Blustery weather at Hat Rock outing makes for sunny memories

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“It’s raining, Dad.”

The voice of our eldest son issues from the recesses of the last row in our car. His three words sound like a death knell on the weak spirit of enthusiasm we’ve all mustered for this trip.

I glance up and see that he’s right. Moisture — it might even be snow — pelts our windshield fiercely as we drive, little darts of discouragement sent to derail our day. We’d all hoped for more, after all. A whole day in the sun, far above the cloud-covered bowl of the Walla Walla Valley. But circumstances — and schedules — being what they are, this was the best we could muster: A short trip to a familiar destination: Hat Rock State Park.

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Sarah Kelnhofer

Summer Kelnhofer kicks along with a friendly tumbleweed.

As the weather intensifies, I wonder if a movie and popcorn might have been better. But the car shuttles on. Beside me, Chris’s jaw remains set in a now-familiar expression. We’re going to reach our objective. We’re not going to let the weather stop us.

Half an hour later, we pull in to our destination, listlessly noting the odd-shaped rock formation from which the park takes its name as we drive by. The parking lot stands empty except for one other car, and I can’t help thinking that everyone else may be having more fun. I imagine curling up in front of the fire ... holding a large bowl of popcorn.

“Can I just sit in the car while you walk?” Jared voices the very idea I’ve been hatching, and I frown.

“Of course not!” I snap. “It’s just a little bad weather!” Without waiting for a response, I exit the car, tensing every muscle against the frigid wind that pours off the nearby Columbia River. The rest of the family follows suit, pulling coats and hats closer against the onslaught. What should have been a simple excursion may turn out to be disastrous, I muse as I glare at the clouds.

We stride across the tarmac in a cluster, then strike out up a short hill. Our dog, Josie, strains at her leash, whining after our two boys when they break into a run to keep warm. Summer soon follows, nearly blown backward by the force of the icy gale. I stuff my hands in my pockets and my complaints deep inside. Beside me, Chris is leaning into the wind like a modern-day Meriwether Lewis, and I know his calm demeanor hides a similar drive. We’ve never taken this particular trail, after all. Anything might be around the next bend!

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Sarah Kelnhofer

Jared Kelnhofer places one more tumbleweed above his brother, Ethan (buried deep below).

And so we walk on. The wind whips our hair and tosses dry sagebrush with equal abandon, but we’re slowly growing immune to its chill. Warmed by our steady movement, we sprint off the trail to follow faint tracks through the underbrush. Last year’s sodden grasses clump up in our path. Tiny orange lichens stare up from the rocks, the ever-bright flowers of winter. Down, gently down we all run, until ...

“Zippedy-doo-dah!” Ethan’s cry reaches us first. “Is that the ocean?” He halts on the brow of a steep grade, gaping at the wind-whipped water below.

Without waiting for a reply, he breaks into a run and disappears between a tangle of twisted trees. The water beckons us — open and wild, a river that has beckoned so many. Together, we discover small coves, tiny inlets — and the dangers of a wave-chasing dog.

“Get back here!” Jared bellows, pulling Josie from a slippery perch just offshore. She retreats, dripping, the whites of her eyes as bright as the tips of the waves she pursues. Her dark, wet dog-body promises to permeate our car with its aroma on our drive home, but who cares? Like the Corps of Discovery long ago, we’ve captured the spirit of adventure, of observation.

“Is that a fox?” Jared cries, cresting the hill once again. We scramble forward and gasp at a sleek orange shape as it bounds out of view, then turn our attention in the direction of Ethan’s raised arm where an eagle circles above us. The moment is mystic, is magical. Cold nearly forgotten, we giggle as the boys wallow in a mountain of tumbleweeds while Josie tries to retrieve them.

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Sarah Kelnhofer

Family dog Josie tells the river who’s boss.

Our car sits alone in the parking lot upon our return, making us the only ones foolish enough to stay out in this storm. But the rain has slowed to a merciful mist. It seems almost refreshing against our numbed skin. We slide into the car feeling warmed, and I inch nearer to my beloved dashboard heater.

Yes, home and a nice fire sound appealing, but they’ve lost a bit of their charm. I rub my hands together, savoring the residual tingle from where Summer and I held hands to share heat. Yes, simple pleasures are sweet — and sometimes far sweeter when I’ve worked hard to enjoy them. I settle back into my seat, filled with a contentment that even the aroma of wet dog can’t undo. I’m grateful, for once, for the rough weather — it’s made for one sunny memory.

Sarah Coleman Kelnhofer writes from College Place, where she hopes to find and enjoy simple things — like chocolate — in the midst of a life filled with complexities. Contributions to this cause may be milk, dark, or white — and should arrive in childproof packaging. At the back door. Very quietly.

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