8.1.2000: Hit By Lightning
In the Summer of 2000, my brother Kurt and I took our first of many annual road trips to national parks. For that first trip, we chose Yellowstone National Park as our destination. I had been to Yellowstone a couple of times before, but it had been some years. The weather was hot during our stay, and almost every night there were fantastic thunderstorms.
One day we took a short hike to the shore of Yellowstone Lake in the Fishing Bridge area. This hike took us some distance over open plains to the shore. Shortly after we arrived at the shore, thunderheads appeared, then thunder in the distance, then lightning and thunder closer and closer to us. We ran back to my old blue Durango (new at that time) with lightning seemingly striking all around us, and made our getaway.
The next day, August 1, 2000, brought more hot weather. After seeing more sights that day, we returned to our campsite at Bridge Bay Campground. This is a large campground spread out over a hillside, and our campsite was among the few trees at the high point of the campground. We had dinner, and Kurt’s wife and kids retired to their tent. Kurt and I sat talking by our campfire, eventually sipping Johnnie Walker Black Label. Around 11:00 p.m. we started to see lightning far in the distance, and we enjoyed the show, sipping our whiskey. (No, our whiskey was not in martini glasses as my logo depicts, nor, obviously, were we geocaching at that time.)
Before long, however, we noticed that the lightning strikes were growing nearer, and quickly – but we remained calm and continued our enjoyment of the “show.” Suddenly, lightning struck within a mile of the campground, and I started to get a bit nervous – but what could we do. Then lightning struck either within the campsite or just outside it, causing a deafening boom and dozens of car alarms to go off. This is when I felt that we were in danger. We had been sitting in metal-framed lawn chairs by the fire, and I instinctively stood up, realized I didn’t know what to do, and walked around the fire and sat on the wooden picnic table bench, still facing the fire. Kurt chuckled, thought better of it, got up and walked around the fire, and sat down next to me on the bench.
Or started to. As he was sitting down, everything went silent. Our campfire exploded. I held my hands out in front of me, trying to pull against the electrical shock that was coursing through my legs and hands. I could feel the pulsating current of over a million volts, and I remember fighting to even move my arms against the current. As I sat there, I incredulously thought to myself, “I can’t believe it. I’m being hit by lightning.” The shock seemed to last a long time, but probably only lasted about a second and a half. When it was done, I had been thrown to the ground. My legs, hands, and rear end were burning, and I was screaming in fear and pain. When I finally came to my senses, I crawled to one of the tents and let the pain subside. Everyone was basically okay, but Kurt and I had lingering burning feelings.
Given the ruckus, neighboring campers had gone to the ranger station and summoned help. Before long, paramedics arrived and checked us out. Other than a few long, hairlike burns on my leg, we had no external injuries. The paramedics wanted to take us to the hospital, but not feeling in any more danger, we declined. (It turns out that one of the paramedics – who had left his card – was Mark Marschall, the author of a great hiking guide to the park.)
In the morning, we surveyed the scene. It turns out that we had not been struck directly. Rather, a large tree in our site had been hit. A 20-foot section in the middle of the tree exploded, sending wood shrapnel of all sizes in a radius of at least 100 feet. (The top 40 feet or so of the tree had fallen straight down and impaled into the ground.) The lightning had traveled down the tree, through the root system, and out the ground. It is probably a good thing that we were no longer sitting in the metal chairs, but the electricity nevertheless traveled up through our legs, which is why they hurt the most.
We had another mystery. My Durango was covered in a thick layer of mud, but we hadn’t driven it in any. After some looking around, we saw a 5-inch diameter hole in the ground, aimed at an angle from the tree’s roots to the Durango. When we attempted to drive the Durango, it was clear that it had been hit by electricity exploding out of the ground, and that’s what caused all the mud. The computer was partially fried, leaving us to limp back to Washington with no overdrive, intermittent reverse, and having to manually shift up through the gears to “drive.”
That morning we were scheduled to move to another campsite anyway, which was good because the NPS closed our campsite due to the dangerous tree. We finished out our trip, then, on the drive home, my knees started to stiffen up. By the time we got home I could barely walk, and for some time after one or the other of my knees would randomly give out. My doctor at the time insisted the pain was due to too much hiking. Before I fired him, he referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed chondromalacia patellae—a condition where the cartilage under the patella is damaged. This ailment sometimes afflicts runners, but in this case the cartilage under my kneecaps had been crushed when the electricity caused all my leg muscles to spasm, and/or when I was thrown to the ground. Surgery was an option, but I elected to pursue physical therapy. Strengthening the muscles around my knees, and staying active by hiking and bicycling, has just about eliminated the rain. However, I still have sharp pain in my knees if it is particularly cold and damp, or if I stand in one place for long. (My brother Kurt had similar ailments, but his did not persist.)
Kurt and I still take annual road trips. After Yellowstone, we’ve been to Glacier, Yosemite, Sequoia, Banff/Jasper, Redwoods, and the national parks and monuments of Southern Utah. One of these days we’ll return to Yellowstone, and of course we’ll have to visit our old campsite.