The first lightning strike shakes my pots and casts shadows through the open end of my tent. Leaves become tentacles, branches become arms. The spark bounces off my crankset like an angry eye and I blink, as though that might save me.
I’m alone in the campground, my tent pitched not twenty feet from the Lochsa River in northern Idaho. The evening had been cloudless, hot and still, but the night has no such attitude. I just want to sleep. After 115 miles in the saddle with a touring load, a sad dinner of potatoes and apples and nuts——too much white food, give me a peach, or a leaf of spinach——I just want to sleep. I worry over little things, like the thirty dollars in my wallet and the small roll of food stamps that needs to last me another 400 miles.
I don’t know what time it is, other than the night, sometime after sunset and before sunrise. Sweating on top of my sleeping bag. Mosquito bitten, but too hot to slip inside. The lightning isn’t helping. Between strikes there is only the rush of water and the absolutely black night. The metallic scent of the light’s arc. I wait——for sleep, for its interruption. Another strike, this one nearly on top of me, the crack rippling over my tent. I’m on my elbows now, watching the show, trying not to blink. I wait for things to move, but all I get is the shimmering afterburn of images: my orange panniers, my bicycle leaning against the scarred bark of a tree, wild berries, skeletal branches, and the purple edge of my tent. I don’t know why I expected a world of black and white. Maybe I wanted the reprise of old movies I had watched as a child, the comfort of imagination.
The first rustle of brush surprises me. The wind? Raindrops? A wet snort punctuates the darkness, my tentflap bends and presses against my shoulder. I don’t feel alone anymore. This isn’t the show I want. My heart refuses to find its rhythm. The next strike finds me ogling a bear’s tongue as he tosses his head and slaps my bicycle with his paw. Is this the circus? The thunder is more in my chest than the sky. I can’t hear anything past the thump-thump that fills my tent. The bear is ten feet away, sniffing at my panniers.
I run the inventory in my head. I don’t have any food packed away. Maybe a candy bar. Maybe the scent of yesterday’s hotdog stuck to my handkerchief. Some dirty clothes that even I don’t want.
The sky quiets. No light. Just his sounds, scrounging, scuffing the dirt, slapping my chain. Make noise, I think. With what? My pots are outside, at the firepit. I have a belt. What am I supposed to beat the buckle on? My head? Light a match. A match? That’s so stupid I almost laugh, but I’m voiceless. I know, because I test my mouth, try to whisper, and all I get is a pathetic croak.
My bicycle scrapes down the tree. The chain rattles against the frame. Another bolt of lightning. I watch a claw catch my left pannier, strip the bag off its rack, and heave it toward the water. My bicycle flips onto its front wheel. Stands there, as the light flickers off. Blackness, but for the blue afterburn on my eyes. The bear gets bigger when I can’t see him, and I allow that, because something has to justify the thump in my chest.
I can smell him now. Hear him nosing through my pots. Then nothing. Not a sound. A few big drops thrum on the tent, in the stiff brush near the shore. The river. The dim roll of the storm, slipping away down the valley. Blackness.
I just want to sleep, or I want the sunrise, but I’m not going to get either. I lie awake, listening harder than I ever have. I don’t know how long until first light. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, so I continue to lie as still as possible. An hour. Two. I don’t have a watch. Damn my romantic streak, foregoing time. I think I can make out the ridge on the other side of the river. Is that light in the sky? Color seeps into the landscape. First color. I can rise. I will myself to sit up. Wipe the sweat off my chest. I just want to be on the road.
My bicycle is splattered with mud. One pannier is gone. I peek around the tentflap. I’m alone. I feel alone. The trail to the water is a narrow dirt track. I need to rinse off. I have to move. The light gives me courage. I step from my tent and make my way to the water. I kneel on the shore, cup the cold water in my hands. I find my pannier, lying atop the brush, fully intact. I smile at my fortune. I search, but see no sign of the bear…except for the paw print at my knee. I decide to eat my breakfast on the road.

This entry was posted in Bike Writing. Bookmark the permalink.