A family-owned daily newspaper serving Riverton, Lander and Fremont County, Wyoming since 1949

Nature's entertainment, sky-style

Jun 11, 2017 - By Randy Tucker, Staff Writer

It even comes with its own soundtrack.

Anyone spending time in the wilderness knows the enchanting attraction of an open fire on a dark night. You can get lost in the flames, and your mind will emerge vast distances from its starting point.

The night sky holds the same allure. Sadly, our modern world is so illuminated with artificial light that the night sky exists only in the imagination of most of the world's people. I

t's called light pollution, and compared to the stark vastness of an unbridled night sky it is every bit as bad as littering, water or air pollution in ruining a once-pristine experience.

Living where we do provides an opportunity that the majority of the planet will never enjoy when viewing the wonders freely afforded from the skies of the northern hemisphere.

That brings up one of nature's most wondrous aerial displays, the thunderstorm.

"There's a storm across the valley, the clouds are rolling in, the afternoon is heavy on your shoulders..." That's the first verse of "Back Home Again" maybe my favorite line from a John Denver song.

There is something very special about a thunderstorm rolling across the plains. I've experienced storms in every western state, the Deep South, on the Great Lakes, and nearly all points in between.There is much commonality, but each region's storms are unique as well.

For a kid in Arkansas, a darkening sky was something ominous. As long as it was just deep purple or black, there was nothing to worry about, but when a yellow/green aura appeared, it was time to grab a flashlight, a few groceries, and head for the root cellar.

It always began the same - the hot afternoon or evening wind suddenly calms, and a flush of unnaturally cool air sweeps in from up above, followed on a good day by a funnel cloud dropping out of the clouds and then rising back up, and on a bad day by a twister ripping up everything around you.

I watched a couple of tornadoes form when we lived in Lusk, but they're much weaker than the monsters that tear through tornado alley a few hundred miles east of Wyoming.

But the thunderstorms of Niobrara County in Wyoming and Sioux County in Nebraska are epic. It's the only place I've even seen one light up the night sky during a heavy snowstorm. As I was driving home to Lusk from a game in Harrison, a thunderstorm dropped down from Mule Creek Junction.

The heavy snow was exposed in my headlights against a pitch-black background, but when the lightening hit it lit up the entire valley for miles like a Brobdingnagian flashbulb. (The opposite of Lilliputians in "Gulliver's Travels," in case you forgot). When the thunder boomed a few seconds later, it created an ethereal image of nature's power.

My dad was driving us from Blytheville, Arkansas, to Riverton one July for summer vacation. We went through Kansas on this trip. Storms on the flat, open space of the Jayhawk state can be awe-inspiring and heart-breaking at the same time.

As he steered the 1962 Nova wagon down a two-lane highway in the middle of thousands of acres of wheat, the skies grew dark, opened with a deluge of rain, and it quickly began to hail.

Dad pulled off the road and parked the car next to a farm house under a huge tree to protect us the increasingly intense hail. A flock of chickens caught in the open quickly sprinted for refuge under the front porch of the farm house.

California storms were pale and weak in comparison to those other parts of America. The mild, Mediterranean climate of much of the state doesn't lend itself to violent outbursts, but when it rains, it really rains.

In the winter there, rainstorms can stay for weeks on end and drop dozens of inches of soaking rain.

The constant precipitation amid a low hanging, foggy gloom is no challenge for the raw power and intense excitement of a roaring thunderstorm roaring its way across the prairie.

One afternoon my brother-in-law Matt and I were fishing on Bull Lake. Storms rise up quickly from the nearby mountains, and one blew in with little notice right on top of us. We pushed our 35-horepower outboard as fast as it would take us, but the swells reached five feet in advance of a strong wind that brought thunder and lightning down the length of the lake.

We began to "surf" the boat, hanging on the top of the crest of each wave at an angle pointed toward the north shoreline.

We reached the shore just as the storm centered directly above us. We landed the boat, tied it hard and fast, and hid under some low-lying conifers wait out the storm.

All this came to mind Tuesday night when a strange light bounced off the bedroom wall as I watched the 10 o'clock news.

I shut off the television and watched a thunderstorm move slowly from Lander, to Hudson and then on to Riverton.

It was fantastic entertainment.The soundtrack came with the distant thunder accentuating its bass bravado against the cool shush of cottonwood leaves in the steady wind heralding the advance of the storm.

I'll take this show anytime it decides to perform.

Editor's note: Staff Writer Randy Tucker is a retired publis school educator


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