The weather lately has been rather… wet. I often find myself walking with my head (as well as the rest of me) in the clouds with the rain dripping, drizzling, condensing, or pouring down on me. Sometimes I even get the full multi-sensory experience with the thunder rumbling around me, usually in a long low ongoing grumble instead of the short staccato crack or clap that accompanies a cloud to ground lightning strike. As long and I’m not on a ridge or seeing lightning etc. I try not to worry about it too much. Getting wet is just part of the thru-hiking experience (though wet boots and socks are things we’d rather avoid).
I was hiking in typical muggy summer afternoon thunderstorms when the weather started to do something different. The winds picked up, with strong gusts overturning all of the leaves and causing small branches to break off and float down around me. The cracks of thunder also got louder and shorter as the sky around me turned that weird eerie yellow that I associate with tornados.
It was clear that a storm was coming. I figured I was just being paranoid about the tornado part since the last time I was in town (admittedly a while ago) I had watched the weather channel describe the devastating tornadoes in the Midwest.
I was approaching a town, so I decided that I would try to hurry up and get down into town before the torrential downpour that was clearly coming had a chance to get me drenched. As I continued down the hill the weather just seemed to get worse and worse…windier and windier… eerier and eerier.
The road finally came into sight through the trees when I heard the screech of a siren. It sounded just like the air raid sirens you hear in the old World War II movies. “Oh sh**”, I suddenly realized what those sirens were! They were the town’s tornado warning sirens going off!
What do you do when you are in the backcountry and a tornado is coming?! For me the answer was to run for cover while keeping an eye on the sky. As the sirens were blaring I got to the road and started running down it looking for a shelter of some sort, any sort, and counting the time between the lightning strikes and the thunder. One one thousand, two one…. crack boom! As I rounded the bend I saw a house in the distance. Surely the owners wouldn’t mind sharing their basement with a sopping wet thru-hiker…
Kaaaboom!!!! Lightning struck a tree by the side of the road right next to me. The thunder crack was so loud that I felt it with my whole body and could smell the ozone from the strike. My heart and my feet skipped a beat and froze for a second with a more immediate and primal terror than I think I’ve ever felt before.
I blinked a rain drop from my eye and my feet kept moving. One one thousand, two one thousand… Crash boom! I was getting closer to the house. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand… Crack, Rumble.
Then the tornado sirens stopped. They just stopped. I was back to just being outside in an afternoon thunderstorm that was moving further and further away from me. The only difference being that now I needed my adrenaline levels to drop back to normal.
I slowed to a walk, still keeping one eye on the sky and the other on the nearest, closest refuge in case the sirens started up again, but decided that I didn’t need to barge into a strangers basement anymore (unless those sirens started up again).
As I continued walking in the pouring rain my mind wandered back to my original plan for this visit to town, which was to get food and to fill my belly. The excitement hadn’t diminished my appetite! It had, however, diminished my desire to keep hiking in the predicted thunderstorms all afternoon. I decided that I’d had enough excitement and hiking for one day, and was ready to spend the night in town at a hostel that luxuries including: a roof, four solid walls, and a basement!