The lightning couldn't have been too far away, because the thunder fell around our shoulders and across our motorcycles like boulders. Our rainbow of rainsuits seemed smeared as we stood in the dim mountain light. Nervous eyes scanned the sky. Our silence seemed louder than the thunder.
We'd left from LaCrosse, Wis., many days before and were now at the last stop before our ascent of the Yellowstone Rockies, headed for Red Lodge, a small mountain community in southeastern Montana.
My husband, Chris, and I had chosen a group touring class for early August, open to motorcycle riding instructors. Skill evaluations were made on group riding, group leading, mountain riding, and peer teaching. Twelve riders had come from across the United States to participate. I was the only woman riding her own bike.
Behind us was rain-slick pavement. Eight miles of road construction with mud holes and careless trucks and pine limbs.
Ahead were rain-washed switchbacks corkscrew curves that leave you where you started only 30 feet higher, that whip across the mountain like a tortured snake. Ahead were mudslides oozing slime across the asphalt. Ahead was the just-shy-of-11,000-feet summit of Beartooth Pass. And it was my turn to lead.
As tour leader, responsibilities run from mapping the route, to scanning the road for hazards, to making sure stops are well-timed. After the ride settles down for the day, you can assume any position in the pack you choose. Or so I thought.
As morning moved to afternoon, I was exhausted and decided to give the lead to someone else. Our instructor's "no" was firm. I was to lead all the way to Red Lodge. No one else had been made to lead that long! My "OK" was sullen. My thoughts were cold.
Leaving Cody, Wyo., at 10 that morning, we had ridden 30 incredible miles to the east entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Perfect riding weather. Chilly and clear with the mountains cutting the blue sky like dark diamonds.
"This tour leading's not so bad," I thought. "I'm doing OK. Tired, but OK."
That was before the rain and lightning.
Nothing like rain on a motorcycle to let you know you're alive. The road surface in Yellowstone is as varied as its wildlife. But when it rains, it all looks the same oily and treacherous.
Nothing like lightning to make you wish you'd never thought about motorcycle riding. Clouds like bruises rolled across the peaks as silvery bolts darted and struck.
The Beartooth Highway was still before us. The late Charles Kuralt described it for CBS as "the most beautiful drive in America." Sixty-nine miles of pristine peaks and alpine meadows. But climb on a motorcycle and run it in the rain and you'll be talking ugly before you're through.
Time to do it. Off we went, moving through the thunder. The rain became a fine mist and under all the riding and rain gear, I didn't mind the chill. Our instructor had mentioned the road wouldn't get really interesting until we passed Cooke City, 26 miles from our destination.
I barely remember Cooke City. Nervousness made me all but blind. But I do remember the scuffs of snow alongside the road. The moose and her calf at the edge of the pines whose "get off my highway" look was enough for even our most avid nature-lover. The boiling, muddy river straight down the cliff to our right.
And then we really started to climb. All the fears I'd carefully cherished over months of thinking about the Beartooth were now racing through my mind: "I'm not a good leader. What if my brakes fade? What if I go too wide in a curve? I hate this. WHAT AM I DOING HERE?"
That grinding of mental gears lasted through much of the early ascent. I was riding poorly and I knew it. No grace. No oneness with the motorcycle. No joy. But a single thought finally wound its way through the clamor.
"The only way out of this is up. Up. Up through the fear and lack of confidence."
"Well, gal," I said aloud. "You can do this. You wanna ride the Beartooth? Then ride the Beartooth!"
And I did. Concentration. Poise. Power.
I found my "groove" early. Instructor observations of my riding ceased to matter. As any good leader should, I glanced in my rearviews to check on the other riders. But in my heart? They might as well have been in Zimbabwe.
I just rode. Switchback after switchback. Curve after curve. No missed shifts. Gentle taps to the brakes. No jerky throttle. Everything I'd learned about mountain riding now flowed through my mind.
"Get your shifting and braking done before the curves. Work with gravity. Put more pressure on the inside foot peg when the turn is tight." I danced that mountain like a ribbon in the wind.
"Downshift. Feel the engine pull and snort. Go higher. Upshift. Glimpse the grandeur. Back to the road. Watch it disappear around the next wall of rock. Glad there's a guard rail. Nothing but sky. Now lean 'til a boot almost brushes the asphalt and roll on the throttle. Do it again and again and again. This mountain is mine."
I'm flying across the summit. Top of the world. Forever sky. As far as I can see for 60 miles or more, nothing but the silent, glorious parade of the American Rockies.
I found this truth that day: The fiercest beasts that roam our world are the ones we create inside ourselves. When their wicked teeth find the heart of confidence and begin to rend the soul, we should not hesitate. We should stop them cold.
This lady bested a bear.