August 28, 2002

Driving Hopefully

You know my fondness for clouds and flowers. Today, I had expected a close and joyous encounter with both. I would be driving for two hours on the Blue Ridge Parkway, during the gentle light of the morning hours, with the equivalent of 20 rolls of film, during the peak of the autumn bloom of goldenrod, Joe Pye Weed, Iron Weed, and the blue and yellow asters of Fall. How I have looked forward to this morning. And how it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

My objective, aside from bringing home photos, was to fetch home my son, Nathan, and Lori, his companion, from over a week on the Appalachian Trail. We had heard from them just once, from a campground, on an unscheduled side excursion to a grocery store that no longer existed. Once again in Nate's life, he was rescued by the kindness of strangers: an elderly gentleman who went out of his way to help two waifs along on their foolish journey through the woods in the midst of an August heat wave.

Plans for recovering the two hikers at the end of their trip was necessarily sketchy, since they only knew approximately where they would be on any given day. Finally the plan we came up with was that I was to pick them up south of the Thunderhill Shelter, where the Trail crosses the Parkway. They would be walking south on the Parkway, this side of the shelter. That way, no matter when I left home and they began walking from the shelter, we would find each other.

But, being a firm believer in Murphy's Laws, especially his laws of travel, anything that can go wrong, will, well...you guessed it. Not that it was really anybody's fault...just one of the vagaries of foot travel and nature. As it turns out, for the first time in many weeks, there was enough moisture in the air today to produce not the rain we severely need, but fog. Boiling up out of the piedmont to meet the cooler air held aloft on the backbone of the Blue Ridge, the warm, wet air produced the cloud I was hoping to photograph, and all but obscured the road I was required to drive along to find Nate and Lori. If you have ever been on the Parkway in the fog, you understand that 70 miles of this a white-knucled experience.

I reached the milepost beyond which I expected at any moment to see the kids, a splash of color in the grayness on the side of the road, trudging south to meet me. But I could have driven past them, within 30 feet of them, and not seen them, the fog was that impenetrable; and by that time, there was enough moisture to produce rain, driven sideways by 30 mile winds. I passed the vicinity of the shelter, then 3 more miles, and no kids. I was a few minutes earlier than I had told them to expect me. Maybe they hadn't reached the road yet. Maybe I had passed them coming up the mountain. I had no idea which.

So I drove all the way back to Peaks of Otter Visitors Center, since this was our emergency post, where we would meet up or they would call if plans fell apart, which I always try to anticipate and plan for. Twelve miles back through the fog, a quick conversation with the lady in the Visitors center: tell them to stay here if they show up. I'll be back. And then back up the mountain, through the fog, and the wind, and the rain. By this time, my eyes were going squeeky with all the back and forth roadside scans for anything that looked like wet humans.

I began to catastrophize: what if one of them were injured a day or two back on the trail, without a phone, not near a road. There were not a lot of hikers out this time of year. Only knuckleheaded invincible college kids, and one of them was mine. What if Nate meant another shelter and used the wrong name? Of maybe I had somehow been lysdexic when I wrote all of this down the night of the surprise phonecall from the trail. What if...?

I approached parkway mile 75. If I didn't see them in the next mile, it was going to be a whole different day. Parkway rangers, phone calls home saying "Honey we lost the kids". My stomach tied in a knot. And where ever they were, even dressed for the wet, with this wind and cool temps, they could become hypothermic quickly. I did my best to control all the negatives. This was out of my hands. We had asked for 'big angels' for them in their travels; and now, if their angels could just manage to find a little Goretex...

At the moment just before despair, the apparition of human shapes appeared against a backdrop of dripping Rhododendrons and windswept hardwoods saying goodbye to their leaves. Beautiful sight, this. They had waited until the last minute to leave the shelter for the cold, wet road. Matter of fact, they said, "We saw you go by the first time. We were just 100 feet down the trail in the fog and saw you slow down. We waved like crazy, but we knew you could'nt see us. We knew you'd be back. Eventually".

And so, we are home, warm, dry, fed and happy. The house is strewn with damp memories of the past two weeks' walk. The kids have put on a movie: One Flew Over A Cuckoo's Nest. Indeed. One drove through it. Just today.

Posted by fred1st at August 28, 2002 04:21 PM
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