Lightning was striking everywhere, and each time it did, there was a bright flash that was immediately followed by an almost deafening crash of thunder. When it had first started, I figured that it was time to do something about it, 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. Through the years, I learned to keep everyone relatively close to each other but to give them their own space. It was designed to be a night spent isolated and alone out in the woods for each of our teenage “team” members. It had a certain romantic quality and sound to it during the build-up. But time and again, I’d seen how terrifying and complicated the experience often became, once the participants were out in the wilds and the sun began setting. A lot of people are simply scared of the dark, I came to realize.
And so, I developed parameters and methods for the activity. They included placing each person within eyesight of at least one other, putting them in locations close to a road or trail, and keeping 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 particular “event” I’m writing about, we scattered 12 team members up and along Second Creek (as it climbed up into the bowels of the surrounding Puma Hills. Our camp headquarters, and site of the Solo activity, was located 25 miles from the nearest town. It was amid several hundred thousand acres of mountainous and forested land that was sparsely inhabited by humans. And so, there was already a feeling 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 parallels the creek as it leads up the valley. Each of the soloists was assigned a spot. They were instructed to stay within 100′ of it until the formal ending, which would be announced and verified by a staff member the following morning. The entire supervisory staff accompanied the group as they were walked to their spots and noted 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 Base Camp lodge. And by the time the last one was placed, teenagers were strewn for more than a mile up the ever-narrowing valley. Ultimately, they were surrounded by big trees, more dramatic rocks, and were in an area where wildlife was more prolific. As a part of the methodology, at least one of the leaders (or guides as they were known) was always up amid the group and operating a field camp. This meant that there was constant supervision and a reliable safe haven that team members knew they could count on in an emergency. If nothing else, the field camp provided something of a confidence boost. Although, in reality, it provided a genuine and necessary connection between team members and the staff, allowing the participants to fully experience a night out alone in the woods, but with a significant degree of supervision.
After getting the soloists placed, four of the five staff and I returned to the lodge for a late afternoon teenager-less supper. The other staff member stayed back to man the field camp. Because 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 we’d already made it cloudlessly through the afternoon, we sat down to supper, satisfied that we’d ended up doing it right on that day. As we feasted on smoked sausage and chicken fajitas, we were confident that the bases had all been covered and that we were doing the Solo in the right way.
We finished eating just before dusk and walked outside to look up the valley and listen for any panic sounds that would likely be heard as the night started to become real. We expected to see at least a few plumes of campfire smoke filling the valley. Instead, we saw 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, good thing they each have a tarp,” I said.
I assumed it a best-case scenario- a rain cloud appearing in the sky, causing each person to think through the realities of how to deal with it. But one that would never actually come their way or do its thing. For several reasons, actual rain was something we didn’t want for the next twelve hours. As I stood there, gazing up into the valley and thinking through the various details related to the night ahead, my confidence persisted that all was going according to plan, and the storm was not going to come our way. Although admittedly, the sight of the cloud caused something of a ripple in that.
The event unfolded with staff members making consistent check-in visits to the various soloists as the event persisted. Late in the afternoon, two guides headed out into the forest, intent to visit each of the soloists before nightfall. The others walked on up to the field camp, awaiting their turn to do the same later on. In the meantime, they built and kept 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 my perusal.
After reading a couple of front-page stories in the newspaper, 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 grabbed my attention. I looked up in disbelief, just as a faint rumble of thunder reinforced what I was seeing. The thunderhead was very much alive and on the move.
The setting sun backlit parts of the humongous cloud’s upper reaches, and I could tell from its sheer height and scale that it contained a lot of rain and wind. Initially, I was mesmerized by its folds, creases, and various other intricacies. At that moment, everything seemed peaceful and calm. And our world was without storm and almost completely still and quiet, except for the expected sound of someone rhythmically banging a 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 longer than it should’ve. Surely the staff was seeing what I was, I both assumed and wondered at the same time. If so, I was confident that they’d be making sure that each person was ready for rain. I’d seen clouds do the same thing before and just disappear, vaporize, or whatever they do when the temperature and humidity fall as nighttime overtakes the day. And I was hopeful that this would be one of those times.
I was tempted to walk up the valley, call the whole thing off, round everyone up, and get them down to the lodge and bunkhouse before the rain started. But then, I again thought about the opportunity each of the participants would have to mentally experience a storm without it ever materializing and how that would be missed if I did so. I speculated that 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 related to a pending drinking water regulation that might affect our county. Shortly, I looked out of the window and saw that it had become especially dark outside. Just as I decided to get up, go outside, and see how the storm was progressing, a bolt of lightning lit up the inside of the lodge, and thunder cracked loudly, obviously closer than it’d been earlier. I sprang to the door, opened it, and looked out toward the west. Just at that moment, more lightning hit somewhere high up on the ridge and lit up a single distant tree as if it had electrocuted it.
But for the moment, while it continued to be calm outside and there was no rain around us, I looked up at the ridge and saw stormy chaos happening up there. And then, it rolled in to our world. And it did so with the subtlety of a screeching freight train. Heavy rain and strong winds began inundating the whole lodge area. It created a roar as it pounded and tugged on the metal roof that was keeping me dry. And then, the last straw broke as lightning began striking at multiple locations in the valley where the soloists were staged, and the explosions of less distant thunder became 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 kids 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 4 guides are out getting the others.”
I already had my rain parka on and was quickly headed out the door to run down to the parking lot where one of our 15 passenger vans was parked. I cranked it up, drove up the small two-track road toward the field camp and tent, and soon arrived. 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 that 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 ’em.”
The radios were a good idea but weren’t functioning the way we needed them to. Good thing we weren’t counting on them, I thought. I breathed, what turned out to be an only momentary sigh of relief that most of the group was there and accounted for. Thirteen excited and mostly smiling faces filled the tent with energy. The mud, wetness, disheveled 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 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. The reminder was simultaneously embellished by the roar of the pounding rain. The realization that only a thin sheet of waterproof fabric separated us from the storm raging outside and only a few feet away gave me instant stomach pains. But there simply wasn’t time for a stomach ache and I re-focused 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 get it the next day after the storm passed. Once everyone was inside, I would return with one of the staff to help Sherry and Abe round up the other two soloists. We would then return to the lodge, 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 odoriferous, but none of that mattered, and within a few minutes, we were unloading in the lodge parking lot.
I wasted no time 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. Almost immediately, he turned, ran back, and climbed into the passenger seat, and shook his head, saying, “No one.”
We deduced which two soloists were still out, and had a good idea about where they more-or-less were, or as it turned out, where they were supposed to be. I tried my walkie talkie, but all I could hear was a strange whirring sound and static and realized that the rain had probably messed it up even further. We would have to do things the old fashioned way (without radios), I reasoned. I was satisfied by the prospect that at least Abe and Sherry would be making solid decisions because, in many ways, they were on their own and would need to.
We knew that one of the two was located a few hundred yards further up the valley. And we also knew 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 we assumed had been within his realm. The idea that the two were located in different directions had me at a bit of a logic stalemate, as I tried to figure out which way our two guides went. Just as we turned the van around, but before I had to choose which way to go, I saw 3 flashlights heading down the road. Sherry, Abe, and the soloist from up the valley appeared at the edge of the field camp clearing. Just as they came into view, another strike hit on the hillside just above them and lit the whole world up. The thunder and lightning made them lunge forward and break into a 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 pretty dry under there, but the lightning was kind of scary,” were the first words out of the soloist’s 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 as we went past. Maybe he would hear the horn during a lull in the noise or see the headlights and head our way, I hoped. And then, the thought occurred to me that maybe he was already back at the lodge, although I soon realized that somebody would’ve certainly radioed (there was a dry and operational radio in the van) if that was the case, and so went back to trying to solve the mystery.
Once back at the parking lot, the three wet adventurers climbed out and ran up the hill to the lodge. It occurred to me as I watched them head that way that there wasn’t really all that much reason to run since they were already wet. After they opened and walked through the doorway, we turned the van around yet again and headed back up.
Joe had been placed only a few hundred feet above 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 logical direction where he’d be. I began honking, and the two of us 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 of any kind, 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 off the engine but left the headlights on. In a worst-case scenario, I decided, if the battery went dead, we could just jump it the next day. With the storm continuing and water filling every rivulet and soaking our feet 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 even we almost couldn’t hear each other.
I realized that he could be 25 yards from us and might not even know we were there. Even though there was a lodge full of teenagers only 300 yards away and Reggie was less than 25, I suddenly felt very lonely. Then, just as I reached 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 toward us.
“Joe. Thank Goodness. We’re calling the Solo off, and everyone else is back at the lodge. Where did you go? We drove, 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 I went up there and hid behind a big rock. It was a good spot because a big tree had fallen on top of it, and I got underneath,” he responded.
I had more questions and a few comments, but it was too loud, we were standing out in the storm, and still had to get back to the lodge, so I saved them for later. We walked back down to the van. We 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 any comments I’d made and answered the questions myself. Eventually, the voices became louder than the thunder, and the solo storm was a thing of the past.