Lightning in a High Place

IT was about this time last year that Juniper and Amanda went up to Red Feather Lakes to join the walk-a-thon that raised money for playground equipment for the local grammar school. It was the first time our daughters got lost and the only time they've been caught out in the open in a driving hailstorm with lightning and thunder striking and roaring all around, while I strove desperately to find them.

They were to head home by the back road, and I was to give them time to walk two or three miles and then drive up and get them. When I drove the agreed-upon route, they were nowhere along it. The people at the school said Amanda and Juniper had headed in the planned direction at the planned time.

I drove all possible routes from our house to Red Feather Lakes and still saw no trace of our daughters. I drove back to the school and phoned home, to see if they had called. Laura, my wife, said no, they hadn't. There was periodic crackling static on the phone, that meant lightning was active somewhere along the telephone lines on the mountain.

They would not have gotten into a vehicle with anyone, so they were in the area. They had simply taken a wrong turn some where. Dark clouds approached from the mountain peaks west of us. Thunder marched down the mountain toward us.

As I searched roads, I wondered if being out in a storm ran in the family. If it did, I knew getting through the experience in good shape also did.

Years ago, I camped on Coalpit Mountain in northeastern Oregon and devoted my summer to learning to walk again after having been severely injured in a highway accident. A high rock bluff truncated the south-facing saddle where I camped on north slope. Huge granite boulders above the bluff formed the highest place in more than 200 yards.

I knew the danger in being in a high place during a lightning storm, but I stood up there as a storm came down the mountain, not in defiance of natural forces, not to dare death, but in celebration, for love of life, for love of all the natural forces around me.

Sun just above the western mountains turned the mist under the clouds a soft orange, then pink, then pastel blue. Lightning and thunder shook the mountain under my feet. Heavy rain hit my high rock bluff, and I was instantly soaked. The sun set, and the mountain was dark under the dark clouds. Then continuous lightning lit up everything around me. Thunder nearly deafened me. I danced and sang with the primitive power of the storm.

Forces of the mechanized world, abetted by a drive under the influence of alcohol, had nearly killed me on the highway. I thought I was entitled to this celebration, once, on the mountainside in a way similar to the way that people in "primitive" cultures sometimes faced potentially deadly natural forces and, through their understanding of and reverence for the Life Force that creates all forces, overcame the danger.

The storm blew away north, and I went down to my camp and changed into dry clothing.

Once since then, I was caught without shelter in a lightning storm. I had worked my way through thickets of beetle-killed lodgepole pine to the top of a nearly bare ridge, where a ponderosa pine snag, struck by lightning the day before, burned furiously. Parts of the snag had been knocked to the ground. I dug a line to mineral earth around the burning pieces. I thought burning material might blow down into dead lodgepole and start a fire that would burn for miles, so I stayed to watch the fire while wind , lightning, thunder, and then rain came down the mountain.

Again, I was in the center, with lightning and thunder all around. There were differences between this time and my time on Coalpit Mountain in a storm. I had a wife and children now. I still felt that reverence for and understanding of the forces in action armored one against injury, but I didn't feel as absolutely confident. It took steady prayer to allay fear of brilliant lightning and roaring thunder.

I could not retreat from my exposed position on the ridge. I had come through dead lodgepole, and I wouldn't retreat through those in a strong wind, because the tendency for dead trees to break or to uproot and fall is much greater than that of live trees.

Heavy rain put the fire out. Eventually, the rain blew east along the Blue Mountains. Eventually, the wind died, and I found my way off the ridge at about two in the morning and went home to a warm fire and dry clothing.

Fear for my own safety in a storm was mild compared to fear for my daughters' safety. I thought of those previous times and prayed just as I had done then.

Brian, the pastor of the church in Red Feather Lakes, is a member of the local Search and Rescue and carries a radio that puts him in touch with other local members. He was standing on the porch of his house as I drove by. With the storm coming rapidly down the mountain, I thought I'd better get help. Several vehicles could cover more ground faster. I drove in and explained the situation quickly. He asked, "Did you check at the store?"

"No. They wouldn't go into the store. I'm going to check the road to the school once more. Wherever they turned wrong, they could be back on the road by now." I drove away, and Brian followed me in his car.

I knew they wouldn't go into the store. Yet, Brian's words stuck with me. I stopped at the store. Rain and hail slanted down from the dark clouds. Lightning and thunder struck closer.

The store owner was talking with a young man. I interrupted. "Have you seen two girls, one with long, red-gold hair, the other with short, brown hair... ." The young man said, "I just drove past them. They're up on Crystal Lakes Road."

"Thank you." I ran out, called to Brian, "They're up Crystal Lakes Road," jumped in the car, and took off. Some of the lightning that was driving down from the dark sky every few seconds was right up on Crystal Lakes Road. I drove the road to get there faster than it should ever be driven.

Hail and rain poured down. Lightning and thunder came almost without interruption. Amanda and Juniper were right at the intersection, soaking wet, afraid to cross the metal cattle guard or the metal fence, prime targets for lightning. I pulled up beside them, reached across and opened the door. They hesitated. I said, "Get in, right now." One after the other, they jumped in. Juniper shut the door. She said, "You shouldn't touch a car in a lightning storm. It's a very dangerous thing to do."

Amanda said, "If you do have to get in or out, you should jump, so you're not in contact with the ground and the vehicle at the same time."

I took a deep breath and then let it out. "I'm glad I didn't remember that for a minute. Now you're in, and a vehicle is a relatively safe place to be in a lightning storm."

I rolled my window down and thanked Brian, and we headed for home. The storm all around us was brilliant, loud, and dramatic. Now that we were together, grateful that we were all safe, the storm was beautiful and awe-inspiring.

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