Where not to be in a thunderstorm.

I guess I had asked for it. I said a storm might be nice. Really, all I wanted was some rain to cool me off a little. It was one of the first warmer days of the spring, and my body was rebelling against the drastic change in temperature as I sweated my way up the rocky trail on a mountain bike.

The forecast had mentioned something about severe thunderstorms, but we had gotten one already that afternoon, so I figured they were done for the day. The clouds to the west began darkening as we neared the top of the mountain, as we pedaled along its rocky spine. Still, I didn’t think much of it. We’d get a little rain. No big deal.

It was slow going for me on the rockiest sections of trail, as I struggled to time my pedal strokes with the large limestone chunks. I’d gain momentum, then a crank would smack a rock, stopping me and my bike in our tracks. I went down a few times, adding to the growing collection of bruises on my legs, twisting my shoulder in a way that wasn’t exactly pleasant.

It was after the last of these falls that I heard the distant thunder and looked to my left to see the menacing clouds barreling towards the mountain. Shit, I thought. We weren’t yet to the highest, most exposed part of the ridge, an area nearly void of trees due to a forest fire caused, coincidentally, by a lightning strike in 2004.

Evan reminded me of this—We gotta get past the exposed part before the storm hits.

…I know.

We pedaled faster, but we were too late. The storm came up fast, turning the sky to black and dumping sheets of hard, icy water droplets. The wind howled. My headlamp was nearly useless as the gusting wind blew rain in every direction, blinding me to what was in my path. Occasionally, lightning would explode in the sky and illuminate the ridge top, the trail ahead, littered with debris and trees, some that had just fallen.

I’m usually not scared of thunderstorms, but I found myself thinking, If I’m going to get struck by lightning, this might be the place. Tonight might be the night.

I continued pedaling along the trail, focused in my fear-induced adrenaline rush, dodging rocks and logs, wondering when we would be back in the cover of the forest and no longer prime targets on the barren section of trail. I kept looking ahead, searching for Evan’s light dancing along on the trail ahead of me, comforted by the fact that I wasn’t alone with no one to find me if I got zapped by a bolt or crushed by a falling tree.

We made it back into the less-exposed forest, but the frantic journey out of there was far from over. Another few miles along the ridge, and then we finally reached the intersection that would lead us down the mountain, farther from danger. We flew downhill on a trail that was quickly turning into a small stream. Small rocks bounced me along in the darkness, and I struggled to maintain control of the bike, the gripping ability of my left hand slightly diminished after a fall I had taken earlier that caused me to jam my thumb. But still, I barreled down that hill, barely braking, skidding around turns and through puddles, narrowly avoiding several trees. Mud flew into my face, into my eyes and my contact lenses. They burned. I just kept blinking in an attempt to flush out the particles of dirt, hoping it wouldn’t get so bad that I’d no longer be able to see.

After what seemed like forever, we were back on the road, minutes away from the car. The thunder still rumbled, but muffled, in the distance. It was only then that we relaxed, laughed, exclaimed how crazy it all was. Covered head to toe in sandy soil, we drove back to town, to warm showers and good beer and a group of friends to whom we recanted our adventures.

It was another ride for the books, for sure. We’ll be talking about this one for a while.

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