I don’t do well with lightning. Not many hazards of daily life or life in the mountains truly scare me, I’ll happily descend slopes on wheels or skis far more demanding than my modest skills should prudently allow, and lions and tigers and bears don’t faze me, but lightning is my weakness. As I get older, it’s gotten worse.
I was on a bike ride on one unremarkable summer afternoon, when an unexpected thundercloud materialized overhead. I’d ridden a few miles from home up the Crystal River trail and had just turned around. It seemed as I rounded a bend in the trail as if a single massive black cloud was lying in wait, just for me. It was already dumping rain, which sometimes indicates that the lightning activity has passed by, or so I hoped. I was promptly reeducated when a lightning strike cracked nearby, with not even a one-second gap between light and sound.
I was at that moment well out in the open on an exposed and treeless part of the trail. So I fixed my eyes on the line of trees up ahead and immediately started to pump as hard as I could on the pedals. It was going to take a very long few minutes of hard cranking to cross the gap into more protected terrain.
I think I now know how a mouse feels when it tries to cross a large room, knowing there’s a cat lurking around somewhere ready to pounce from above. So, perhaps irrationally, or perhaps not, I was riding with my head as low as possible to the handlebars; as if that would make a substantive difference in reducing the risk.
By the time I neared the wooded part of the trail, my head was full-on throbbing with lack of oxygen. Spasms of pain were traveling in waves up my neck to the back of my skull. I had developed a literally blinding headache, and I wondered on some level if I was going to give myself a heart attack or stroke. I was definitely well past my anaerobic threshold; not a place I visit too often anymore.
I might have gotten off the bike and laid down in a small irrigation ditch, but there had been no additional lightning strikes since the first. So I rode like hell toward the trees at the end of the pasture and hoped for the best. After all, fatal lightning strikes are very rare. Then again, lately the mountain storms have seemed particularly personal, in terms of intensity, duration, and frequency of close strikes in the vicinity of my person. I had just the month prior spent an eternal 45 minutes alone in a cabin at the top of a ridge, as I literally lost count of the number of near strikes, sitting in a chair in the center of a room, wondering what the hell to do with myself, and when will this damn storm pass by already.
In events like these, moments come into intense focus. There are scientific studies that explore the way time stretches out and perceptions heighten when under stress. The mind does funny things. Or at least mine does. So as my legs were pedaling furiously, my mind had time to wonder what would happen if I got struck by a direct hit. Would I fly through the air in some comical fashion, skeleton flashing like I was illustrated in a Calvin and Hobbes comic? Focus on peddling, man.
As it turns out, I managed to close most of the gap to the trees without further incident. Yet, as I neared within 50 yards, I thought “great, I am going to get zapped right here at the edge?” Don’t think bad thoughts.
My head felt like it was going to explode, though I realized that I would be able to keep going at least to my goal. And so I was somewhere within that final 50 yards when I began to pray. I did not picture a specific audience per se – no bearded Charlton Heston with one hand on the joystick of fate and a finger hovering over the “smite” button. Nevertheless, I performed an act that can most definitely be considered a form of praying.
I have been in this situation before. Once while driving into an oncoming massive green wall tornado while trapped on a crowded expressway near O’Hare, I promised (and kept the promise) to move to Colorado if I lived through it.
I can remember a handful other episodes of riding or hiking through lightning storms while exposed, one time above treeline with a pair of metal-edged skis strapped to my back and towering over my head ominously like my own personal lighting rod. I’ve also been chased off of ridgelines by thunderstorms, fast-walking pathetically under a heavy backpack. Another time, I sat cross-legged in my truck on an exposed point along the White Rim trail as a half-hour gully-washer sprayed lightning seemingly nonstop into the rocks and canyons around me. And I prayed then too. Just let me make it.
In recent years as a youth sports coach and school campout chaperone, I have been forced to master the art of looking calm while standing out in the open amidst a gust front, while storm clouds gather and lightning dances on the horizon. I must use every bit of my will to not pull a George Costanza and fling kids out of my way as I find a hole to crawl into.
So anyway, I started having these prayer-like thoughts as I neared the trees. I really want to make it out of this, is what I thought. I really don’t want to leave my kids without a dad, is what I thought. And I pedaled some more.
Which is almost exactly when a crack of thunder exploded overhead – literally over my head. I am not sure exactly where it hit. I just saw the light above me from my peripheral vision, and also heard the crack simultaneously. There was no warning; no hair standing on end, no sense of change in energy, just KEE-RACK. And it was over. And I was still upright. So I kept peddling.
I rode on into the wooded grove and then a little further to a house, and made a beeline for the shelter of the entryway. Where I spent a solid 15 minutes trying to get my pulse back under control and stop the thundering in my skull. The owner eventually showed up at his door and asked if I was OK. Soaking wet, still panting, and eyes wide as saucers, I am sure I looked like hell. He offered me a ride home in his car. I accepted.
Malcolm McMichael lives in Carbondale with his family, family hamster and an extended family of outdoor gear. He fervently hopes the saying is true that lightning never almost-strikes the same person twice.