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By John Stuart Clark
In this adaptation from his exciting new book, After the Gold Rush, Scotsman John Stuart Clark experiences the full force of nature while crossing America following the line of the Gold Rush. More information on ordering his book follows this piece.
At the risk of stating the obvious, cyclists are a vulnerable species. At best, our defenses are flimsy - strips of plastic, Gore-Tex wraps, and a pudding basin of expanded polystyrene. Against the elemental forces of nature, they provide scant protection but, for the strong at heart, it is the very susceptibility of the cyclist that makes rolling through a landscape such a rewarding experience. Now and again, however, Mother Nature slings something at us which is a over the top and totally uncalled for.
Take a short ride I recently endured down a straight road in the middle of Wyoming. I guess the action takes place over fifteen miles, maximum, in a barren landscape all had deserted except the Big Yin and a few dumb critters. In the distance were the broken backbones of the Rockies, rearing up like dinosaurs emerging from a sea of sagebrush desert. Either side of me, the terrain barely undulated, but Pacific Creek had carved a meandering course that left an occasional head-high bluff exposed. That was it as far as features and shelter were concerned, unless you consider fence posts and a rare road sign any kind of protection against driving wind and rain or a vicious sun.
In theory, I was well removed from America's Tornado Alley, where twisters perennially reek havoc across the prairies, but this year the weather was proving ever more fickle. It was a month on from the Oklahoma disaster, where the tornado reached an unprecedented F6 on the Fujita scale (inconceivable). Twisters had been spinning strong and wild in sheltered states like Wyoming, not renown for this sort of meteorological mayhem, and it had been an unusually wet start to the summer.
As I rode through a sweltering day, I watched fluffy cumulus clouds build on the horizon and slowly congregate into small grey thunderheads. I noticed the ever-present westerly pick up pace and crank the thermostat up a whole lot of notches. Over a period of half an hour, the thunderheads grew exponentially, piling on the layers of black and bilious bitch. Across their tops, over twenty miles up, dull lights morphed through a restricted spectrum like failing disco lights. Similar to weak auroras, these were the signatures of sprites. I knew enough meteorology to be more than a little concerned. Sprites are a sign that a esoscale convective complex is approaching or, in plain English, one mother of a storm.
Things began moving fast. By late morning, storm front and cyclist met. Except for my grinding crank and the low wuthering of the escalating wind, the landscape fell silent. Over my head, the elements began acting out a drama as powerful as any Shakespearean tragedy.
They were poised for the battle scene. To the north were ranged the forces of good - a deep blue sky lined with battalions of white clouds galloping north east to gain an advantageous position. To the south, beneath the mass of dark forces, the horizon blazed as one fusillade of sheet lightening after another exploded from the barrels of heaven's howitzers. The front line of conflict was drawn up immediately above me and the line of the road, but it was moving quickly along the same angle the good guys were flanking
The rumble of hooves was the rumble of thunder sweeping across the plateau with increasing volume and speed. I upped my cadence to pedal out of the battle zone, aiming for a thin wedge of blue that opened in the ranks of the enemy. For a moment, I thought I had ridden clear. An almighty explosion banged into my ear drums, deafening me. A second later, a jagged shaft of megavolts thumped into the ground maybe a mile away. Beneath the swirling charge of hellšs dark knights, lightening zipped across the firmament. More forks grounded, landing closer. I was the tallest element in the landscape and a sitting target.
The first wave of battle passed overhead with only a splattering of rain. I was already wearing my waterproof jacket, leaving off the trousers so my legs could pump like fury unimpeded. Before I knew what had hit me, the second wave charged in, accompanied by a ferocious wind that stopped me dead and splattered me with sand. I ground forwards again, leaning into the storm.
Without the warning of thunder, a blinding flash of lightening shot out of the clouds and thudded into the desert across the road from me. It sounded like a firework - a demented squib, magnified and out of control. In the course of a split second, the earth shook, my ears popped, the wind was whacked out of my lungs and my brain frizzled. It was as if a hot metal wire had been banged through my left temple and yanked out the right. I swerved uncontrollably across the road and came to an clumsy halt. Where the lightening had struck, a cloud of steam lingered. I felt stunned.
Opening a sluice gate, the heavens rained down hail stones the size of gob-stoppers. I dumped the bike, stumbled through the bouncing hail and assumed a crouched position beside the road, holding my hands over my head to fend off the onslaught. There was nowhere to hide. The best I could do was tuck myself into a ball and let my hands and back take the full force of the frozen grape shot. Close behind me, I heard another squib plunge to earth. The impact lifted me off my feet and threw me forwards. With bum higher than head, I knelt in a field of white gob stoppers recovering from another hot wire lobotomy. It started to bucket down.
"Yo! Get in!"
The shout came from the wound-down window of a car that had pulled up on the opposite side of the road. A woman was beckoning me to get out of the torrential rainfall. I obviously wasn't thinking straight.
I'm going the other way," I screamed, "Thanks."
I wasn't going anywhere and the moment she pulled away, I had regrets.
Returned to my senses and aware I was saturated, there was only one course of action. Up-righting my bike, I leapt on the saddle and pedaled away as fast as the wind and zapped muscles would allow. My body temperature had plummeted. I had to light a fire in myself, fast, and the only way to stoke a blaze in these conditions was the frantic pounding of legs.
Along a washed out line, I carved through a freezing monsoon, flood waters streaming down my body underneath my clothing. I couldn't see a hand in front of my face. After quarter of an hour of trying to outrun hypothermia, the rain fizzled out, the dark forces parted, and the sun shone through. I started to steam.
On reflection, it had been a terrifying experience. When my frontal lobe wasn't frying, my brain worked double-time, rattling through options, survival scenarios and vague memories of what to do and where to be in a lightening storm. I hadnšt the time to be frightened. Probably the reason my brain was frantically scrolling was because I was shitting bricks at the other end. I had totally forgotten what to do and where to be in a lightening storm.
Five miles further on, my bottom lip quivering with cold, I climbed a low col. From the top, I saw the village of Farson in the distance, bathed in a warm glow that transformed the grey desert into green prairie. It was a crossroads community and river crossing, and had to have a cafe. Between rows of trashy trailer homes, junk-strangled bungalows and one ugly geodesic hovel, I shivered up to the crossroads.
In the Oregon Trail Cafe, a cowboy said, "You that bicyclist rode through the storm? Man, you gotta be crazy as a coyote under a full moon. I overtook you an' offered a lift. Guess y'didn't hear me."
I didn't even see him and his beat-up pick-up drive past.
Outside the window, steam rose from the flooded car park. The sky cleared and warm rays lit up the bridge straddling the Big Sandy River. 150 years ago, pioneers, Mormons, and gold seekers travelling west to promised lands forded the river at Farson, then probably no more than a tented trading post. According to their diaries, they too encountered storms like nothing they had experienced in Europe. Unlike myself, they had the benefit of their Conestoga wagons to shelter under.
I tore into a home-made burger the size of a hub cap, optimistic that the remains of the day would be warm and bright now the heavens had off-loaded their pent up rage. What I failed to see through the cafe windows was another storm system building in the south-west. I stepped out into a humid oven and instantly flooded with perspiration. In front of me, due west and the direction I was headed, the sky was a deep ultramarine. Ten degrees south it was black as night.
Less than a mile from the river crossing, I was hit by another rush of warm wind. Knowing what came next, I thought to turn back. In the field beside me, a farmer continued to plough a furrow, seemingly unperturbed by the weather closing in. Maybe this attack wouldn't be as bad? I slipped on waterproof leggings, and continued cycling, keeping an eye out for a storm drain I might dive in. Once again, white light strobed on the horizon and fork lightening darted from beneath the glutinous clouds. I looked to my right. The farmer was beating a retreat for home. With a clap of thunder, the tractor disappeared behind a veil of gob stoppers. They fell at an acute angle, driven by the gale, and this time were no bigger than marbles.
In quick succession, the monsoon followed the hailstorm. I tried curling my body into a drainage ditch less than two feet deep, hoping the levee might provide some protection from the driving stair-rods. It did, until a trickle of run-off grew into a mini tidal wave boring down the ditch. Relieved that rapid fire lightening had kept its distance, grounding several hundred yards away, I remounted and rode into the storm. The lashing I received was freezing and ferocious. The road disappeared under spray and water, its course marked by hovering snow poles, their bottom three foot invisible.
Ten minutes that felt like an hour later, the rain stopped and a shaft of sunlight struggled through. Behind the crack in the grey ceiling, another front was moving in, and another behind that. The landscape was flat as a pancake with nothing remotely approaching a ranch house standing tall. I was in for a cold, wet and miserable night under canvas. If I had any hope of waking the next morning without a raging temperature and double pneumonia, I had to stoke a glow if not a blaze in my whole body, not just my legs.
In a dry gulch known as Simpson's Hollow, I brought the day to an early conclusion, hunkering down for the next onslaught. Uncontrollable shivers impeded rapid erection of the tent. Low spirits and mental panic had me making basic mistakes as I fumbled through a process I could normally do in my sleep. Finally I crawled into the sleeping bag, loaded it with every item of clothing I carried and rubbed myself to a dull glow.
The expected torrential downpour never happened. Cautiously, I crawled out at twilight and found myself under a crystal clear sky. The first twinklings of the night's firmament were beginning to shine through. A lone antelope stood on a low bluff twenty meters from me and stamped her hoof, angry at my cramping her roaming of the open range. In the sagebrush, spiders were already at work mending their shredded webs.
I took a stroll down to the Big Sandy for a strip wash. The dust devil had penetrated orifices I never knew I had. When I removed my clothing, I saw my skin was blotchy with bruises. I had taken a pummeling under the hail, but it was a small price to pay for the raw and exhilarating experience of riding through an unbridled onslaught of elemental nature. I'm not a religious person, but I had witnessed such overwhelming forces and scales of movement that something eternal had to be at work. After such a day, one can only pause and wonder.
Adapted from After the Gold Rush by John Stuart Clark, ISBN 0907123406, available in USA from AK Press (firstname.lastname@example.org) at $19.95 or via this link on Amazon.co.uk and this link on Amazon.com. Mr. Clark is also the author of The Chalke Way: A Coast to Coast Cycle Ride Along Europe's Oldest Green Roads.
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