I remember it well.
The sky was the lightest and most fragile shade of cotton candy pink, dappled with baby blue and effervescent yellow. The fog held close to the peaks of those wild blue mountains, trapped in the clefts and crevices like slow, low-hanging clouds. The white vapor hung precariously like it had tried to rise but hit a glass ceiling, an impenetrable wall. So, it settled instead. There was not a single sound and the resulting peace was nearly crushing. It was serene and tranquil, but in the heaviest of ways. The rapidness at which the sky seemed to move was a betrayal. For, despite the way the fog rolled steadily along, there was no wind to be felt. Not one leaf fluttered in the field where I stood, not one single blade of grass.
I remember turning to my sister and cousin in disbelief, that something so calm could erupt from something so treacherous. That moment was like waking up from a very horrible, very real nightmare. You wake up, feeling as though all your deepest fears have been completely unreasonable and utterly unfounded. It feels groggy and disorienting. It confuses your reality.
Yet, somehow you find yourself standing in awe and thanks.
It was mid-July along the Virginian Appalachian Trail, a trip many months in the making. Upon spending unfathomable quantities of money on equipment and freeze-dried meals, my sister, my cousin and I drove our beat up car south towards the Blue Ridge Mountains. We drove in shifts, delegating the miles three ways: Renee’s, Mara’s, mine. The car did not handle it well, neither the miles nor the mountains, and a brake replacement took place shortly after our return trip to Michigan. We departed anyway to Virginia, blissfully unaware of this, our hearts set on hiking a short fragment of the famed trail.
We spent a total of five days in the forest, but carried so much excess gear that passersby frequently mistook us for thru-hikers. On our fourth night we came across an actual thru-hiker. He was tall and slim and traveling alone. “Snaus”, as he called himself, left Georgia in May and was now in Virginia; our lives intersected at Campbell shelter. He expected to hit Maine by September, or maybe August- the entirety of the trail in a matter of months, and all on foot. During the last golden slivers of evening light, he rolled from his sleeping bag and told us stories of bear encounters and bravery. He told us about his journey, about his reasons for hiking the trail. Every thru-hiker has their reasons. Upon our questioning, he informed us of his mere twenty-or-so-pound backpack filled with ultra light gear. Myself, I carried twelve pounds alone in just water.
The trip was, in most ways, a disaster. It rained nearly every night, often relentlessly until mid-morning. I recall an evening falling asleep under a canopy of stars, only to wake at an unpleasant hour to thunder and pelting raindrops smashing against taut polyester. We crammed three of us into my father’s tent, otherwise constructed to comfortably hold two, and it nearly broke our friendship. I slept in fetal position each night, knees bent awkwardly around boots and backpacks, straining to keep away from the tent wall, which was coated in condensation. Our gear was absolutely soaked. I have the clearest memory of Mara sitting down one sloppy morning on a wet tree trunk, taking anguished bites of Chocolate Brownie Clif Bar. Water pooled atop her raincoat hood, and there were bits of wood chips and leaves stuck to everything. That was also the morning I ran out of toilet paper.
However, the most disastrous night came after the most pleasant and wonderful day. So much so, that when we bumped into a park ranger near Mount Rogers, we almost didn’t believe her. “There’s a storm rolling in,” she said, “with strong winds and lightning. You girls need to get to the shelter.” She tipped up her wide-brimmed hat as she spoke. Perspiration marked her forehead.
I looked up at the perfect sky, at the sunshine beating down on open fields and treetops, in complete disbelief. After a moment of confusion, we decided to heed her prophetic advice and hiked onward with a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. We had to get to that shelter. It was absolutely essential, a non-negotiable.
Yet, as the time and miles wore on, we grew increasingly anxious. We misread our map and almost took a wrong side trail; at this my anxiety leaked out in desperate tears. The idea of a shelter began to feel like a false promise, a mirage. The sky took an absolute ugly turn and the muffled voice of impending thunder sent a panic down my spine that was not transferred to my feet. I sloughed along behind, backpack feeling heavy as ever. Our pace hastened around bends and corners, always holding out hope that the shelter would be in the next clearing. And it never was.
With distress, we abandoned our mission. We gave in and pitched our tent without a word, fingers scrambling, grabbing, reaching. The thunder was ferocious and in that moment I was thankful we had stopped. With the sky darkening and disaster looming, we were too nervous to eat. It began to rain. Wind shook our tent. Thunder crashed and the whole world lit up for split seconds, bright as day. I felt we would die. There we were, atop the highest point in all of Virginia, in a lightning storm. Thunder and panic amplified everything. My life caught in a literal storm, I cried out. Prayers flowed as desperately as the situation felt. I begged for the storm to break.
The storms of life, and the accompanying fear, engulf you in despair. Huddled inside our tent, I forgot what it was ever like to live with hope and joy. Comfort was but a far away memory. Fear can be crippling in the sense that it leads you to expect, with certainty, an impending doom. Intense fear has a way of skewing time, of clouding your vision so you can’t see past all the immediate and scary details. It lends you nothing but feelings of helplessness. I sat cross-legged in our tent atop Mount Rogers, living and breathing fear. I was shoulder deep in self-pity and distress.
By the time the storm relented, I had to dig myself out of a hole filled with remorse before I could even acknowledge its true end. I had gotten so lost and confused by the reality of my present situation that the storm’s end felt like an utter shock to the system. I couldn’t believe it was over. My internal and external worlds no longer matched and I felt a strange wave of disconnect.
So, before even committing to lace up shoes and put arms through coat sleeves, the tent door was tepidly unzipped to survey the scene. The soil was drenched and leftover raindrops fell on our noses. We peered through and piled out, taking delicate steps, as to not startle the sky. We broke through past the brush and the overhead trees, gulping in rain-stained air, lungs and bodies desperate for the openness of the sky. We broke out and spilled into a clearing, with a view of the valley and all its neighboring mountains.
It was glorious.
The sky was the lightest and most fragile shade of cotton candy pink, dappled with baby blue and effervescent yellow. The fog was thick and luxurious. It was serene and tranquil; there was not a single sound. The earth was damp and freshly nourished, the air clean and scented with pine. Mountaintops stood with grandeur, with noble strength. They were clothed with splendor and might. They stood like soldiers, victorious, after a long and crushing battle. Goosebumps rose on my arms. Breathing was deep and effortless, every tension of the storm utterly forgotten and far-removed. It was quiet and still. My soul felt young and free. Open. Expanded.
Of all the moments on that trip, that is the one I remember most.
I remember the storm and the fear of dying; I remember the lightning and the way it lit up the world from inside our tiny, two person tent. I remember the next morning, hiking past the shelter we missed. I remember the shoulder pain and the blisters, and I remember falling asleep dry and waking up wet.
I remember all of these things, but every single one of them is overpowered by the way I felt when that storm finally broke. It was like seeing God make beauty from disaster right before my very eyes. It was like restoration at work. It was like seeing the whole history of the world compressed before me: the beauty, the fall, the rebellion, the recovery. It was eternity packed into hours, bottled for me to see, done in a way I could understand. Beauty emerges from ash and peace follows violent storm.
This is truth.
Right now we live in the storm. These storms can come without warning, breaking and entering and taking everything from us. They come in the middle of an otherwise beautiful, wonderful day. These storms shake us up and try to ruin us. But, the safe shelter is in the attainable distance. There is majesty and holiness and comfort waiting just around the bend, after the last rain falls and the last tear drops. We have no false promise of hope. We will come out the other side, after having gone through it all, to stand. And we will receive a weight of glory far incomparable to it all.
I remember it well. It was like a portrait of redemption, painted across the entire sky for me to see.
I was swept up in a state of awe and thanks.
Words by Michelle Pineau
Photos by Michelle, Renee and Mara Pineau
This blog post acts as an entry to the myATstory contest. Find details about it here: http://www.myatstory.org/