We wanted to take the kids stargazing, but instead drove into clouds.
“Please don’t drive us over a cliff, Dad!” Our son was terrified. The fog was thick on the dark, empty road. Our two beams of light barely cut the cloud enough to show lines on the road in front of us. My husband nosed our car across the oncoming lane, thinking he had found the entrance to a scenic view pull-through.
“We’re fine, guys,” my husband said. He pulled into a parking area without driving us off a cliff, and our headlights revealed an interpretive sign cloaked in mist. We saw nothing but thick fog – no scenic view, no stars – but we knew the land dropped off just beyond the stone wall that separated our car from a mountainside. Its strange how light changes a thing, how an overlook that fills you with awe and glory and profound love for nature during the day can make you shiver with fright after dark.
“This is spooky,” I said. Everything was shrouded – the void between mountains in front of us, fir trees at the edge of the forest on our left, the parking spot on our right. I expected an ax murderer to materialize out of the mist any second. I was ready to get moving.
“Yeah, can we go back to the campsite?” our son asked.
My husband checked the mirrors and eased back out of the parking spot. “I kind of wanted to drive to the top,” he said.
The kids groaned in the back seat. I was okay with that plan. The car was solid, the doors were locked, and we could escape quickly from scary men in hockey masks.
We pulled through the overlook parking lot and inched our way through thick fog toward our campground.
Our daughter squinted out her window into the blackness. “Hey, there’s the sign – ”
“Whoops,” my husband said, “Missed our turn.” And he continued up the mountain. The sky suddenly lit up with a flash of lightning that reflected off every droplet in the cloud. The light was in front of us, behind us, all around us. The whole sky flashed white as the firebolt lit the cloud from the inside. Despite its brightness, it revealed nothing of the landscape, only the density of the fog and our utter lack of visibility.
Our son yelped.
“It’s okay, buddy,” my husband said. “See how we haven’t heard thunder from that? When you are in the clouds like this, lightning bounces off all the vapor and the whole cloud lights up. Pretty freaky, huh?”
“But we still haven’t heard thunder. Did you notice that? The lightning isn’t close,” he said. “We’re safe in the car.”
“Can we go back to the campsite?” our son asked again.
“We’re safer in the car than we are in the campsite,” my husband said. Obviously without thinking.
I threw him a look that said Why on earth would you tell them that right before we tuck them into their tent?
“Why is the car safer?” our daughter asked.
My husband realized his error too late. “It’s just got thicker walls for shelter from the storm.”
“But you can’t drive your tent off the side of a mountain!” our son said.
By now we had driven to the summit of the road and had not come out over the cloud, as my husband had hoped. We were only in it deeper. On our way back down we saw a brown sign by the side of the road that said “ATTENTION: Only View Of Mt. Rogers From Road (Elv. 5729 ft.)” My husband and I leaned forward, peered into the 10 feet of mist that our headlights illuminated, and laughed. “No view tonight!” Then we continued to talk our kids down as we descended toward our campsite.
“It’s just creepy out now because you can see the fog as we drive through it,” my husband said. “Look, it’s barely raining.” We passed through a clear spot before being swallowed by another cloud. The dark was crystalline black after being shrouded in grey mist for so long. Everything had crisp edges in the clear spot – white lines on the road, blades of wet grass – and droplets of water shimmered at the tips of slick, green leaves in the light of our low beams.
“You slept in a far worse storm than this at Shenandoah,” my husband said, trying to rebuild our kids’ confidence in spending the night in their tent.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thunder was booming so close it shook the ground, and our tents lit up every few seconds from all the lightning.”
Our daughter thought a minute as raindrops splatted on the windshield. The wipers swished them away, and larger ones began to fall.
“Remember?” I said. “It was raining so hard you could barely hear us when we shouted over to your tent to make sure y’all were doing okay.”
“Oh yeah!” She finally remembered.
“This is nothing like that,” my husband said. “We haven’t even heard any thunder.” He turned the windshield wipers up a notch. They swished faster.
When we arrived at the campsite, we were out of the clouds. We hunched our shoulders in the now downpour, ran the kids to their tent, kissed them goodnight, and dove into our own as rain clattered on the roofs of our nylon shelters.
“Are you guys okay over there?” My husband shouted over the rat-a-tat-tat.
“Yeah!” They chorused. They don’t know about ax murderers materializing out of mist, and once they were inside the opaque walls of their tent, not looking out windows and seeing clouds light up from the inside, they were no longer afraid.
It rained heavily throughout the night, and in the morning, our campsite is in a cloud. I sit on the cooler to sip my coffee, and the light is beautiful. Leaves, bark, moss, stone – their edges are softened and their colors muted by fine mist. The storm has passed, the forest drips, our children sleep, and I am filled with awe and glory and profound love for nature.