Upon awakening in Santa Fe it was heartening to read that some rain was expected that afternoon, since the Southwest is drought-stricken.
“We’ll see if we get more than a few drops,” said a friend, whose home we visited midday near Taos.
Even the hint of some weather (as they refer to it in California) enhanced the drive as the sky’s pastel colors deepened north of Taos. Clouds that had begun as wisps back in Arizona began to fluff and billow in northern New Mexico and a pale green-grey hung behind the hills. Nearing the Colorado border the landscape opened up into a wide range – as in ‘Home on the Range’. Road signs warned of horses and elk crossing the highway. I could see dark storm clouds off in the distance and was delighted as the light all around me turned iridescent. I drove many miles across that plain, alone on a two-lane highway through changing skies, without encountering another being.
Just over the Colorado border, the first thing I noticed in the hamlet of San Luis was a large green banner advertising the local shop that sells marijuana. Then, as I passed through the La Veta pass, toward Walsenburg, my eyes again turned skyward as the ever-present drama of jagged mountains and canyon walls was accentuated by fast-moving storm clouds. Past Pueblo, past Colorado Springs, as I neared the town of Limon twilight was glowing and the clouds were doing somersaults. At one point, a wide rainbow segment, off to the east, was suspended, mid-sky, held in place on the top and the bottom by fluffy, shiny, white billows, while darker skies in the distance formed a backdrop. Then came a flash of light so far off it was impossible to tell whether it was lightning or a communication tower’s beam.
That should have been my warning.
Or maybe the tip-off should have been the rain on the cars at the gas station I stopped at, vehicles that had arrived from the east, where I was heading. It was already 7 pm but it simply didn’t occur to me to stay in Limon and cancel the motel an hour away that I had booked in Burlington. Afterall, it was only an hour away and it wasn’t even raining. In fact, coming from dry, dry California, Arizona and New Mexico, I could barely remember what heavy rains felt like and I had yet to notice crossing into a radically different climate zone.
Barreling along Interstate 70, I could see sunset colors in my rear view mirror and wet pavement under my wheels – though it was still not raining. The flashes of lightning were coming down faster and closer, to the southeast, now in exciting, spikey designs. I saw some tumbleweed scurry across the highway and realized the wind was picking up. “I get it,” I thought. “I’m following the storm, kind of storm-chasing.” But, I realized, at 75 miles an hour I’m probably going faster than the storm and might overtake it.
Then the rain started to hit my Subaru hard and the lightning flashes seemed to be at 11 o’clock and 1 o’clock, no longer far off on the right. I wondered if it was safe to be on the road in a lightning storm and then remembered something about the rubber of automobile tires protecting car travelers from electrocution. Thunder rocked us. Gunter looked up and out the window, glanced at me for reassurance, and then put his head back on the backseat. Some dogs go crazy in a thunderstorm, but he seemed calm. I slowed down somewhat and figured that since there were still so many cars and trucks on the road, all was probably well. Just plow on, I thought. “Burlington, 34 miles,” said the sign. To the north, something seemed to be sucking the dark clouds down through the colored sky. Visually arresting, yes – but I was getting a bit nervous. Burlington, it suddenly occurred to me, was on the border with Kansas. “Kansas,” I thought. “Isn’t that tornado country? Aunty Em!”
The lightning was striking all around me now and my heart was beating. I decided to pull off at the next roadside service center in Siebert. A huge rig had also pulled in and I could see the trucker was inside having a coffee.
“He’s waiting it out for about a half hour,” the 40-ish cashier in the novelty store section of the restaurant said to me.
“I’m not from around here. Do you think I should keep going to Burlington,” I asked.
She pulled out her cell phone and started to show me the severe weather warning with the purple eye of the storm, the danger zone, right over Burlington.
“Why don’t you stay here until the storm moves east, like he’s doing,” she said, gesturing to the trucker. “You don’t have to worry about lightning. It don’t strike cars. But there could be a twister.”
“Can I bring my dog in, if I sit in the back, over there?”
“Sure. Let’s call him a service dog. Just keep him away from the food area.”
Behind her, on the wall near a rifle display, was a T-shirt that said “Obama: America’s Big Mistake.”
I went outside to get Gunter and chatted briefly with a fellow putting gas in his pickup truck. He had come from the south, the road that led to the town of Kit Carson.
“It’s nasty out there. Hail like golf balls coming down,” he said in a southern sounding accent. “I heard it on my radar.”
“Should I keep going east,” I asked him, presuming everyone but me was an expert.
“It’s real nasty out there,” he repeated, shaking his head.
Not being a smoker, I went inside and ordered some French Fries to calm my nerves. After tying Gunter to the table in the back, I went up again and ordered two eggs, scrambled.
“That for your dog,” a younger woman who was the short-order cook asked, smiling.
“Hmm,” I nodded. “Can you do it with very little oil or grease?
“It’s goes on the griddle there, anyway. I won’t add any.”
Then, it was 8:45 and the two women were closing up by 9 pm. The older one checked her smartphone weather app for me one more time and not much had changed. It was completely dark now but I got back into the car and headed into what had become just a light rain. In no time at all, I was back in the heavy rain, and even worse, the lightning bolts were hitting the ground fast and furious in a semi-circle all the way around my car, from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock.
“There’s only about 25 miles to go, and I’m going more than 60 miles an hour,” I said to Gunter. “We just have to get through the next 15 or 20 minutes.”
It was the longest 15 minutes I can remember. I was elated by the rush of survival when I pulled off in Burlington, where what seemed like dozens of vehicles crowded in the parking lot of the motel and dozens of people stood smoking cigarettes of storm relief around the motel entrance. The clerks were incredibly sweet. Was the name “Comfort Inn” a coincidence?
“Whoa. That’s the craziest drive I’ve ever had,” I said, checking in. They all smiled knowingly.
“We do get some weather here,” the night manager said.
An hour’s drive had taken two and a half. It was 9:30 pm on June 21st, the summer solstice. I knew that in my hometown in California locals were dancing at warm, dry solstice parties under the stars. Here, it had finally stopped raining but flashes of lightning were still illuminating the sky in the distance. On the web, I found out a twister had touched down just a few miles from here two weeks earlier. And I watched a You Tube video of the local celebrity storm chaser. I, a stranger to the area who had locked on the target of my motel, had inadvertently become a storm chaser too.
After more than seven hours on one of the most spectacular drives I had ever taken, I experienced two of the most terrifying driving hours I could remember. To those who believe in cosmic justice, rest assured that I indeed paid the price that night for the pleasures of that day. The sky that awed me in the afternoon, terrified me by evening.
That night, about 3 am, I woke up with sore hands and throbbing arms from clutching the steering wheel in the storm. Took some Advil.