As it turns out, many of us don’t get those clarifying moments in our lives when we can label ourselves with any sort of accuracy, but I was granted one such day. While on summer field (an intensive six week course on mapping), we had the privilege of mapping in a region of Nevada with deep, rumpled valleys. The floors of the valleys were at 7000 feet, the rims: 9000 feet. We, of course, were out in the middle of Nevada mapping in mid July. While most of Nevada is a very dry kind of desert, this region is prone to the occasional summer thunderstorm (Ely, Nevada for those who care). As always, the most interesting things are always the ones hardest to get to, and the rocks in this valley were no different. All the interesting rocks were at the top, along the rim, and that’s where we would all be hiking.
As per the normal routine, we got out of the vans and listened to the days lecture on the rocks we were about to map, and how we needed to determine the structure in the area and what forces had folded the regions rocks like the front end of a Toyota camri after a head on collision. Then, to our surprise, the TAs moved on to give us a talk about safety. They described the effects of lightning (as if we’d never been through a lightning storm before), and finished off by saying that if we found ourselves in an ionized column we should throw all the metal on our person as far away as possible while crouching down in the fetal position and balancing on our tip toes. No joke, and this is still the recommended stance if you’re caught out in the open.
Of course, we all looked around, sort of nervously inspecting our boot laces. I used the awkward moments to take stock of my metal objects: Cell phone, rock hammer, compass, carabineers to clip stuff onto my back pack, belt buckle, metal eyelets of my boots… the list went on and on. I came to the conclusion that I was a walking conductor with no actual hope of shedding all this metal in time to dodge out of the striking lightning. But the sky was clear, so when they ended their rousing safety speech, I, like everyone else, headed straight up the side of the mountain to get to those tantalizing rocks at the top.
That was at 7am. By 10 am, enormous billowing clouds were forming at 8,000 feet. That’s right, I got to watch thunder-boomers forming from above, nice perspective that. At noon I ate my sandwich while dipping my feet in the clouds, feeling like some great god toying with nature. By one, lightning was striking all around. I hadn’t finished mapping, and I’d be damned if I caved in before the boys. There was a bit of rivalry between the ladies and our male counterparts who seemed to have lost the ability to talk about anything other than mapping naked—it was that remote.
Determined to stay the course, and make the world’s greatest map, I played chicken with the clouds. I told myself that I’d stay on the ridge until the lightning was really REALLY close. I decided that anything under the 4 second mark would be a little too close for comfort. And so I walked along the ridge counting between the flash and the boom to determine if my life was yet in danger. I know this is a terrible way to do it. People can be struck by lightning as far as twenty miles from a storm. And here I had lightning on all sides: Grade A dumb.
Then one particularly bright flash happened and I opened my mouth to count (turns out I talk to myself while mapping the great wilds). The percussion wave knocked the air out of me before I could say “One.”
At that moment in life I knew something very valuable about myself: I am a coward.
With no conscious thought, my legs propelled me right over the edge towards the valley floor and presumed safety. I leapt bushes, rocks, and cacti. Nothing would slow me. I have never—before or since—moved as fast as that day. I descended 2,000 feet without falling in only a few short (terrified!) seconds. I really have no idea how I managed it, but by the time I made the valley floor, the gods had sent hail stones to ensure I’d learned my lesson.
And boy did I ever. I’m mortal. A mortal coward.
And what does this have to do with anything? Well, I’m about to send out the query letter, and I feel like I did at 3:30 that day, hiking back up to 9000 feet.