Monday, August 14, 2017


Claps of thunder were closing in as I raced down chunky gravel on Rainbow Lakes Road, spun out in my highest gear. Lightning hadn't yet made an appearance, but the thunder sounded close, and I was hurrying to reach an outhouse at the Sourdough Trailhead, about a mile downhill. I rounded a corner at high speed and saw the cow moose and her calf almost too late, screeching the wet brakes to a stop about 100 feet away. The moose stood on the right side of the road facing me, looking unperturbed but also unwilling to move. There was nowhere to backtrack for miles. So it would be a standoff.

"Hey moose," I called out, as though she didn't already know she was dealing with an annoying human. Lightning sliced through the sky directly in front of us. A shattering thunder boom followed within one second. The moose didn't budge. Still straddling my bike, I backed up a few feet and glanced into the woods, scouting for the darkest spot to hide from lightning with the kind of tree I could possibly climb should the moose decide to charge. Within seconds the indigo sky unleashed a shower of hail. Finally the moose and her calf took off down the road. I waited some more, wincing at the sting of marble-sized ice balls on my shoulders and hands ... but it was better than being stomped by a moose. Finally it felt safe to continue coasting down the road. Moose tracks pressed into the wet gravel for a quarter mile before they veered into the forest.

Hail was still pouring down when I reached the trailhead and ducked into outhouse, a relatively spacious and clean toilet that was as welcome as any shelter could be. I took the opportunity to pour a cascade of rocks and mud out of my shoes, and pulled on all of the same layers that I typically carry in my backpack in January — fleece pullover, waterproof shell, fleece hat, fleece mittens. As I waited out the storm for the next ten minutes, I continued to shiver. Every convulsion sent a shock of pain through my bruised back. Just three hours earlier, I'd also fallen down the stairs.

At home we have just a single set of stairs, but they're steep, uncarpeted, and about 15 feet high. I've had a few near-misses before and know better to watch my footing and hold the railing, but I was descending in socks while holding sunglasses in one hand and a GPS device in the other. Halfway down, a sock-foot slipped and I went down hard on my butt and back, bouncing down eight or nine steps before crumpling in a heap at the bottom. My backpack full of water and winter gear had twisted around and the strap was tight against my neck, almost choking me, and I was nauseated and hyperventilating. I thought I might faint. I fought to hold onto consciousness, both because I didn't want the backpack strap to suffocate me after I passed out, and because fainting after falling down the stairs at home was embarrassing enough even if I wasn't found dead in this position.

After several minutes of concentrating on breathing, I regained enough composure to stand. My butt was throbbing and my left calf had a strange knot that felt like a fist clenched against the muscle. My sunglasses and GPS had both exploded into pieces, but these luckily are "Jill-proof" items that I was able to put back together. I paced for several more minutes and concluded that I wasn't injured, just in pain. "It's not worse than crashing my bike. And I still ride after crashing my bike. So I guess I should ride."

My plan for the day wasn't a small one — 50 miles, almost 6,000 feet of climbing, and exploration on what turned out to be a swampy mess of rocky doubletrack, Forest Service Road 505. I didn't regret my decision to ride until 505, when stepping off the bike to push it around knee-deep mud puddles clenched the invisible fist around my calf muscle, and bouncing on rocks aggravated pain underneath my ribs on the left side of my back. Then the hailstorm moved in, not unexpected but still stunningly swift in its consumption of the warm, sunny afternoon. Every bruised part of my body stiffened as I shivered in an outhouse, and I still had to propel myself back to Boulder.

Thunder continued to crack overhead, and I smirked at myself and these positions I'm often in. As I grow older, there are ways in which I continue to become more reckless and less risk-averse than I was in my 20s. I mean, when I lived in Utah 15 years ago, I was terrified of thunderstorms and wouldn't even go outside for routine bike rides if the sky or forecast looked bad. Now I'm in Colorado and the forecast has looked at least somewhat bad nearly every day for a month, and I don't really mind. I figure I can mitigate risk by staying below treeline and hiding in an outhouse when necessary. Still, these certainly aren't calamity-proof solutions. Fears of calamity used to have more impact.

I suppose I've figured out that I am the type of person who will more likely perish in a preventable household accident, so why be afraid of the outdoors?

Beat, grumpy about hiding under a tree during a hailstorm on Sunday
It has been a trying summer for thunderstorm fears. The typical monsoonal moisture is being ramped up by hot and dry weather in the Pacific Northwest, causing central Colorado to become more cool and wet. Lightning risk notwithstanding, I love these conditions. The storms keep outings interesting, occasionally lend to beautiful light and dramatic scenery, foster stunning wildflower blooms, keep the air clear and smoke-free, and reduce the usual stifling heat. My friend Dave in Colorado Springs posted the other day that he had seasonal affective disorder because the stormy weather was getting him down. I replied, "Really? I usually hate August, but this one's been okay so far."

Of course, that's just weather; it does nothing to stem the growing tide of unrest in the U.S. For that, August has been a particularly disheartening month. Nothing that is happening is surprising, sadly.

We do what we can to battle disheartenment ... donate to organizations that do a better job than we could alone ... meet with friends and commiserate ... attempt to gently expand on the situation with that high school friend on Facebook who still lives a relatively privileged and sheltered existence ... research the best ways to stock the nuclear bomb shelter (oh yes, we actually have a shelter at home, built by the previous homeowner who lived in Russia during the Cold War. Not that I'd even want to be among the survivors who envy the dead.) Ah, now I'm drifting into negative thinking again. I know it doesn't help anything, so I break the feedback loop with a nice ride on quiet forest roads, where my largest threat is probably lightning.

It is wonderful to have bikes in my life, especially when I've fallen down the stairs and am banged up enough to prevent running for little while. The daily hailstorm petered out and sunbeams stabbed through breaks in the clouds. A faint rainbow formed overhead. It became a great afternoon for riding ... overcast and cool with hints of sunlight sparkling on wet grass, still green in mid-August. It is a beautiful time of year, when I learn to live in the moment. 


  1. Glad you didn't:

    1) Get moose stomped
    2) Fried by lightning
    3) Break anything on your stair tumble

    But, when you wrote, "a relatively spacious and clean toilet that was as welcome as any shelter could be. I took the opportunity...." I was expecting something completely different!

  2. Lightning is so random, like someone haphazardly firing a mortar at you. There is no such thing as a safe place, only more or less dangerous places. A young mountain biker down here just got killed yesterday while hiding out from a lightning storm. We were on our way up there but turned back when we surveyed the clouds.

  3. I absolutely understand that reality. I recently read an article about a man struck and killed inside a home (there were exposed steel beams, and he was surrounded by metal tools.) I realize that being outside with storms threatening is a spin on a roulette wheel. The odds of losing remain long, but they're never zero.

    Very sad story about the mountain biker.

    1. Reading subsequent reports, apparently he and his girlfriend "felt" the nearby strike, talked about it for a minute, then he suddenly collapsed.

  4. Spoke with a forest services guy who spent a weekend in the Sierra Buttes fire lookout tower (google images to get an idea) in a lightning storm and said it took 10 years off his life. Can't control lightning, but you could buy adhesive "sandpaper" strips for your stairs :)

    1. I should have mentioned that Beat installed adhesive strips on the stairs this evening. He's the best. :-)

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  6. My friend has a house like yours and mine with steep and uncarpeted stairs. She broke two vertebrae when she slipped in her socks on her way down the steps. I'm so glad that didn't happen to you after all you've been through!

    This summer has been crazy in terms of storms. I'm glad you're still getting out. I am too but I've had my share of hiding in outhouses and under trees!

  7. Ah, after reading one of these excellent stories, I'm always ready to shake off whatever my latest "hindrance" is and go hike. But what indestructible GPS do you have? I need to find something that's not too fussy. -Ann

    1. Thanks Ann! I use a Garmin eTrex30 for navigation. It's not indestructible, but it's waterproof, works well down to -20F (below -30F or so it still works, but the screen becomes dark) and can certainly take a few hits. In this case the battery cover came off and the batteries went flying after it fell ~10 feet onto a hard floor below the staircase.

  8. I crossed paths with a moose cow and calf on that road, two years in a row, the same individual animals. I swear. Momma didn't want to have anything to do with me. Calf was like, "Who/what is that? Let's go check him out!" I was so elated to even see them :)

  9. We've been chased off mountaintops and ridges by lightning so many times above timberline that we feel fortunate to be alive every time we hear about another fatal strike. This year has been particularly dangerous/frustrating in that thunderstorms seem to be forming more and more before noon. Good stories, all, if you live to tell...
    Durango gets more than it's share of fatalities, I think because of the larger young demographic set due to Fort Lewis College.
    The mountains don't care...

  10. We have had a lot of unseasonal rain recently, really warm one moment, pouring rain and a sharp temperature drop the next, having to keep an eye on core temperatures when out and about.


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