We Chose Lightning
Published in Tahoe Blues, Short Lit on Life at the Lake, 2012
At fourteen years old, I was highly out-motivated, out-ranked, and out-paced by my dad and two sisters as we ended our fifth day hiking in Desolation Wilderness. Taking up the rear had become my pastime, and the expectation of stopping at a river two easy downhill miles away was all that provoked my tired legs. As we made what should have been our final descent, we kicked ourselves for thinking we could find a place that the mosquitoes would not. There they were. Waiting. Licking their metaphorical lips, their tiny insect feet rubbing together like Mr. Burns whispering, “Mmmm…excellent.”
Deafened by that sickening buzz of bloodsuckers, blinded by hands furiously swatting exposed skin, our walk turned to a run as we dashed up and down the riverside searching for a place to cross the surging rapids. Our packs clanked against our backs, branches scratched our faces and tousled our hair, we ran like unabashed crazy people through the woods. Every moment counted, for every mosquito was calling in cruel and unnecessary reinforcements.
A quarter mile off trail we found a sapling lain across a shallow part of the river, branches akimbo. Hillary attempted to cross it, but turned around half way. Dad took the direct route, lunging through the rapids, soaking himself to the bone. Emily and I watched in horror. The bugs were closing in - were already in - our clothes, our socks, our hair. We jumped into the river, dragging ourselves to the other side. Wet, tired and swollen, we ran against an army of incorrigible insects. Twenty minutes of gut-wrenching endurance, and we were at the top of a saddle where we stopped to contemplate our next predicament.
With two huge granite knolls pillared on either side, the only flat space to camp for two miles in any direction was the trail on which we stood. But only when the breeze briefly parted the blinding clouds of insects did we notice the runoff stream trickling down the middle of it. Then, over the maddening mosquito buzz we heard the chilling roar of thunder.
A quick vote: bugs or lightning? Unanimously, we chose lightning. We scampered up the granite as the skies unleashed, barely giving us time to set up our tents beside a tree with charcoaled scars running down its crippled spine. In nervous silence we counted lightning strikes within a mile. Had we really chosen death over annoyance?
Two deafening hours of rain, thunder and lightning later, the darkness of the storm retreated, and radiant oranges, reds and pinks filled the sky, knocking us over as we emerged from our tents. We had run through purgatory, suffered beasts and tempests, and were rewarded with the most beautiful Sierra sunset any of us had ever seen. We stood atop that granite knoll, fifty miles from anywhere, staring into Heaven, not the buzz of bugs or the crack of thunder. Just the quiet.