Running for cover in the middle of the night.
As often happens, this past winter my thoughts turned to summer. I was headed up the plowed Hyalite Canyon Rd., when my upstream travel confronted the visage of a one-ton pickup traveling downstream in a manner no one would call prudent. Whoa. Slip-sliding and breath-holding on the icy drive, a Hyalite summer night came to mind. I recalled when the road was dirt, not asphalt. Traffic? What traffic? Mountain bikes? Hadn’t been invented yet. The biggest concerns were dodging cavernous ruts and taking care to not find yourself in the creek. There were certainly no guardrails. Secret fishing spots were just that, secret.
Although times up Hyalite have changed, one thing hasn’t: a summer night spent at or above timberline refreshes and stirs the soul. The experience of the world from a glacial cirque cannot be replicated on the flatlands. Close to nature is best defined when the only thing between you and the night sky is the air, and maybe your glasses or contact lenses. The only thing between you and the earth is your sleeping pad. But of course, there can be times when the serenity of high altitude gives way to another, more belligerent mood. So it was one time, many years ago.
Having finished some Saturday morning work obligations, I grabbed my 10-year-old son and decided to do a quick one-night backpack trip up Hyalite. No Google check of guaranteed weather, just the certainty that it was beautiful right now and likely would be tomorrow. So, we ran down the backpacking checklist and stuffed too much stuff into our packs. We tossed our gear in the back of our mini pickup and headed past the reservoir to the trailhead for Hyalite Lake.
We skipped most of the waterfall views along the trail and arrived at the lake. Dang, there already was a group of four camped where the trail met the water. Nice spot, too crowded. Looking along the shoreline, there was no one else around, and a promontory near the south end of the lake looked like a scene from Switzerland. A lone spruce occupied the highest point. Our spot beckoned. We pitched our little tent. I took some photos, sure that when they were developed at the drug store, they’d be National Geographic quality. A one-pot meal over our little white-gas burner, a hike around the shoreline in the gloaming, and we contentedly prepared for bed.
Lightning flashed every ten seconds, followed almost immediately by explosive thunder.
“Let’s sleep under the stars. We’ll see some meteors.” And so, we stashed gear in the tent, grabbed our closed-cell foam pads, and wiggled into sleeping bags. Soon enough, twilight changed to blue-dark, which changed to black-dark. And soon, like Huck and Jim, “we had the sky up there, all speckled with stars.” Enveloped by glacial bowl on three sides, lake on the fourth, we were immersed in what backpacking is all about. We chatted, did indeed see the phosphorescent streak of an occasional shooting star, and soon started the slide toward slumber. Besides, a few whisps of cloud began to obscure the view. So, “good night.”
Splat. Right on my forehead. Again. Splat. Someone had turned off the twinkle overhead. The dome of sky was full of clouds, and the drops were falling. “Joe, grab your gear and let’s get in the tent.” No hay problema. We were quickly tucked in, soothed by the pitter pat on the rainfly, and faded into a deep backpacker’s sleep.
That is, until the universe was beginning all over again with a new Big Bang. And we were in the middle of it. Asleep to awake in a fraction of an instant, Joe and I were upright and staring at each other frozen by the shock. Lightning flashed every ten seconds, followed almost immediately by explosive thunder. Then the flashes were continuous, like an annoying kid flicking the light switch on and off as fast as his little mischievous fingers could go. And there was zero time-gap between light and thunder; flash and explosion were simultaneous. No “one thousand one, one thousand two.” An impressive, but life-threatening, wonderment of nature.
Like castaways on a lifeboat in a typhoon sea, the circumstance declared that it is not we puny humans who are in charge.
“What should we do?” Joe asked. I contemplated the vulnerability of our campsite, which I had selected only for aesthetics. We were on high ground with a lone tree as a companion. Another blast and flash triggered a landslide on the cirque wall. The reverberation chaos of falling rock added to the sounds of the waterfall downpour and echoing explosive thunder. “Find your shoes, put on your rain jacket, now. We’re outta here!”
We ran downhill. The rain did not fall on us—it slapped us. It slapped us about with the open hand of a bully, again and again. Our descent was highly motivated. We happened upon a little gully with a small rivulet flowing toward the lake. In the hollow, we huddled together like a couple of frightened chimpanzee brothers. Not only frightened, but also in awe of the grandeur of the moment. Like castaways on a lifeboat in a typhoon sea, the circumstance declared that it is not we puny humans who are in charge.
Thirty minutes—forever—passed and the lightning tapered, the rainfall slowed, and we bravely stood and grinned. We had survived. We fetched the tent, re-pitched it in the gully, crawled in and attempted to sleep, wired by the heavenly electricity that tried to fry us. Will, as Annie says, the sun come out tomorrow?
The majestical morning indeed arrived. The rim of the bowl glowed with the first touch of sunlight, a luscious sparkle of drops glistened on the tundra, the rocks shone, and we reveled in the singular delight of inhaling the purest of mountain sunrise air. We decided not to dally, and after a quick breakfast, we packed our saturated gear and headed for home, still exhilarated by our survival.
Pulling into the drive, the dogs came bounding out, tails aflutter, with exuberant loving greeting. I expected my wife to do the same, a movie-like sprint with open arms welcoming her returning heroes from combat. No show.
“Boy, you sure must have been worried about us in that horrific storm last night,” I said later in the kitchen.
“Oh? Did it rain?”