Trip Report: When Lightning Strikes – An Essay from Days Past in Oregon

Trip Report: When Lightning Strikes – An Essay from Days Past in Oregon

This is an essay that was written in about 45 minutes during an intense philosophy course that required us to try to understand our inner motivations. Oddly, all my film from this trip got lost or something, so unfortunately only one picture remains.This was presented to a live audience at OSU in 2010: 

I was trapped. I couldn’t dig deeper into my sleeping bag. I couldn’t dig through the foam pad, tent bottom, footprint or the basaltic rock under my body. If I could muster the courage to reopen my eyes, I would have seen electrical sparks, bluish-white, only existing for a millisecond, travel up and across the rain fly. The sound was deafening; some evil Geräusch from a storm I hadn’t seen coming.

But that’s not entirely true.

All was not well Friday morning in mid July. I drove into Seattle navigating through the gray corridors of cold steel, blue glass, polished aluminum, colorless concrete, uninspired skyscrapers, and the usual obnoxious logos of corporate America—ritzy Starbucks, wannabe Tully’s, bloated Microsoft, subsidized Boeing, et cetera. A landscape desolate and populated by bipeds measuring their worth with a decimal point and calculator. Walking anxiously, as all city folks do, I caught a glimpse of myself from the window reflection of a charcoal tinted Mercedes. I am unimpressed by what is revealed: blue pinstripes, black leather shoes, patterned button-up, Bluetooth headset, and a pair of sunglasses.

Time seemed to move as slowly as the fat clouds drifting across the sky. I clocked out at noon, but left at eleven, trying to beat the Friday afternoon traffic that brings Seattle, Tukwila, Kent, DuPont and Tacoma to a smog-emitting standstill. The distance between my accelerator and the floor was only tempered by the prospect of the Highway Patrol. I raced through the megalopolis, rarely glancing at either side. Simply trying to escape. Once across the mighty Columbia and the unimpressive Oregon boarder it was time to gas up and fill up without sales tax. Forty-two dollars in the tank, six-fifty in the mouth—two corndogs and a pack of Top rolling tobacco. Man ist, was er isst. Continuing south and east, the pavement retreats and forests of ponderosa, lodgepole pine, and scrub oak reveal a more welcoming scene. I pulled off near the Warm Springs Indian Rez and roll a cigarette, unzip, take a leak and smoke, being sure not to confuse the order of the hands. I changed out of my suit as well, tossing the expensive blues in the back and switching into more comfortable attire, to the amusement, I’m certain, of passing minivans and their occupants…except of course the children, of whom are being slowly euthanized by the glowing screens hanging from the roof.

Following the barren highway through endless vistas of sage and juniper and curiously placed stones, I can see the destination. The Three Sisters mountains; South, Middle, North—Hope, Charity, Faith. Whichever names you please. And the gnarled, asymmetrical, over-glaciated, under-appreciated sibling: Broken Top. I wanted those mountains. I needed them. Pedal through the floor boards, I disregarded fuel-efficiency and Johnny Law and reached Three Creeks Campground in record time. The usual bunch was there: screaming children chasing a snake, pink elderly folk sulking in front of their RVs, and the usual assortment of Budweiser-Faced men with no-shirts (and presumably no jobs either). No time to waste. I grabbed my pack and locked the truck, skipping the backcountry permit station and hit the trail.

I felt like a man on a mission. I needed to shed my anxiety—my feelings of being condensed. I barely took time to admire the trails beauty; the lingering few ponderosas, fields of purple lupines, bark-beetle-dead lodgepole pines, great terraces of flowing rock blackened by the heat of the earth’s core. No, my eyes remained fixed upwards towards those alpine peaks. Foot by foot, I elevated myself past the timberline and into the land of sparse limber pines—or was it subalpine fir? Whatever, I didn’t care. The landscape opened into shades of gray and black rock, all volcanic, created hundreds of thousands of years ago. The original glass, obsidian, cracked under my boots, tearing at our rubber soles.

A visitor appeared. A raven, black as night, smart as any person I’ve ever met. It rested on the last remaining branch before the alpine fields of rock and quietly observed. I found a small snowfield with a pond of melt water at its base, which I drank unashamedly. I opened a bag of jerky, tore a piece for myself and one for the raven. I held it high, but it shrugged knowing the health risks. Wise bird. I slowly brought my legs to carry me higher and higher, reaching the northeast ridge of Broken Top. The view was panoramic and silent, with only the occasional breeze and my wandering footsteps breaking the still air. I gathered my breath and my mind and settled on a flat circle of pumice large enough to erect camp. The over-rehearsed rhythm reawakened and in a few minutes my sleeping bag would be laid out in my modest single-person tent. Coffee for the morning? Check. A handful of nutrient bars resembling bear-scat? Check. Complete silence and a good book? Check.

I began wandering a bit further up the ridge and out of view of camp. I found an ocher and maroon boulder to perch myself on and to watch the evening show. Sunsets are always better from 8,000 feet. My view to the north was a long string of extinct and active volcanoes: Mt. Washington, Three-Fingered Jack, Black Butte, Jefferson, Hood, Adams, and the faintest outline of Rainier—the big Tahoma. To my west were the Three Sisters, majestic as always and filled with memories of failed climbs and close-calls. Beyond those peaks, out of view but in minds eye lied the Cascade foothills, the Willamette Valley, the Coast Range, and the horizon of all horizons: the Pacific Ocean. Stretching my neck south, I could see only the bleak and wounded face of Broken Top, striped with ages of heat and turmoil, slowly being recycled back into the earth. And finally to the east, rotating my entire body, I could see…nothing. Where Mt. Bachelor and the Newberry Volcano should be there was only a veil of black and gray.

Still indolent, I adjusted myself to watch the dazzling color display being performed in the west. Blues, pinks, reds, oranges, and yellows, electrified through the atmosphere only interrupted by the distinct 10,000 foot silhouettes of the Sisters. Peace was at hand. Solitude.

A plane circles and drops firefighters.

This only lasted momentarily. My ears became alert to the sound of a dual-prop plane, white and red, circling the cirque below the three monoliths. One, two, five circles and the pilots finally release their payload—four fire-jumpers parachuting lazily toward indiscernible forest. What a choice of career—leaping from planes with only a pack and training deep into the wilderness, perhaps a Pulaski in hand and faith in the weather. We should envy these people. I watched amused as the whole scene played out and after his final loop, the pilot veered my direction, turned parallel to the ridge, signaled with a tip of the wings and a salute from the cockpit only 200 feet away. He quickly vanished back to civilization.

By now the sun had set, the colors subsided and the thermals began cutting through my jacket. I turned to face the east only to be taken aback by the raging storm. The black bank of horror extended from beyond the Columbia River Gorge and south past Crater Lake and Mt. Shasta. It was a 140 degree view of chaos. I felt fortunate: the storm seemed to be stagnate over the Ochocos and the Newberry crater, leaving myself confidently out of harms way. No sooner had I thought that when a gust of wind teaming with dust and heat came blowing from the east, up the base of the ridge, curling and hitting me like canon fire. The macho madness that brought me here revealed its true insanity; in my hasty exit from the north I didn’t bother to check the weather conditions, forecasts or even the fire reports. Too late now. Hanging onto my hat, I realized the need to check on my gear. The difference between a kite and tent is surprisingly minimal.

I dashed to my alpine homestead to find the rain fly barely maintaining its grip and the whole mess lurched a few feet westward. I scrambled like a drunken buffoon trying to find rocks big enough to secure my shelter. Size was not an issue as it turns out, rather the weight seeing as pumice is the helium of the elemental rocks. I made makeshift rock cairns on each stake hoping that with my combined weight, I could purchase some stability from the environment. My timing could not have been more perfect as a second gust; topping out at a minimum of forty mph nearly took me and the tent over the precipice. Darkness settled in alongside the clouds. Visibility dropped to thirty, to twenty, to perhaps ten feet. I peered out my tent door, eastward facing, only to get my eyes sandblasted by volcanic fragments. I raced to zip the opening shut and stared at the rippling shadow of the rainfly.

Time moved quicker now. The wind never ceased, but rather grew with intensity only Odysseus could fathom. My fragile shelter shuddered and I began to question the integrity of its craftsmanship. What if some poor factory worker forgot to double seem the pole support? What if the rock piles aren’t enough? It was too late for those questions now. Oh the wind! Will it let up? I felt myself instinctively reaching for the poles, testing their strength and then, surprisingly unsurprising, my nylon box became a lantern, lit up by the overwhelming energy of lighting. The crack of thunder was horribly close, perhaps arriving only half a second after the initial flash. I held still, breathless, trying to come to grips with the reality of my circumstances. And then, like Beethoven, all at once, the madness commenced.

Winds came barreling over the crest of the ridge. Lighting in increments so short, one could have mistaken the skies with those of the bombing of Dresden . The sound was unmistakable: the violent flapping of my rainfly’s last chance, the unending rumble of heated air violently being tossed about by streaks of light, and a strange hum resonating through the glassy rocks. Endless. Threatening. Furious. The smells rushing in with every gust—ozone, blasted rocks, shattered pines—a combination that one only hopes to read about. And the violent vibration of the earth under my outstretched body. Was I trembling or was it the mountain? I couldn’t be certain. I tried earnestly to rationalize my situation—I tried to determine what I should do next, when, all at once, the queerest sights and sounds began to haunt my space.

Sharp and distinct, I began to hear a subtle, but clearly defined popping sounds coming from the surface of my tent. I instantly thought rain and unzipped the door, filling my sleeping bag with fine, sharp dust. I placed my hand flat on the earth. I felt not a single drop. Still not a single drop. The soil was as dry as before, although chillingly warm. I focused on my outstretched arm—the frequency of the mystery rain seemed to be increasing—and, with the aid of a few nearby strikes of lightning, I could see every hair standing on end. I looked closer at the surrounding lunar landscape and saw something alien. I remember stories from North Dakota warning that you can see electricity gathering on surfaces before it unleashes its fury on the earth. I whipped my hand inside, zipped close the opening and spun onto my back, facing the heart of the chaos. Sparkling like little streams of droplets was the small pops of static, glittering just long enough for my eyes to catch the neon blue jumps. Sweat formed on my forehead.

The demonic ballet began. The basses slowly pounding their tempo and the frantic waving of the conductor setting the scene, the tiny lit up dancers slowly increasing in number. My eyes darted nervously from every corner of nylon as my ears honed in the increasing pace—Stravinsky was about to strike. What the hell was I doing here? Right here, right now? I screamed wishing the noise would stop. I surrender, I shouted to whoever was in control, whoever was listening. But it kept building. I flipped back over, dug my face into the down sack and closed my eyes tightly. And. An explosion! A complete eruption of all my senses, spinning me into a world unknown—heat and waves twisting the poles with great force—I tried to orient my mind.

An unexpected and equally unwelcome sight.

How close was that? I began to calculate at immeasurable speeds. Twenty, perhaps fifty yards? My physiology had changed with new chemicals pulsating through my veins. Fear took hold of my body. I felt the sweat from head to toe and my heart rate was beyond regulation. I survived, didn’t I? Before I had a chance to answer I had to thrust myself outside into the storm. I was going to lose it all! Wearing nothing but boots and under britches, I stood arms raised like a redneck Merlin ready to strike a deal with my maker. The horrific scene was not over. I found new rocks and re-secured the stakes combating the diving winds, climbed back into my façade of safety and began to pray the world would disappear.

The wind continued to increase. That terrible ballet, Stravinsky’s unpublished work, began again. The dancers came back on the stage and everything went dark.

For much of my life, I read for general amusement the heroic feats of people in nature—the climber combating the flash floods and heat of the desert canyons, of mountaineers staggering higher through the full force of a blizzard, of simple pioneers fearing nothing with the odds against them. I always romanticized their willingness to live, to struggle, to feel something, anything else outside of the manipulated world of manicured lawns and comfy beds. I remember hearing my father’s voice while growing up, warning me of that animal orthose rapids or the heat of noon or the biting cold of January. I sought them out anyways. Why would anybody do such a thing? Why do I?

I might have thought I find peace in these high places—land hardly accessible to most. Moments of solitude, rest and reprieve. I could look out over areas conceivably never seen by another human being, or perhaps, maybe never seen this way before—a true sense of discovery and wonder. Or maybe I go there to confront our own inescapable biology, where processes remain that ache in our bones. Where the mind and body are tested and we are forcefully reminded that we are part of this earth. These lands of inclement weather, jagged peaks, desolate canyons, mazes of forests, and endless sheets of ice and water. Those wild places where mysteries still dwell and we can relinquish control. Is it out there that we remind ourselves hope is not lost? Or perhaps, there’s something beyond our human world? Where was I then? Where was I now?

In the clear skies of the morning, the light of sun traveled at Einsteinian speed, crossing the Alvord flats, the massive fault of the Steens Mountains, cornering past the secret forest of the Ochocos, past the springs of Dry Mountain, reflecting off the peak of Glass Butte, over the Dry River Gorge and the fragmented vastness of the Badlands, wrapping around the Newberry Caldera, and streaking over the raging Deschutes river. The dawn entered gently through the broken tent door and stirred my body and I opened my eyes.