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.
Anyway, 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.
We 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.It 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.
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.
At 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.
Oh my soul,
Worship His Holy name.
Sing like never before,
Oh my soul,
I’ll worship Your Holy name.
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.