Sunday, July 15, 2007

Thunder, Lightning, Fire, Rain

I could only make out a few of the words of robotic voice coming from the weather radio. John was in the kitchen preparing breakfast, and as is his habit, listening to the day’s forecast. “Thunderstorms…lightning…afternoon…higher elevations…” An ominous prognostication, and what better to do on a day like this but to go for a hike?

Our destination was Cloud's Rest (9,926’), the highest peak in proximity to Yosemite Valley and east of Half Dome. The trailhead is just west of Tuolumne Meadows, a mere 45 minutes from our front door (we still can’t get over that). We were hiking by 8 am, with the thought we could beat the forecast. A moderate hike in elevation gain (approximately 2,000’ gain) and more moderate in distance (seven miles one-way). We made good time, prodded perhaps by the vigilant mosquitoes in the marshy areas. By 11 am we were at the top, picking out high points in the distance, taking pictures, chatting with our fellow summiteers. We could not help but notice the building clouds, since they made taking sunlit pictures of Half Dome difficult. We decided to eat our lunch in a less exposed place, and descended to the ridge below.

As we began the hike back, the clouds became grayer, and to the south they had a streaky, dripping look. We kept moving, and soon flashes were seen to the south. Counting the seconds from when we saw the flash to when we heard the thunder, we judged it to be 10 miles away. The flashes and rumbles continued, the time gap rapidly closing between the two. Soon one drop, then another, and we were soon running to the nearest tree with generous branches. The remainder of the hike was this hide-and-seek game of finding shelter during the downpours. But it is an exhilarating to be in the middle of weather – the sound of the thunder passing overhead, the lightning flashes, the wind as the cell passes, the fresh smell of rain on the dusty trail.

As we drive down Tioga Pass towards home, the clouds to the southeast looked peculiarly brown. We guessed a fire, but where? As we reached Highway 395, we could see towards June Lake, and there a plume rising from the sagebrush plain. A section of Highway 395 was closed, and all traffic was being detoured on the June Lake Scenic Loop. A lightning strike at June Lake Junction started a fire, and all motor homes, semis, and Harleys were being diverted through our little town, on the main drag just a few tens of feet from our front door. We could see the smoke rising from the kitchen window, just two miles from home. The wind shifted late in the evening, blowing up canyon towards town. We closed all the windows for the night to keep and traffic noise out. Luck was on the firefighter’s side – the clouds yielded rain early the next morning, and by late afternoon the highway was reopened.

We have since passed through the fire area, and burnt stands of trees and sagebrush straddle the highway. Fire trucks are still roaming the area, putting out the last embers. The blackened remnants of the trees will be around for many years to come, a reminder of a day of extreme weather. It can be a delight when you are safe, but the consequences may be less so somewhere else, where you are not.

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