And as the plane crashed down, he thought "Well isn't this nice?"
And isn't it ironic? Don't you think?
-- The only passage from Alanis Morrisette's song Ironic that actually resembles irony, and one that kept playing itself over and over in my head early Saturday morning.
I had picked out a fifteen mile trail on the very southern edge of Indiana in the Hoosier National Forest, and I intended to take two full days to do it. Friday was clear and full of sunshine, but the forecast late that afternoon revealed that isolated thunderstorms were expected Saturday afternoon. "And it just gets worse from there," T advised. So I decided to go as far as I could on Friday, get up at the crack on Saturday, hustle it out and be home Saturday night. I briefly considered bagging the entire trip in light of the forecast, because these things are unpredictable. But I held myself to it, largely because I knew it would be an excuse.
I lugged my pack out of the back of my Toyota at the trailhead. It kept falling over from the weight, but I hoisted it and got going. The pack was groaningly heavy, the day was steamy and hot, and as a result the trail was more physically demanding than usual. First days of hiking trips are always the worst anyway. But I trudged on, as if toting a sofa on my back. About 4.5 miles in, I stopped, for two reasons. First, because in the event I awoke to rain, there was a connector trail that bisected the loop a short distance away, which would allow me to cut the trail distance in half. And second, because the trail had just exited the dense forest on a plateau overlooking a remote finger of a large lake.
This was clearly the best place to camp.
I dropped the leaden pack and stretched, and then happened to glance down at my legs. The trail had taken us through several patches of knee-high vegetation, and my legs appeared to be sprinkled with some sort of seed. I squinted and looked again. One of the seeds was crawling across my leg.
I snatched a bottle of insect repellent from the top of my pack, and set about drowning the tiny things on my legs. Then I took the edge of my knife and painstakingly scraped the bodies off my skin. Dirt, dead bugs and repellent ran off my legs in a disgusting gray slurry. I have no idea whether this did any good, because five days later, I look, as my guy helpfully observed the other day, like I have smallpox. The tiny moving seeds were actually chiggers. I'm just grateful they weren't ticks, and so I take my antihistamine every morning and grit my teeth, waiting for the itching to subside.
It had been steamy in the forest, but it was at least ten degrees hotter under the open sun in the clearing on the lake. I had no intention of doing the work to set up the tent in the blazing sunlight, preferring to wait until the heat subsided a bit. Instead, I stretched out my sleeping pad and gnawed on jerky, which I washed down with warmish water. Thomas found a place in the reeds by the water to cool off and pant. We sat quietly this way until the sun moved lower in the sky. When the light began to wane, I pulled the tent from the pack.
Once we got the tent set up, I relaxed a bit. There was a big, full moon suspended over the lake, against a clear sky. We opened up the tent flaps and let the breeze flow through the tent. Thomas was content, even when coyotes began howling in the distance. I read for awhile, then flipped off my light and dozed. I slept poorly most of the night -- I kept imagining chiggers migrating across my skin. But I fell into a passable sleep at some point -- until I was awakened by a loud crack and a series of flashes overhead.
I reached groggily for my phone and saw that it was 5:18 a.m. and pitch dark. It was far too early to pack up and hike out. The thunder cracked again, this time louder, and closer. As the storm gathered, the lightning flashes became more and more frequent.
This sucked. Thomas started to quiver.
Here is what the National Weather Service has to say about being in a tent in a thunderstorm:
Remember, there is NO safe place outside in a thunderstorm. If you absolutely can't get to safety, this section may help you slightly lessen the threat of being struck by lightning while outside. Don't kid yourself--you are NOT safe outside.Great.
Being stranded outdoors when lightning is striking nearby is a harrowing experience. Your first and only truly safe choice is to get to a safe building or vehicle. If you are camping, climbing, on a motorcycle or bicycle, boating, scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities and cannot get to a safe vehicle or building, follow these last resort tips. They will not prevent you from being struck by lightning, but may slightly lessen the odds.
And then, a few paragraphs above this:
Click here to read a story of a person killed while seeking shelter in a tent.
No, thanks, maybe later.
And I was in the worst possible spot -- in a clearing, on a lake. The one fortunate aspect of my predicament was that I was in a lower-lying spot, but that was about it. The rain had started pounding relentlessly, abusing the rain fly. Flash, flash, bang.
I frantically started packing my things. It was at least an hour before daylight. I looked around. I had a flashlight. I could just leave the tent and head for the woods, I thought. Only a few miles back to the car.
And then the inanity of that adrenaline-stricken thought occurred to me, and I recognized that I was getting a case of Panic Brain. As the NWS so astutely observes, you're really not safe anywhere outside in a storm, and I was going to add wandering around in the dark to my list of problems? No. So I did the only thing I could do -- I huddled up next to the dog and waited it out. I passed the time by cursing my decisions -- specifically, heading out in the first place when there were thunderstorms anywhere in the forecast. When we were in Utah, T and I had almost backpacked up to and camped out on the peaks behind his parents' yurt, but decided that we wanted to kayak that day since storms were forecast for the next day. Which was a very good thing for us, because the storms arrived that night instead, and were shockingly intense on the exposed peaks we would have been camped on. It was a fortunate decision.
No such luck this time. I continued to wait it out. One wave of storms passed over, but another one followed shortly thereafter. My impeccably pitched tent and rain fly began to take on water.
The birds seem to know before anyone else when a storm is over. The spaces between thunderclaps and flashes began to get longer, and longer still, and although the driving rain and wind continued, I started to hear chirping in the lulls between ever-more distant thunder. Black had become gray, and at a little past seven, I looked at Thomas.
"Let's get the hell out of here," I said.
I swear he knew exactly what I was saying, because he got up, stretched his legs, and nosed the door of the tent. We broke the tent down in the rain. The dangerous part of the storm had clearly passed. A group of ducks was gliding placidly across the choppy surface of the lake.
I had that weak, wasted feeling you get after a long period of tension and fear has ended. The adrenaline dump had mostly subsided, but I was eager to move. I shouldered the pack, which was slightly lighter since I had consumed a couple of quarts of my water. The storm had lowered the temperature by about ten degrees, and the rain also helped keep me cool.
I was energized, moving, and feeling very lucky that my most pressing problem was the need for caffeine. I hadn't lingered to fire up the stove for coffee, and I wanted my fix. Thomas and I covered the miles very quickly. The rain continued, and water was flowing off my forehead into my eyes.
Hikes like this are slogs. You put your head down, withdraw into yourself, and do what needs to be done. Thomas managed to enjoy himself, chasing after a rabbit here and a squirrel there, but I was getting my satisfaction from covering ground. With a little over a half a mile to go, the trail crossed the road. I dropped my pack except for the dry bag containing my keys and a bottle of water, on the theory that no one would be in the business of stealing packs from road crossings on a day like this, and Thomas and I nearly ran the remainder of the trail.
It was truly a mighty clusterfuck of a trip, but deeply worthwhile nonetheless. I learned a few things about myself, perhaps most importantly that I can handle the fear on my own. I find that the times I grow the most are when I am forced to sit with overwhelming feelings and manage them.
The fear or pain comes, it works on me, and it goes. I did not get struck by lightning. Here I am, safely in my bed, typing this out. Someday, I may get struck by lightning. But I won't know it, because I'll be dead.
But before then, at least I will have lived.