The scary, scary thunderstorm: Gillette to Buffalo
Monday May 27, 2013, 70 miles (112 km) – Total so far: 1,676 miles (2,697 km)
What started out as a cool, cloudy morning with dark and low stratus clouds scudding across the sky has turned into total terror. And my brain is not helping.
Before I left Gillette, I looked at the radars and forecasts on both the Weather Channel on TV and the National Weather Service online. I looked at both regional and local radars. All of this information showed clear radars and a forecast for a 40 percent chance of rain this afternoon in Gillette and Buffalo.
But now, at about 9.30am, about 10 miles from the Powder River, it has all gone to shit. A few minutes ago, I stopped to take a photo of the freeway weaving its way through the eroded hills of the Wasatch formation to show the terrain that I travelled through all morning. As I was taking the photo below, I thought: “Those clouds there to the southwest look a bit darker than the others.”
Immediately after thinking this, the clouds let out a warning. One streak of lightning flashes downward in a bright bolt of energy and light. The ions split, clash, or do whatever they do, and the thunder rumbles soon after.
My brain says, “maybe it won’t be too bad.” Another flash of lightning and roll of thunder issues forth. Brain replies, “maybe it will just pass over, or pass to the northwest.” More rumbling in the far distance.
I begin to pedal on, because what else do you do in a landscape of rolling, eroded hills, no trees and no exits with underpasses to shelter under.
The storm comes fast. Within five minutes, the lightning and thunder are right on me. I think back to Illinois. It will be okay. I’ve ridden in thunderstorms before. This is what I tell myself with whatever part of the brain’s left side that’s in charge of logic and reasoning. But that only lasts for about a minute.
Off to my left, I see a lightning bolt fork out of the cloud and reach right down to the earth. I’m not sure if the explosive boom that immediately follows is the lightning cracking rock on the earth’s surface, or it is sourced from the immediate boom of thunder. It actually hurts my ears. I audibly gasp and whimper. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen cloud-to-ground lightning in person before.
The left-side of my brain now goes completely quiet. But my amygdala, the reptilian part of the brain at the base of the brain stem associated with fear responses, starts screaming. It says (language warning here): “Fuck, fuck, fuck! We are so fucked! Cry! Yell! Do something! We are in big fucking trouble!”
The left-side of my brain feebly attempts to assess the situation. It tells me to look at the roadside. I need a ditch. I need somewhere to squat and get down low. I need a gully. NO, I don’t need a gully. Gullies are dangerous because you can act as a spark-plug between the narrow edges. We need a ditch. Ooh, there’s a bit of a hill rising from the road – no, it’s too exposed. I don’t see anything suitable. Just keep riding.
Off to the forward right this time, another bolt of cloud-to-ground lightning strikes the ridge a quarter mile away. Again, the percussion of thunder is so loud it actually hurts my ears. The reptilian part of my brain totally takes over, shouting and screaming: “We are so fucked!” Reptile brain says I should cry, too, and I can feel the tears beginning to well up.
At this point, the rain begins to pour down. The cars pass by me, throwing sheets of rain and road grime at me from the side while the clouds douse me with cold rain from above. Each truck covers me with mist – I can taste dirt and oil in my mouth after they pass. My rear blinkie light is flashing, but it is no match for the downpour.
Whatever part of my brain that is calling the shots now, decides to be incredibly helpful. These are the exact thoughts in my head as I ride through the downpour, on an interstate, with lightning and thunder crashing all around me:
“Oh, man, why couldn’t it be snakes? You know, like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Line the road with snakes. I’m not afraid of snakes. If there’s gonna be danger, let it be snakes. Just not lightning. You know I’m afraid of lightning. Line the road with snakes.”
“Oh, I wish I had my teddy bear right now… that’s it, line the road with teddy bears. That’d be better. A whole bunch of teddy bears. That’s what I need. No, that’d be cruel to the bears. They’d get all soggy. It’d destroy them.”
“Shouldn’t we be looking for somewhere to shelter? No, nothing matters now. Just keep riding. Look, it looks lighter over there. Why don’t you just close your eyes (REAL HELPFUL!), then you won’t have to see the lightning. Just stop. Stand there. Close your eyes. Then you won’t see death coming.”
Yep, thanks brain. Real helpful. I guess this means you don’t want to depend on me to save people or do heroic things in an emergency. I’m going to be the one over there thinking about snakes and teddy bears.
At this point, my feet are soaked. They’ll remain wet for the rest of the day. I’m pretty dry though in my rain jacket and pants. Slowly, the thunder and lightning move off to the northeast. The sky brightens marginally. I’m pretty sure I’m going to live. But that’s the most scared I’ve been in as long as I can remember.
About 15 minutes later I reach the rest area on the Powder River. These are the only services in the 70 miles between Gillette and Buffalo. I desperately need to pee. But the restrooms are closed. What?! So I do what you do. I go to the backside of the building and pee there – trying to be quick since there are people coming and going. Aaahhh. Quite a few other people stop and get pretty ‘pissed off’ when they find the toilets closed.
The sun actually comes out – so I take off my shoes and socks, hoping they might dry a little. The caretaker shows up and comes over to chat.
Caretaker: “Did you get caught in that big storm?”
Em: “Yeah, my feet will be wet the rest of the day.”
Caretaker: “That was some pretty impressive lightning wasn’t it? It struck the transformer over there and knocked the power out. That’s why the toilets don’t work – the pumps run on electricity.”
Em: “Oh, I see. I’m very glad the lightning hit your transformer instead of me, though.”
Caretaker: “Yeah, that would’ve been scary to be out in that. Be careful, there will be more storms later today. I can see them building over the ranges on the radar. On your way to Buffalo, there will be a few underpasses, but be real careful because it can flash flood through those. A couple people lost their Harleys last year when they were sitting under one.”
He also tells me to be careful in the roadworks and lets me know it only lasts for five miiles. I thank him for the useful info, before he heads on to collect the trash and calm a few people down about the toilets.
The five miles of road construction stretch from the rest area exit to the top of the hill to the west. The east-bound lanes are all down to dirt, so the west-bound lanes carry all of the traffic for both directions. This means the vehicles heading west-bound are travelling in the shoulder. The cars can get by me okay if I ride on the very edge of the pavement, but the semis and RVs take all of the pavement, so I’ve got to dive for the dirt every time I see one coming in my mirror. I’m going very slowly since it’s uphill, so it seems like it lasts forever. Nothing like being scared shitless twice in one day.
Once to the top of this climb, however, it is mostly downhill the rest of the way to Buffalo. From the interstate, the Powder River Basin stretches out in all directions. It is a rough and broken country. All of this rock is basin fill of the Wasatch Formation. It was deposited by streams after the retreat of the Cretaceous seaway about 50 million years ago in the Eocene.
The landscape is harsh. If not for coal seam gas compressor stations, and the trucks moving the gas, there would be no people or animals or structures visible anywhere. This is sort of a classic, stereotypical vision of Wyoming. Sagebrush hills roll forth in all directions, a seemingly lifeless landscape somewhere to travel through on your way to somewhere else. It’s not a place to settle – just a place to extract resources but otherwise leave alone.
I like this landscape, and I like to think about all the erosion that would have covered this U-shaped basin with these thick Wasatch formation sediments, but I do not feel the connection to it that I felt in the rolling hills of the Sand Hills or High Plains. I will be happy to get to Buffalo.
The Big Horns rise up into the clouds to the west. They remain mostly hidden today. The vertical displacement between basin and mountain top make the Big Horns seem taller than they are. For example, the highest mountain is Cloud Peak at 13,165, though you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it was taller. The really neat and nerdy thing to think about though is that there is nearly 30,000 feet of displacement between the Precambrian rock found at the top of Cloud Peak and the same rock found buried beneath sediment in the basin we’ve just ridden through.
There are storms building behind me, so I’m hammering it down the last 10 miles. There are a few climbs through here, but it’s mostly downhill. I continue to pedal hard all the way to the RV campground called Deer Park. Once I get my tent set up, I emit the biggest sigh of relief ever heard from a touring cyclist.