The Lightning Stalker Strikes Again

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, July 1996

The Lightning Stalker Strikes Again

As an amp-anxious world cowers, David Stillings goes to work
By Randy Wayne White

Because we're standing in an open field near Orlando, Florida, because thunderheads are boiling toward us, because the first cold breath of the storm has alerted my bushman's survival instincts, I feel it's important to review for the Lightning Stalker certain incidents that illustrate the long-standing animus between me, my family, and demon electricity.

"Remember the story I told you?" I yell over the howling wind. "The story about what happened when I lived on the farm?"

Preoccupied, the Lightning Stalker says, "Huh? What?" He has positioned himself in the middle of the field. He has his old Minolta camera mounted on a Bogen tripod, lens focused on the towering clouds. The shutter cord is in his hand, ready to fire, and he peers up at the sky through thick eyeglasses. With his beard and hippie-length hair blowing wild in the wind, the Lightning Stalker appears crazed with delight. In the strobing dusk, he looks a little too much like Moses for comfort.

He turns briefly to speak. "You mean when you peed on that electric fence? That's wild stuff, man! But, hey, I'm sorta busy right now."

I'd been far more delicate in explaining the unfortunate occurrence: A sensitive, inexperienced boy. A bull paddock enclosed by wire through which flowed some very serious voltage. An impromptu beverage-chugging contest. The pause to void, the playful sweep of hips. "It really hurt," I tell him.

"I bet it did, man!"

"Psychologically, I mean."

"Sure, runs right up the spine to the brain. We're electric creatures!"

Exactly right-the low-amperage variety. Which is why all my instincts tell me that I should now be huddled in the Lightning Stalker's Jeep Wagoneer, parked a hundred yards away from here, rather than standing out in a field with this madman while doom descends.

"Now she's really starting to cook!" he says. Two big storm cells, iridescent against the setting sun, are blowing toward us, feeding on the flatland heat of central Florida. We can feel the artillery rumble of thunder through a conduit of cooling air and earth, can hear the thunder's pitch gradually ascending as the storms grow nearer. There is a vein of light, and my companion begins to count aloud. Twenty seconds later, we hear the thunder. "Five seconds to a mile!" he yells. "She's closing. I've got to get to work."

For the last 20 years, the Lightning Stalker has stood out in storms like this one, risking life and limb to photograph electricity. He's an artist, and like most artists he can think only of his own selfish wants. Never mind the point that I'm trying to make.

"You know, that story about my great-grandfather..."

"Yeah, you told me that one. The preacher, right?"

Yes, a North Carolina circuit preacher. A respected citizen of the state and the father of eight children, this holy man fell victim to desires of the flesh. One night he packed his organ-player mistress into a wagon, and the two of them galloped toward the Godless north. Upon crossing the Virginia border, my great-grandfather was struck and killed by lightning. "That's absolutely true," I shout. "I've got a copy of the death certificate to prove it!" Inching toward the Wagoneer, I add, "That's why I should go back and sit in the car. Electricity hates us. The entire family's cursed."

The Lightning Stalker is focused on the storm, working the camera's shutter, counting: "Thousand-one, thousand-two, thousand-three..."

I'm now speaking over my shoulder, in slow retreat. "It's one of those generational deals. Apparently God's still miffed about the whole business. If he decides to take another potshot at me, you could get nailed by the shrapnel."

I hear the Lightning Stalker yell, "WOW!" in response to a burst of celestial light, a deafening blast of thunder. Instantly I'm sprinting toward the car, running a serpentine pattern, yelling words the Lightning Stalker may or may not hear: "I'm only doing this for you!"

"Confront your fears--just don't be stupid about it," the Lightning Stalker told me when I telephoned to ask if I could tag along on a trip. "You're afraid of lightning? Good. I'll trust you to carry my gear."

The Lightning Stalker is named David O. Stillings, and he's from Winter Springs, which is just north of Orlando and the Magic Kingdom. He describes his part of Florida as "the lightning capital of North America," in a tone that communicates a mixture of pride and private reality: He lives in the belly of his own chosen beast.

"Lightning is the last dinosaur, man!" he says. "It's got a mind. It's alive!"

If lightning isn't alive, it's certainly lively. Some interesting facts: At any given time about 2,000 thunderstorms may exist worldwide, producing lightning flashes at a total rate of 100 per second. The peak temperature of a lightning bolt--in excess of 50,000 degrees--is four times hotter than the surface of the sun. Lighting does strike twice in the same place--more than twice, sometimes--and it does indeed have its favorite targets. My great-grandfather was one. The Empire State Building is another; it's been hit as many as 48 times in a single year.

Stillings has never been directly hit by lightning, but he says he's been blasted off the ground more than once. "It's a lot better than the life I was living," he reasons. "That should tell you something."

It does. In 1976, Stillings was broke, dispirited, and going nowhere fast. He'd washed out of the Navy. A prolific poet, he'd failed to find a publisher for even one of his poems. Then one afternoon a fore-token of his life's work appeared in the rearview mirror of his '64 Olds convertible.

"I was driving around with the top down," he says. "I had a camera, because I wanted to take a picture of the sunset. And there it was--boom--a bolt of lightning in the mirror. I believe in stuff like that. We all get signs that can take us down really neat paths. I did a U-turn, and this storm was beautiful. I started taking pictures. I'm telling you, it was an adrenaline rush. It was me."

That was more than 150,000 miles and 80,000 photographs ago. Since that day, Stillings, who is now 48 years old, has dedicated his life to his craft. "If I was rich, people would call me eccentric. As it is, people just say I'm obsessed."

He scoffs at certain western states--Arizona, for example--that also claim to be the lightning capital. "Oh sure, it's easier to photograph lightning out west," he says. "Just drive up any mountain and shoot across a valley--everything's safe and dry. But central Florida is dead-center in the flight path of all the storms that come in from the Gulf and the Atlantic. Monster storms, man."

Stillings says he shoots lightning in the purest, most honest way he can. That means going into the teeth of a developing storm cell, waiting it out, shooting it raw. It also means no camera tricks, no filters, and no lengthy time-exposures. "If I leave the shutter open for more than three seconds, I start feeling guilty about it. Sure, it'd guarantee I'd get lightning, but I'd also lose color and cloud detail. All that ambient light just eats up the negative." In a year, Stillings will shoot 4,000 photographs. Out of that, he might get 12 images that he can use but maybe only one or two that he's really proud of. "I'm telling you," he says, "it's a full-time job."

Which is why Stillings, broke when he started, is still broke. His wife, Judy, a hearing-aid specialist, provides income for the cause. He sells his photographs through Black Oak Art Studio in nearby Casselberry, and he might make $3,000 in a good year. "Money for film and gas," he says. "That's all I need."

His work has been featured in a number of galleries around the state. Epcot Center even invited him to do a show. Stillings has also traded his photographs for a few niceties. "I once traded lightning for a used clothes washer and dryer. I traded lightning for a television. I traded lightning for my Wagoneer." He also traded lightning for a used transmission to get the Wagoneer running.

Over the years, Stillings has become a well-known fixture in his region: a lone man with camera, confronting storms in open fields, from rooftops, from any place where the angle is good and thunder is popping. Locals dubbed him the Lightning Stalker. His friends even had a rain slicker made with the moniker in big white letters stretching across the back. "That's so I wouldn't get hassled by the cops so much," he explains. "If it's a dark night out and you're roaming around private property in a big rainstorm, the police will tend to draw their weapons before asking questions. And who can blame them?"

Stillings, in short, is a member of a small, twisted American fraternity of heavy-weather chasers, one of those rare people who are driven to seek clarity in the midst of chaos. Some of them pursue tornadoes. Some of them park themselves in the path of hurricanes. A few of the crazier ones chase lightning.

"Yeah, I'm crazy," he told me on the phone. "But I'm positive crazy, not negative crazy. I don't have a death wish. I like to go around to schools and show my slides, rap with the kids. I try to educate them about what lightning is, tell them how to avoid it. To me, that's being positive crazy. I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I don't use drugs. Lightning's my whole life. If you really want to get to know the beast, man, you're more than welcome to ride with me."

And that's how I came to be standing in an open field with the Lightning Stalker, watching doom descend, struggling to confront my fears.

Between 100 and 200 people are killed by lightning every year in the United States. Lightning is the direct cause of more deaths than snowstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and deranged postal employees. It's personal. It's the Creator's version of an early-admissions system: zap, and you move on to the next level.

I remind myself of that as I sit in the Wagoneer, watching Stillings do his work. No fool, he's hunkered down low. He has a bottle of Mountain Dew in one hand, the shutter cable in the other. It's dark enough now so that I can see him clearly only when there's a blast of lightning. Same with the clouds: They have formed a mountainous amphitheater around us and the banks of Lake Apopka, near which we are located.

On the drive from his home, Stillings said, "Storms feed on warmth, like an alien ship gobbling up energy."

Yeah, the guy's a Star Trek fan, but in this case he's right. The storm has vacuumed away all the heat and wind, leaving the night air cool. In the void, the stillness is tinged with eerie light, bile-green and chrome. I open the door and step out experimentally to test one of the Lightning Stalker's claims: "Just before a big storm hits, have you ever noticed there are no mosquitoes? They just disappear. It's true. Animals can sense when the lid's about to blow off."

I stand there anticipating the insect whine. A still night in Florida without mosquitoes is oxymoronic, but the guy's right again. No mosquitoes. A little later, I feel the stirring breeze and the first fat drops of rain. Stillings is running toward me, carrying his gear.

"Time to move!" he yells. "Water and my lenses don't mix!"

I ask, "We're done for the night?"

"No way. Just getting started. I know where this storm is headed. What we do now is drive southeast, set up, and wait on it again. Did you notice the edges of those clouds? When the tops of clouds have real sharp edges, the storm's still building. Fuzzy edges mean the storm's dying. This thing's getting stronger." He throws his fists above his head. "I mean, WOW!"

Like an alien ship himself, the Lightning Stalker seems to be gobbling energy from the storm. As we drive Highway 441 through tiny Plymouth toward the city of Apopka, he performs a nonstop monologue, his thought process leaping from branch to progressively smaller branch.

"You know why I keep my hair so long? 'Cause when it comes to lightning, hair's an early warning system. People think rubber tires will insulate a car from the ground. No way. Yeah, a car's pretty safe, because lightning will follow the metal body to ground, but the tires have nothing to do with it. Same with wearing rubber shoes--no help at all. After traveling 30,000 feet through insulating air, the beast will not be halted by half an inch of rubber. And trees? Can you believe people still run to trees for cover? Fifteen percent of the people killed by lightning are standing under trees."

As we bounce into another field to watch the advancing storm all over again, I tell the Lightning Stalker that this time I'm not getting out.

"No sense both of us being struck dead," I explain. "One of us should be in the Jeep, ready to go for help at a moment's notice."

The Lightning Stalker is collecting his gear, his face turned skyward so that the distant light show flickers in his glasses. "The Wagoneer?" he asks, smiling. "Sounds just like your great-granddad. Yeah, man--stay in the wagon."

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