Birthday bash was electrifying after all

Bolts from heaven interrupt peaceful slumber in the sand

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— I've resigned myself to the fact that in my middle age, I am no longer the party animal I once was.

Back in the day, I might have gone out dancing to the music of Kool and the Gang. But all I really wanted for my birthday this year was the opportunity to sleep under the stars in my sleeping bag.

Apparently, even that was too much to ask.

The original plan had been to bag a 14,000 foot peak on Sunday a nice goal for a mountain man who has begun to slow down. But events conspired to make that trip a bit of a reach this week. So I opted instead for a compromise road trip to a quiet spot where sleeping under the stars would mean a million, gazillion constellations with no interference from city lights a full-on Milky Way extravaganza.

We quickly threw a couple of coolers, the sleeping bags, camera gear and a couple of large Rubbermaid tubs into the Windstar and headed west on U.S. 40.

Let me pause for a moment to explain a couple of the finer points of pulling off spontaneous camping trips. You will find that you will go camping more often if you heed this advice.

First, go to the store and purchase a couple of those deep plastic tubs with tightly fitting lids. One should be forest green and the other should be blue.

Into these tubs you should place all of the essential items needed for camping, and always keep them there for quick getaways. Precisely what should you put in the tubs?

In order of priority, you should pack a corkscrew, long-handled marshmallow forks, playing cards, French press coffee maker, frying pan, maps, compass, matches, bug spray and first-aid kit with Ibuprofen.

A solar powered blender is optional, but not a bad idea.

The other thing you need to do is promise your spouse that dinner the first night will be cold sandwiches from the shop in Steamboat, and you will not require massive production breakfasts with bacon and pancakes and lots of KP. A cold breakfast is just fine, providing there is coffee.

Try this yourself you will see that you will go camping more often.

Anyway, back to our mission to sleep under the stars.

We pulled into a tiny, but modern campground with a beautiful sand beach on the banks of the Yampa River and not another soul in it. We pitched a tent, just in case, and played a rousing game of Yahtzee just because we were in a particularly wild and crazy mood Saturday night.

As bedtime rolled around there were signs of trouble over the horizon dull flashes of lightning, about five every minute, were lighting up the sky.

My wife retreated to the tent, and when fat rain drops began to spatter on the hood of the Windstar, the boy bailed out of the van. I was left to ride it out with a wet dog, who smelled only the way a wet dog can smell.

Soon enough the storm passed to the south, and the stars came out. I dragged my sleeping pad and bag down to the beach, lay on my back and began counting stars. At times like these I always marvel at the profundity of distant galaxies.

When I next awoke, it was to an ear-splitting sound I can best describe as KKKraggg-craK-Kapow#@!

As I sat up in my bag, darkness transformed into an eerie blue daylight, but only for a fraction of a second. In the millisecond after the lightning flash, the image of the riverbank remained etched on my retina.

And then there was another flash brighter than the first. It was so bright I could see catfish on the bottom of the river. It was so bright I could count the whiskers on the catfish.

That's too bright!

I squirmed out of my bag, gathered up my headlamp, keys and billfold and sprinted for the campground.

Faced with a choice of the tent, where the boy had had the foresight to stack graham cracker boxes and bags of tortilla chips where I might have slept, or the van containing the wet dog, I took the van.

It proved to be a wise choice.

In the stroboscopic flashes of lightning I glimpsed the wind wracked tent, alternately looking as if it would lift off for Grand Junction, then appearing as if the wind would flatten it.

At times, I could make out through the wet nylon, the forms of my loved ones struggling in vain to support the tent poles.

I laughed myself to sleep, secure in the knowledge that they could not hear my guffaws over the thunderclaps (please don't tell them I said that).

When I woke again the world had been reborn. The sun was shining and a bluebird was singing in the juniper tree.

A large buck antelope was eyeing me from the edge of the bluff, and it looked like a grand day to explore a river canyon.

My wife walked over and offered me the first cup of coffee of my 50th year on the planet (I guess the tent wasn't blown to Grand Junction after all).

As I sipped from the mug and my synapses began firing, I thought to myself, "This is a pretty good gig I've got living and working in Northwest Colorado. I think I'll keep it. And one of these years, I'm going to sleep out under the stars. I really mean it."

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