Independence Day Adventures

Once again, I’m coming back to this blog after too long of a break! But summer has been busier than I anticipated, and sitting in front of a computer screen isn’t super high on my priority list when the weather is gorgeous and there are trails to chase.

However, yesterday’s adventures very specifically deserve an article, in the same vein as a few other of the “near miss report” or “hiking misadventure” articles I’ve written.

The glorious plan was to hike Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rockies (and consequently the highest point in the Hills) and watch ALL the fireworks. All of them. Rapid City, Custer, I think Hot Springs, and any other private/freelance/illegal displays we’d happen to see. It really was a good plan. But as the afternoon wore on, the sky grew heavier with clouds, and as we drove up to Sylvan Lake and picnicked there with the rest of our friends who were to hike this with us, the rock spires were hazy and faint behind low-lying clouds. We knew there wouldn’t be anything to see from the top of Harney Peak. Except clouds. And I can see clouds anytime I want from the top of Harney Peak. And it doesn’t have to involve hiking up there late in the day, and getting back down in the wee hours of the night. But we figured we’d at least see the flashes from the fireworks, which some of the group actually seemed to think would be as good as seeing the fireworks themselves.
IMG_20190704_185417051_HDRAnyway, we all wanted to hike, so we did. We were armed with rain jackets, plenty of water, some extra layers, cookies, summer sausage, and even a JetBoil and chai tea mix. We were set. None of us was really paying attention to the weather (oops), but as we hiked higher and higher, it grew foggier and foggier. It was a gorgeous hike, absolutely stunning. Trail #4 was more overgrown and green and lush than I’d ever seen it, with wildflowers galore, including spearleaf stonecrop, a little beauty I only discovered this year.
IMG_0199eWe made excellent time, and as we approached the spur to Little Devil’s Tower, we passed a group of three from St. Louis who had just come from Harney and were on their way down. Fog, fog, and more fog, was the report. Well, clever locals that we were, we continued our hike.IMG_20190704_191849647_HDRIt rained on and off, so our rain jackets went on, then came off, and went on again, and when we were about a mile and a half or two miles from the top, the thunder started. It was faint and unthreatening, and although the recommended caution is to not hike if you can even hear thunder, I’m afraid no one around here would ever hike if we seriously listened to that advice, since it always thunders. Not saying people shouldn’t listen to that advice, obviously, but I’m simply reporting on reality…Anyway, we continued on to the top, and by the time we were out in the open approaching the peak, the lightening was happening pretty fast, and the storm was obviously getting closer, just about on top of us. There was some concern among a few of us, but the firetower was just ahead, just another five or ten minutes away, so we kept on. If we turned around, there was less chance of shelter, lots of snags and widow makers, lots of open ground, no place to hide. The fog was even thicker now, and the sun had set awhile ago.Sure enough, we arrived at the top in good order, and there was absolutely nothing to see. Nothing. One other small group was crazy enough to hike Harney to watch fireworks in the fog (also locals, predictably), arriving at the top just minutes after we did. The fog was thick, and the darkness grew thicker. The lightening was flashing all around, mostly sheet lightening, but the thunder was constant, so that the thunder couldn’t possibly be associated with any particular flash of lightening. A few in our group checked the weather radars, now that cell service was back, and we had a huge storm approaching, including tornado warnings for our area. Oh, joy. We texted family members and let them know we were safe, and would ride out the storm in the firetower. Rapid City had cancelled their fireworks and Custer apparently had shot all theirs off already, ahead of the storm. So much for seeing bursts of light through the clouds.

The storm hit with some impressive force. We had gone to the lower level of the firetower, which is grounded in case of lightening strike and is of solid cinder block construction, and were busy making chai, getting warm and dry, and eating cookies, when the wind kicked up and hail started pinging against the windows, which flickered and flashed ceaselessly with lightening. Lantern light cast comfortably creepy shadows.received_2140918526211436
IMG_0205e We sheltered in place for more than an hour, waiting for the storm to pass. When the main brunt of the storm was beyond us, a handful of our group went upstairs and their exclamations brought everyone up. The heavy fog and clouds had lifted, and we had wonderfully clear views…of everything. We could see the lights of Keystone, Hill City, Custer, Rapid, and more, and the storm played out the most amazing lightening show we could have imagined. It was glorious and terrible and beautiful. The black of night was studded with the gems of the lights of the towns, with just the outlines of hills visible. The darkness was shattered again and again as sheet lightening and bolts lit up the night brighter than day, blinding, dazzling, and for mere moments making the fleeing, scurrying clouds visible as they scuttled across the sky, and lighting up layers and layers of hills. Occasional fireworks were shot off in the distance, and the clouds broke in the west, revealing the most delicate crescent of a golden moon. What a beautiful night, waiting out a storm at the top of Harney Peak with good friends.IMG_0245e
IMG_0218eAt last, there was a true break in the storm, and with another one set to hit in an hour and a half, we packed our bags and began the descent in the dark, our flashlights and headlamps bobbing along comfortably yet eerily in the blackness. It felt like we were the Fellowship of the Ring. Conversations bounced around quietly, there was occasional laughter, sweet friendship, and also a sense of calm urgency to make good time down the trail in case another storm hit. Lightening flickered way off in the lower sky, whenever we had glimpses of the lower sky, and thunder rumbled comfortably. The distance passed quickly in the dark.

It was midnight when we arrived back at the trailhead just as the rain was beginning to come in downpour. We hugged and said our goodbyes, and headed home, tired yet excited, and thankful that we were safe. The Christian radio station was playing the song “10,000 Reasons,” by Matt Redman. We sang along with it quietly, and the words were poignant.

Bless the Lord, oh my soul,
Oh my soul,
Worship His Holy name.
Sing like never before,
Oh my soul,
I’ll worship Your Holy name.
The sun comes up,
It’s a new day dawning;
It’s time to sing Your song again.
Whatever may pass,
And whatever lies before me,
Let me be singing
When the evening comes.
On Independence Day, it is so easy to get caught up in the patriotism and the celebration of freedom and hoping the best for our country. It is good to love one’s nation, and I love America. But the greatest freedom is the freedom that comes in knowing Christ, having our sins forgiven, our hearts changed, our relationship to God restored, and in living a spirit-filled life to please Him. What a way to celebrate the Fourth of July, with Christian brothers and sisters, wondering and marveling at the glory of His Creation, trusting Him for our safety (even in times of poor judgement), reveling in friendship and companionship, enjoying the freedom to worship our great God, and singing praise songs at midnight. And all this is just a foretaste of how glorious Heaven will be. America, I love you, and I pray that Americans would come to be known again as a nation that fears God. But America, you don’t hold a candle to the glory of Heaven, or even to the earthly glory of Christian fellowship, and I’m glad that I have citizenship there.
Soli Deo gloria.

Hiking | Mount Baldy Misadventures

So if you want an actual hiking review on Mount Baldy, check out this article from earlier this year, when we actually made it to the top. This hike was a little different. It just is, when you’re driving up to the trailhead and there is ice on the trees and a miserable “winter mix” is actively falling. It became much more snow-like the higher in elevation I drove, and when I arrived at the trailhead, there was no mix about it. It was snow. Which is so much better than “winter mix” for hiking in, by the way. It was colder than I had expected, but both of us were very well prepared with rain resistant gear and plenty of warm layers.
IMG_20181013_140245073_HDRIMG_20181013_140329983_HDRbaldy mapOut we went, into a world of gentle snowfall. The snow creates a profound and expectant silence, as little sounds are muffled and you become more aware of the sound of your own footfalls or your sleeve brushing against brittle tree leaves. IMG_20181013_141955025_HDRIMG_20181013_141950427_HDRAnd it was beautiful. I mean, absolutely gorgeous. The snow was enchanting, and the little bit of autumn still clinging to the aspens and birches shone out from under the layer of snow. Fallen leaves were covered thickly with shimmering water droplets, not cold enough yet to freeze.
IMG_20181013_142105734_HDRIMG_20181013_150206772_HDRIMG_20181013_150755072_HDRWe lost the trail for a bit when we headed up the mountain, but Baldy is an easy hike as long as you keep looking up. If you can still go higher, you’re not there yet. We rambled and wandered, both pretty familiar with the area, picking our way through deadfall and patches of juniper and old burned trees and massive boulders, eventually emerging at the base of the boulder field which begins the true ascent up Mount Baldy. In the summer time, the ascent is a challenge but very doable. But not so on this hike. Icicles sparkling on the edges of higher boulders suggested some inclement conditions, and we cautiously worked our way higher, the thrill of a challenge before us.IMG_20181013_154907495_HDRIMG_20181013_151828309_HDRAnd it was a blast. Definitely an adrenaline rush, but we were extremely careful and moved slowly, making sure of good footing and good handholds. We finally arrived at a point where we knew we could probably make it up higher, but would definitely have a hard time getting back down. Both of us are first responders, and the prospect of getting ourselves into a situation and having to call people we know and the subsequent embarrassment is a good deterrent for stupidity. Probably a good thing.
44091789_107112940231804_4791317240261640192_nIMG_20181013_151852002_HDRIMG_20181013_153043989_HDRWe headed back down, glad to get off the boulders and back onto somewhat more stable footing. If you can call snow-covered pine needles on a slope stable footing. The scenery was getting prettier by the minute, and the trail was dramatically changed from when we had hiked up. Tangled places were now a tangle of white, and the trail mud was covered over. It was a winter wonderland. I could feel ice on my eyelashes, but the rest of me was toasty warm, except for where my pants were wet from sliding and crawling on wet rocks. Mount Baldy really is a great cold-weather hike, since it is strenuous enough you warm right up!
IMG_20181013_164753487_HDRIMG_20181013_162647483_HDRIMG_20181013_163242177_HDRWhat we didn’t realize as we hiked back down is that while we were hiking, a surprise winter weather advisory was issued and warnings were going out all over the place. There we were up in the snow and ice, happy as larks, somehow not really thinking of the fact that the snow actually was accumulating a little and falling a little harder. But it just wasn’t very much. Our mistake. (In our defense, everyone in the area was surprised.) Here’s a view from the parking lot on our return, where Baldy should have been easily visible somewhere behind those trees and falling snow!
IMG_20181013_165303222_HDRAnd our day wasn’t over. When we arrived back at our vehicles and I went to start my (actually, my sister’s) truck, there wasn’t even a click. The engine was dead. Axel had jumper cables so we successfully jumped the truck. Hooray! But our trouble was only just starting. See, the entire time we were hiking, the snow wasn’t just laying down snow. It was laying down a treacherous layer of ice. After managing to get out of the parking lot with a lot of slipping and sliding and several attempts due to rear wheel drive, I fishtailed 100 yards down the desolate highway, looking in the rear view mirror just in time to miss seeing Axel’s car slide right off the highway into a ditch. With the amount of fishtailing I was doing at only 5-10 miles per hour and the road a steady incline for the next mile or two, I knew there was no way the truck was making it out (I really dislike 2-wheel-drive vehicles), and Axel’s car was stuck hard. Fortunately, a nice DOT guy drove past and we managed to hitchhike with him down to the fire station in Keystone. (That makes that the second time I’ve shown up at the Keystone fire station because of a vehicle-related issue. The last time was because I locked my keys and my phone in my truck at the gas station on the other side of town on my way to work. So I ran across town, borrowed a truck and went home for spare keys.) The rest of the saga doesn’t bear repeating, but let’s just say we had a jolly night driving back and forth on worsening roads with Sarah and her friend Luke (who had to rescue us again, the first time because I locked my keys in Axel’s car on the other end of French Creek Natural Area. There’s a scary pattern in all this.) to get Axel’s car towed out, and towed another person on the way home at the foot of Hayward Hill, which is something of a local legend and landmark. We topped off the night with hot chocolate and popcorn back at my Grandma’s house.
IMG_20181013_170631119Yet another in the series of Hiking Misadventures.