Explosions in the Sky: Pawnee National Grasslands

Thunderheads over Pawnee National Grasslands

In my seven years living on the road I have camped out more nights than I have slept under any one roof. I love camping, but every now and then I suffer through a wretchedly wet night. I can handle being cold. Getting wet, really wet, in the kind of rain that drowns any tent and necessitates a trip to the laundromat to dry everything out the next day, is pure, abject misery.

Abandoned Farmhouse, Pawnee National Grasslands, CO

This past weekend, camping in a rainstorm in the Pawnee National Grasslands east of Denver, I didn’t get wet, thanks to the Teardrop, but I also didn’t get any sleep. In that one night, I saw more lightning than I’ve ever seen in my entire life. It’s hard to sleep when you’re sure you’re about to be incinerated.

Evening walk in the calm before the storm

What a storm! All night long, torrential rain washed the outside of the Teardrop. The wind was so powerful that we were sure we were being blown halfway across the prairie. I can sleep through rain and wind. In fact, rain pinging and pattering on the outer skin of the Teardrop has quickly become one of my all time favorite sounds. But I could not sleep through that lightning storm.

I know that in theory, a car is the safest place to be in a lightning storm. The Teardrop is made of metal and sits on rubber tires, so it should provide the same kind of protection. It’s a nice theory, but I really didn’t want to test it out. The bolts I saw exploding out of that sky were beastly, more powerful than god. I’m sure that if one hit the Teardrop, it, and I, and everything I own, would explode into stardust. After camping on that wide open prairie, I know how it feels to be a sailor on a ship at the mercy of a storm.

Sitting ducks at Pawnee National Grasslands

When we chose that spot to set up camp, I knew a storm was brewing. Massive thunderheads of big white puffy clouds were rising to incredible heights over the flat landscape. As the sun set, the sky turned deep purple, then black and the wind picked up, blowing those storm clouds in our direction. I thought about moving camp, off the bluff, farther away from the wind farm cross the valley with its massive wind turbine lightning rods. But I parked on the butte because I wanted to see the storm.

Purple sky over wind farm

When lightning hits a wind farm, it comes to play. All night long, countless bolts fired down on those turbines. One bolt would hit, conducting a single solid stream of fire from the sky for several long seconds, then the single bolt would split into multiple flailing sideways tendrils that ricocheted from one turbine to another. I was sure the wind farm would be black and smoldering by morning.

Once again, no photos. I couldn’t shoot through the windows of the Teardrop and going outside would have been insane. I tried at the window for a few minutes, but then made myself put down my camera and just watch. Somethings should not be experienced through a viewfinder. Sarah and I stayed up most of the night, watching the lightning out the windows, huddled in the middle of the Teardrop, trying not to touch anything in the event of a strike. My dogs slept soundly, foolishly unimpressed, as always, by lightning.

The next morning I opened the door to find that the wind hadn’t moved us an inch. Even more shocking, the turbines were still tall, white and turning, apparently unfazed by the lightning storm. They must be grounded like no other. As for Sarah and I, we were dazed, mostly sleepless, but thrilled to have witnessed the storm of our lives.

On to Wyoming!

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
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22 Responses to Explosions in the Sky: Pawnee National Grasslands

  1. Andrew McAllister says:

    Glad you survived!

  2. I too love to camp, although it’s been a while. Mind you, I haven’t camped for an extended time like you, a month at most for me. Your descriptions made the whole thing come to life, I want to be there, to feel the wind and the freedom. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Compelling reading. Quite the adventure! 🙂

  4. coyotejoe says:

    i think i would take the lightning storm over the suffocating swarms of mosquitoes i experienced there.. you may have gotten the better deal, albeit a bit more dangerous

  5. Well, I’m glad you, your dogs and your friend survived the storm, but what an amazing opportunity you had to capture some impressive photos…especially with your good photography skills. Lightning photos are very special, if done right.
    Have you heard of the Lightning Field Artistic project in Western New Mexico? I know some folks who’ve been and have been blown away (not literally) when a lightning storm arrived on the night they were there. Check it out: http://www.sfaol.com/mccord/lightning.html

    I have a truck driving professional photography friend who has taken some gorgeous photos of lightning storms. He’s had many opportunities to capture them while on the road. His photos are so good that he’s able to make money from their sales. 🙂

    Tijeras, NM

  6. Wow, sounds intense! Glad everything/everyone was okay.

  7. ritaroberts says:

    Wow that was some storm. I would have been petrfied. You are so brave.

  8. evea192 says:

    Looks amazing!!! Love that smallish caravan? Lol!

  9. Dan Beideck says:

    As far as lighting is concerned, being near a bunch of wind turbines is probably about as good a place to be as you could find. A strike is far more likely to hit one of those than it is a car/trailer sitting on the ground nearby.

    The wind might be another story, however. I wouldn’t want to be down wind if one of the blades rips off!!

    Great story!

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  11. Awesome and frightening at the same time! I was on the edge of my seat! Thank you for sharing your photos and your story!

  12. Kendall says:

    Oh I love thunderstorms! Glad you were all safe in your teardrop and that your dogs don’t mind a little weather!

  13. JBPhotography says:

    I’m glad there was no incinerations!!

  14. Glenn says:

    The grasslands are awesome. There’s some really cool parts of them (with buttes and canyons) north west of Greeley, up by Grover, CO. Glad you survived…too bad there wasn’t a windmill anywhere nearby to act as a lightning rod!

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  19. Ben says:

    cool photos – followed your link in the DC. By the way, the reason that a car is safe in a lightning storm has nothing to do with the rubber tires. Rather, it’s that you’re contained with a metal cage, called a Faraday cage, that serves as a preferred route for the electricity. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Faraday_cage

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