Monday night at Beargrass we had just finished dinner and folks were drifting from the dining area to the main room where readings were held. My friend Richard Fifield, author of the excellent debut novel Flood Girls, was to be reading soon. A wind had come up outside, and though the sky visible from the back of the lodge was still only broken with clouds, it was growing darker, and the trees in the yard and down the hill were beginning to sway with some vigor.
I joined a couple friends on the covered porch out back. Rain was just barely starting to fall. There is a ten-foot or so span of grass that separates the main grounds from the hill that slopes away down to the Blackfoot River. I stepped about midway out into it to look up at the sky to see what the clouds were doing.
I turned just as the tall pine tree to the right in that photo was struck by lightning. It was maybe forty or fifty feet away and down the slight slope. I’ve never experienced anything like it for violence and power. I can close my eyes and see the forks of the strike envelope the tree; bark explodes, light and colors and sounds and heat blow against me. The hairs of my arms stood on end, my mouth and teeth had that kind of weird electric taste to them, and smoke billowed all around the tree.
The other two recoiled; I just sort of stood there, oddly calm, but I think I was stunned a little because I was surprised when the other people from all around the lodge and ranch area came running. Folks clear on the other side of the building were in awe of what they saw, and they weren’t anywhere near the point of impact. Most startling was the utter lack of warning. The storm seemed to come out of nowhere, and I don’t recall hearing any distant thunder or anything at its approach. One minute it was windy, and just starting to rain, and the next, BOOM!
The storm passed quickly, and we went down to look at the tree. Several scars twisted all around it. A single split ran from the base all the way up to the top, spiraling around the tree’s diameter. Pieces of blackened bark were scattered all about, as were strips of scorched inner bark. I almost didn’t believe that that tree, so close, was the one that had actually been struck until we all went and looked at it.
The next morning I took some photos. They probably aren’t as interesting to anyone who wasn’t there, but for the rest of us, it was an unforgettable experience.