Storm watching, one of my favorite pursuits, isn’t just about watching, it’s about all the senses. Rialto Beach, in Washington’s Olympic National Park, has been called “the most musical beach in the world” by Emmy-winning sound artist Gordon Hempton, for the acoustics made by waves pulling pebbles back into the sea, a whisper that’s a cross between a kids’ game of marbles and a wind chime, even when the waves climb 30 yards of beach in a storm.
You can feel the weather system starting to come in. Technically, it’s called a drop in barometric pressure: The air gets denser, seeming to gather together as if the world is inhaling, all while there’s still barely a cloud in the sky. The smell of salt in the air gets thicker. You can see the birds start to look as if they’re hurrying through their day. Then the storm begins, at first like a gentle touch on the arm, but then like a punch. Quickly the horizon shuts down. Where the edge of the world sits depends on how tightly you do a Clint Eastwood squint. Fifty-knot (58 mph) winds are common; the waves rise to 30 feet.
Determined surfers stay out until the water is the color of a beeswax candle, though soon they, too, have to bail, which means the water’s not even a good place to be a fish. But for me, that’s the perfect time to be out. I stand on the beach for as long as I can, blasted by sand and bracing against a rock, the only way to stay upright, just for the chance to actually be a part of the storm.