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‘Mississippi one, Mississippi two . . .’: Coming a bit too close to lighting in the eastern Sierra
Photo courtesy National Park Service Lighting storm in Zion National Park.

It wasn’t much of a hike.

I picked it out at the last minute believing it might be wise to acclimate Garrison to the elevation.

My nephew was 15 at time.

We had left his parents’ house in rural Lincoln in mid-July six hours earlier where the high temperature was expected to eclipse 100 degrees.

I was taking him on a series of fairly long day-hikes in the eastern Sierra over the five days to follow.

The hikes ranged from 8 to 22 miles round trip.

Net elevation gains varied from 1,600 feet to 4,400 feet.

Our destination as part of our travel day was a side road on the way to where we were staying in Big Pine.

We headed up a short trail of under a mile that started at 8,500 feet and dead ended at a small lake on a plateau nestled against a mountain that soared perhaps 300 feet higher.

There was hardly a cloud visible from what sky we could see.

Somewhat tired from driving, I stretched out on top of a large boulder on the lake’s edge using my backpack as a pillow.

Meanwhile, Garrison headed to the other side of the lake to explore.

I ended up semi dozing off after about 10 minutes or so.

It turned out to be a real power nap, Mother Nature style.

It suddenly became cold. And the air had a smell to it.

I rose up on my elbows just in time to see a bolt of lightning zip by perhaps 50 feet away parallel to — and maybe 4 feet above — the water before it struck the nearby mountainside.

A second later, I heard Garrison screaming and then saw him running toward me from the other side of the lake.

Garrison’s yelling was followed closely by the loudest clap of thunder I have ever heard.

It took me perhaps 30 seconds to get my backpack on and get off the boulder.

But by then Garrison had high-tailed it past me and started running down the trail just as hail started hitting the ground so hard that the little balls of ice were bouncing back up a foot or so after slamming into the ground.

The hail turned to rain by the time I caught up with Garrison.

It was the closest I’d ever been to lightning.

As far as Garrison was concerned, based on that day and the hikes to follow he was convinced I was certifiable crazy.

But that didn’t stop him from joining me during the following two summers on week-long excisions into the Eastern Sierra.

And that included a hike that started shortly after midnight in Death Valley when the temperature was 90 degrees followed by hiking to the 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney summit that included trudging through snow the next day.

It wasn’t my first experience getting caught in the open during a lightning storm.

The other was years before bicycling from Taos to Red River in New Mexico as part of a Backroads trip.

Other riders stopped to wait for the sag van, but a female lawyer from Illinois and I continued toward Red River Pass at 9,855 feet.

At one point as were cycling along the highway shoulder, she started counting “Mississippi one, Mississippi two . . .” between lightning strikes and hearing thunder.

I asked why she was doing that.

She said it is something you learn living in the Midwest.

Adding it tells you how close the lightning is to you.

She then informed me that when the thunder was heard before she got a chance to reach “Mississippi three” she was getting off her bicycle and taking cover in a ditch that ran parallel to the highway.

It never got to that point.

That’s because it started snowing.

It snowed all the way to the summit and then on the short descent to Red River it was replaced by a big chilling rain.

That is how I ended up spending close to two hours in a hot tub with a lawyer on Memorial Day 1988. I didn’t think I’d ever be warm again.

Every time I read about a lightning strike that has a deadly ending such as the Colorado rancher and 34 head of cattle that were killed when a bolt hit a trough a few days ago, I think of  the hike with Garrison and the bicycling trip in New Mexico.

There were 13 lightning deaths in 2023 in the United States, although none were in California.

That doesn’t mean the Golden State doesn’t get its share,

One of the deadliest is Mt. Whitney.

The 14,505-foot mountain gets 15 strikes a year. Three have died in lightning strikes on Mt. Whitney since 1990.

Lighting deaths nationwide have rarely exceeded 20 annually since 2017. Before that, there were 40 on 2016.

The peak year this century was 51 in 2003.

And since 1950, there has only been 14 reported lighting deaths in California.

California, despite being the third largest state in geographic size, has far fewer than most other states.

The Golden State averages 560,000 lighting strikes. This is roughly 3.5 per square mile.

Most, however, are in the mountainous eastern part of California.

Compare that to 2021 statistics.

*California had 438,137 strikes that year coming in as the 39th highest state.

*Florida had 223 lighting strikes per square mile for 14,645,015 strikes overall.

*There were 194 million lightning strikes nationwide.

*Texas got struck the most with 41,914,516 lighting strikes.

*More than 2 million acres burned nationwide as the result of lightning.

And while lightning is to blame for 12 percent of the wildfires experienced around the globe in any given year, only 5 percent are started that way in California.

Since the 5-year average through 2020 reflects an annual average of 7,874 wildfires in California, that means lightning is only to blame in about 400 wildfires a year.

Lighting clearly isn’t as prevalent in California than places like the Midwest and South.

And having been caught driving in a dry electrical storm near Hannibal, Missouri just before midnight in 1987 that lasted for 10 minutes and made it brighter at times than it was during the day, count the relative lack of lightning another plus for California.



This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at