Thunder Road


Overnight, a confluence of three fronts, one of them energized by soupy hot air being sucked out of the south meeting a cold front from Canada and North Dakota trying to sucker punch it, were converging on Brainerd, Minnesota. We were camped in the Toyota parking lot.

I had been up till 4 AM, interrupting what I was working on with obsessive radar checks. These days, I check it more closely than I did when I was piloting an open cockpit biplane across America, all because of the fears of my passenger. The Weather Service seems to have been issuing lots of faulty reports lately — I’ve noticed it all over the country — and so I didn’t have confidence in their estimate of when the storms would arrive. My appraisal was different from the weather services. They put it at about five AM. It looked more like 8 to me. I got a couple of hours of sleep.

Around 7 AM I checked the radar and saw the storms finally picking up their expected speed from the west-northwest, still about an hour away. That was getting too close for comfort, because distant thunder is enough for Roo. I’ve seen her get spooked when thunder was 200 miles away. If she heard any, the problem would be getting her out of the camper and into the car. She would be either paralyzed with fear or trying to bolt into woods or foliage. In emergencies, I’ve had to drag her, but I hate to do it.

I got the car hitched electrical cable stowed, things put away, Roo’s breakfast prepared and loaded it and some coffee in the car. I still didn’t hear any thunder, but Roo did and when it was time to go she was stuffed in a corner. Being woken up three hours earlier than her usual time didn’t help. She was more disoriented than usual. Luckily, Roo prefers the car to the camper when there’s thunder and the thunder was still far enough off to convince her to move. In the car, she went straight into hiding in the footwell. When I got in, I remembered that I had forgotten the steroid cream in the camper. A couple of mosquitoes overnight had covered my neck, ears and forehead with bites, and without that cream they would drive me crazy and I would scratch them until they bled. Those seem to take weeks to heal. 

“I’ll be right back,” I told Roo. She looked up form the footwell. 

“Quit worrying, Little Bear,” I said. I must say that a hundred times a day.

The instant I opened the door to get out, the rain dumped on me like a bucket left on the top of a door by a malicious practical joker, and in the moment I was inside the camper, the storm broke in earnest. By the time I got back in the car I was soaked. Roo stayed down in the footwell for an hour.

Last year I spent the entire winter and spring dreading the summer because of how crowded campgrounds are. This year I forgot to dread it — probably because I ended up camped in the driveway of my friends Virginia and Jim in Maine and forgot about it. But now, the crowds now are horrific. Every campground is jammed, completely booked, the cheap ones especially. I had the coordinates of a small municipal campground 60 miles to the northeast programmed into Google Maps on the phone. But I also had the weather radar app open. By the time we drove the two miles to the intersection where we would have made the eastbound turn to the east, I closed the Google Maps app. It would be even worse that way. We turned westbound and I turned the map app off.

We passed a freight train loaded with beautiful wind turbine blades and another with brand-new black tanker cars. I could just see the goddamned politicians making campaign stops in front of those. Not at the nearby Amtrak station, a sooty old beige brick building that would’ve been ugly when they built it in the 60s, too ugly in its conception even for Soviet architecture of the period. The freight was in better shape than the passengers.

There won’t be any way to outrun all the storms today. The forces at work in the atmosphere will be waiting until later tonight to gang up and attack the entire region. On the radar app, I see the big systems. They’re over western North Dakota and tracking eastbound. They’re running into that southern flow, but instead of pushing anything north, they’ve made a pact, and the one seems to have agreed to supply the other. All I was hoping for was a place where Roo will feel safe enough to go for enough of a walk to empty out. Otherwise, she could easily end up going 36 hours refusing to pee. She’s done it before.

Navigating to a clear area on the map that didn’t look like it had thunder, I pulled off on a dirt road, but it was so badly washboarded — the kind of road that tears things off the walls in the camper and bounces anything that’s loose and breaks them and snaps plumbing fittings. That kind of washboard has broken the microwave from the brackets supporting it and torn the drawers loose from their frame. I pulled over at a desolate intersection.

She didn’t object. She must have needed to go badly. I was hoping she’d go a little farther, in case the storms later kept her buttoned up, but she gave me the old signal that she wanted to get back inside—asking to carry her Flexi leash. Once she gets that in her head, there’s no going back. Her mind was made up.

I took a picture of her on that road, and just now I looked at it, to see if I had a picture to post with this note. You can see her tail tucked in the picture, the way it is when she's worried, but not panicked. She's looking straight up the road.

Straight up Thunder Road. And the day was still young.