As a child, I learned how to approximately judge the distance to the point a lightning bolt struck the ground. This indispensable piece of knowledge I learned from a Berenstain Bears book.
Count the seconds after seeing the flash of the lightning, Papa Bear told his frightened Bear children. Count until you hear the rumble of thunder. Each second counted in between the flash and rumble of the bolt equaled a distance of a thousand feet. Count to five before feeling the rumble, the lightning struck five thousand feet away, approximately. This I learned more than a decade and a half ago as a five-year-old, and remains embedded in my head, making itself useful every time I passed underneath a thundercloud.
It certainly made itself useful the night we drove from the Smoky Mountains to the Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Near the Mammoth Cave, with Scott and Kevin sound asleep, thick sheets of rain started assailing the Corrolla. Bolts filled the air with brief shocks of light, but they seemed far away.
That is, they seemed far away, except for the one that struck just as we turned into the National Park access road. First, the flash of lightning, then, almost instantaneously, the menacing roar of thunder. Even with the hum of the engine, I felt it within the floorboards. Not even a second passed in between the flash and the rumble. Using my Berenstain Bear smarts, that meant the bolt struck less than a thousand feet away. Way less.
Worse still, we were headed straight towards the thunderclouds, bringing the bolts ever closer to our fragile Corrolla.
It was almost midnight at the time, and I was on the tail end of a five-hour drive, and that day we’d hiked up and down Mt. LeConte(See Kevin’s previous entry). Needless to say, I was tired. My mind was fried and frightened, and it progressed into the early stages of delirium. Sort of.
In this state, I started imagining a battle between two Bobbys, perch on each shoulder. On my right, righteous Robert was saying “We’re driving right towards the source of the lightning. This is madness!” In response, reckless Rob on my right says “Madness? No. This is MAMMOTH!” And with a round house kick, he knocks righteous Robert off my shoulder and into the aromatic depths of the Dunkin Donuts coffee cup in my lap.
(I know, I know, it’s a cheap parody of a famous scene from a well-known movie. My mind was over tired—please don’t blame its imagination for its lack of creativity at the time.)
The delirium subsided as Scott and Kevin woke, and we got to the campsite soon after. By then, the rain had subsided, and we got the tent up before the torrents returned. Inside the tent, we discovered a small leak. 67-dollar tent, a hole already, what do you expect?
Scott was asleep in no time, but Kevin and I made a mistake, the worst possible in such conditions: we started talking about all the bad things that could happen. Stupid, huh?
I told him of the possibility of a bolt striking a tree nearby, tearing it from its roots and sending it careening towards out tent. We’d be flattened in an instant, pancakes, anybody?
He imagined an intruder coming up to our tent, axe in hand, silhouette visible each time the lightning flashed. He’d be dressed kinda like the guy from I Know What You Did Last Summer only with an axe instead of a hook. We fed the fire that was our paranoia.
I touched a root beneath the tent’s tarp floor and recalled a story where a couple campers lying beneath a tree root had died, electrocuted by a lighting stroke that had struck the root’s tree. The paranoia was ablaze, only to be seen in our fearful eyes.
And so the horror stories came, us each taking turns feeding the fires. It was a long time before we flicked the flashlight off for the final time. In the dark, the flashes of lightning still came. At each flash, I used the Berenstain Bears trick, assuring myself that the charges of electricity were coming down three, four, even six thousand feet away. After a while, the flames of paranoia died down, replaced with the warm embers of exhaustion. Finally, I dozed off to sleep at Mammoth Cave National Park.