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EXPLORE | Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The temperature of lightning can exceed 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit—five times hotter than the surface of the sun. | Photo by Christopher Eaton/Terra Photographica

Pressed against a boulder too small to protect me from the rain, I try to reassure myself: Each year, fewer than 100 Americans die from lightning strikes. It's as dark as under a raven's wing. I'm 25 miles from Lake Powell's houseboat scene, and I still can't see a single light.

Every few minutes, a magnesium bolt leaps from the clouds, leaving afterimages on my eyes. Thunder chases lightning ever more closely—from the almost-instantaneous booms, I can tell the storm is milling straight overhead. I stretch my T-shirt like a miniskirt over my bare knees for a trace of warmth.

"I'd rather be a lightning rod than a seismograph."
—Ken Kesey

A few hours ago, I chugged up an ancient Indian route to the cliff tops that outline the Paria Plateau. When I stopped to gulp water high above sprawling badlands, two condors slipped by so closely I could hear feathers whooshing. I dropped my pack on the pinon-and-juniper plateau for an afternoon of easy exploring.

But the terrain's nondescript nature proved baffling. Whenever I thought I was back where I'd started, no pack. I tried retracing my steps but couldn't escape the red-dirt maze of my boot prints. Dusk deepened, and a cold wind moaned. I bedded down under a grandfather pine with the scratchy greenery of some boughs as my blanket. Soon, clouds blotted out the stars, and raindrops pelted the branches, hitting the sand. I sought better shelter, ending up at this stone hollow.

Now, the storm seems to be moving on. Counting the seconds between flashes and rumbles, I imagine my tent, my sleeping bag, my hot cocoa nightcap. I fear that, come morning, the plateau will be completely socked in, that despite daylight I won't find my pack. I have been hypothermic before and know how quickly coherence unravels into bumbling and coma.

Hours pass like eons before dawn ignites the sky. I set out, tired, hungry, and cold. Methodically skirting the rim, I finally spot the bulge of my pack near some striped outcrops. Later, hitching a ride out of the blue-domed desert, I realize this night has been seared into my memory, an adventure worth the risk. —Michael Engelhard

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