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Lightning Story

22 July 2013 9:36 pm0 commentsViews: 35

“Suddenly the dusk went white with a deafening explosion. Blue-white snakes went withering down the cracks. Lightning struck again. This time his arms and legs shot out from a jolt that struck the ledge. There was the smell of burning rock, brimstone. Hail began to fall. He was clinging to his courage though it meant nothing. He could taste death in his mouth.” – James Salter, Solo Faces

26 June 2013

The Appalachian Trail

It was ten after three, and I was 15 miles into my day. The afternoon was oppressively hot, and I had long since stuffed my shirt back into my pack to eliminate any superfluous contact of fabric with my body. Stifling heat dominated the past 3 miles as I had climbed 1700′ up from the James River.

I was staggeringly tired, and this was not entirely due to the 83 miles of hiking since leaving Catawba, VA four days ago. The night prior to embarking, I had cowboy camped near the trailhead. And in my excitement for the trip, I began it on less than 1 hour of sleep.

So the past three days of walking from sunrise to sunset had been necessarily punctuated with power rests and short naps next to the trail. The previous 10 hours since breaking camp that morning had followed a similar pattern.

Right before lunch, I had stopped at Matts Creek Shelter and soaked in the frigid stream. I had laid my shoulders back into the rushing water and lingered more than an hour knowing that later in the day I would be afforded no such respite.

While the physical coolness from the creek would leave all too suddenly, the mental respite of crisp refreshment was available well beyond stepping back out onto the trail. So I guess I at least had that going for me when I thirstily and wearily lurched to a stop at what appeared to be an overlook that was baking in the sun. Flopping my pack to the ground, I scrambled 10′ or so to a little rock outcropping overlooking the valley and the river I had crossed over several miles before. I ventured this little spot was vertically directly below the real overlook of Little Rocky Row but it was none the less a gorgeous view.

It was 3:14 pm. I climbed back down from the rock to grab my pack. I headed back up the trail and reached the true overlook of Little Rocky Row by 3:18. As I crested this ridgline I had been ascending, I could now see through the trees into the valley to the west. Dark clouds gathered in the distance. And you could feel them in breeze.

My objective was to get past Big Rocky Row to a place listed in the databook as Saddle Gap, which had no altitude given but by definition would be lower than Big Rocky Row. Big Rocky Row was only a mile up the trail so I knew I could clear it and be descending towards Saddle Gap by the time the storm arrived.

Drained from the heat but armed with a plan, I hustled on down the trail.

At 3:35, the trail passed through a slight clearing where I could see in full view that the storm clouds were much less distant. I stopped to prepare for their arrival by putting my camera into my dry bag and pulling out my umbrella. I thought of putting on my shirt or my rain poncho too but opted not to because I had been overwhelmingly hot on the scorching climb and was looking forward to a chance to cool off even if it meant being cold.

So setting off again for Big Rocky Row, I made it about 90 yards before turning abruptly around and marching back to that stopping point. I had left my hiking pole and knew my knees would brutally hate me later in the day if I abandoned their downhill pain reliever. As I bent to retrieve my trekking pole, I smiled as I spotted a single blackberry, which had the faintest traces of red in its color and tasted as sweet yet tart as I expected.

By the minute, it became clearer the storm was drawing near.

Two nights prior to this, I had been on a similar ridgeline as storm clouds approached from the western valley. The dark sky had advanced quickly and been swept northward up the valley. While I had fully expected to be doused by the brunt of that storm, I had hiked on in a light intermittent drizzle and watched as the lion’s share of the rain and the lightning, guided by the valley, rolled by parallel to my path on the ridgeline.

Such a near miss of the storm was not in the cards to be repeated.

The feelers of the storm reached me just prior to my arrival at the high point I was aiming to clear. A light rain was briefly blown by on a wind that was building steam. As the lead rain cloud crossed overhead and out into the valley to the east, it became very clear that my walking path lay on a collision course with the pending storm.

I saw the urgency to get past this high point and begin descending. In the past 20 minutes, the aloof rolling of thunder had crept subtly closer, remaining distant yet clear of its intentions. I pressed forward across the forested top of Big Rocky Row.

At 3:56 things intensified.

The storm steamrolled over the ridgeline bringing furious wind. Trees around me bowed deeply from their trunks and flailed their limbs, which contributed the deafening rustling of thousands of damp leaves whipped by wind.

The rain came down forcefully, bolstered by the wind. It was thrown nearly sideways into my bare arms and chest, which was much less enjoyable than how my parched mind had imagined being rained on earlier in the day.

My umbrella was doing little to nothing. It helped keep some of the rain off my shoulders and face but I was worried the wind would tear the lightweight contraption to pieces. My hiking pole was in my right hand, and I paced rhythmically on past a jumble of small boulders without missing a beat since the storm intensification moments before.

The collection of small boulders was clearly the highest point or at least the beginning of a decent to lower ground. Not yet able to sense relief, I was anxious to begin a precipitous climb downward towards the comparative safety of a gap. As I skirted these smaller rocks, the trail offered the false hope with a handful of strides with a respectable downward trend.

That steep downward trend and its false hope were abruptly shattered.

I looked up from my feet to find a razor straight trail with a downward slope so imperceptibly gentle that I did a double take. I wheeled around to confirm the slightness of the 10′ vertical descent behind me and then wheeled back in front of me to see what appeared to be a practically flat trail along the forested ridgeline racked with the winds of the storm. I was much further than expected from low ground and the storm was upon me.

I hurriedly took my first stride and a half along the tragically gradual decent, and my mind raced to interpret the situation. Before the instant had passed a herculean explosion of thunder ripped open the sky above me causing every muscle in my chest and arms to contract instantly and involuntarily. The bolt of lightning had come simultaneous to the thunder.

I felt desperate to get to lower altitude.

Inconsolable alarm swept over me and, I broke into the fastest run my surge of adrenaline could muster from my spent legs. I could think of nothing but descending as fast as humanly possible.

I was like a massive boulder gathering speed as it hurdles down an slope. I was sprinting full tilt down the gentle incline with a 20 lb pack bouncing wildly in arcs from left to right on my back. My partially full water bottle flopped frantically from the carabiner that held it to my pack and threatened to break free at any moment.

The additional jerking around of my still raised umbrella from the shifting mass on my back and the running through the wind seemed sure to destroy it. As a cursory concession to caution, my adrenaline allowed me the motor skills to unlock the umbrella mechanism and hold it in place with my left hand, leaving the umbrella partially collapsed to prevent damage while still being overhead to maintain it’s sub-par performance of keeping my exposed torso dry. This posture quickly degenerated to a fully collapsed umbrella held forward like a sword that was swung in rhythm with and opposite to the tipped back hiking pole held in my other arm.

Three minutes of running felt like an eternity.

Then, the adrenaline subsided enough for my legs to confess their anguish and force me into a sort of moderate paced power walk, which would last only for two minutes. The wind was less intense than before but there was no end to the storm in sight. I still longed for lower elevation.

My mind still raced. It had been unable to detect any of the slight elevation loss of the past few minutes due to the sheer the intensity of the compulsion to move forward. In my mind, I was only 10 or 20′ below the highest point and cursing the trail for its flatness (a rare event in the world of hiking indeed).

Adrenaline had created tunnel vision around getting to lower heights via the trail. As I power walked, I grasped faintly the possibility to travel perpendicular the trail and reduce elevation as a last resort. The trail’s slope remained disappointingly gradual.

Another crack of thunder came, uncomfortably near yet just far enough removed to not glance around looking for what was struck. This prompted me to resume running. It was 4:02 pm.

As I bounced down the trail, I became steadily more convinced to seek shelter by travelling off trail down the steep wooded embankments of the ridge sides. A minute or so into the run, the already heated storm gave rise to even stronger winds that seemed to announce the approach of a crescendo. This was it.

As I ran, I scanned the woods searching for a safe haven.

In the violent wind, everywhere looked like a death trap. Large lightning rod trees, dead snags, severely leaning and half fallen trees were everywhere, and their web of fall paths seemingly left no bit of ground exempt from strike by lightning or falling trunk.

With winds reaching a fever pitch, I identified a patch to the right of the trail with a comparatively small amount of hazard trees. Without breaking stride, I sunk my hiking pole straight down into the ground where I left the trail and barreled off into the woods. Checking my watch it was 4:04 pm.

Building momentum, I quickly crossed the relatively flat shoulder of the ridge and forgot entirely to drop my pack before descending the steep slope towards safety.

Fifteen yards down the embankment, I threw my pack and umbrella to the ground and detached hurriedly from my pack my blue foam sleeping mat and ground tarp. I unfurled the tarp and held it partially unfolded above my head and bare back.

I jumped a few more strides down the embankment to the base of a medium sized but sturdy tree that would be well below the tallest thing around but also large enough to hypothetically deflect other trees falling against, so long as they were to come from the correct angles. I set my rolled sleeping pad in the crook of the hill and the tree and crouched on it as I began to situate the tarp above my head for more complete coverage.

Even as I situated the tarp, my legs began to ache from the crouching. The uneven, unfamiliar strain was not taken kindly to following the battering of the adrenaline fueled sprints that capped the 16 miles covered thus far in the day. As rain fell remorselessly on the tarp clinging to my back and partially covering me, I shifted back and fort uncomfortably trying to remain isolated from the ground.

Time crawled forward at a dutifully slow pace.

I remembered my watch and glasses were metal and needed removed. I set the watch out in the rain but facing me so that I could still read it when I lifted the tarp edge. My feet were leaving filthy footprints everywhere they shuffled on the foam pad, the edges of which jutted out from under the draped tarp to collect a puddle of dirt riddled rain water.

I was quickly reminded of the irrelevance of any fleeting discomfort when the storm’s threatening crescendo of unbridled intensity arrived twice, each time as a colossal explosion of thunder that was almost instantaneous to the respective flash of lightning. Each boom lingered heavy in the air for many seconds. These booms were incredibly near, seemingly directly over top of the ridge that crested a matter of yards from where I crouched.

These strikes elicited a much different response from a initial boom of lightning that started me sprinting, despite much similarity between the strikes themselves.

The difference then stemmed from my actions of self-preservation.

The first strike had left me feeling more exposed and at risk of fatal hazard than I had ever previously encountered. It occurred when I was a stupidly shirtless walking lightning rod receiving the realization that I was much further from the low elevation I had hoped to be right around the corner. It had initiated an intense visceral reaction.

The second and third strikes were of equivalent closeness yet invoked little more than a pause from in my shuffling and consideration of aches to respectfully listen. These occured while I was bunkered down 20 yards down the embankment squatting under a tarp on a foam sleeping pad in the down pour.

Crouching there soaking wet, I couldn’t help but think back to my expectation to be “less wet or more wet” while on the trail that had been planted by Warren Doyle at his Appalachian Trail Institute. Thanks to this, the aching discomfort became little more than a waiting game, which almost bordered on pleasant.

For entertainment, I sang:

I’ve got sunshiiiiiii-e-iiiiine on a cloudy day.
When it’s cold out siiiiiii-e-ide, I’ve got the month of May.

As my chorus petered out, I suddenly became aware that birds, too, were signing. Raising my head and paying attention once more to the world outside my tarp, I noticed a faintly brighter lit forest than during the height of the storm’s intensity.

My legs ached in a whole new way as the last traces of adrenaline cleared and the lactic acid hangover from the earlier running fully caught up with the odd strain of the prolonged squat. I was filthy, soaking wet, and still not wearing my shirt.

But the world was brightening.

I waited a few more minutes for some additional assurance in the birds’ accurate announcement. I gathered my glasses and watch and crawled out from hiding. It was 4:19 pm.

I opened my umbrella over top my pack to get and finally return my shirt. I strapped back on the filthy sleeping pad and saturated tarp before throwing my pack onto my shoulder and ascending softly up the steep slope to the trail in a gentle rain.

I pulled my Excalibur-ed hiking pole from the ground and stepped into the two inches of standing water that was as of yet unable to percolate through the AT’s hard compacted soil. And at 4:23, I splashed happily down the long brown puddle and shin high car wash of wet drooping grasses that was now the trail along the ridgeline to the saddle.

End.

More about lightning, here.

Hike smart,
Brett

“What a psalm the storm was singing.” – John Muir, Stickeen

[Image: Flikr user Bruce Guenter]

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