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Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The downside of fatalism (revised)

For those on the edges of their seats waiting for Part II of Columbine Lake (all two of you), I beg your indulgence. My Ouray County Plaindealer Column deadline snuck up on me again and it was a struggle this time. I was out of my natural "element," over my head trying to pen what ended up more of a political op/ed piece entitled, "Praying for Satan." I will get back to Columbine soon, but something happened to Bobbie and I yesterday that brought us about as close to the "end of the road" as we've ever been... which is saying something since we tend to hang out in that neighborhood quite a bit. 

After a weekend of monsoonal mischief, Monday dawns with perfection—cool, clear, and scented with damp pine. 

Bobbie plays it safe, checking the forecast on NOAA and The Weather Channel, both of which predict no rain till afternoon. My iPhone agrees, so we are off on our weekly 7 mile out and back walk-with-weights up county road 14. It's such a lovely day; life is better than good, it's fantastic. 

My legs feel frisky and fall into a rhythm. I wonder if it might be a good day to shoot for a new "personal best" to the turnaround cul-de-sac. I'm stalled going on two years at 61 minutes. Perhaps this is the day I break the one hour barrier. I realize this makes no sense to some. I can't explain it, really, except to say I've had this affliction my whole life. I love pushing physical limits, and the subsequent rush of endorphin afterglow.

After 15 minutes or so I begin to outpace Bobbie's shorter stride and pull ahead. Some will think this rude. But Bobbie understands my disease and is not one to condemn personal demons. Once out from under the cabana of cottonwoods that line Oak Street, I head south up CR 14. There, lying in wait, is a massive black storm building to the west over White House. Flashes of lightning are wide-spread, followed shortly by surround-sound rumbles of thunder that reverberate through the canyon corridor like a chorus of bass drums. Thor is obviously pissed. 

I eye the darkness stretching north to Ridgway, its horseshoe turn around the valley corridor to the greater mountains of the Cutler Creek drainage eastward. I'm surrounded on three sides, besieged by impending doom. To the south, Abram's mighty pyramid shines brightly under full sun. Huh. A monsoon storm out of the north? That's weird because the moisture "flow" originates down Meh-hee-co way.

Though it's not yet raining I see it coming... and me, scantily underdressed in a "North Padre Island" tank top. With less than a mile to go, on pace for a possible "Sub-Sixty," the temperature dropping dramatically, wind kicking up, lighting closing in—my imagination freaking out with a myriad of possible bad outcomes—I lengthen stride and push into the gloom. Hey, what can I say, a Sub-Sixty is on the line.

I began taking better note of elapsed time between flash and boom... steadily dropping from 20 seconds, to 16, and finally 10 seconds. When I worked at the Hot Springs Pool we evacuated at 20 seconds. Some quick math; sound travels at roughly 1100 feet per second, times 10 seconds is 11,000 feet... less than two miles, and closing. Not only do I hear thunder, I'm feeling it in my chest.

Normally the vigor and rigor of Mother Nature makes me feel small, a speck on an ant's ass. But today my ant is making it's way through a thundering stampede of buffalo, and the lighting makes me feel large, and like I'm wearing a target with a bullseye. 

Weather axioms begin to scroll across the bottom of my mind-screen: 

If you can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.
Ok... how about if you feel it?  

Lightning is most active on the leading edge of storm-fronts.
No shit, Sherlock!

Avoid proximity to tall objects like towers and trees.
Give me a break! I'm in a fucking forest!!!

Metal objects such as golf clubs may attract lightning.
Uh, how about two eight pound steel hand-weights? They're rubber coated, does that help?

Turn off cell phones or other electrical devices.
My cell phone pings. Shit! I'm breaking all the rules. 

It's a message from Bobbie: "I'm at the bridge and turning around. It's getting wild. Hope you're ok." Click.
I turn my cell phone off.

With a mere hundred feet to go to my turn-around objective, 8 seconds between flash and booms, blackness everywhere except on top of Abram, temperature dropping, rain beginning to fall, leading edge of storm on arrival... my Casio chimes "One Hour." Damn itMissed a personal best by 30 seconds. The storm unleashes.

There's nowhere to shelter except under trees. FLASH/BOOM!  WTF!!! 4 seconds apart. I can smell the ozone. Wind and rain is fierce... though soaked with sweat, I'm suddenly freezing. I pitch the two lighting rod hand weights into bushes and begin a return trek down the side of a small mountain that is ground zero for a freaky electrical storm, one that makes fools out of Meteorologists and stupid old men who entrust their lives to weather-guesses. Through sheets of rain I see Abram, still bathed in sunlight. This is what you get for playing it safe and not climbing, dumb shit. You are going to die a couple miles from your front door because you played it "safe."

Imagination is a funny thing, whether running from lightning down a lonely county road or off a mountain. Veins are stoked with adrenalin such that you feel like you can run through a concrete wall. I wonder if I will feel it—the lightning—as it zaps a hole in my skull and blows my sneakers to Timbuktu. Interviews with survivors reveal most people don't remember being struck... but that doesn't mean it doesn't hurt like Hell for the microsecond it takes to be rendered unconscious. I feel confident I can withstand anything for a microsecond, thus resume my role as "moving target." 

I'm getting soaked by now, and freezing. I run harder, hoping one can't die from hypothermia while sprinting. Being older than dirt, it seems like my heart would give out first, then I'd freeze. Eskimos claim that freezing to death is a good way to go... like falling into a deep, peaceful sleep. How do they know that when the test dummy is dead! "Cause he looks so peaceful." Nope. Give me a heart attack any old day. I don't like cold and I don't like being shocked. 

I run for hours (ok, 6 minutes) and turn up what looks like a driveway. A sign reads, "Posted... KEEP OUT, NO TRESPASSING, this means you." There's a lot of "Make my Day" people out west so it's worrisome... I imagine a scene... Honey! There's a wild-eyed sweaty-man running toward our house. "Bang." He's down, I think you got him.

By now, Flash/Booms are practically simultaneous. Ironic, nearly a thousand miles from the ocean I'm in the eye of a freaking hurricane. Finally, a log cabin. There's no fresh tracks in the drive and window curtains are pulled closed. I dive under a deck, relieved... breathing like crazy, heart racing, shivering. 

I look up through rows of 3/8 inch gaps between decking, wondering if lightning can squeeze through such small slits. A neighbor's dogs bark. I feel hunted, like Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke"... running from "the man," bloodhounds sniffing me out, rain pouring down. The only thing that's missing is leeches. 

A couple of minutes pass. I realize it's dry under the deck. Why isn't rain pouring through the gaps? I squint up through the cracks again. Oh, it's a covered deck. I feel safer knowing there's a roof over my head. I sit back and watch the storm pass southward. Rain begins to let up; lightning backs off to 20 seconds between flash and boom. I pull out my phone to check on Bobbie, hoping she found shelter or got a ride. It goes directly to Voice Mail. Good, at least she turned it off. I leave a message telling her I'm ok, hiding under someone's deck.

Rain subsides to a drizzle. I'm about to crawl out and jog home when my phone's xylophone ringtone sounds off. It's Bobbie. 
Where are you, I ask.
She's a half mile further down the road, curled up in a ball under a cedar tree. I tell her trees attract lightning... she knows, so she picked the smallest one. 
Stay put, I'm on my way! 

I jog down. By the time I get there Bobbie's standing in the middle of the road. Flash/Boom. A close one. Jesus. Thought it was past. 

We discuss the wickedness of electrical storms all the way home, both excited and pumped to be upright and breathing in its aftermath. It's humbling, like when we stumble across grizzlies hiking Glacier or Waterton National Parks in Montana and Alberta. Suddenly you realize that you are vulnerable, no longer at the top of the food chain.

“To talk of probability is to suggest that events might happen differently from the way they do, whereas events themselves unfold according to an inevitable path.” Johnny Rich, The Human Script.  

Look, a life well-lived is full of risk. You can calculate, minimize exposure, and play it safe only to be taken in a car wreck. I'm reminded of this just now in a most unfortunate way, as I pen this post from the safety of my Lazy Boy. Bobbie's phone rings. I hear her say "those words," Oh no, I'm so sorry.  It turns out one of her co-workers, a young, vibrant, 21 year old girl, was killed in a car accident on her way to work... an expiration date prematurely served. In an instant, she is gone. Her fate sealed. It is the burden of the living to wonder when, how, where, what, who? 
Rest in peace, young Rachel.  


  1. Geeeeezzzzz. I have no words. I am sure glad you are here to share your words, however. We are all so much closer to the edge than we realize, even those of us who don't court danger.

  2. Wow, I was on the edge of my seat and right in the storm with you. You'd be a good mystery writer. Sorry to hear about such a young life being snuffed out. Wonder is right. It does make one wonder.

  3. I felt I could chuckle a little as I read your post since I knew you were around to write it:) So glad you both made it home in one piece. So sorry to read about Bobbie's co-worker. That's why it is so important to make the most out of every day. No one knows if there is a tomorrow.

  4. Thank you for the laughs tonight! It was fun reading about it, but I know your living it not so much. Next time I dash across the back yard to close shed doors when a storm approaches, I am sure to imagine that target on my back!!
    The other side of the coin. So sorry about the young girl's life being cut short.

  5. Glad you made it. Helluva pic you took too. The one and only time I was caught in a thunderstorm on a mountain was in the Pyrenees in my 20's. Scared the living crap out of me seeing lighting hit less than 20 feet away. I remember that ozone smell. Never again!

  6. Read you posting in a frozen-like position. You have the gift of amazing people.

  7. That sure was an electrifying blog post!

  8. Driving back from Colorado a couple of weeks ago, we ran into a vicious Kansas storm. The sky turned black with white funnel clouds, hail, and lighting. Being cautious , I pulled off at a gas station and asked a local man if I should seek shelter. He told me not to worry until I see the cows flying by. Sorry to hear about Rachel.

  9. Great write up on a very scary hike!! I was on the edge of my seat. I love the top photo!!! Wow !! Glad you both made it out with all your teeth and hair intact. I do have a friend who was struck by lightening and he did have some lasting effects from it. Some numbness in certain areas.

  10. That is a beautiful picture of the lightening Mark. What a scary adventure...glad you and Bobbie are ok.

  11. M&B, we have been waiting for this post for long enough, thanks for the happy ending. Again Dam good narrative, could have used a few selfies from your iPhone though to show us you weren't stringing us along:-)
    Al & I have been caught in two such storms and had to settle for hillside Aspen groves each time.
    .....and then a young friend dies and we wonder why.


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