Monday, May 2, 2011

safe from the storm

I made it to the 500-mile mark today! And I made it to the month of May! And the state of Virginia! I almost went home.

It was a storm that I would have been afraid of in a house let alone in my Tarptent. Late on April 27th, tornadoes devastated much of Alabama and parts of the south, and southwestern Virginia. I had just completed my first 20-mile day, stopping about 13 miles from Damascus, VA, and about 10 miles from the TN/VA border. It was late in the day and I could tell a storm was brewing, as I hiked along a ridge 5,000 ft up. My original plan was to do 23 miles to Abingdon Shelter, leaving a short 10 miles, downhill to Damascus on the 28th, my mom's birthday. I was excited to get into Virginia and be able to talk to my mom on her birthday. It was such a beautiful day on the 27th, and as I hiked across a field near Shady Valley, TN the sun illuminated the greenest grass I had seen in some time. Fleet Foxes were playing on my Ipod and I was elated, so happy to be right there, in that moment. As the day went on I could tell that it was going to storm, but I was unaware of the severity of the clouds. I decided to set up my tent about 3 miles from the shelter for a couple reasons... 1) I was tired and hungry and my Beef Stroganoff Knorr sides sounded like Thanksgiving dinner, 2) It was late in the day and I knew the shelter would already be full, especially since there was a storm threatening 3) The storm hadn't hit yet and it was still light, and I could get my tent up before it started raining and got dark. I started looking for the first flat ground I saw.

I ended up setting my tent up in a little gap, but still along a ridge. I could see for miles to my right and to my left, not an ideal place to be in a storm. It was already really windy and I put big rocks on all four of my stakes to make sure they stayed in the ground. As I climbed in my tent, it was starting to get dark and the storm still hadn't hit - would it just pass by?  Around 9 pm it started lightning.  The sky was constantly lit, with an occasional surge of light the was so bright I thought lightning had struck 20 feet away. Thunder rolled continuously, leaving it impossible to distinguish just how far away the storm really was. I was just about getting to sleep when it started to rain. A constant downpour that seemed to be coming at an angle - terrible news for me and my Tarptent, because there's about a foot of mesh between the ground and the bottom of the sil-nylon.  I cuddled up in my sleeping bag in the very center of my tent as the sides started to get wet. I kept checking to make sure water wasn't building up anywhere on top of my tent, that would weigh it down and make it easier to collapse. It rained for a couple of hours and around midnight it stopped.

It was calm for a good 5 minutes. I gave a deep sigh of relief and tried to settle back in and relax. And then the wind began. The paper the next day said that an F3 tornado ripped through southwest Virginia, the biggest one the state had ever seen. 135-140 mph winds roared through homes and truck stops and flipped over 18-wheelers. I doubt I got the brunt of it up on that ridge, but those were some of the strongest winds I've ever felt. I didn't sleep a single second that night. I spent the entire night bracing the side of my tent against the brick wall of winds and pleading to anyone, someone, if there is a God, to make it stop. I started to realize that a tree could fall on me sometime during the night and every time I heard a tree brush up against another, or crack, or a big gust come through, I cover my head with my arms.

I made it through the night and the next day I hiked down to Damascus. The events of the night before seemed like a dream and the magnitude of what I had experienced hadn't hit me yet. I got to Damascus to find the power to be out everywhere with only the distant buzz of generators. The town was empty and dark and I entered the only open restaurant - Quincy's, to a round of applause from hikers and locals. "Towns! You made it!"

I found out that people had died the night before.  That only 7 miles away a town was basically leveled - completely destroyed. My phone was dead and the cell towers were down. I walked up a half mile to the Food City that was running off of emergency generators, hoping to be able to charge my phone - no luck. But, a manager overheard me asking a cashier if I could charge my phone and let me charge up my phone out in his truck.  It took an hour for me to charge up halfway and I called my mom to wish her a happy birthday. I got a call through, but the signal was horrible and we couldn't hear each other. I texted her instead, and I knew I had to cut right to the point. "A tornado hit last night and I'm ready to come home," is the text I sent out. I was freaking out and I began to think that hiking this trail was not worth it anymore, not if I'd be put in those types of situations.

I slept, or hardly at all, despite being completely exhausted, at a hostel called "The Place". I was in the strangest place, surrounded by hikers who hadn't experienced what I had, who were normal and excited to hit the trail. My mom and Pauline drove up to see me the next day. I cannot believe how amazing they are - patiently driving up to see me, not to take me home but because they care. We went out to eat and talked a little bit about it, but for the most part we just hung out all day. I was torn. I felt like I didn't want to play the game anymore, I was frightened, but I knew I would regret coming home. They understood completely and encouraged me to make a decision for myself that I could feel good about. I hiked out of Damascus on the 29th around lunch time in absolutely perfect weather. I was uneasy, but okay.
Beautiful day hiking out of Damascus

In the couple days since, I've tented both nights, just to get it out of the way. The first night was strange, but last night I slept wonderfully. I hiked up Mt. Rogers and through the Grayson Highlands, and it was incredible. I can't really put into words the emotions I felt as I walked through countryside like I had never seen before. It was like I was out west, in Montana or something. I saw a couple of wild ponies but they were skidish and wouldn't let me get close, the rest must have been hiding. I'm in Troutdale, VA tonight and it's basically just this diner with internet access and really awesome burgers and milkshakes. I'm sleeping at a Baptist Church tonight and I hit the trail again early in the morning. My mom and sister! and Peggy are coming up Saturday to spend a couple of days with me around Bland and Gary and Doug are coming up the next day. I'm so, so excited to see them! I survived the storm and I'm feeling less shaken up - better each day. It's good to have some perspective, to feel how precious life is, sometimes. I know that the tornado was a freak incident and that I probably won't experience something that bad again, but there will be other storms - I'll just make sure to be in a shelter next time and not beneath the thinnest bit of sil-nylon imaginable. Thank you all for the support. And thank you so much to my mom and Pauline. Yall are amazing and I love you guys so much.



  1. Yay for ponies and milkshakes and Baptist churches and good weather! love you

  2. Glad you're OK buddy boy -- love you.

  3. So happy you're okay! That sounds terrifying. I wish I could have been there with mom and Pauline.
    I can't wait until this weekend! I will actually be coming Sunday with Gary. Thinking about you a lot until then! Love you

  4. Towns?? where'd you get that name? Ha that's cool so many people know you. Quite an epic story man! Even scary--only SEVEN miles away?! Jeesh. You're seeing nature in all it's forms.

    You've got some strength in you that's incredible. It's hobbit-like. Overcoming that storm, and pushing through casts of despair to emerge to a scene of such beauty that you saw in these past too days... I don't know, something about it sounds so beautiful to me. Cheers buddy.