around the grove decided to get any bigger.
Close to dawn we took a small walk around the bend in our road and saw that the river had completely overrun it's banks and had flooded the field by our windmill. In fact, we saw that the water running down our little road wasn't run-off from the hill, it was part of the river itself! As we stood on the bend, John said simply, "I don't think this is a good place to be right now." So, back to the house we went.
Dawn came. The rain began to taper off. We turned off our flashlights and looked around. The pasture between us and the river was brown with river water. We were soaked and exhausted. The river still roared loudly, but with the rain slowing to a drizzle and the sun coming up, we felt we could relax a bit. We took a short walk up the road to see the windmill field. As we rounded the bend, our jaws dropped. [click here for pictures]
The reason the water had STOPPED running down our little road was the fact that a HUGE chunk of land between our road and the windmill had simply broken off and washed away in the flood. Since the river was still flowing over the field, the dropoff created an amazing waterfall. Even through the water we could see that the missing land exposed a length of white plastic piping that connected our well with our water tank on the hill, although it still looked intact.
After that shock, we went back inside to rest. As John stepped into the shower, all of the lights went off. Well, at least they'd stayed with us all night! (Luckily, we have propane-heated hot water and stove, by the way.) After showering and a short nap, we walked up to our gate. The flood waters were still high, and had eaten away the land up to and including a little of the pavement, leaving a foot of muddy, squishy silt in spots. The barbed wire and wooden fencing had fallen off into the river and was gone. About a hundred feet down Panoche Road, even MORE earth had been washed away, chopping off half of the road and leaving over a foot of mud and debris on the other half. It became VERY clear to us that we weren't going anywhere soon.
Just a few hundred feet up Panoche Road, where construction crews had been working on reconstructing a curve in the road from a previous wash out, the river had completely busted through one side, curved around by a huge hill, and busted back through the other side, leaving about a fifteen foot dropoff. Down Panoche Road was even worse - all we could SEE was washed out. Yup - going nowhere fast, we were!
But we weren't worried. We WERE safe, we had food for about a week, lots of water in the tank, and plenty of propane. We spent the rest of the day surveying the land, walking around in a daze, and waving at all the helicopters and small planes that were flying low overhead.
The next day, we were about to go out on foot and look for neighbors when our neighbor found US. Jim Strohm, a friendly, tobacco-chewing rancher who had used the barn up our road for some of his cattle, arrived on horseback. His wife had suggested he come look in on us, and the horse was the only way we could get there! After exchanging stories, he left, and we were relieved that someone else knew we were alive, and for all intents and purposes, stuck.
The next day, still in the habit of running out everytime we heard a large mechanical noise, we saw a large Red Cross helicopter now flying back and forth overhead at regular intervals. We waved everytime they went by.
Early afternoon, that same helicopter flew over again, and we ran out and waved. It got closer, and closer... John yelled, "I think it's going to land!" Kristen yelled back, "No way!" (Such intellectual banter, eh?) ...and closer... and set down on the top of the hill next to our water tank! Two Red Cross guys came down and yelled, "The roads are all washed out and there are more storms coming. You want a free ride out?"
John and I ran inside and threw the rest of our stuff into two duffle bags (we'd packed them earlier, just in case something like this happened), and grabbed Dusty (a 13-year old, parapelegic Shih Tzu) and Merlin (our new two-month old puppy). The guys helped us with our stuff, gave us earplugs, and into the chopper we went - Merlin on my lap, and Dusty on John's. Our first helicopter ride - egad!
The ride was surprisingly smooth, as was the landing, since this helicopter had landing gear and rolled to a stop. From the lounge at the Hollister Air Attack Base, we called our friend Becky Burke and she came riding in on a white horse (mini-van) with her sons Tom and Malcolm, to rescue us. It continued to rain rather heavily for the next few days and we started to wonder whether our house and cars were going to float away.
We rented a forest green Dodge Stratus while we stayed at their house for a week and then drove back toward home to see how far we could get. The direct route to Panoche, Route 25, was closed with a huge mudslide that had taken most of a section of the road with it, and so we had to go around a 20-mile, hilly, curvy road, Cienega Road, with it's own mini-mudslides and partially washed away pavement. Well, we finally got to Panoche Road, got three miles down and were stopped dead by a complete wash out of a bridge. Construction crews had only just BEGUN moving things around. With all the rain, the temporary roads were being washed out faster than they could make them.
So, we stayed at the Motel Cinderella (real class!) in Hollister for a few days, since it was closer to our house, and then, when we realized it wasn't going to be SOON that we'd be home, we took up an invite to stay at our friend Ronni's house, not wanting to overstay our welcome in any one place. We also knew that we'd have to rent a 4x4 truck in order to get anywhere through that first wash out. We turned in the rental car for a cool white '98 Ford Explorer.
All this time we watched the weather on television very closely. We also saw lots of reports of the coastline sliding into the ocean, and other mudslides taking roads and houses with it. The Napa Valley region north of San Francisco was hit quite hard with flooding. We'd also see "dramatic" reports of certain highways being closed because a few inches of water was running over it in parts. A few inches? Apparently these journalists hadn't been down Panoche Road yet. We'd begun to wonder if we'd ever make it down ourselves!
About three weeks into our exile, we picked up Tom Burke (who just loves an adventure) and headed out to do some four wheeling. The first "temporary road" was about a foot deep in mud, down a steep incline, THROUGH the river, and over a muddy/gravel path layed over five huge metal culverts that were channeling the rest of the river. We drove through at least four temporary "roads" like this - the Ford Explorer did a great job. Then, about eight miles down the road, only three miles from our house we got about as far as the construction crews had gotten and were stopped. * Sigh *
NEXT weekend, we did the same thing, and the crews had completed another temporary road through that bridge/road wash out at the eight-mile marker. We forded through that and finally got to our landlord's house where he told us that our house looked fine, everything was just as we left it. We'd been PRETTY sure, but having confirmation is a VERY good thing. We also found out that they were still clearing out the debris from the next wash out and we couldn't get home by car right now. Harrumph.
A few days later, we set out again, and this time we made it all the way home! YAY! Over FOUR WEEKS later! Everything was just as we'd left it, except the food we'd left out on the kitchen table in our hurry to leave. That looked QUITE different, but lucky for you we didn't take any photos of it. A few days later we had electricity restored and came back to live at our little schoolhouse.
So now it's mid to late March, and although we still don't have a phone, the roads have smoothed out enough so that we could turn in the Ford Explorer and use the Honda Civic on them. Many people on Panoche Road have phone service, and we found out the reason why WE don't - on our private road, the river had sucked down a few of the telephone poles and the cables are half buried in the old, dry, rocky riverbed (the construction crews built new banks for the river, away from the road) and are wrapped around another twisted metal water trough and a few hundred pounds of dead branches. We called Pacific Bell just the other day to say we didn't have service. The representative asked us if we'd tried another phone to see if that was the problem. We told her we were pretty sure that wasn't the problem.
Of course, since you are reading this, you know we have phone service and are once again online. Do you know what it's like to go without EMAIL for that long? SimCity2000 is fun and almost as addictive as the internet, but it's really not the same.
Anyway, that's our story. Yes, that WAS the short version. We have a version in Kristen's notebook that uses up at least eight pages on the first NIGHT, yet we spared you. Thanks for sharing our adventure!
Special thanks to our friends and family, and the whole Burke Family, and Ronni Shields and her husband Jack for giving us a place to sleep while we played refugee for a month.
by Kristen Fox and John McNally
Kristen Fox and John McNally: We are conscious creators. Both of us love to experience and write about metaphysics, expanding consciousness, reality creation, and fantasy too, although the lines between these categories are rather illusional. As best we can, we let joy be our guide each day. Currently, John is working on a book regarding understanding and using our personal energy, and Kristen is writing a book called, "Living From the Inside Out - Learning to Trust Yourself Again." You can reach us at email@example.com (John) and firstname.lastname@example.org (Kristen).