In the summer of 2010, three friends and I took off on a backcountry camping trip into Colorado’s, Great Sand Dunes National Monument. What transpired that afternoon, changed us all forever.
Checking in at the visitor’s center, backcountry campers are required to sign a waiver, advised on supplies, are informed of the dangers and instructed to hike far enough in the Dunes to not be visible from the established campsites along the tree line. Roughly a distance 4 miles, getting into the thick of the landscape is no easy endeavor. Traversing each sandy hillside is a matter of one step forward, and three steps back. Hard work, hours pass before you make it deep into the wilderness.
With no water sources, backpacks are heavy going in, lighter coming out, and emergencies, meals and water rations, need to be prepared for.
Setting off later in the afternoon than I had hoped, wanting to skirt the heat of the day, inevitably thunderheads started rolling in. Hiking for over 2 hours, our party was tiring, but finally getting deep enough into the Dunes to start looking for a place to make our camp.
Made up of myself, a gal pal and two male friends, she and I were both runners and in good shape. Consistently pulling ahead of the two men; we were in a constant game of ‘hurry up & wait.’ Making our way to the summit of a large dune, she & I sat down to catch our breath while we waited for the other two to make their way.
Suddenly, the sky erupted. A crooked rod of lightening struck the summit of a dune, no more than 75 yards away. Just as she and I looked at each other, mouths gaping, a deafening roll of thunder shook us to our skeletons.
Still climbing & out of breath, the men were ready for relief. With one glance, I told them they couldn’t stop. We had to get lower.
A nationally registered EMT, certified in Wilderness First Aid, I knew we were in a dangerous place.
Pulling ahead of the others she and I walked into the saddles of a large Dune. Far enough from the guys, we took pause and waited for them to join us.
Giving a little chuckle she asked quizzically, “ha, ha, why is your hair standing up on end?”
Turning to face her, like a spiny sea urchin, her hair was straight on its ends, framing her face in a ‘Mad Professor’ halo of brunette fly-aways.
“Drop your pack”, I exclaimed. Doing the same, we started making our way down the wall of the saddle. Not wanting to venture too far knowing the work it would cause on our way back. Catching up, I told the boys to do the same.
That was when the cloud-to-cloud lightening started.
Jumping back and forth above our heads, we had no choice but to go deep, down into the belly of the dune.
At the bottom, took the lightening crouch position; Butts in the air, one hand on the ground, tripods quivering with fear.
Our hair stood up on end.
Our hair stood up on end.
Megan cried. I sang Christmas Carols, trying to lighten the mood. Every scenario played through my head, what we would do if one of us was struck. If it was anyone other than myself or Megan, I’d send her for help and stay with the victim. If it was her, I’d send one of the men. If it was me… I started making my peace with the world.
We waited in the belly of that Dune for close to an hour and even though the rain continued, we decided that with dusk quickly approaching, we needed to find a place to set-up camp and try to create some sense of shelter for the night.
Climbing out, we were greeted by a magnificent sight. The most incredible, double rainbow I have ever seen. Dipping below the horizon, both were crystal clear, extending past 180 degrees. Stunning.
Terrified, none of us bothered to take a picture. Instead we hurried along, keeping our eyes on the sky, looking for our next electric threat.
Cold, wet & exhausted, we made camp. Huddled in our tent, dinner was prepared, ‘Cup o’ Noodles,’ cheese, granola bars, all washed down with whiskey we had packed in.
Shaken, we listened to The Beatles from an iPhone, watching the sky light-up above us.
The next day, we woke to crystal blue skies. Packed hard from driving rain, beautiful ripples crusted the sand. A hard surface to easily traverse through our exodus.
Ready to leave, we made breakfast, packed camp, ready to hike out. Despite the beauty, we were tired of the landscape, ready to escape the clutches of this backcountry danger-field.
To this day, my gal pal still gets tears in her eyes anytime a storm comes too close. Still shuddering, fear strikes me anytime lightening is within a threatening range.
Changing each of us in our own way, lightening inevitably leaves an invisible mark our memories. Harsh lines that course through our veins, year in & year out.