Explosions in the Sky: Pawnee National Grasslands

Thunderheads over Pawnee National Grasslands

I’m currently in western Virginia, pretty far from the center of Sandy. So far we’ve had high winds and rain, but the James River doesn’t seem to be rising and the Teardrop hasn’t blown away yet. My friends and family farther east are all safe and dry, though many of them are in the dark. In honor of Sandy and the awesome power of epic storms, here’s my account of the craziest storm I’ve ever witnessed: an exploding sky over a wind farm on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

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 thunder and lightning.

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.

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.

Sorry, no photos. I couldn’t shoot properly 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. 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 survived the storm of our lives. Now I know how it feels to be a sailor on a ship at the mercy of a storm.

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.
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized, Vagabonding 101 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Explosions in the Sky: Pawnee National Grasslands

  1. ritaroberts says:

    Hi Mary,My goodness,you are one in a million.Im so glad you and dogs are o.k. after the storm. My friend has just returned from a holiday with us to Denver Colorado so I hope she is o.k. Thanks for letting us all know you are O.K. Im sure I speak for us all. Take care,keep us posted.

  2. Such an incredible storm adventure. Like being in a time capsule. So good to know you came out safe and sound.

    • Yeah it was a bit of a stressful night but totally worth having the experience! Nothing like a night spent under the threat of incineration to make you really appreciate the dawn!

  3. Alice says:

    Aha! You were in my neighborhood–the thunderstorms–nothing like them. Except maybe the blizzards. Or the winds. Or the heat. Or the stars, the skies,the clouds, the plains! Your pictures and words captured some of the wild beauty.

    • Thanks Alice! I do love the Great Plains! Such drama and majesty, in all weather! My only experience with snowstorms on the plains is from reading Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow. Brrrr!

  4. Chris Major says:

    Thank you for sharing this story, I find experiences like this humbling. It is really important for me in order to keep my ego in check to be reminded of how vulnerable I am. After a run or climb I can feel invincible and nature is fantastic at calming me down by showing me real power and beauty!

    • Thanks, Chris! I know how you feel. The other night I got caught out on the trail after dark and hiked the whole way home without deploying my headlamp and without tripping. I was feeling quite smug until I got home, ran up the stairs, missed a step and fell flat on my face. So much for being invincible.

  5. Joni says:

    I have never been afraid of any type of storms until a tornado put a tree thru my house about 20 years ago. Now I’m afraid of the wind but not the rest…I think I’m like your doggies…foolishly in denial. Don’t know why b/c I worry about EVERYTHING…LOL. Glad ya’ll are safe.
    Take care,

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