I once heard a story about the rain that has stuck with me ever since, the way deeply horrifying things tend to do.
This one guy, a friend of a friend, had planned an epic 40-day hike through Patagonia. Before embarking, he packed all of his food into one enormous backpack: a small mountain of ramen and peanut butter and white-gas canisters and whatnot. Only a few days into his trip, it began to rain. And not just a soft dusting of rain, but a cold, hard rain; it was, as they say in Brazil, raining pocketknives. Thinking the clouds would soon disperse, the man holed up in his tent, eating through his food supply out of boredom and malaise. But the rain never stopped. Day after day, week after week, he sat there. When he finally flew home, having finally abandoned his hike early, he had gained so much weight that his girlfriend, giddily awaiting his arrival at the airport, failed to recognize him.
This is what we outdoorspeople fear most about rain: it destroys adventure, douses it like a campfire. That rain is bad is our default reaction, no doubt formed during childhood, when it shooed us from lakeshores and open fields, locking us inside our houses, forcing us to play board games. But we can choose to view rain another way. In 2009, I completed a rain-soaked thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. It was there, rising reluctantly from my sleeping bag and walking through the mud, day after day, that I began to fully realize its aesthetic (as well as the obvious ecological) value.
In short: rain weirds the dry world. The light diffuses, almost inverts; shadows vanish. Certain animals become scarce, while others slither forth. Plants—polished to a high gloss and juiced with cloud-born nitrogen—begin to glow. A sweet, dirty perfume (called petrichor) rises up, aerosolized, from the earth. Sounds are amplified: the lone trill of a warbler can sometimes be heard from many miles away. And yet sounds also become warped, so that same trill might be unrecognizable to all but the shrewdest birder. Even your skin feels different: slick, nacreous, and, so long as you are moving, surprisingly not-cold. At the end of the day, when you strip off your clothes and change into something dry, even a modest campfire becomes a form of opiate. Afterward, you sleep like a junkie, long and dreamless. Rising the next morning to another day of rain, you again dread the idea of walking in it. Then, once you start walking, invariably, you’re glad that you did.
Robert Moor is the author of On Trails: An Exploration.