hubris n : overweening pride or self-confidence: ARROGANCE
The following is a lesson about the abuse of power, and the redeeming qualities of humility.
Back in the 1960s, my hippie days, a friend and I got stoned and drove to Palo Duro Canyon, near Amarillo, Texas. It’s a gorgeous place, especially in contrast to the drybrush country around it. We called it the Grand Canyon of the Panhandle. It was a really hot, sunny day, and we decided to climb to the top of one of the mesas. When we got to the top, we realized we’d forgotten to bring any water. There we were, parched, and baking in the heat. Maybe we could make it rain, we thought. We concentrated with our eyes closed, maybe a half hour or so, and look at that — a tiny little cloud appeared above us, and we even felt a little mist of water vapor.
Did we cause it to happen? Does a butterfly fart in China affect a storm cell in Kansas? Who knows? But seven years later I was traveling in Italy, when another opportunity arose. I was dining with two ladies on the patio of a little trattoria in Verona. If you’ve been in Europe in the summer, you know they like to take a long lunch, a couple hours. They have the big meal with the family, then go back to work till later in the evening. It’s a great system, really; twenty minutes or so between courses is good for the digestion, but this wasn’t intended to be a food column.
It began raining, then rained harder — catshit and pitchforks, as my dad used to say. We’d brought no rain gear, and the car was many blocks away. I was thinking, maybe I made it rain once; can I also make it stop? I asked my companions when they thought we’d be ready to leave, and they said oh, maybe forty-five minutes or so. I told them I’d see what I could do. I thought about it, concentrated for a few minutes, and went back to eating. Within five minutes of our departure time, the rain slowed, stopped, and the sun came out. Once could be coincidental, but this was astonishing. A few weeks later we were at a campground in Assisi, a thoroughly charming little hill town in central Italy. You can almost feel St. Francis’ serenity in the atmosphere, but this was never intended to be a travel column.
It was really hot, maybe ninety or so, and we were uncomfortable. I confidently asked the others if they’d like a little rain, and everyone agreed. I lay down in the grass, closed my eyes, and concentrated on the task at hand. I cannot divulge any details of my technique; that would be irresponsible. Besides, I still wasn’t sure I could pull this off. In less than an hour, though, threatening cumulonimbus clouds had formed over the mountaintop behind us. It got dark and began to rain. We took refuge in our tents as it increased to a downpour. I was really feeling full of myself now, and I went outside in the rain. Holding my fists up to the clouds, I shouted, “Come on! You can do better than that!” I quoted King Lear: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!” Well, it raged and blew, alright, into a violent lightning and thunderstorm. Maybe I’d gone too far, I thought. Okay, I should be more careful. I’d learned my lesson. I was so wrong; the lesson was still ahead.
At the end of the summer, I had a week before my flight home out of Schiafol Airport in Amsterdam, and I was headed back to England to visit Stonehenge and some other ancient sites. I took the ferry from Le Havre to Southampton, arriving about noon on a Sunday. Just about the time I disembarked onto English soil, the rain began. By the time I’d walked to the other end of town to hitchhike the sixteen miles to Salisbury, where I’d booked a room at a bed & breakfast, the rain was coming down really hard. My cheap poncho wasn’t keeping out much of it, either.
I’d done a lot of hitchhiking during my college years, and one of the rules of the road is: never hitchhike on a Sunday. People are with their families, and not likely to stop for a stranger. I kept walking, and it kept raining. Now I was out in the country and it was dark. After another hour or so, I came to a roadside inn, and sloshed in for a rest, and my first ever pint of bitters (well named). I talked to people there, and no one would give me a ride. I begged the innkeeper to let me sleep on the floor or anywhere, just to be out of the rain. He apologized, saying he could get into big trouble for that. I had no choice but to go back out into the rain.
There were no cars, no lights, just blackness and unceasing, pelting rain. I couldn’t even see the distant light of a farm, or I would have gone there. It was getting late, and I was exhausted. I began to wonder if I was actually going to perish in the storm. I had no tent with me, so I slowly put one foot in front of the other, not sure how much longer I could go on. For some reason, the voice of Cecil B. DeMille came into my head, from “The Ten Commandments.” It was the scene where Moses is lost and wandering in the desert, after being exiled from Egypt. Cecil’s voice droned, “At last, at the end of all human endurance, the clay was ready for the Master’s hand . . . “
I didn’t know if I could go another step. I peered ahead at the dark sky and even blacker trees, and something was odd. There was a strange shape silhouetted against the sky, the gable of some structure on the other side of the road. As I got closer, I saw it framed against the sky — a bus shelter. Shelter! As I crossed the road I could see a light glowing from the bench. It was dust, dry dust. Dry! I took out my atlas and flashlight to pinpoint my location. Then I said aloud, in as authoritarian voice as I could manage, “In the name of necessity, I hereby claim this bus shelter from the citizens of West Wellow for the duration of the night.” Miraculously, my sleeping bag was reasonably dry. The bench was so close to the edge of the shelter I had to sleep with one arm wrapped around it, to keep from falling off.
Morning dawned bright and sunny. I made espresso on my little camp stove, had a bite to eat, and stepped to the side of the road. Within minutes the first car came by, stopped, and took me the remaining eight miles to Salisbury. Thus ended the lesson. That was thirty-six years ago, but it was seared into memory with crystal precision. I’ve been tempted a few times to tamper with the weather, but always decided in the end to leave it alone. One lesson was enough. I learned the hazards of messing with the weather. Unfortunately, industrial civilization has not, and that lack of respect is making for a very hard lesson, indeed. We don’t even know what’s on the final.