A secret admirer note to lightning

I’m floating in the Missouri River, holding my camera lens at water level to give the scene an ominous, moment-of-panic look and feel. In frame is a raft with three Helena teenagers and a youth pastor. From the bank, a television producer barks “action!” 

     Then, after we all float a little way downstream, the producer shouts again, yelling “bam!”, which is supposed to signal a simulated lightning strike. 

     All four raft passengers respond by spastically disembarking into the water as if hit by a flash. They lunge awkwardly away from the boat in a curious pantomime of something that really happened. 

     The kids and their pastor sustained a direct hit from an isolated storm cloud a couple years earlier. They describe it on camera for a teen TV show about making good decisions in life-and-death situations. Each one says the single dark cloud looked like something you’d see in a Roadrunner cartoon. It was all alone; a puff of bad luck floating overhead. 

     When the single flash hit the raft, it ricocheted through the group and delivered the strongest charge to the youth pastor. 

     In our re-creation, this is when the teens spring into action, acting out water safety and CPR skills. They pull the pastor back into the raft and retrieve him from the brink of death. 

     While another cameraman shoots from shore, I float behind the raft through take after take. 

     We hear “bam!” and the scene repeats. There’s a “Groundhog Day” feel to it all until the producer decides he’s got enough cutaways of these four people pretending to get blown out of a raft by lightning. 

     Back onshore, I shiver and grimace at my prune hands in the bright sunshine. There are no storm clouds above, just blue skies and peace. 

     Many lightning stories start this way: “It was such a nice day.” 

     I have a weakness for these stories, so here’s a lightning round of personal memories involving this remarkable phenomenon. 

     While driving I-94 near Miles City, a perfect spring afternoon goes from green to gray and I see a massive strike light up some pasture just off the interstate. It flames, then smolders under advancing sheets of rain. 

     Just outside Escalante, Utah, I marvel at the dark, unpolluted night sky as it spiderwebs with summer dry lightning. The storm sends only a few drops onto the rocky plateau in the headwaters of Calf Creek where I’m camped. 

     In South Carolina, I watch waterspouts—seawater tornadoes—rise one after the other while lightning jabs down at the ocean from the bottom of a massive thunderhead. It sits a couple miles offshore, is moving out to sea and I can’t look away. 

     Along the North Carolina-Tennessee border, I arrive at Max Patch with my two small daughters. A storm is moving in, so my wife Katie and I decide to go look for a spot at a campground halfway down the mountain. 

     After the storm passes, we strap our one-year-old daughter Lily into a backpack while her sister Mae ambles alongside us. Max Patch is one of the most scenic alpine meadows hikers encounter along the Appalachian Trail. When we reach a highpoint, I stare out at the passing storm. It’s now at a safe distance. The big black clouds move east toward Asheville, throwing off both random zig-zags of lightning and a rainbow or two.

     At some point, Lily indicates she wants out of the backpack. I set the old metal frame down, unbuckle her and watch as she takes her first steps in life, there on the Appalachian Trail. 

     That night our campsite in Cherokee National Forest is visited by a wave of bioluminescent insects. It looks like a lightning bug migration across the forest floor. 

     My wife asks, “What are those?”

     I say, “Don’t worry, they’re just glow bugs.”

     “Glow bugs?” huffs Katie. “You just made that up.”

     She’s right. The insects don’t make a sound, but I hear thunder rumbling in the distance. 

     Before drifting off, I see a few more flashes in the sky. 

 

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