Lightning was striking everywhere and each time it did, there was a bright flash immediately followed by the almost deafening crash of thunder. When it’d first started, I figured it was time to do something, although I didn’t. But once the bolts started lighting up individual trees, I sprang into action.
Within the scope of our Outpost Wilderness Adventure camp programming, the solo was supposed to be a peaceful time of self-reflection. I’d learned through the years to keep everyone relatively close to each other, while giving them their own space. A night spent completely isolated and alone out in the woods had a certain romantic quality and sound to it during the build-up, but time and again, I’d seen how terrifying and complicated it often got, once things settled down and the sun began setting. A lot of people are simply scared of the dark, I’d come to realize.
And so, I’d developed parameters and methods for the activity that included placing each person in eyesight of at least one other, putting them in locations that were relatively close to a road or trail, keeping each within shouting distance of other soloists and having at least one leader always in the general area. It was difficult, I’d determined, for most people to just be out there and doing it in the first place. The fact that most of our clientele were teenagers, made it even more so.
For the one particular “event” I’m writing about, we’d scattered 12 teenage team members (that’s what we called our participants) up and along Second Creek as it climbed up into the bowels of the Puma Hills. Our camp headquarters, and site of the solo activity, was located some 25 miles from the nearest town and in the midst of several hundred thousand acres of mountainous and forested land sparsely inhabited by humans, so there was an obvious feel of remoteness, even before any kind of solo elements were added in. The group was spread out along a faint two-track road and trail that leads up the valley. Each of the soloists was assigned a spot, or landmark and instructed to stay within 100’ of it until the formal ending of the event, which would be announced and verified by a staff member the following morning. The entire supervisory staff accompanied the group and made note of where each person was placed as the activity kicked off in the late afternoon.
The first teenager was assigned a spot about 200 yards up beyond the main lodge and by the time the last was put in place, there were kids strewn for over a mile up into the ever-narrowing valley where the trees kept getting bigger, the rocks more dramatic and, at least in the participant’s minds, the wildlife more prolific and vicious. As a part of the methodology, at least one of the guides was always up in the midst of the group manning a field camp, which meant that there was constant supervision of a sort and a reliable safe-haven that team members knew they could count on in the event of an emergency. If nothing else, the field camp provided something of a confidence boost, although in reality it provided a very real and necessary connection between team members and the staff, allowing the participants to fully experience a night out alone in the woods, with a significant degree of supervision.
After getting the soloists placed, four of the five staff and myself returned to the lodge for a late afternoon teenager-less supper, while the other stayed back to man the field camp. Since it was the July monsoon season, we were cognizant of the reality that thunderstorms were a distinct daily possibility, but since the forecast had pointed to a one day break in the pattern and also because we’d already gotten through the afternoon with no signs of cloud build-up, we sat down to our supper, satisfied that we’d somehow ended up doing it on the right day. As we feasted on smoked sausage and chicken fajitas, we were confident that we’d covered all the bases and were doing it in the right way.
We finished eating just before dusk and walked outside to look up the valley and listen for any panic sounds or chatter that might be heard as the night started to become real. We expected to see at least a few plumes of campfire smoke filling the valley, but instead were flabbergasted to see a distant thunderhead that wasn’t supposed to be there, looming above the ridge that enveloped the entire valley.
“That’ll give ‘em reason to set up a shelter”, I said. “Good thing they each have a tarp”.
I assumed that it was a best-case scenario— a rain cloud appearing in the sky, at just the right moment, causing each person to really think through the realities of how they would deal with it, but one that would never actually come their way and do its thing. For several reasons, actual real rain was something we didn’t want for the next twelve hours or so. As I stood there, gazing up into the valley and thinking through the various details related to the night ahead, my confidence persisted in the fact that all was continuing on a positive track and the storm was not going to come our way, although admittedly, the sight of the cloud had caused something of a ripple in that.
The way the event was carried out included having staff making consistent check-in visits to the various individuals as the event persisted and to that end, two of them headed out with the intent of visiting each person before full nightfall. The others walked on up to the field camp, where they would await their turn to do the same later on that evening and, meanwhile, keep a big campfire stoked and roaring. The thought was that a fire would both light up that part of the valley and provide some measure of comfort to the teenagers. After watching the four leaders move off toward their duties, I retreated back inside, where a two-day old edition of the Denver Post awaited.
After reading a couple of front page stories, I got up and walked back outside to check on the progress of things, mostly expecting to see or hear nothing. And while there was nothing to see down low, where the small road snaked its way gradually around a bend and ultimately on up the valley, a flash up in the sky drew my attention. I looked up in disbelief, just as a feint rumble of thunder reinforced what I was seeing. The obviously-not-so-distant-as-before thunderhead was very much alive and on the move.
The setting sun was back lighting parts of the monstrous clouds upper reaches and I could tell from its sheer height and scale that it contained a lot of rain and wind. For a moment, I was almost mesmerized by its folds, creases and other intricacies and by the fact that at that very moment, our world was without storm and almost completely still and quiet, except for the expected sound of someone rhythmically banging a log or stick on something hard, up in the solo direction.
My own moment of personal reflection was shattered by another flash, which knifed its way across the cloud. It was soon followed by another unsettling rumble, which seemed to go on for longer than it should’ve. Surely the staff was seeing what I was, I assumed and wondered at the same time. If so, they’d be making sure that each person was ready for rain. I’d seen clouds do the same thing before and then somehow just disappear or vaporize or whatever it was they did as the temperature and humidity dropped as nighttime overtook the day and was once again hopeful that this would be one of those times.
I was tempted to walk up the valley myself, call the whole thing off, round everyone up and get them down to the lodge and bunkhouse before any sort of rain could start to fall. But then, I thought once again about the opportunity each of the participants would have to mentally experience a storm without it actually ever materializing and how that would be missed if we did so. I speculated how, if we were to bail, the lesson learned might be that when danger appears, retreat to safety. And so, I turned and walked back inside to read another story in the newspaper, still substantially confident that it wasn’t going to actually rain.
The rumbling continued as I sat on the couch, but I busied my mind with the story details of a pending drinking water regulation that might affect our county. Near the end of my reading, I looked out of the window to see that it had become especially dark outside and was just thinking that I should get up, go outside and see how the storm was progressing, when a bolt of lightning lit up what I could see of the sky from inside and thunder cracked loudly, obviously closer than it had been earlier. I sprang to the door, opened it and looked west, just as lightning hit somewhere high up on the ridge and momentarily lit up a single distant tree as if it had electrocuted it.
For the moment, all around it was dead still and there was absolutely no rain, but I could look up at the ridge and see it wasn’t so up there. And then, it rolled in and with the subtlety of a screaming freight train, heavy rain and strong winds began inundating the whole lodge area and creating something of a roar as it pounded and tugged at the metal roof that was keeping me dry. Just as I was trying to absorb the reality of the rain, lightning began striking at multiple locations closer in and up in the valley where the soloists were staged and the explosions of less distant thunder were almost continuous.
I pictured the 12 soloists and the staff out there in the electric and wet chaos and while I wished it wasn’t so, I knew it was. Hopefully, the soloists had all been rounded up and were inside the relatively safe, but definitely dry big tent located at the field camp. And then, my walkie talkie came to life and the guide on the other end, partially verified my hope.
“This is a big storm. I’ve got 8 of ‘em in here in the tent with me. The other guides are out getting the others.”
I already had my rain parka on and even as I was getting the radio report was headed out the door to run down to the parking lot where a 15 passenger van awaited. I cranked it up and drove up the small two track road toward the field camp and tent, arriving there in only minutes. I stopped, left it idling with the headlights on and almost jumped into the tent to get the current update. Dry and not-so-dry people were everywhere. I was glad to see three staff faces, which meant something, more than likely positive, had happened since the radio report.
“We got two more. Sherry and Abe ought to be here any minute with the others”, was the word. “They have a radio, but we haven’t been able to reach them”.
The radios were a good idea, but it wasn’t working in this case. Good thing we weren’t counting on them, I thought. I breathed, what turned out to be an only momentary sigh of relief at the fact that most of the group was there and accounted for. Thirteen excited and mostly smiling faces filled the tent with energy. The mud, wetness, dishoveled hair, and universally soggy boots and shoes were of only a temporary consequence. For the moment, age, position and background were of lesser importance than the fact that each had been a part of the same storm. And then, my own moment of reflection was put to rest when a horrendously bright and loud flash and crash lit up and shook the tent reminding me that all was not yet well. That reminder was simultaneously embellished by the roar of the pounding rain which was pummeling the tent and getting louder by the minute. The realization that only a thin sheet of waterproof fabric was separating us from the storm raging outside and only a few feet away sent me emotionally over the top, giving me stomach cramps. But there simply wasn’t time for a stomach ache and focused back on the task of getting everyone accounted for and into a safe place.
I got the group’s attention and laid out a plan. We’d all go outside, two at a time, get into the van and go back to the lodge. They should leave everything behind and could come get it the next day or once the storm had passed. Once everyone was inside, I would return with one of the staff to help Sherry and Abe round up the other two soloists and we would then all return and everyone would be accounted for. Simple enough.
Within moments, the plan was put in motion. In a miraculously orderly process, people organized themselves, ran out into the rain and got into the van. The cramped space was humid, chaotic and odiferous, but none of that really mattered and within a few minutes we were unloading down in the parking lot.
I wasted no time in heading back up and half expected to find the other four in the tent when we got there. I pulled up near the door and stayed in the driver’s seat while Reggie jumped out to look inside. I could see from his reaction as he first entered the door that they weren’t there.
He didn’t spend any unnecessary time dealing with what wasn’t there and immediately turned, ran back and climbed into the passenger seat, simply saying, “No one”.
We had deduced which two soloists were still out, and had a good idea about where they generally were, or as it turned out, where they were supposed to be. I tried my walkie talkie just to check and see if perhaps it was working and I could hear what was happening. The response was static and more static. We would have to do things the old fashioned way, I reasoned. I was satisfied that at least Abe and Sherry would be making solid decisions, because in many ways, they were on their own.
We knew that one of the kids was located a few hundred yards further up the valley and that the other had been placed lower down, between the lodge and the field camp. Where the latter one had gone was a complete mystery, since there’d been a lot of headlights and yelling that would’ve certainly been within his realm. The idea that the two were located in different directions had me at a bit of a stalemate, as I tried to figure out which way our two guides had gone. Just as we turned the van around but before I had to actually choose which way to go, I saw 3 flashlights heading down the road. Sherry, Abe and the soloist from up the valley, soon appeared at the edge of the field camp clearing just as another strike hit something just above them on the hillside and lit the whole world up. The thunder and lightning made them lunge forward and run toward the awaiting van. They were soon opening the door and scrambling to make room for each other inside as the storm continued howling. Thank goodness, I thought. That was 3 more.
“He was way up there and sitting under some brush and was hard to find”, Sherry said as water dripped from her hood.
“I didn’t hear nothing. When I saw the cloud getting closer I found a fallen tree and climbed under it. I was really pretty dry under there, but the lightning was kind of scary”, were the first words out of his mouth.
“Everyone else is fine and back at the lodge”, I said. “Except for Joe. Let’s get you all back and then Reggie and I’ll go get him”.
We drove back down to the lodge slowly and honked where the final soloist was supposed to be. Maybe he would hear the horn during a lull in the noise or see the headlights and head our way. And then, the thought occurred to me that perhaps he was already back at the lodge, but I soon realized that somebody would’ve certainly radioed if that was the case, and I went back to trying to trying to solve the mystery as I drove.
Once back at the parking lot, the three wet adventurers climbed out and ran up the hill toward the lodge. I occurred to me as I watched them head up that there wasn’t really all that much reason to run, since they were already wet. After they opened and walked in the door, we turned the van around yet again and headed back up.
Joe had been placed only a few hundred feet off the road and maybe 300 yards from the lodge. We drove up to the spot where he should’ve been and turned to the right, pointing the headlights uphill in the only direction where he could be. I began honking and we both got out and yelled his name over and over.
“Joe. We’re going in. Joe, come on down. Joe, the van is waiting”. We yelled things as if he would need to be convinced to come in, even though we had no idea if that was the case. We looked hard for movement and there was none. Where could he be, I kept wondering?
The only thing we hadn’t done up to that point was to walk and search up the hill in the direction he might have gone, and so that’s what we did. We turned the engine off, but left the headlights on. Worst case scenario, if the battery went dead, I figured we could just jump it the next day. With the storm continuing and water filling every rivulet as it ran downhill, we split up and began working our way upward. We shined our headlamps at every tree and rock, looking for any sort of clue. We kept yelling Joe’s name and listened intently to every non-response. After traveling only 50 yards from the van, I looked back and saw that the headlights had disappeared from view and realized that the sound of the pounding rain and gusting wind was swallowing up our yells so that we almost couldn’t even hear each other.
I realized that he could be 25 yards from us and might not even know we were there. Even though a lodge full of teenagers was only 300 yards away and Reggie less than 25, I suddenly felt very lonely. And just as I was reaching the height of my despondence, the kid stepped out from behind a big Ponderosa Pine at the far end of my light beam, and walked our way.
“Joe. Thank Goodness. We’re calling it off and everyone is back at the lodge. Where did you go? We drove and walked by and yelled, but couldn’t find you”, I said. I had plenty to say and ask.
“I heard all of that and thought it was a trick, so went up there and hid behind a big rock. It was a good spot because a big tree had fallen on it and I got under it,” he responded.
I had more questions and a few comments, but it was too loud, we were standing out in the storm and we still had to get back to the lodge, so I saved them for later. We walked back down to van, started it up and within minutes were inside the lodge, drinking hot chocolate with the rest of the group as the storm finally began to wind down. I soon forgot about my comments and somehow answered the questions myself. Eventually the voices became louder than the thunder and the solo storm was a thing of the past.