The Bright White Light

by M John Fayhee on August 2, 2011

Those of us who have spent the majority of our lives traveling by hook or by crook through lofty and wild realms have many things in common. We have all been directionally discombobulated. We have all been tired and hungry and bug-bit and blistered and grungy beyond belief. And we have all faced both objective and subjective danger, whether that danger has visited us on our backcountry forays via gravity, ice, roiling whitewater, flash floods, avalanches, wild animals, poor planning, bad decision-making, debilitating hangovers, heat, cold, wind or, my personal sack-shriveling favorite, and the subject of this installment of “Smoke Signals,” lightning.

The first time I hiked the Colorado Trail, I found myself camping near the old Beartown site in the San Juans in the midst of, no, not the Jagermeister Girls, nor even the Senior Ladies Bridge Club, nor even my most debauch, scumiest drinking buddies, nor even a motley crew of fellow CT thru-hikers. No, my life does not set up that way. What I found myself camping in the middle of was a large and boisterous Boy Scout troop that spent the entire late afternoon and evening doing one high-decibel Boy Scout thing after another: reciting the Scout Oath and Law infinitum, working earnestly on merit badge projects that required much in the way of hacking, chopping and yelling and tying several screaming Tenderfeet to trees.

After the Scouts FINALLY!!! (HALLELUJAH!!!) began to settle in for the night, I enjoyed the company of one of the Scoutmasters at a dilapidated picnic table. As we spoke, a seriously mean storm swirled in from several directions simultaneously, and, in the gathering twilight, proximate flashes and deafening booms began to re-define what until that point had been a relaxed vibe, the boisterous Boy Scouts notwithstanding. The Scoutmaster, who had already told me he was a professor of meteorology — whose specialty was, yes, lightning — did not so much as flinch or wince. His calm demeanor was the only thing that prevented me from assuming a teeth-chattering fetal position under the picnic table.

I believe I eventually said words to the effect of: “I guess you are well versed enough regarding the vagaries of lightning to know if we were in any imminent danger.”

His response will stick with me forevermore. “No one knows enough about lightning to know if they are in imminent danger during a storm. All I know is that we are right now in the middle of a lightning storm, and nothing we do will effect whether or not we get struck. Lightning is defined by its unpredictability.”

He went on to say that, based upon a full career of peer-reviewed statistical interpretation, he had pretty much concluded that just as many people get zapped by lightning while doing all the supposed “right” things we read about in mainstream outdoor-recreation-oriented magazine, while uncountable, unknowable numbers of people doing the supposed “wrong” things venture upon their merry way blissfully untoasted.

“It’s almost like lightning has its own personality,” the professor/Scoutmaster said. “Most times, that personality is, though intimidating, fairly benign, even playful, in a sadistic sort of way. Other times, however, it seems vindictive, like it really wants to kill someone, like death is its goal, like the bolts are being purposefully aimed at people.”

Great. So much for Nature being indifferent toward our fate.

After the professor/Scoutmaster hit the sack, with the flash/booms still pummeling the biosphere in every direction, I rolled a joint and managed to get said joint lit despite the wind. I kicked back, clad in Gore-Tex from head to toe, and pondered the Scoutmaster/professor’s words from the perspective of my own personal greatest-hits lightning-based stories, from a perspective that at least entertained the notion that there’s this all-powerful Sky Daddy consciousness — let’s call him “Zeus” — way up high making mortality-based decisions about whether or not to sizzle such-and-such hapless person down here on terra firma or just scare the living beejesus out of him or her. And perhaps ascertain why.

1) Though I grew up in the climatologically agitated area where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean, a place where almost every home sported a lightning rod atop its roof, the first time I ever seriously considered the concept of corporeality in the context of lightning was during my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. At that time, the AT meandered its way through much of Connecticut by following the Housatonic River. Like most thru-hikers, my day-to-day itinerary was planned in advance by studying the hyper-detailed AT guidebooks. It was a bit on the early side when I arrived at my pre-determined destination one day, but, given the fact that it was a pretty little riverside campsite, I opted to park it for the evening anyhow. There was one tent already pitched at the far end of the cleared area, and, soon after my arrival, a head popped out. I know how this is going to sound, but I’ll say it anyhow: That noggin belonged to a very homely woman who, I learned later, was a retired elementary schoolteacher who, I also learned, was a seriously proficient long-distance backpacker, having completed just about every noteworthy trail east of the Mississippi. But, her backpacking acumen did not mitigate the woeful reality that she was challenged on the physical-appeal front. Big time. And I guess I should point out that AT hiker standards in that regard are usually not very high.

As we chatted, a squall blew in. In those days, I did not carry a tent, only a small tarp, which I suspended over a rope tied between two tall pine trees. As darkness descended and sheets of rain began to fall and thunder began to rumble, the homely elementary school teacher asked repeatedly, with quite a bit of enthusiasm, if I would like to take refuge with her in her diminutive tent, which she also shared with her hyper little Sheltie. I politely declined, babbling something inanely Muir-ish about preferring to experience the heart of the storm on its own terms.

She finally gave up and retired to the relative comfort, if not safety, of her four nylon walls, while I hunkered down under my little tarp, which was being whipped mightily by the suddenly ferocious wind. I was soaked clear down to my skivvies in mere minutes, a reality that negatively affected my comfort level as it simultaneously positively increased my personal conductivity factor. Just as I began to second guess my decision regarding the homely schoolteacher’s invite, a bolt flashed down from a sky that looked more like something out of “The Wizard of Oz” than it did anything I would expect from, of all places, pastoral Connecticut, and exploded the top half right off one of the tall pines lining the campsite. The simultaneous BOOM shook the ground. Before I had even begun the process of regaining what little composure I had, another bolt exploded the top off another pine — this one closer to my tarp than the first. Then a third bolt exploded the top off a pine even closer to where I sat now urinating my pants. The strikes were progressing in a very orderly fashion right toward me, with just enough time between flashes and booms to allow me to consider how death by lightning would actually feel, whether it would be quick and painless, like flipping a life-force OFF switch, or whether it would involve lots of undignified screaming and writhing on the ground for 15 minutes in searing agony. While the former certainly held more appeal than the latter of those two hideous death alternatives, it also might include attempts at mouth-to-mouth by the homely schoolteacher, so I guess a little undignified writhing agony didn’t sound so bad.

Then a fourth bolt exploded the top off one of the pines to which I had my tarp tied! The sizzling remnants of branches rained down upon me as fine as sawdust. The resultant thunder unceremoniously removed several fillings from my already-iffy dentition.

Then a fifth bolt exploded the top off the other pine my tarp was tied to!

Somehow, Edvard Munch presciently peered into the future, to the shores of the Housatonic River, for his inspiration when he painted “The Scream,” for I’m certain that’s the form my visage took as yet another round of blackened mulch fell onto my tarp. Matter of fact, I believe I sported “The Scream” expression for some weeks following.

When the storm passed, the homely schoolteacher slowly emerged from her tent, almost as shaken as I was. All she could see in my direction was a partially collapsed orange tarp, with two boot-clad feet sticking out, toes pointed skyward. “You dead?” she asked, very, very tentatively. “I don’t know,” I answered. “Is this heaven?”

“No,” she chuckled, “it’s Connecticut.”

She suddenly seemed quite attractive.

So, what was Zeus (who, I should point out, could have snapped his fingers and turned the homely schoolteacher into Elle Macpherson (or turned me into a non-dickhead, though that might have been beyond the capabilities of even an omnipotent deity), thus mitigating my moral conundrum before the fact) thinking during that squall? I had spurned what was probably a perfectly sincere invite from the homely schoolteacher to share her shelter during a frightful storm, an invite probably based upon primordial genetic encoding that makes terror easier to cope with when you huddle close to a member of your own kind, in this case, another stinky AT thru-hiker. Yet I had turned that invite down because I wondered if there weren’t perhaps ulterior motives at play. I made a probably unfair pre-judgment, and that pre-judgment was further bruised by my utter inability to look past this woman’s unfortunate appearance.

But Zeus, though peeved enough to near-bouts scare me to death, apparently did not consider such inexcusable transgressions on my part to be capital offences.

OK. Lesson learned. Next time a homely woman offers me shelter in her tent, my ass is in, face first.

2) My wife and I were in the middle of an eight-day backpacking trip from Wolf Creek Pass along the Continental Divide Trail over to Elk Park. When you’re hiking in the highest parts of the Rockies in the summer, it is always extremely prudent to not be, as but one random example, in the goddamned middle of an endless sea of 12,000-foot exposed tundra at the exact moment the storm front that has been obviously building up for the previous several hours settles directly above not only yourself, but more importantly, your spouse.

But, according to My Plan, we were supposed to be down to Weminuche Pass by lunchtime and, by god, that’s where we were going to eat our lunch, come hell, high water or risk of what would clearly amount in a court of law to negligent wife-o-cide. Despite Gay’s rational trepidation, rather than seeking shelter, I marched us across one last exposed section of tundra, after which we would descend into the trees and the psychological salve that forest provides during a storm. More importantly, we would stay on schedule!  With full packs and tired legs, we literally sprinted across the tundra, into the sparse foliage of the Krummholtz Zone, then down into the spruces. The trail was steep, rocky, muddy and very slippery. The going would have been treacherous under the best of circumstances, which, given the acrid smell of ozone permeating our nostrils, these assuredly weren’t.

At one point, just as I was starting to relax the teensiest little bit, I rounded a bend, just out of view of my wife, when a rogue bolt struck a tree not 50 feet in front of me. The percussion knocked me on my ass so hard there was dirt in my crack. I do not exaggerate when I say that I was separated from my bearings. I did not know my name. I did not know where I was or how I got there. Just then, Gay caught up with me and, in the nurturing, sympathetic, empathetic way that defines the feminine gender, she asked what in the world I was doing taking a break at such an inopportune, to say nothing of uncomfortable, juncture. Her words scarcely registered. Hell, whatever language she was speaking scarcely registered. Then she looked at the smoldering remnants of what had been scant seconds before a healthy blue spruce and the love of my life exclaimed, “Look, that tree just got struck by lightning!”

It’s obvious what Zeus was thinking: If you’re going to tempt fate, make absolutely certain that your spouse is not in the line of fire with you.

But there was another, perhaps less-obvious, lesson I think Zeus was trying to drive home by way of that near-miss. That very day was our tenth anniversary, and the place we ended up camping (as per my writ-in-stone itinerary, I would point out) was one of the most wonderful we have ever visited, and we have visited beaucoup wonderful places. The wildflowers were in the height of bloom, and every inhalation was a veritable interface with a Paris perfumerie. Though we of course did not know this before the fact, had we not dashed through the bowels of that storm, we would not have arrived at the best anniversary spot any couple has ever in the history of marriage enjoyed. I think Zeus was trying to drive home the point that, sometimes one ought to tempt fate. And, if you make it to the other side, the rewards are often well worth the fear factor. Of course, that’s easy to say when catastrophe was not part of the post-experience rumination.

Zeus, apparently fully understanding my cranial density, stayed with me on this one for several decades. I have passed that blue spruce — which, because of the lightning strike that almost struck me, had long since begun the inevitable process of decomposition — twice since I was knocked on my keister there in the middle of the trail. A week before these words hit print, Gay and I will have celebrated our 25th anniversary. Lot of water under the adventure bridge. But it has been a long time since we last sprinted through the tundra during a storm. Our life together has become borderline sedentary. I cannot help but wonder if we too have not begun the process of inevitable decomposition. Maybe it’s time to go back out into the storm. I think Zeus would understand and approve.

3) I once hiked the 850-mile Arizona Trail from the Utah border to the Mexican border. The very night before I commenced that on-foot journey, I camped near Jacob Lake with my late dog Cali. The weather had been so intense that the nearby town of Kanab, Utah, had received in one three-week period in August more precipitation than it had ever received a single year in its entire history.

Cali and I ingressed my Bibler just as the sun was setting. Then it came, like some shit out of the nastier, wrath-of-god sections of the Old Testament: A lightning storm like no other I’ve experienced or even heard about. After more than an hour of lying on my back, teeth-clenched so badly my jaw ached for days, I decided to start counting the flashes. I stopped at 800 — and a high percentage of those were of the multiple-simultaneous-flashes variety. The storm continued unabated for at least an hour after I stopped counting. It is no exaggeration to say that more than 2,000 strikes flashed in my immediate here and now. I came within a whisker of panicking. It was everything I could do to resist dashing out of the tent and into my truck. But I knew — I just knew — that, if I did, I would get fried. So I just stayed in my tent and had a chat with Zeus and his celestial ilk, something I only seem to do when shit’s hitting the fan.

He said nothing, though I might have detected a snicker through the deluge.

When I finally left my tent the next morning, the air was post-precipitation sweet. The birds were tweeting. My dog ran hither and thither enjoying the earthly aromas. And I sat on the tailgate of my truck, PTSD’d, and the only thought swirling in my head, and it swirled and swirled and would not leave, was this: I realized how much I loved my life and how blessed I was to have had the million million experiences — good, bad and ugly — I have had and how it said something probably too profound for my lizard brain to comprehend, much less articulate, that, despite all those visions of the bright white light, I had landed on my feet, mostly unscathed.

And, know what? Like those of you who have spent the majority of your lives traveling by hook or by crook through lofty and wild realms, I wouldn’t trade a single interface with the bright white light for all the supposed comfort and safety the world allegedly has to offer.

Later that day, I shouldered my too-heavy pack yet again and started yet another long walk into the great unknown. Zeus pretty much left me alone all the way to the Mexican border. He was probably far too busy messing with you.

Got a backcountry lightning tale you’d like to share? Sure you do!  Please write it down and fire it off to mjfayhee@mountaingazette.com 

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dennis July 5, 2012 at 2:09 pm

John,
Most folks who spend a lot time outdoors have had at least one uncomfortable experience with electrical storms and lightning. I’ve personally had my wits frazzled a few times by sudden flashes of ultra bright light and the ensuing “crack”, “rumble” and “roar”. However, one time while fishing, an electrical storm actually formed above my buddy and me causing some pretty weird things to happen.
One overcast afternoon in June, 1980, James Johnson and I ventured out on to Lake Whitney which is located about a hundred miles south of Fort Worth. We had hopes of catching a view big stripers (not “strippers”; as Spell-check insists). At that time Lake Whitney was known for producing some of these feisty boogers that weighed over 35 pounds.
After launching my little 16 ft boat, we headed for the Brazos River channel where the water depth drops, from the lake’s average depth of 25 feet, to over 80 feet. The fish had a habit of staying down in the river channel and, from time to time, came up to feed at edge of the drop-off.
When we got close to the area we wanted to fish I turned off the 115 hp. outboard and. James took control of the boat using the electric trolling motor. When the first group of fish appeared on the depth finder James turned the electric motor off and the boat slowly drifted while we baited our hooks with pumpkin seed perch. We were using two identical rigs— they were both seven foot fiberglass rods fitted with steel Garcia reels with 17 pound test mono line. We then let the one ounce weights carry the baited hooks to the bottom.
The air grew heavy and still. Thick black clouds dropped to within a hundred feet of the surface of the lake and churned above us. The atmospheric pressure fell causing the lake to seem stagnant and fetid.
As we drifted slowly in the direction of our lines, I reached into the ice chest for a beer. That’s when James said, “Dennis, look at your line”.
I quickly looked up and saw that, instead of the slack line floating on the top of the water, it was rising up into the air. James stopped reeling in the slack and the line from his reel also began to rise up toward suspicious looking, low clouds. We looked at each other and laughed.
I asked James, “What in the world is going on, man?”
Before he could answer my reel started making a slow clicking sound about as loud as chop sticks being broken in half. The volume and rapidity of the clicks increased and then, James’ reel started to do the same thing. We exchanged puzzled looks as our lines appeared to be nearly touching the dark ceiling that hung above us and the noise from the reels continued to get louder.
I hollered above the noise to James “Reel in and let’s get out of here before we get struck by lightning”.
I started the big motor and headed away from the spot as quickly as possible. Less than 20 seconds later there was a bright flash of light and loud explosion behind us. We turned around and saw a juniper tree smoldering from a lightning strike. The tree was on the side of a cliff on the opposite side of the channel; about 100 feet from spot we had just vacated.
We headed for the boat ramp and got the boat loaded on the trailer during a downpour. When we made it to higher ground we stopped to talk about what had just happened. We decided that an electrical charge was building in the dark clouds above us and the static electricity was drawing the line upward. The clicking sound must have been produced by a charge that traveled down the fiberglass rods and into the reels where it began arching between the ball bearings inside.
That was enough excitement for one day , so we headed to the lake house to drink beer and celebrate being delivered from near disaster. In those days it seemed we could always find some reason to celebrate as long as we had plenty of beer on hand.

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