This Mess Is a Place

Living on the Navarro River down a long dirt road off the grid in the flood plain with multiple perils made my remote 4.2 acres available in the ‘90s for a reasonable price. Navarro River Road, aka Poverty Row for hardy property owners, now has a handful of families who come on weekends, show up for emergencies and work hard on behalf of the neighborhood, with Earthworks in charge of road repairs and multiple families working well together to hold things together.

Standing in the middle of a red lake, was it a dream, or was it real, perhaps surreal?

I knew it was real. I’d been there 13 years before in the great New Year’s Eve flood of 2005-06. A perfect storm had occurred as the new year rolled in: high tide caused the Navarro River to crest coinciding with runoff from deep in the hills after days of rain finally reached the river, forming lakes as far as the eye could see. CHP called twice to coax me out as their predictions grew dire but I was unconvinced…until dawn, when I stood in 1 1/2 ft of water to my thighs, inside my cabin, barn, everywhere. It was time. I didn’t have to swim out. My weekend neighbor Jim arrived, canoed me out with my index card archives to higher ground, an unflooded cabin and dry clothes.

This time Feb 2019 was different. My respect for the value of water and life had grown. I was mentally prepared for the eye of the storm, knew it was coming, arranged for a place to stay in advance in case the flood forced me out, moved valuables off the floor in several rooms to a higher level, left O’Shaughnessy’s bundles with Dragonfly as backup, contacted a couple of close friends that something might happen. The final thing—moving the car to higher ground—was a dreaded ordeal but I willed myself to do it. Losing my trusty Pathfinder engine to floodwater was unthinkable.

So on we go. The easy part was driving the vehicle through the flooded S curve, the low point on the road, up the hill to higher ground. The hard part was walking back home on foot at the S curve, since the road was so flooded I couldn’t find it. I walk down the hill in a steady rain filled with puddles only to reach the flooded out road I live on. But disoriented by the water up to my thighs, then up to my knees, instead if turning, I keep walking forward for what seems like a long time suddenly a neighbor’s cabin appears. Whoops! Too far; turn around, walk back, try again. The 10 mile sign appears in the fog. Ah, it’s here, turn left, wade in up to my knees. Egad! As I keep walking to higher ground, my top layer of pants begins sliding down my legs from being water-logged. Oh, I can’t lose my pants, I’m already having a hard enough time walking, let alone tripping over my own loose ends. So I grab the waist of my pants with one hand, flashlight with the other hand, keep on trudging until finally my feet touch the road and home, and relief. I start the generator, get a few hours of internet, dry my clothes over my propane heater. A friend messaged me after midnite asking if I was ok. I told her ‘Not really but I was hoping for another day before I got mowed down’. She offered help, all nite.

Generator power would not last long with high tide due around 3am. By then the river was climbing inexorably up my back steps to the floor of my cabin. Remembering what happened 13 years earlier, I watch as red clay water climbed my 8 steps: 7,6,5,4… generator, submerged in water, shuts off; propane heater shuts off; internet and satellite phone cut off, 3,2… rising, slowly, suddenly it is light. Checking out the final step to my cabin… the waters stopped rising at dawn, one step short of reaching me.

Gratified that the universe spared me further ordeal, I sat in the chair at my desk and fell into a deep sleep. A knock at the door woke me. I open the door and ask, “How’d you get in here?”, thinking CHP or Sheriff, seeing high boots and dry waders up to his chest. I look closer and see Carl, my old neighbor arriving to assist his old neighborhood. He shows me how he got in through the back door, which was on slightly higher ground, so the water receded earlier. We walk out in super slippery red mud, me holding my black cat, ‘Ma’, squirming and meowing in distress as I hold her tightly in my arms and pull her to my chest as though her life depends on it. Cats and lakes, like oil and water, don’t mix. We walk to the lowest spot, the S curve, where the lake begins again. I get in the skif Carl provides. He pulls and pulls to bring it into the lake with me in it, starts the motor and off we go to the other side where wheels are parked waiting to go to dry land. The Navarro River Road team of 5—Carl, his daughter and son-in-law Ashley and Adam plus 2 Earthworks people, Adam and Dylan—all come into view navigating skifs and canoes, checking on each others’ houses, which were largely unscathed by mere inches, like mine. 

Dodging the bullet, they left saying, “We don’t sweat the small things.” Instead of the old saying “This place is a mess,” we say, “This mess is a place.”

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