I've started biking to work again this week. Sometimes when I'm biking, I develop a stupid environmentally pious attitude in which I wonder: "Why don't more people do this? Why am I only one of about four people biking to work? Why am I the only person who cares about our blessed Earth?"
This question was answered Monday when I found myself caught in a storm. My ride started out alright, with the usual amazing view of both Minneapolis and St. Paul as I rode across the Mendota Bridge. Off to my left (west) I saw a few heavy clouds dumping rain on Richfield and pushing my way, but I figured I could beat the rain.
Somehow though, there was a massive heavy cloud resting directly overhead as soon as I set foot in St. Paul. The light rumbling of thunder also echoed from directly overhead. I was still about 5 miles from home.
I started thinking about lightning and pedaling with a certain sense of panic. In the annals of my family history is the story of one particular bloke who fought in and managed to live through the whole of the Civil War without injury. Then, on the way home, he was hit and killed by lightning.
"That sort of cruel irony runs in my family," I was thinking as I heard more rumbling overhead.
"God. If You could please not strike me down, I would be very thankful," I found myself muttering amid heavy breath. "Or, if You must hit me with lightning, please don't hit me in the head. Give me a fighting chance here, Lord. Take out one of these trees or lampposts and I can get hit with the residual charge. That would knock me off my bike and I would definitely break a bone or two. That's fair, isn't it, Lord? I don't get killed but still Your point will have been proven -- whatever that point is. I'm not sure I see much point in zapping someone with lightning, but You work in mysterious ways. So, do what You must, I suppose, but if there's any give in Your plan, I would prefer that You just knock me off my bike."
At the same time, I was in my mind running through that lightning awareness section of the fire training that was required of Nevada journalists. If I felt my hair stand on end, I knew that I would need to jump off the bike and crouch in that strange taking-a-poop squat that they taught us. But I was on a bike, pedaling as hard as I could. How the hell was I supposed to feel my hair standing on end with all this wind blowing through it? And what does it feel like -- my hair standing on end? Is that a sensation that I would immediately be able to identify? Or would it be like that time I was in the apartment in San Diego and an earthquake hit and I was thinking that someone was pounding on the walls and I was just getting up to go yell at them when it stopped and I realized what had happened? Would I be riding along, wondering, "why does my neck feel funny?" and then, right as it dawned on me, POW!!! Finger of The Lord God Almighty right to the skull.
"Wait. Shit. I'm going about 15 mph at the moment -- maybe faster. If I get knocked off the bike at this speed, there's a good chance I'll get pretty fucked up," I started muttering again. "Especially considering that I don't have a helmet. And with these trees and lampposts on all sides it seems rather probable that I would crack into something if I got hit by lightning. And the bike path is a little off the road, so no one would discover me for a while. I might survive the crash and then die waiting for help to arrive. Or, if I did live, there would be months of physical therapy and I'd have to join one of those support groups for lightning strike victims. Oh, God. Please don't hit me at all. To be perfectly honest with You, I'd really appreciate it if you would stop scaring the piss out of me with all this rumbling of thunder."
"Fine. Have it Your way. Just please don't kill me. Please."
I wondered whether I was more or less likely to be hit by lightning while moving, or whether it made any difference. As I got near the Ford plant, heavy sporadic raindrops started to fall from the sky. With the sun still shining from a corner to the west, the raindrops looked like flashes of light -- like the strange, stylized rain that falls in hip hop music videos -- and they were sporadic enough that they didn't seem to be hitting me. I could see them hitting the ground all around me, but couldn't feel them. It was like those war films in which the hero is able to run unscathed through withering enemy fire.
The rain became unavoidable pretty quickly. As I passed beneath the Ford Parkway bridge, I wondered whether I should hang out there and wait for things to clear up. I pressed on and started to feel a little more relaxed.
Then my seat broke. With two miles to go, the bolt that keeps the seat in place spontaneously loosened. I stopped to look at it and wondered whether I could just tighten it with the Leatherman that was buried somewhere in my backpack, but then I heard my own voice screaming inside my skull: "DON'T STOP, YOU FOOL! God will strike you down if you stop!"
So I resigned to carry on by pedaling standing up, like when I was a boy and had only one speed (as fast as possible) when riding my bike through Bloomington's streets. But the thing is, it hurts like hell to pedal constantly while standing up. Go on, go outside and pedal your bike standing up without stopping the pedaling rotation. You will notice very quickly that your quads are on fire. I would try to rest my legs by coasting, but as soon as I did this, I would hear another rumble of thunder.
I was weeping in pain as I crawled up the hill at Summit Avenue. Fortunately, no one could tell I was crying like a girl because it was pissing down rain at this point. If I had been thrown into the river I could not have been more wet.
Then the hail started. With just three blocks to go, I found myself being torn apart by a barrage of penny-sized ice bullets. The hail was falling with a sense of fury -- 1,000 snare drummers banging on everything in sight. I hope you are laughing at this image of me -- an almost-drowned rat gasping for air whilst being attacked by marbles from that Hungry Hungry Hippo game. I didn't think it was funny at the time. It hurt like hell. Sitting here at my keyboard now, I can count about 10 welts on my arms.
I pedaled as hard as I could up the rest of the way, growling in pain. When I got to my apartment complex, I saw that my wife was standing at the top of the stoop.
"I was worried about you," she said. "Get inside!"
When you think about it, that was a pretty silly thing to say ("No, honey. God is kicking my ass and I think I'll just stay out here and take it"), but the instructions were followed without question.
I got inside and showered and got into dry clothes, and as Rachel and I sat down to eat dinner the tornado alarms started going off.