2014 Nebraska – Day 16 – Decatur – Ponca State Park: When the park superintendent visits your campsite….

Tuesday June 3, 2014, 67 miles (107 km) – Total so far: 734 miles (1,182 km)

I could tell you stories about the hills of loess soil which mantle the glacial tills. I could you stories about the sad state of the Winnebago reservation where the ‘drug dependency unit’ sign is the first thing you see when passing the hospital and where a ‘wellness centre’ seems too little too late to rebuild a broken culture. I could tell you stories about Lewis and Clark, the landfill that has every possible type of windmill displayed out front, the zillions of trucks heading to and from the ethanol plant, or the lady at the gas station in Ponca that has lived there her whole life and has six daughters, 19 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren (all of whom still live in a 50-mile radius). I could describe the layers of rock visible at the boat ramp at Ponca State Park and tell you when they were deposited and what Nebraska looked like at the time.

But that is not the story of today. Today’s story is all about weather. So let’s begin.

Strong storms are forecast for this afternoon. I don’t have more detail than that because I haven’t had wifi to check the weather since Onawa. I have about 70 miles to ride to get to Ponca State Park, so I’m up at 4.45 am and on the road at 5.30 am in hope that I can make it there before the storms. It’s another race day.

I pedal up and down the hills for a couple of hours into a light westerly wind. The sun rises through the haze, filtering down through the stickiness of summer. Off to the west, high and flat but dark clouds are forming. It’s almost like a disc of darkness with a hazy, light blue surrounding it. As I head north, the disc grows until it fills most of the sky overhead and to the west. By the time we cruise down into the Winnebago reservation, thin clouds cover the sunlight overhead and the darkness behind me and to the west looks a bit ominous. And then the wind dies. It is kinda eerie. I wonder if that is the frontal boundary where the storms will form later. Northeast Nebraska is supposed to be ground zero for the very bad storms.

The darkness behind me grows ever more angry. Looking back in that direction, I wonder if it is raining. All of the cars coming from behind have their headlights on; however, none of the cars are wet. Still, I am extremely happy I’m riding away from that instead of into it.

A house I could afford. If I wanted a house.

By the time I get to the turn-off to Highway 12 for Ponca, there is some sun poking through the high, thin, grey clouds overhead. It still looks turbulent to the south. I stop to pick up a sub sandwich at Ponca. It takes forever to get a sandwich made as the poor lady is back there trying to get all the hot items out in the heat tray, too. While I’m waiting, I converse with an 80-something-year-old woman. She asks me where I’m going tonight because there is very bad weather forecast. She asks me several times if I’ve seen the weather report.

I finally get my sandwich and some drinks and go outside to pack them in my panniers. While I’m doing so, a farmer looks over from the gas pumps while filling up his pick-up truck. Before he goes into pay, he walks over and asks where I’m heading. He warns me I should head out soon as very bad weather is coming. I thank him and tell him I’m leaving as soon as I get the sandwich in my bag.

At the moment, I’m not too concerned because it’s sunny, and it looks a heck of a lot better here than where that disc of darkness was eating the blue sky. The high humidity and total lack of wind is very odd feeling though. It’s as if the air is just hanging in anticipation. Of something. Then, a truck driver pulls in as I’m pulling out. He waves me down as he climbs down from his cabin.

“Hey, there is really bad weather forecast. It’s already dropping hail in South Dakota. It will be coming this way later. Which direction are you heading”?

I reply, “I’m just heading up to the state park. I’m about done for the day”.

“That’s good. I wouldn’t want to be going much further if I was you. The weather forecast is really bad. We don’t get forecasts in this area much worse than what they’re saying. Stay safe”.

And so, with dire warnings from three locals, I head up and out to the state park. The girl at the visitor centre desk is not really concerned at all when I ask if she has an update on the weather. She looks at the radar and says, “well, there’s rain northwest of here in South Dakota. But they often get stuff we don’t get.”

I don’t want to doubt her, but she looks to only be about 20-years-old. I’ve just gotten warnings about awful weather from three separate locals all much older, and presumably more experienced, than her. Plus, I don’t know the weather patterns here, but something does feel odd today. I do know the area is under a flash flood watch, a severe thunderstorm watch and a tornado watch. So when I ask about primitive camping, I ask if she has any sites available close to some sort of shelter.

She thinks about it. She then gives me a choice. I can stay in some primitive sites near the shower building, but those sites are a bit exposed up on a hill. Or I can stay down in sites along a creek. It will be much more protected from the wind there, but the old toilet block wouldn’t be much shelter. There is an old, stone CCC shelter nearby though, and the manager’s residence isn’t too far away.

I choose the protected sites down along the creek. The woman sitting next to the girl helping me turns around to say, “We’ll let the manager know you are down there. If it gets really bad, you can always come back up here. The basement here is a tornado shelter, and someone would be here to open it if there is a tornado warning.”

I thank them and then spend 20 minutes checking out the exhibits about the Missouri River and the state park. This building is very new and the exhibits well-done and current. But I can’t tell you all the differences between the types of paddle-wheelers that plied the river, because I don’t remember now. All of that info got shoved out of my brain by the events to come before I had a chance to write it down.

I ride up to the 3-state overlook. The overcast sky has stretched itself over the entire dome of sky now. I eat my sub sandwich on a picnic table and say hello to the only other park patrons I will see all day.

3-state overlook. Badly positioned camera. T minus 1 hour until the storms hit.

The ride to the campsites includes a huge downhill. There are broken branches and leaves all over the roadsides from the storm that missed Onawa a couple days ago but really battered this park. They are using front-end loaders and bobcats to clear all of the debris.

I find the sites strung out along the road. It is far enough away from the visitor centre, and the loess hill topography steep enough, that there is no way I’d be able to make it back to the visitor centre in time if a tornado siren sounded. I am on my own.

I choose the one campsite that is just a little way up a hillside. I’ve been in a flash flood that killed people before, so you will not find me camping in a low-lying area if there is a flash flood watch in effect. I’ve seen water rushing where you’d never think water would go, so up the hill I trek, despite that the site is the furthest away from the CCC shelter.

I try to position the tent away from overhanging branches, then text my Mom: “safe, camping at ponca state park tonight”. I grab the guys to take them for a short hike. It is cloudy and ominous, but nothing seems imminent, so let’s not waste time. Let’s go get nerdy.

Missouri River looking toward South Dakota and Iowa.

I hike along through the hills and then down to the boat ramp. I hear the first rumbles of thunder as the sky gets a bit darker. I examine the rocks in the bluff – there is 150 feet of Graneros shale and Greenhorn limestone underneath a mantle of Peoria loess visible here. The shale and limestone were deposited during the Cretaceous when this area was covered by the Western Interior Seaway about 90 million years ago. But that’s as nerdy as we can get today, as the rumbles of thunder are growing longer and closer. I’d hoped to have a look for fossils, as there are huge clam fossils to be found in the Greenhorn limestones. But that’s not happening today.

The guys enjoying the river while I enjoy the geology in the bluffs. T minus 20 minutes until the storms hit.

The first few big splats of raindrops fall intermittently as I head the long way back to my campsite. The thunder eventually becomes the kind you can’t ignore. It rumbles on for minutes only to be interrupted by closer rumbles that crack and roll with an exclamation that it is time to get back to the tent. Now!

As I’m hurriedly walking down the road to my campsite, a park worker stops her truck next to me and asks if I want a lift. I tell her I’m okay and she says, “get to shelter soon. There is really horrible weather coming”. A woman in a car behind her slows and rolls down her window, “Did she tell you about the weather”? I say yes, I’m heading back to my campsite now. The lady replies, “Good. It’s going to be really bad”.

You’d think I’d be absolutely paranoid by this point, but not having a smartphone means ignorance is bliss. I know there are storms, but I don’t know how bad they are going to be. I get to the tent just as the rain starts and the lightning becomes constant. I turn my phone on – a 2010 flip-phone on Verizon’s CDMA network. I have some data included on my $35/month pre-paid plan, and I think they have their own weather site, so I figure it can’t hurt to take a look. I actually have 3 bars of reception down in this gully.

When I turn on the phone, there is a text from my mom. It says, “glad you r safe. Keep eye on weather”. It turns out that my mom had been watching the Weather Channel that morning and they had a bulls-eye directly over my location with a Tor-Con of 7 (the channel’s graphic that gives an indication of how likely a tornado is to strike the area, in this case, 7 out of 10). A few days later, when speaking to my mom, she says she worried about me that entire day because they rarely give Tor-Cons that high, and the last time she’d seen one that big, it produced two EF-4 tornados that wiped out a town in southern Indiana.

I do manage to find a weather site on MyVerizon that gives me radar that I can zoom in and out. As the lightning flashes constantly and the wind roars through the trees, I zero in on the area. Oh, crap, crap, crap. It is bad. Really bad. There are brown bits. That is what you find after super dark maroon red; it indicates the highest intensity on the scale. And oh crap, oh crap, oh crap – that finger-like thing on the radar has the shape of a bow echo. This is not good. Oh crap, not good at all.

The ground vibrates beneath me with the cracking thunder. It is as if the sky is peeling apart and the tear in the atmosphere is wrenching open with pops, explosions and deep, resonating booms. The sky is a constant flicker of continuous lightning strikes. The rain beats down on the mud which splatters high onto the sides of the tent and under the fly. The noise is tremendous. And I’m starting to get scared shitless. The only thing that keeps me calm is that it looks like the worst of that brown, red and orange turd-like thing on the radar is heading south and east.

Crap, crap. Keep calm, Em. Come up with a plan. Come up with a plan. What are we going to do if it gets worse? Worse – it can be worse? Everyone I love, everything I hold dear, seem so incredibly far away. It is just me, a couple stuffed things and a tent made of thin nylon against the tempest of terror that envelopes my whole world.

So what? Come up with a plan. What are we going to do if worse comes to worst? We’re on our own. Not a single other soul is camping down here. It is very rare that I wish I had anyone with me on tour. I enjoy the solitude more than most. But, holy crap, would I give anything to have some smelly riding partner squished in the tent with me right now.

And then, a person appears. I hear a voice over the roar of raindrops on the tent fly. The man calls, “is there anyone in the tent”? I say yes and unzip a vestibule. It is the park superintendent whom has dashed up from his truck in the tempest to check on me. He wants me to leave and come with him right now. He’ll drop me off in the tornado shelter. But that would mean I’d have to leave all my gear. So I don’t want to go. Maybe it’s stupid (in hindsight, IT WAS!!!), but I think I have a better chance of saving my gear if I’m here.

He’s concerned about the wind. The last storm two days ago did extensive tree damage in the park, and he’s worried it may have weakened other trees. He stands there in the pouring rain looking at the trees nearby to assess my danger. The only reason he allows me to stay is because I’m watching the radar on my phone and have a plan to run to the CCC shelter if it gets any worse. He warns me that the turd-thing on my radar is a severe storm that has 70-mph winds and is dropping baseball-size hail. It is nothing to underestimate. Stay safe!

He runs back to the truck in the pouring rain and I’m all alone again. Come on, Em, what’s the plan? When I set up the tent today, I set out all the guylines and whacked in the pegs very, very deeply. I did not unload any of my panniers, and set all of the weight against the windward side of the tent. I decide I should put my helmet on now and put all of my valuables in one pannier. If the hail comes (baseball-size is big enough to break bones), I will run for the shelter with my one pannier. The helmet may also protect me if a tree drops a limb on my tent. Or so I hope.

I do manage to read the park newsletter while the sky rips open above me and the rain falls in every direction around me. Wave after wave of rain slams against the tent. The trees moan and groan and their leaves sound like a million pages of paper being violently shuffled by the wind. The thunder is deafening when it first cracks forth; then it echoes in my ears as it tumbles and tumbles in the longest rolls of thunder I think I’ve heard in my adult life. But still, I sit there calmly in the tent with my helmet and shoes on, bag packed. I continue to read the paper and occasionally check the radar. There are more storms coming, but nothing as brown and menacing-looking as the first.

I can stay calm because I have a plan. And a back-up plan (take up the tornado position, which we learned at school, under the picnic table if we can’t get to the shelter). None of it’s great, but it’s the best we can do. The one thing I always find I have in common with other solo female travellers is that we almost always have a plan, and a back-up plan, when we encounter dodgy situations. We never proceed into potentially bad situations without thinking about what might happen and how we should react. So here I am, with a bit of a plan and whole heck of a lot of uncertainty and loneliness.

The first storm lasts nearly 30 minutes. As it dies down, I can feel myself physically relax. Just a little. But the calm between the storms is short. Another round of lightning, thunder, wind and rain arrives in less than 15 minutes. And so it goes for the rest of the evening. Eventually I take my helmet off – convinced that the storms coming through now are just frightening and loud but not deadly.

The weather gods have put the sound and light show on repeat. It storms for hours and hours, but luckily the biggest rumbles of thunder always come from the south, and radar shows that everything is moving south and east, so none of the really bad-sounding stuff comes my way.

Eventually, I unroll my sleeping pad and sleeping bag, and crawl in fully-clothed. Sometime long after midnight, the storms finally subside and I manage to sleep. It is well-earned. We’ve been up since 4.45 am, rode 67 miles and most likely had a very unhealthy blood pressure for quite a few hours.

I hear more rain in my sleep and dream about trying to climb canyon walls to get out of a flash flood. The walls keep crumbling and I keep sliding back into the water. I wake up with a jerk and a start. I’m ready to run. But it’s okay… it’s just a gentle rain outside, we’re safe, everything in the tent seems dry. We’ve survived this one unscathed.



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