About four years ago, in August of 2003, I went backpacking into the Caribou Wilderness of Northeastern California. I had been to this particular place about once a year out of the previous twelve years or so, going to different locations only twice in that timeframe. The trips were always wondrous and enormously soothing, something that had become imperative for my well-being.
I’m an experienced hiker and backpacker, though I prefer to hike for a short distance to an isolated spot, pitch camp and then day hike from there. The point is to get away from noise and to steep myself in the silence of the backwoods. I’m not the kind of hiker that believes in pitting myself against nature—no “man versus wild” for me. One goes into the wilderness at the grace of the wilderness—however prepared you are, and you’d better be, you are at risk. But one can minimize that risk to the point that the likelihood will be a safe trip. For me, it always has been a safe trip.
In all the time I’ve backpacked—which is quite a bit over the years—I had somehow never encountered lightning. Rain, yes. Rain storms, yes. Cold, yes. High winds, yes. Distant fires, yes. Distant thunder, yes. But never lightning.
The rain came in about 4 or 5 P.M. It was nothing drastic, just rain. We put on ponchos, covered the wood and we sat and talked. The rain continued. About 7 we decided to eat. About 8 we heard thunder. Now it was too close to dark to hike out. This weather was nothing like an afternoon, summer thundershower, it was much too late in the day for that to begin. About dark, thunder and lightning began in earnest.
The general rule is that lightning within five miles of you is considered dangerous, meaning that it could strike anywhere within that range with little or no warning. Though I didn’t remember the exact formula at the time, at sea level, sound travels about one mile in five seconds. In other words, if you see lightning and then hear the thunder five seconds later, the lightning was within a mile of you. Another rule is that one does not go out into an open area, a high open area, or huddle under a lone tree, especially a tall tree. And camping near an open body of water isn’t the best either. And neither is being around metal. And neither is huddling together.
We were camped right on a lake, in a forest, and at about 7,200 feet above sea level. And the tent had aluminum poles. But at least we weren’t under a tall tree or directly out in the open. In case it got really rough, I found a lower spot we could go to get away from the tent. One of the things that distressed me the most was that I was with someone who had never camped—I was responsible for them. I told them what I knew and how I was thinking and they were fine—problem handled, at least for them.
Except for a ninety-minute period somewhere around 2 or 3 A.M. in the morning, the lightning and rain and thunder continued throughout the night, with the lightning—by later reckoning—constantly within five miles and way too often within one. And I don’t mean periodic lightning strikes, I mean nearly constant strikes. I stayed awake counting, my friend slept. On more than one occasion, the lightning was so close that I was ready to wake her up and scramble for the low spot a few hundred feet away. For me, the night lasted forever. For her, she awoke in the morning—to the sound of me still counting off seconds—stretched and began to say that she had never had such a good night’s sleep, but she saw my tired face and didn’t, though we both knew what she was going to say. It is interesting to see how different people face the same reality and why.
Now daylight, but with the storm still in play, we waited some more. Then we got a break in the thunder and lightning for about thirty minutes, though the rain hadn’t quit. It was time to flee down the hill to a lower elevation and try and make it to the car. We packed up—wet and dirty tents are rather interesting to deal with, not to mention heavy—and we headed out. We hadn’t been on the trail long before the lightning came again, very close, no measurable time between the strike and the thunder. We got low, we dashed, and we finally made it to the car where there was little lightning or rain, though we could hear it up above us where we had been.
It is an eight mile dirt road from the trail head to the highway where we could look back up at the mountain and the areas surrounding it and see that the storm was continuing and that it covered a vast area. But we were safe, at least relative to where we had been.
On the way home, the next day, we hit more lightning—though clearly in the distance—and thought we would have to get a motel as the roads were rumored washed out. This was more than 300 miles south of where we had been.
I cannot express how happy I was that we were safe and that my friend had not gotten freaked and weirded-out by her first venture backpacking. She was ready to go back.
The effect the storm had on me did not hit me until the next year. She and I went in and a potential rain storm brewed up a day later. My body reacted like a lightning strike was about to happen and we eventually decided to cut the trip short. The following year I went with my son, but the lightning—very clearly an afternoon summer thunderstorm—was so bad we only car camped at the trailhead—and even had to drive out once when it really got dicey at our elevation. The next year another friend and I went in, but had to wait a day as the rangers told us it was too dangerous because of afternoon lightning. It cleared and we went in, but after being in a day and night, another summer thunderstorm, including local lightning, came up and I elected to hike out for the night. We came back the next day and all turned out well, though I had an eye on all of the weather happening around us.
Here I had been camping for years and never encountered lightning, and then in three of four years, there it was. And I was not handling it at all well, acting like a cat in a room full of traps. What had been relaxing for years was now a stressful situation.
This year I found a new place in an effort to go back into the wilderness and be at peace. But as the day approached, the weather was not looking good, while the weather at the old spot seemed good. Time to get back on the horse.
The trip was great. There was thunder for just a few minutes one day—a formation heading away. There were clouds for half the time, but my body was no longer acting up. It was quiet, the nights were clear, and the days felt safe. My friend and I had some great talks, we had some great quiet. We read. We sat. We hiked. We did nothing. And we both felt nurtured. For me, it was a needed return of a feeling that had been absent for four years. When one is really nurtured, one’s internal dialogue just stops on its own, and one can feel their attention being polished and refreshed. Nature is like that for me, at least when potential injury or death is not so present. But the presence of danger is what reminded me how much I like finding my niche. Next year I shall look for that niche again. And it reminded me also that the niche is not limited to the wilderness. It is something we all need in our homes, in our relationships, and in our work. One can survive upheaval, we know this about humans. But survival is not the same as flourishing. Let’s try that flourishing feeling a bit more. Let’s help others to experience it as well. It’s a gift that gets into your cells and helps to remove the toxins from always being on the alert for trouble.