This is the picture of a fool. Call me Loddfafnir, an epithet for an unwise human. Seven minutes after I snapped this selfie, a thunderstorm broke with a bolt of lightning directly over my head.
Here are some words of advice from Odin to Loddfafnir in the Eddic poem Havamal: On mountain or fjord, should you happen to be traveling, make sure you are well fed. So far, so good: I had more food than I needed for a four-day camping trip with my friend, an experienced backpacker. We were exploring the mid-section of the Sierra. The night before we left, I went through the usual round of preparation; tightening this strap, tucking that flap. I considered taking one non-essential item, a pendant which is a replica of Mjölnir, Thor’s hammer, hanging from a brass chain. I might lose it if I take it with me, I thought. Besides, I don’t want to wear metal. It’s a target for lightning. I left it behind.
My friend and I arrived at Grover Hot Springs State Park mid-afternoon. The sky had been clear up Highway 88, but had darkened while we unpacked. The barometric pressure dropped and rain started spitting from the clouds. Before long, we were fighting our tents which were trying to take flight because of the wind that was whipping through the campsite. We worked hastily to lash down the flapping rainflys. Ever since we’d arrived I’d been hearing mutters and rumbles, and wondered what it was: it had the monotonous sound of routine. Was it a convoy of trucks? I asked my friend what I was hearing. She looked at me, startled. “That’s thunder,” she replied.
Later, tired, we made our way to the hot pool. It was closed indefinitely. We asked why. “The lightning strikes,” said Tara, the gap-toothed lifeguard. “We’ve been watching them all afternoon.”
In my life as a coastal Californian, lightning has always been a special-occasion element. On my 18th birthday, which fell then as it does now, in mid-August, an electrical storm appeared far out in the Pacific ocean. At 2 am, I sat on the cliff above Little Corona, smoked a cigarette and watched the blue forks of lightening illuminate the sky. This is a special birthday, I told myself. The lightning proves it. Why else would lightening appear if not to announce the advent of my future, writ large over the ocean horizon in bolts of pure flame?
Grover Hot Springs was crowded with families which meant that the adolescents shrieking and running throughout the campsite in the early evening were corralled by their parents into their tents by 9 pm and urged into sleep. The thermal pool was lovely, big and solidly built and wonderful to sit in especially after our first hike: we ascended 1,300 feet in about a mile. Tara, the cheerful lifeguard recommended a trail to us on our second day. “It has a lake, and it’s amaaaazing, “ she said. Her eyes fluttered rapturously. We drove to the trail head the next morning and waited an hour for a thunderstorm to pass.
On the trail, we saw a granite slab, rough-hewn, and oddly symmetrical, an obvious stage to step on, and perform ritual on the roofless rock. (Were we to be driven out of our minds and dwell in the mountains forever?) The lake was indeed very beautiful with blue water and a deep stillness in the dead center that spoke of depth. I cast a quick circle to the four elements and jumped in. We were deeply contented, even though it rained. The wildflowers were lush and the lake was rewarding. We’ve both hiked and backpacked long enough to know that Nature can sprout fangs. But we were reading the signs correctly and there had been no trouble.
But there was always a storm. During those three days, the slate-grey clouds coiled in the northern section of the sky, grumbling, and tetchy. Sometimes I looked at the mass directly, marveling at the intensity of the clouds, and noting the way the high green of the meadow was set off to perfection by a color which seemed indescribable. I became accustomed to it: the storm in the corner of my eye.
On the last day, we broke camp, ate breakfast in Markleeville, and drove on Highway Four to the Carson-Iceberg Wilderness, so-called because of the large iceberg-shaped peak located in its western reach. There’s a meadow I want you to see, my friend said the day before, with a large flat stone that has grinding holes, made by native Washoe women thousands of years ago. It’s beautiful. Let’s look. Before we entered the trail head, we waited for a group of men to enter first; one of them had taken off his shirt and was twerking enthusiastically. I pulled out my compass and checked our position. Emily had given it to me at a family Thanksgiving two years before. I treated it like a magic toy: something I used without much comprehension. But I knew to hold it flat, and wait as the red needle swung around, wobbled and resolved itself. We entered the Lower Gardner meadow (elevation: 8,640) around 11:30, walking almost exactly north-east. The west was at our back.
Of course the first meadow was beautiful. What else would it be? I began to discern the pattern of the trail: a long stretch of the grassy, flowery field connected by tree-covered knolls. The trail was fine-grained and narrow and crossed at several points by water, which was falling, though not heavily, down the sides of the basalt peaks. Here and there were cow-patties, big plops of shit. ( Most meadows in the Sierra are in recovery from cattle grazing.) It was the classic Sierran subalpine meadow: wet patches in low-lying areas, creeks running diagonally over the trail. In fact, the trail and the creek seemed to be interchangeable. Tall bunches of Corn Lilies were scattered throughout the meadow. Flowers. Birds.
The birds: they were tiny and nervous and on constant alert, flitting and flying and sounding alarms. My friend and I listened as a pair of Clark’s nutcrackers positioned themselves in two trees opposite each other, throwing their songs back and forth over our heads. The trees stood at the entrance of the last meadow we’d enter- the one that had the fabled grinding rock. We entered the last meadow.
It stretched out before us, beautiful, yes. Was it also monotonous? Doesn’t beauty need balance to keep it from becoming too much of a good thing, I wondered, something so easily digestible it loses distinction? There was nothing ugly in sight. Grass, corn lilies, flowers: everything, every detail, was ruthlessly be-dazzling. There was nothing to mar the verdant loveliness, not even mosquitoes. Was this because of the wind that was kicking up from the west? I wondered. I stopped and took a selfie.
The light was changing. I took another picture. The sky was in a state of becoming. I’m wrong about the monotony, I decided. Look up. There’s lots of contrast there. The clouds, the light, the sky: these nouns denote different objects; but under the influence of wonder (which is based, in part, on ignorance), their differences become insignificant, and they merge into one thing. I saw without perceiving.
I took another picture of the clouds, which were now bigger than ever, majestic, full-bellied and swarming directly towards me. The thunder muttered.
My friend stopped. “We’re almost at the end of the meadow,” she said. “ The grinding stone rock is over there.” I could see a rock jutting into the field a half a mile away.
“We can have lunch there,” she said. The wind ruffled her hair. Overhead, the clouds shuddered and ground their way west.
I don’t remember what we said next.
Did we agree that the weather seemed to be changing; getting worse? Did we acknowledge the inevitability of the storm? Was it even slightly raining at this point? I had a song playing in my head at the time- it’s part of the trance-like state that descends upon me as I walk- and it was playing the same passage over and over again. I told it to shut up as my friend said something about lightning. Had I seen any, she asked? No, I answered. I had not.
“I haven’t seen any lightning either,” she said, just as a bolt of lightning, bright beyond belief— almost un-seeable— exploded in the air above our heads illuminating the valley with a bright, white light. A clap of thunder sounded simultaneously; the crack was so loud that it seemed to strike my bones with tectonic resonance. The heated air that was forced apart by the lightning roared. I smelled a bright, high scent. I gasped; covered my face. Mine eyes were dazzled. She died young, I thought and then turned and ran after my friend.
My friend had shown me a few days before what the lightning position was— a deep crouch with only the soles of your feet touching the earth, or, if you can pull it off, the balls of your feet. The position tries to limit your contact to the ground to the bare minimum. Levitating would be even better. (I haven’t mastered that yet.) The pose is submissive, which suited the occasion and my state of utter panic. Fear galloped into my body, unchecked and wild.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Lightening Risk Management” booklet, only 3% of all lightning fatalities are caused by a direct lightening strike. Most people are injured or killed because of the ground current: the voltage that travels from the bolt through the earth and up into the human body. Or the fatality happens because of a side flash. The lighting jumps sideways from whatever tall object it hit first to anything else that happens to be around, like a human body. “Lightening Risk Management” makes it clear there’s actually very little “management” one can do. “No place outdoors is safe from lightening,” say the booklet’s authors. “Lightning Risk Management”, perhaps one of the most pessimistic safety manuals I’ve ever read, could be summarized this way: if you’re outside in a lightning strike, well… good luck with that, champ. You might be fucked.
I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice… You should never look upwards in battle. The sons of men become panicked. So do the daughters. I crouched under a small pine tree, snuffling back tears, with my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see anything: the idea of witnessing the lightning had become unbelievably frightening. So, when the hail came, I heard it rattling down rather than saw it. We were soon soaked with melted hail and then with rain. The air temperature dropped noticeably. My body shook. The lightning flashed and the thunder boomed. About four miles away a strike or “downward leader” touched the earth. My friend drew a sharp breath. “Oh. I didn’t want to see that,” she said.
There are no atheists in foxholes. It turns out there are no atheist witches in lightning storms, either. Maybe I shouldn’t have left my Mjölnir behind, I thought. I’d loved Thor since I was a child. I’ve posted my favorite childhood picture of him on my Facebook wall many times: the image of him from the D’Aulaires‘ Book of Norse Myths, the book I’d had as a child and still owned. He’s sitting in his cart, drawn by his two goats, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr who are snorting and snarling. Thor is barrel-chested with bristling hair and a bright countenance, and has his fist upraised with Mjölnir held firmly in his gloved hand. I had just written a feature interview with Maria Kvilhaug, a Norwegian folklorist and novelist who studies the ritual structures in the Poetic and Prose Eddas and old Norse poetry. “Today, I’m gong to talk about Thor, the thunder god, the great he-man of the old Norse pantheon,” says Maria in her “Lore of Thor” YouTube lecture. “What is all this masculinity about? It is all about protection.”
That’s right. Thor, sometimes called Thor Fjorgynsson (son of Earth), throws his hammer because he loves us. He battles giants in the mountains on behalf of humanity. “Great would be the giant race if they all lived, mankind would be as nothing on the earth,” he tells Odin angrily. He’s a good guy. He’s on our side, hammer and all.
This love of humanity costs him respect from the other Aesir. In the poem Harbard’s Song, Odin laughs at Thor’s humble garb and jeeringly tells him his followers are “serfs”. I might be a serf, but at least I’m Thor’s serf. My childish adoration of the irate, barrel-chested, red-haired god, plus hours spent listening to Maria’s YouTube lectures had led me to this singular moment in the stormy meadow: was it time to take our relationship public?
He was certainly relating to us. Perhaps we’d blundered, uninvited, into his dwelling place, Thrudvangr, the field of power, where Thor resides in his hall, Bilskirnir. (This means “lightning crack” and it has 540 rooms. Nordic poetry is notable for its willingness to name and number everything.) After each explosion of pure white light, the air produced sonic booms that tangibly shook the atmosphere. It crossed my mind that there are no stories of human beings who accidentally wander around inside Asgard. Let me out. Thor Fjorgynsson, give us safe passage. Your daughter wants to walk across the meadow in safety, I said silently. Another lightning flash, another shuddering boom-crack.
My hands and legs were numb. I was soaked to the bone and my body was shaking so much it looked like I was convulsing. “Usually these are 20-minute storms. Unless they’re 12-hour ones,” my friend said wryly. She looked at me. “We’re getting out, Elizabeth. Don’t worry.” The muscles of my head tightened, pulling my wet hair up off my neck. I wasn’t sure if this was hypothermia or the charge in the air. Thor Fjorgynsson, open your doors and let me out of your hall, I said silently.
Like uninvited guests, we started trying to leave without attracting attention. We decided to run-walk from knoll to knoll to stay under the smallest trees. We were good at doing this, so good, in fact, that we lost the trail, a fact that went undiscovered for at least twenty minutes. An old cattle crossing alerted me. “I don’t remember seeing this!” I said. My friend looked around at the scenery in the next knot of trees. “We’re going the wrong way,” she said. Her face was set. “Let’s eat. We need to fuel up.” My hands were shaking as I pulled out a nut bar-I advise you Loddfafnir, to take this advice. Make sure you are well fed! – and ate it. My friend bent her head over her iPhone which, miracle of miracles, was functioning. She had downloaded the map of the trail onto her iPhone and I had compassed the direction of the car before we left; working together with old and new technology, we made our way back to the trail, which was doing double duty as a creek.
On the way, there was a another flash of light in the distance. I experienced a spasm of pure irritation. Enough! I thought. I turned my face skywards. “Thor, your daughter seeks safe passage. Will you let us walk in safety?” It was less of a question, and more of a demand: a petulant daughter yelling at an annoying parent. (Dad! Stop bothering me!) My voice sounded strained. The storm unhurriedly made its way south-west as we walked the last twenty minutes back to the car.
In the car, my friend and I looked at each other, shivering and amazed that we were finally sitting down, safely, in a car (cars are safe places in lightning storm, by the way. The lightning hits the roof, and flows down the sides of the car.) It was a sort of Thelma and Louise moment: pure elation mixed with a sense of retrospective dread. What had we done? We started the post-hike debrief as she drove, very slowly, up the now-treacherously muddy and water-soaked road.
My friend expounded on the difference between information and knowledge. “All those people who are the experts…how do you think they got that way? It wasn’t from reading a book! This is what happens. This is how you learn.” She also informed me that I was probably in the early stages of hypothermia because I’d said something to her which made no sense. “There was no content,” she said. “It was like you were in a dream.” Maybe I had been in a dream, I thought. It wasn’t unheard of for people to have dreams that allowed them walk between the worlds. A dream would perhaps allow me to walk unknowingly into the hall of a excitable god.
But this fanciful explanation, while satisfyingly mystical to that non-secular part of myself is also a cop out. (At home, under my roof, it’s easier being an atheist.) What matters more is that blind ignorance (mine) met a weather front. I was wholly ignorant about what a lightning storm is and how they work. I now understand lightning; it’s a discharge of static electricity that tries to resolve the differences in discharged voltage between two objects by moving through a “ground”: whether that’s the earth, a tree or your body is up to you. Theological interpretations have a place and a great deal of meaning from the safety of your own home, or within a ritual. But the more sobering truth is that I was an unwitting participant in a meteorological event because I failed to read the signs. Or didn’t care to. I’m still working that out.
I advise you Loddfafnir, to take this advice. It will be useful if you learn it, do you good, if you have it: I tell you to be cautious, but not over-cautious. Take my advice, Odin says to Loddfafnir. Be pragmatic. And know what you’re doing.
That’s good advice. Yes. I’ll listen.
San Francisco, CA