by Matt Schiff
Lightning strikes and something dies. That must be how it works. Each bolt has a target, a seek and destroy mission, and with each tent illuminating flash and ground shaking rumble, one site is crossed off the list. I’m on that list for sure. It’s just a matter of honing in, dropping a strike here or there like in Battleship and narrowing down the possibilities. I squeeze my hands between my legs. I flinch and cringe with each flash of light, but then amazingly fall asleep through it all.
How in the world did I get here? Where am I? That’s the rhetorical question we ask ourselves when one moment we’ve been out in the cold looking for a camp spot and the next we’re sitting in someone’s home we just met moments ago, looking at a table in front of us piled high with food. This time it’s different. I’ve been traveling on my own for a week, seeing as many state parks and scenic areas along the way, and the last part of the plan was to visit Missouri’s highest point (1772 ft) and state park, Mount Tauk Saum. Why am I here? I planned rain or shine to visit the park and pedaled three miles uphill, into rain and fog, with the knowledge the storm might continue. Where exactly am I? I’m in the woods, camped out somewhere near the high point, weathering the onslaught of rain and lightning that has woke me up.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, it’s been raining most of the day, and with the hills I’ve had to tackle in the last week I’m feeling pretty spent. I’ve seen so much in the last week, exploring the Ozarks, and hiking the high point is last on my list before meeting up with the rest of the crew tomorrow in Farmington, MO (photo album). I crash out and remember feeling the anticipation for when I’ll wake up.
Naps are my thing because they aren’t predictable like a regular night’s sleep. They can be 15 minutes or they can last 3 hours. When you wake the day is in full swing or you open your eyes just to realize the last of it. I look forward to change and maybe that’s why I’ve taken a break from the group to experience bike touring on my own and see what living on my own schedule brings. I wake up at 5:30 just in time to see the last of the light and settle in the finish my current book, The Kite Runner.
After eating dinner in my tent – a handful of trailmix, a few pretzels, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, an all vegetable sandwich rolled up in a tortilla, some jelly beans, and surely something else scraped from the corners of my bags – I go outside to “button down the hatches”. I check my bike. All bags are closed. I’ve left them open before and had half my clothes wet. I pull the tent fly tighter from all guy-out points as its sagging loose since getting wet. I shine my light and squint into the fog like Al Pacino in Insomnia. There’s nothing particular I’m looking for, just anything that looks out of place. There could be 1000 creatures of the night out there but that’s not what worries me. Satisfied, I crawl back into my sleeping bag, write a few postcards, and fall asleep.
The next moment I remember it’s raining and each of the heavy drops hit with a twangy sound against the tightly pulled rainfly. More likely it was the lightning that woke me up, illuminating everything in my periphery as the fog is most likely enhancing and not diffusing the frequent blasts. With heavier rain I make some adjustments. My tent is leaking from the top. It’s the vulnerable spot in the rainfly that’s weathered most after 180 days of use, slowly being eaten away by UV rays. I throw my towel up there to blot at the drops. When it’s raining you only need to preserve one set of dry clothes. But in the moment, I’d probably put anything up there just for the comfort of now.
Each flash of lightning causes a mental if not physical flinch. First they seem far away but over time closing in, as if preferentially attracted to cro-moly steel or aluminum tent poles. I’ve heard of people getting slightly hit by lightning. In the mountains of Colorado a trail maintenance crew was running down from the mountain they were working on when a near strike caused some of them to get burns on their feet. I lie on my side and wonder what the latest literature in lightning safety recommends. Is it still to crouch low on your hands and knees with your head down – the ready position for cat/camel stretches – sitting on your sleeping mat if possible? I’d imagine it starts with not camping on top the highest point in the state. I wonder about conventional wisdom and if this adds much to safety, and how is it people feel completely safe in their house or in their car for that matter? I assure myself my odds are quite low but I shift position, aware of which part of my body is touching the ground.
The next time I wake up it’s about 20 degrees colder and with no hat or warm clothes on I might as well have passed out on the grass. It’s windy but I assume the storm is over.
In the morning, I get ready for an early hike. It’s 7 am, but feels earlier considering the temperature and fog. As I wheel my bike out of the woods, the fist weird moment of the day occurs. I get lost. I go 150 feet towards where I think I had come from, scan in several directions, look at the obstacles in front of me and determine something is wrong. This should be simple. I didn’t go more than 400 feet into the forest and I’ve usually got a good sense of direction but I don’t quite recognize what’s unfolding in front of me. I could backtrack and get my bearings once again but that would be humiliating. I feel more competent than that. A few hesitant steps later, I spot a bench and aim towards is. As I pull out of “the bush” and onto a neatly paved path, I feel like the homeless person who comes out of hiding and pops out in a busy, civilized place. Near the bench there is a plaque that reads, “highest elevation 1772.68 msl.” It feels like I’ve gone through a time warp, a portal, but without the shimmering circular mirage or zapping sound of electrons and lasers. “Alright, so I actually camped a few feet from the highest possible point,” I mumble to myself.
I find a spot for my bike, secure my valuables, and head on down the trail to check out some waterfalls, which was the real purpose of the hike. The top of the mountain is a pool of water and I know these aren’t the conditions you should be hiking a trail but I devise a way to avoid damage. Rocks stick up along the route and each step I focus on putting my foot on one of these islands. Once the slope steepens I’m more critical of the route. I’ve worked on trails before. You have to account for water and build spots for it to leave the trail. In extreme cases, such as this, poorly built or maintained trails act as water channels, taking water from one side of a hill and depositing it somewhere else. It can dramatically change soil moisture and in turn species composition by rerouting water from its natural route. Soon I forget about whether I’m right or not to be hiking this trail and find myself walking on sheets of rock, nearing the falls.
Around the falls I take a few photos but quickly move on down the Ozark Trail to get to a rock formation called “Devils Toll Gate”. The walking gets easy and the trail is mostly dry. I could be just a few hundred feet away from the rock feather but a swollen river needs to be crossed. In my head I replay a motto I’ve developed for myself over the last few years, “not every day hike needs to turn into an expedition.” It’s in the 30s and I don’t want to take my pants off to wade through two feet of water, two times accounting for the coming and going, but this decision is still a hard one to make.
That’s when weird moment #2 occurs. I turn around and see a dog that’s curious to check out what I’m doing, just following my scent to the source. It’s one of those yippy yappy dogs that on this bike tour have been the most persistent of all in chasing after you for hundreds of feet past what it should consider its property. After just a moment of seeing me, it runs away. I walk quickly and catch another glimpse as it runs away again, beckoning for me to follow like a child in a horror movie leading you into someplace called, “the garden.” After a couple more minutes of walking I don’t expect to ever see the dog’s owner or see the dog again. I accept this is going to be a strange moment. As I hike back to my bike my mind wanders on what a hallucination would feel like.
Back at my bike, I put on my down coat with rain jacket on top – it’s really feeling that cold – fuel up and head on out. It’s time to get to Farmington and meet up with the rest of the crew.
That’s when weird moment #3 occurs. I look to my left, I look to my right, and then I pull out into traffic and blatantly miss the blue SUV coming towards me. I messed up this time and it’s rare because the stakes are so much higher for me. I get the loud honk, but I’m used to it from all the other times drivers want to assert their presence, so quickly I’m swept up in thought, pedaling to warm up my body, and finally headed out of the Ozarks.