Friday, February 11, 2011

The Hiker With the Black Umbrella

The crazy Tasmanian weather means you can go from this
beautiful sunshine over Freycinet National Park's lovely
Wineglass Bay to cranky thunderstorms in an hour or less.
You have got to be kidding me, I thought, looking up as the first raindrops hit the rocks around me. What had happened to the bright, sunny afternoon I'd been enjoying? I was in the second half of an 11km (not quite seven-mile) hike in Tasmania's Freycinet National Park with a friend and, with scrubby trees and wiry bushes leaving just enough trail to walk on, there was absolutely nowhere to go. I heaved a sigh and reached for my pack.

Before you start wondering just how much of a wuss I'd have to be in order to be that put out by a few drops of rain, let me tell you a little about family vacations when I was a kid: they usually involved a couple of weeks in national parks in the U.S. or western Canada and the one question my dad could always be counted on to ask before we left home and as we set out from our campsite each day was, "Do you have your parka?" (In Pinneo family lingo, "parka" means "waterproof jacket," not "big, heavy, snow-proof coat.") With much eye-rolling and face-making, I would say yes, grumpy that I had to lug such an unwieldy thing around all day, with little likelihood of actually needing to wear it. Parkas are ugly, I would complain. It's too big, I look stupid. Whenever I could possibly get away with leaving the thing behind, I did.

Clouds starting to gather near Wineglass Bay.
So it was a bit ironic that, prior to leaving for Australia, a waterproof jacket was on my to-buy list, since one of my first stops would be Tasmania, capital of unpredictable weather conditions. I found a few I liked online, but wanted to make my purchase in-store, since I wasn't sure of the sizing. No worries, I thought; since I would be spending a few days in Los Angeles before heading across the Pacific, I could just pop into an REI store and find what I wanted. Unfortunately, it turns out that REI stores in Southern California don't really carry Outdoor Research (OR) products, which was what I'd been looking at. There was a similar jacket by The North Face that could have worked, but it was a little heavier than I wanted for the Australian summer weather, and REI's own similar line was more expensive than OR's. So I decided I'd wait to buy a jacket until I got to Australia, either in Tasmania or once I was settled in Sydney. In the meantime, I'd just have to tough it out with an umbrella and hope for clear skies.

I had not, however, planned on ending up on a narrow Tasmanian hiking trail, in pouring rain, with nothing waterproof at hand except a black, travel-sized umbrella. If it had been just me and the usual hiking paraphernalia in my daypack, I would have kept on going and ignored the rain, no problem. I had a hat to keep water out of my eyes and it wasn't cold, by any means. But I had my Kindle and my iPod in my pack and no other way to protect them from the downpour, so, rolling my eyes at my own idiocy, I popped open the umbrella, hitched it over my shoulder so that it covered as much of my pack as possible and set off at as fast a clip as I could manage, eyes focused enviously on the water rolling off the hood of my friend's jacket.
The sky over an isthmus on the Freycinet Peninsula,
looking a little more foreboding just before the rain started.

The image of myself in my mind's eye as I hiked made me want to both laugh and bang my head against a wall. Hiking with an umbrella, I thought. Could I be any more ridiculous? The umbrella, wider than my shoulders and much less easy to maneuver, snagged on bushes and branches every few steps and I gritted my teeth as I continually yanked it free, trying to climb without bending over and exposing the bottom of my pack to the rain. The few hikers who passed us gave me puzzled looks and I smiled sheepishly, wishing I could disappear into the ground and take my absurdly out-of-place umbrella with me.

An hour or so later, my friend and I made it back to the carpark and scrambled into our tour's minibus to laughing applause. Soaked to the skin - this hadn't been any gentle shower but a steady downpour, complete with rolling thunder - we collapsed in our seats and I gratefully put away my umbrella, sure of three things: 1) I never wanted to hike with an umbrella again; 2) I was buying a waterproof jacket the minute I found a sporting goods store back in Sydney; 3) My dad was never going to let me live this down.

And there you have it: the day I became "the hiker with the black umbrella."


283600 said...

So what's better - using an umbrella or wearing a garbage bag or disposable clear plastic rain jacket?! I do hope you find a rain jacket you like. You know I hate mine!!!!

Jessalyn Pinneo said...

The garbage bag or disposable plastic jacket, hands down! At least with them, there's nothing to snag on the plants. I'll find one soon!