A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie by Albert Bierstadt

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie by Albert Bierstadt

Weathering the Storm


When I was seven years old, a counselor at the church camp I was attending taught me how to measure the distance of a storm by counting the seconds between the lightning and the subsequent clap of thunder.

“Just count the seconds, and then when you hear the thunder, divide by six. Then you’ll know how many miles away the storm is.” I remember crouching beside her in our cabin, chewing my thumb nervously as I nodded and waited for the thunderstorm to pass.

Fourteen years later, I crouched on my sleeping pad in much the same position, recalling that interaction with a twinge of envy. While the little girl in my memory had been cozily holed up in a wooden cabin with solid oak floors, a noisy tin roof, and windows with heavy glass panes, my present self was stashed away in a thin fabric tent with sides constantly threatening to flatten in the wind and a hole where some previous camper had apparently decided to burn a candle for too long. I had been sleeping in a grove of trees near the entrance to an unnamed portion of the Continental Divide Trail, where my crew was stationed for the last four weeks of the summer, when a rare nighttime thunderstorm came crashing through without consideration for the time or the people at its mercy.

At first, the thunder had sounded distant—twenty, thirty seconds between the flashes of light and the rumbling that followed. I was sure it would pass us by. But then, drifting back to sleep, the rumbling began to get closer. Fifteen seconds. Twelve seconds. Before I knew it, the storm was on top of us. The speed with which it traveled was reflected in the gusts of wind and sheets of rain driven sideways into my tent. And so, with the memory of a lightning safety course telling me to crouch on the sleeping pad (not on the ground—you can’t have a connection with the ground, or the lightning will go right through you), I pushed through my haze of tiredness and knelt, sleeping bag wrapped around my body like a cocoon, on top of the thin sleeping mattress I expected to save me from dangerous lightning currents.

I had learned just the day before that the grove of trees we were supposed to be camping in had blown down earlier in the summer during a thunderstorm. The trees, which had looked so healthy from the outside, were found to be infected with Armillaria, a fungus that travels through the ground in sheets, looking like a smear of latex paint. It then climbs up into trees and rots them from the inside out. That grove was only a few hundred yards from our current camping spot. I found it hard to believe that our trees were not infected. And so I crouched, waiting for what I assumed would be the inevitable crack of yet another grove of trees felled by the unfortunate combination of fungus and bad weather.

As time passed, the storm seemed to intensify right over our heads. I had grabbed my alarm clock at some point, hoping that its consistent ticking would provide a comforting reminder of the passage of the night and the passage of the storm. But the seconds no longer meant anything when the sky was cracking open just above my tent, as the rain turned to hail and flashes of light came so frequently that my tent seemed to be lit by a strobe.

The clouds, so seemingly harmless as they passed through the campsite on good weather days, sent lightning spiraling dangerously near to my tent during their perpetual violent outbursts, like giants playing baseball so close my eardrums threatened to burst. And the temporal relationship between thunder and lightning was lost as the thunder shook the mountainside so frequently it seemed to be coming before the lightning, or during, or perhaps the lightning was actually a product of the thunder’s angry flailing. The ground my sleeping pad rested on literally jumped beneath me as thunder and lightning fought for dominance.

And I, small being caught in this woolly mess, retreated further into myself, until I was a speck within the body of a girl who was still somehow crouched in lightning position on a sleeping mat inside a flimsy tent at the bottom of Tin Cup Pass. And then I, the speck, disappeared down a dark tunnel and became nothing but a creature, breathing and bent on survival, but forgetting what exactly the purpose of its survival was. It only knew it had to make it through.

As the hours (yes, hours) ticked by in agonizingly slow degrees, I lost all sense of self, of purpose, of human-separate-from-nature. I was merely a creature, riding out the storm like the dozens of beaver, hundreds of deer and elk, and thousands of ladybugs all out there crouched in their own shelters. The questioning of whether I or my crew would make it through the storm without being struck by lightning or falling trees disappeared as survival turned into a minute-by-minute ordeal. All I could do was count the seconds and wait for the storm to leave us.

Eventually even the counting stopped as time lost its direction. And so I was unaware of the slow, almost imperceptible lengthening of the seconds between lightning and subsequent thunderclaps. Yet at some point my ego, recognizing the danger had passed, returned from its hiding place to marvel at the beauty of the storm, at the lightning now exploding up in the sky where it belonged. It was terrifying—and marvelous.

The storm would continue traveling down valley that night, away from Tin Cup Pass and down into the small tourist town at the bottom of Mount Princeton, where I would later learn that it had produced one of the highest-elevation tornadoes ever recorded in the United States. I would wonder at the miracle of our own survival, that the storm had left our campsite relatively intact, and that our grove of trees had not in fact fallen on top of us as we rode out the storm. But first, all I would do was sleep, a tired animal happy to be given the gift of rest after a long and distressing night.

Weathering that storm reminded me that, despite our efforts to prove otherwise, we are ultimately creatures at the mercy of nature. If we are crazy enough to try to camp at eleven thousand feet at the height of the summer storm season, we can only be glad that the specter that visits us does nothing more than shake us up and keep us awake for a few tense hours. We woke the next morning grateful to have survived against the odds, knowing that our lives that night were completely contingent upon the whim of an inscrutable planet carrying out its own heedless drama. The term, I believe, for this feeling of gratitude mixed with awe, in recognition of one’s smallness, is humility. We know we can do nothing to deserve our existence. We are right to be afraid. And so we do the only thing left: we wake each day and hike back to the trail, humbled, baffled, and brave.