Roger Marolt: You can’t out-ride lightning, so you’re left to ride it out
The thing about experiencing a lightning storm from beneath it is that you don’t really know how much danger you are in. This crosses my mind as I sit on my haunches, hugging my knees, bare-footed on a mountain ridge under a deluge of rain and hail gushing from a nightmarishly black scab, swollen and infected in the summer sky, suddenly ripped open. It was only a bruise on the horizon a half hour ago.
Thee are millions of square yards up here in this wild space where I am, and I am occupying but one. In my current position, I am no higher or lower than the thick scrub oak that surrounds me. If I am, indeed, a target, I’ve done what I can to become a random one. I am sure lots of lightening bolts have struck the ground up here, but not nearly enough of them to christen it all. Has the spot I occupy ever been hit? Will it ever be blasted? We are not contemplating infinity here, just the planet’s lifespan, so the answers could be “no” to both questions.
This firmly stated in my mind, I must acknowledge the reason I am planted here. Moments ago three of my senses registered overload. I felt the hair on my forearms tingling and then the flash and the boom came simultaneously, I think in front of me, but I can’t be sure. This changed my plans that were to ride as hard as I could through the storm in order to get out of here as quickly as possible. Home is only about 2 miles away.
I immediately set down my aluminum-frame bike. It’s not a great conductor, but probably better than the wet bushes around me. I ditched it and ran about 25 yards away to be safe — or at least sure — or maybe a little safer — possibly. Assuming the egg shape, I ditch my shoes, too. They have steel cleats bolted on their soles.
Another bolt streaks toward the valley floor in front of me. I see this one clearly. The simultaneous boom triggers a dial-tone hum in my ears. I’m soaking wet now, so the hairs on my forearms don’t have a chance of standing up, or maybe they’re laying down out of fear, too.
I can see Highway 82 below. This is just a shower for them, an annoyance to their drivers who might have just gone through the $14 deluxe car wash. They’ll be out of it and on dry roads ratcheting up their speedometers in a matter of minutes. I have noticed that the jets are not roaring out of the airport. Somebody in the tower has seen this storm as a dangerous red-and-yellow blot on the radar.
The hail comes in earnest now. It’s accumulating on the ground and my skin. From experience, I believe lightning activity picks up when the icy granules begin a roar like crowd noise as they collide with the hillside. There are currently no visible electrical streaks, but black blossoms of cloud glow as if a wind-whipped fire billows within their souls and there is a constant rumble of thunder.
I am not comfortable here. Yet, I am fairly confident. I am cold and will get colder. But, the storm has raged for about 20 minutes, so it is probably getting close to blowing itself out, if local experience is to be trusted despite the current evidence to the contrary. The ride out will be muddy, I will squint beneath my opaque glasses to protect my eyes from gritty splash. I will swallow some silty mist. But, I will be home and in a hot shower soon.
Clearly, I could have brought more to protect myself — a jacket and some gloves for starters. A poncho would have been nice. A Snickers bar would have been a comforting companion. I didn’t even bring my phone loaded with the weather radar app.
I have no regrets, though. As the storm clears and I ride the trail funneling rain and melting hail like a wannabe stream, I am invigorated, if not pre-hypothermic.
We can choose the fully insulted view of nature by staying home and looking at it out the window while the full immersion would be to walk naked through it; and, yes, I once encountered the latter riding my mountain bike through the middle of nowhere.
It’s somewhere along this spectrum that we get to place ourselves. Then again, once in a while nature catches us off guard. If we are lucky, we survive and are invigorated.
Roger Marolt understands that single-track in the Rocky Mountains is a fine line. Email at email@example.com.
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