The Writing Traveler: The Tempest by Brian Dowsley
June 3, 2021
It was a chilling thought Though conceding my escape, the weather gods were letting me know I hadn’t escaped unobserved.
In the dead of night, a cold front eased its way across the central Kansas plains. Typical for a potential thunderstorm in the making, the front stretched from southwest to northeast and advanced east at twenty miles per hour or so. Weather forecasters predicted a fifteen- to twenty-degree drop in temperature—a welcome change to the days and days of one-hundred-plus highs. The chance of rain was a paltry twenty to thirty percent.
Forecasters knew the air’s low moisture content would inhibit rain from reaching the ground. What they failed to consider—and therefore failed to report—was the likelihood of a thunderstorm’s other key constituent: lightning. That oversight was unfortunate as all the elements for a lightning storm were present . . . and in this case, one of extraordinary violence.
The stage was set. All was in motion. The weather gods looked on in eager, fiendish glee.
The motel’s safety lighting and that of a half dozen quick-order joints struck a harsh contrast to the pitch-black Kansas sky as I donned my fingerless leather gloves and half-shell helmet, and swung astride my white, ’08 Harley Ultra. As with yesterday, I was starting my day’s ride well before sunrise and the sun’s scorching heat—trading the safety of daytime riding for comfort. It was only five-thirty, yet the temperature was already eighty degrees. I looked forward to the forecasted cold front approaching from the northwest. With the chance of rain pegged at thirty percent or less, I didn’t expect to need rain gear.
With nothing much on my mind except an eagerness to observe new surroundings, I settled into the saddle. Checking the load strapped behind me a final time, I looked to the right and noted a pick-up parked next to my bike, its bed filled with a motorcycle and a powered wheelchair. I hoped those conveyances represented more than one traveler.
I hit my starter button and the lot filled with the rumble of far-off thunder. Easing out my clutch, I rolled out of the motel’s parking lot, hung two rights, then accelerated onto the interstate and into an inky blackness like that seen at midnight aboard a ship in the middle of the ocean.
Once up to speed and with my cruise control engaged, I took a few moments to review my route of the next several hours. It was simple: go west on I-70 for two miles then strike north on I-135.
That’s when the first lightning bolt erupted.
It was dramatic. With the landscape flat and open, I could see the entire thing from cloud to ground. It blasted nearly straight down before exploding into the earth.
It struck between five and ten miles dead ahead—to the west. As I would be turning north shortly, I didn’t get too worked up about it. That’s when another bolt crashed down. And another. And two more!
The sky was erupting. It looked like a fleet of outer space aliens attacking, blasting the earth in advance of invasion. And that exploding Armageddon and I were closing at nearly a hundred miles per hour.
With no exits in sight and my mind racing, I did the math.
If the storm was five miles west of I-135 and approaching at twenty miles per hour when I turned north, I would have fifteen minutes before it crashed into me. Racing along at nearly quadruple the storm’s speed, I’d cover some twenty miles in the same time frame. As the storm only stretched ten miles to the north . . . it should work.
In the ninety seconds it took to chart my course, another dozen lightning bolts exploded. They were getting closer.
I turned north, opened the throttle and roared off into the dark.
I should have felt safe—my left brain had done the math and it checked. My right brain controlled the belly-butterflies.
I concentrated on the road ahead—one headlight and hurricane speeds don’t allow for much else. Nevertheless, my eyes were magnetically drawn to the pyrotechnics detonating to my left. My right fist had a mind of its own. Time and again I ordered it to ease off the throttle.
As I hunkered down behind my fairing (a lot of good it would do me if lightning hit), both sides of my brain did some contingency planning. If it looked like the storm would catch me, what should I do?
Idea 1: Pull into a service station and wait it out. No good—the nearest town was forty-five miles away.
Idea 2: Stop under an overpass. Also no good—there weren’t any. Not until I crossed into Nebraska, anyway.
Idea 3: Park the bike and seek shelter in a ditch. What ditch?
My right brain cranked the butterflies up a notch.
As the minutes and miles flew past, I was heartened to see the storm slipping by. The far edge was in sight. It looked like my math was right on. I straightened up and sat tall in the saddle, slowed down a bit and engaged the cruise control, and felt my stomach start to relax. I even took a few moments to enjoy the nonstop light show that hadn’t eased in the slightest.
That’s when the highway angled to the left . . . and directly toward that high-voltage maelstrom. Mothra took up residence behind my belt buckle.
As quickly as the road had angled to the left, it returned to a northerly course.
Less than twenty minutes after committing to outrun the storm, I emerged from beneath the thunderclouds and into expansive, star-studded clear. I’d made it.
That’s when a brief, icy-cold rain poured down. Goosebumps sprung up and down my arms and the nape of my neck tingled. It wasn’t the chill, it was a chilling thought . . .
Though conceding my escape, the weather gods were letting me know I hadn’t escaped unobserved.