The lesson I learned as a Cub Scout is still with me: “When thunder roars, go indoors.” In a pinch, an enclosed automobile qualifies as “indoors” because its steel shell can channel a lightning strike around the occupants. Motorcyclists aren’t so fortunate. We’re exposed in a thunderstorm. Our heads are unintended lightning rods sitting atop bodies covered in dreadfully conductive rainwater, and that metal object we’re sitting on only makes matters worse. Think those rubber tires offer protection? Think again. When lightning threatens, getting to safe shelter is the preferred course of action, although experience has shown me that “safe” and “shelter” are relative terms.
With the dimmest of morning light breaking on Marshall, Illinois, I set out with Steve, Bob and Randy on the 17-mile ride to Casey, our meeting spot for the Moonshine Lunch Run. The sky was heavy gray and moments after we rolled onto I-70 the clouds gushed rain. My view of Steve, on the point in front of me, was reduced to a dim red halo of tail lights and flashes off reflectorized clothing. In my mirrors, Bob was a white blur filtered through a spattering slipstream. Randy was back there, somewhere.
An interstate highway through the open spaces of southeastern Illinois afforded us no shelter. Stopping on the road could find us the target of a driver fixated on lights ahead. Trying to pull off the road could drop us onto a breakdown lane rendered to mush or into a flash flood and down a drainage ditch. Steve made the choice (in hindsight the wise choice) to press on to Casey.
Lightning grew closer and more frequent as we neared our exit. An amber halo pulsed as Steve bore off the ramp – then a brilliant flash lit up the sky as a shock wave pounded us. That one was close. Steve rolled cautiously through the stop sign at the end of the ramp and each of us followed his line. Just ahead was the entrance road to our meeting spot, a road I knew to be riddled with potholes, now hidden under water. My boots dipped in deeply whenever I found one.
Steve slid into the last bit of space under the Comfort Inn’s check-in canopy, a minor reward for having led the rest of us there. I parked my bike in the rain and walked beneath the overhang to greet my fellow Moonshiners. After a pregnant pause, I reprised Bill Murray in Caddy Shack: “I don’t think the heavy stuff is going to come down for quite a while.” Some knowing laughter was punctuated by another flash and a rumble that shook the earth. This is called fun.
Considerably less fun was a ferocious thunderstorm experienced from inside the backpacker’s tent I take moto camping. After a warm sunny day riding in New York’s Catskills, the overnight forecast called for a ten percent chance of isolated thunderstorms. The skies were starlit, but crosshairs were on eight of us at the Back Roads Campground in Gilboa.
We made camp in a pine grove on a ridge, spreading out in ample space as the only tent campers there. Our caveman TV burned late into the evening. The westward view revealed huge thunderheads, illuminated by lightning from within and moving in our direction. Hard rain began and we called it a night.
Inside my 7- by 4-foot nylon shelter, I laid on my back, listening to heavy splats of the rain and rolling thunder in the valleys below. For a while I enjoyed this sensation, but the thunder claps grew louder. The time delay between flashes and rumbles grew shorter. I had camped during thunderstorms before, but nothing so intense. Though I was dry, I began to wonder how safe I was on a ridge, surrounded by tall pines, in a tent.
My internal Cub Scout recalled another lesson: “A tent is not safe shelter in a thunderstorm.” I thought about where I would find safe shelter. To reach the nearest permanent structure would require emerging into the dark in a deluge, finding my way out of the grove, walking down a gravel road that paralleled high tension power lines, crossing under those power lines and continuing downhill to the camp office. Would it even be open at this hour?
Uneasy and on edge, I stayed put. With nothing to see I tuned into what I could hear. What I heard was sizzling – and then B O O M ! My body shook. My ears rang. My skin tingled as the echo repeated over and over. I reacted with words never covered in Cub Scouts. Apparently I was unharmed, but had I been somewhere else nearby – perhaps on my way to “safety” – I may not have been so fortunate. The odor of electricity penetrated my tent as I sat up, propped on my elbows, reviewing options in the profound darkness. Again I stayed put. Bright flashes and rumbling claps continued as the storm moved slowly east, but nothing compared to The Big One.
As day broke, eight motorcyclists emerged. Sam had coffee brewing and we gathered around a picnic table to share thoughts of last night. All of us are experienced campers. None of us had ever heard sizzling like that, nor felt such explosive thunder.
Chris, a power plant engineer, concluded that lightning struck a high tension tower at the edge of the grove. The towers are tall and steel, and Saturday night they were wet. “Fortunately,” Chris chuckled, “they’re also grounded.” We lingered over our coffee and managed some restorative laughter at one another’s expense, giving us all an excuse to put off packing our still-wet camps a while longer.
Eddie and I decided to walk out of the grove for a look around. Except for some puddles on low ground there was no evidence of the previous night’s fury. We walked along the gravel road that paralleled the towers, cut under the wires and down the hill toward the office. Old timers who spent the night in RVs in the meadow below were talking about the storm. “Can you believe there were people up on the ridge last night in tents?” one old gent asked another. Eddie flashed a smile: “Yeah, can you believe that?”
In a while all those tents were packed. My friends and I said so long and set out on our respective routes home. In atypical fashion I chose the most direct route home, thinking about my wife and daughter constantly, anticipating their greeting when I rolled into my driveway.
That evening a message from John arrived in my inbox. “I spoke to a local at the gas station in Windham,” he wrote. “He saw me on a bike with all my gear and said he hoped I hadn’t been caught in the thunderstorm. He said it was the worst he had seen in forty years.”
Eddie sent a note, too. “That was the most scared I’ve ever been in my life,” he wrote. “I’ve never heard lightning sizzle through the air like that.”
It would suit me fine if I never had another close call with lightning, but perhaps there is a reward for riders who endure Mother Nature’s might: we get to tell better stories.