I had to put both hands on the wheel after St. Louis. I had slouched deeper and deeper into the seat, twisted slightly to the side, and hooked a couple of fingers of my left hand around the bottom of the wheel. My eyes had started to droop slightly. It was the afternoon of my second full day of driving. The ominously roiling gray clouds revealed themselves as I approached Kansas City. To appreciate the topography of Kansas you really need to include the wind in your reckoning. The picture perfect skies in Louisville this morning fooled me briefly into thinking I was leaving the unsettled weather in Virginia behind. Graduation at Emory & Henry College had to relocate indoors on Saturday. After more than a week of day and night thunderstorms, the college’s president quipped, at least we can officially declare the drought of the last 2 years over.
The thunderstorms woke me up, mostly because I was concerned that my kids would be scared. I turned on the hall light for them – but they never woke up. I wasn’t scared of thunderstorms as a small child either… until April 3rd, 1974. That afternoon I was skating in the gym of the Baptist Church on Frankfort Avenue. It had been stormy, and then it went quiet. Through the high windows I could see the strange yellow hue of the atmosphere. In no time we all were hustled down two flights of stairs to the basement. Gym mats were laid across the steps so we didn’t even have to take time to take off our skates. We heard an explosion and the lights went off. They handed out candles – the kind you carry into church for the twilight Christmas service – with the cardboard around it to catch the melted wax. I still wasn’t scared – I was in good hands.
It’s hard to see a thunderstorm coming from a holler. We had trekked to a swimming hole – buried deep between the steep banks of a small river in eastern Kentucky. The temperature dropped suddenly, the sky darkened, and we could see the lightning approaching fast. My burly brother-in-law slung my son over his back while I scooped up my 3-year old daughter. I zipped her into my jacket as she wrapped her arms around my neck and her legs around my middle. We ran for our friend’s house. The sky ripped open while we plunged through the river and across to a sketchy trail. We ducked around trees and vines and contoured the inside of the precipitous ravine. We climbed handhold to handhold up the steep banks and made our way out straight into the brunt of the storm. Catherine’s head stayed buried against my chest.
When I finally burst indoors, I unzipped my jacket. I was prepared to slowly ease a petrified zombie back to life. Instead, my daughter bounced down to the ground laughing.
That was me before I saw what the tornado had done. After I saw the devastation along Frankfort Avenue the next day, I would for years associate that with the thunderstorm that had preceded the explosion. Any storm induced terror. A child faced with a looming threat has only two choices: blissful trust or agonizing fear.
I never fully confronted all of my fears until I hiked the AT. I was following the ridge that divides Tenessee and North Carolina. It was a beautiful evening and I found myself in a meadow on top of a mountain. I wanted to lie under the stars, so I laid my pad and fleece on the ground. I drifted off to a restful sleep. I awoke with a start when a drop of water landed on my forehead. I couldn’t see stars, or anything else. I could hear thunder in the distance. I scrambled to find my small headlamp (very dim by today’s standards) and I quickly packed my bedroll and untied my food bag from the tree where I had hung it. I tried to orient myself. Most of the light from my headlight reflected back into my eyes from the tiny water droplets of the cloud that had blanketed the mountain. I found a white blaze and began my hasty, but careful, descent.
Meanwhile I could just make out the faint flashes of lightning. I counted the seconds until the thunder that followed. The storm was approaching. It was a long way down the mountain. My mind was completely focused on the task of finding the trail and keeping my footing. I didn’t allow any room for panic, even after I was at last in the relative protection of the forest. Some miles after I had set out from the mountaintop at midnight I saw the shelter. It was completely empty. I threw my pack inside and climbed in after it. Moments later the woods were engulfed in a raging thunderstorm. I had exercised the prerogative of an adult: I had chosen to hike, and to sleep unprotected on top of a mountain. And while the circumstance was self-imposed, I had acted competently to get myself out of harm’s way. Of course the night wasn’t over.
It was about 1:30 in the morning. I laid down, but the metal roof just amplified the rain and thunder like I was inside a drum. The flashes of lightning showcased the outlines of giant trees surrounding the shelter. Should any one of them fall on the shelter, I realized, it would be crushed. The thought, however, was fleeting. I was a child again – completely powerless. I exhaled. I breathed in the smell of the lush woods, and let my bones sink into the wood planks of the shelter. I drifted off to sleep – the trees were the massive arms and the thunder the pounding heartbeat of my fate.