Lightning Bivouac

I AM third to reach the top of Organ Peak. My friends "Wandering" and "Sherpa" are already watching the light and letting go of their minds. The sun is out over the desert behind grey cloud. Yellows and pink blend and backlight the San Juans. Two of the peaks jut up like sharks teeth, biting into the horizon.

All around us are mountains, ridge after ridge, some sloped, others jagged, reaching skyward. They pull veins of lightning down from the clouds. The ridge to the south, peaking at what packers call Mount Diablo, shines, soft and pink. The tundra all around us blushes with alpenglow.

I snap off my pack. Reaching down, I cup my hand to smell the purple flowers rooted deep in the sandy soil of the rock crevices.

The others, "Pica," "Dandelion," "Stone," and "Turtle," are close behind. We have taken Henry David Thoreau's advice and have found names waiting for us within the wild. We spent a day choosing and rechoosing, writing in our journals, justifying our choices. One evening, after a meal of beans and rice, we shared our entries. We know that some of us will always think of each other by these names. Others will always be Jay, Derek, and Julia. By chance two of us have chosen the same name, and we call each o ther by it.

`ARE we camping here?" I ask Wandering, who shares my name.

"Let's lay out our bags over there where we're protected from the wind," he says.

Lightning has danced around us since we reached the summit. I point it out to Wandering. He smiles. I know what he is thinking: A front may roll in. But neither of us wants to tell the others that we might have to dart off the peak in the middle of the night.

We all dig out gear from our packs. I snuggle into a niche at the base of Wandering's feet. For warmth, Pica and Dandelion zip their bags together. Sherpa spreads her bag out next to Wandering and below me. Turtle is already buried in her blue cocoon.

Now Wandering launches into a story. "Back when dogs could talk ... ." It is a Ute tale about how the bear lost its moccasins. In the middle of the story, as white figures on horseback chase the bear, snores drift from the double bag.

Soon only Sherpa, Wandering, and I remain talking. As we do, bolts of lightning play on the ridges around our bivy.

"Did you see that?" I say, thinking how close that last bolt came. "Just the other side of the ridge."

"Which ridge?" Wandering asks, amused at me.

Lightning flares again, backlighting the pinnacles.

"There," I say. "Beautiful, huh?"

Wandering begins to laugh. "Wandering," he says to me, "that's out past the San Juans, over 50 miles away."

Sherpa sits up.

"Whoa!" she says. "Look at the moon."

To the west, a crescent appears. Clouds drift southward, veiling the moon. It all seems wondrous, a cold breeze around my bare neck, black silhouettes of ridges against ridges below, and a lapis sky full of grey wool clouds, converging and for short moments illuminating the night with shocks of light.

"Hey guys," says Wandering, "if we do get fried, I can't think of people I'd rather get fried with."

Sherpa and Wandering snuggle back into their sleeping bags. I watch the world below, thinking about "getting fried."

Suddenly I feel curiously joyful. Here I am on top of Organ Peak under a bright burst of stars. I am surrounded by people I have grown to love over the past few days. Why do I feel this way? It seems strange to feel so close to friends, to nature, to the lightning, and yet it is as natural as the lightning itself.

"Hey Wandering?" says Wandering. "Let's try and see a shooting star at the same time."

"Okay," I reply.

THE clouds pass behind our heads, covering the moon. Without the moonlight the stars glimmer: millions, filling the sky, so many I have to close my eyes at times.

"Ooohh," we whisper at the same time.

A star falls across the sky from east to west. It leaves a double trail; the trail lingers.

"Okay, Wandering, make a wish, but don't tell anyone," he says. "We gotta wish for the same thing and then it will have double the strength to come true."

I make a wish.

"Wandering, what did you wish for?" asks Wandering.

"What did you wish for?" I ask back.

"I can't tell, but you better have wished for the same thing I did," he says.

"I did," I say.

Then we are silent. Soon only a couple of bright stars can be seen through the mist. Then they, too, fade. My eyes get heavy.

Suddenly, CRACKLEFLASH! Lightning goes off. I am asleep and yet I'm awake. I see everything clearly: the boulders, a water bottle with a blue lid, the orange wrapping of an uneaten granola bar.

"Wandering," I say. "That was really close."

Wandering squirms out of his sleeping bag. FLASH! Another bolt. I hear him counting under his breath. "... 13, 14, 15." BOOM crackle BOOM, thunder.

"Three miles away," Wandering says to me. "Think we should go?"

I'm a little afraid - also a little surprised - that Wandering is asking me, as if I did this every Tuesday. I reply, "Uh, I don't know."

But then out of the corner of my eye I see the northwest half of the sky. It is black.

"Look behind you," I say.

Wandering turns. "Wow!" he says, laughing. "That is one dark cloud."

By now we are out of our sleeping bags. I stuff mine in its sack. I wake Turtle, Pica, and Dandelion. Wandering takes care of Stone and Sherpa. I put on my head lamp and check for stray items. I have one boot on and the other in my hand.

By now the black clouds are directly overhead. FLASH! Lightning claws its way out of them.

"What's happening?" asks Dandelion.

"We gotta go," I say. "There's a front moving in."

Wandering, his pack loaded and on his back, explains how we'll make our descent. He checks that everyone is ready.

We start off across the talus. Rain begins to fall. Turtle slips on a wet boulder. She falls beyond the light of my lamp. I wave my head beam around frantically to find her. She is already up. She hurries along to catch the others.

Eventually we come to a shelf on the slope. It's safe from lightning. Wandering decides we'll bivy here.

We unroll our beds and huddle together for warmth. Wandering tucks a space blanket and poncho around us to protect us from the rain. Next to me Dandelion tosses and turns, trying to mold her body around a boulder.

"Hey, Wandering," says Wandering in his bag, four to the left from mine. "Are you still awake?"

"Yeah." I wriggle out of the bag and look his way. In the light of his head lamp I see his wide grin as long as the trail of a shooting star. My face stretches in the same grin.

The danger of lightning has past now. As the storm moves off, all we hear is the soft rumble of thunder.

A ribbon of orange light, weaving behind the Sangre de Cristos, wakes me. I elbow Dandelion. She rubs her eyes. "Ah!" Slowly, nudge by nudge we wake each other down the line. We watch the sun rise. Then we drift back to sleep.

After dawn, eating a breakfast of granola with water and a little gorp, we are back in a world we understand. We are no longer close. While four start down to a camp below, Wandering, Sherpa and I again hike upwards.

As we climb, I think about why the closeness is gone. The wilderness brought us together. It gave us the black of night, lightning bolts, the fear of catching an ankle between two boulders. It gave us closeness to one another, the closeness to watch for shooting stars, to snuggle warm against one another as moisture in the air beaded our faces, to grin for reasons we couldn't explain.

This experience is like a flash of lightning in the dark. Everything is peaceful, then it's suddenly bright. The invisible becomes visible. You share with friends a moment you don't want to end.

But the experience does end.

And yet it is like lightning dancing across a night sky. It strikes again and again. No bolt of lightning is identical to another. No wilderness experience will be the same as the one we're concluding. Yet somewhere soon, with other people, the peace, the brightness, the sharing will happen again.

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