Shenandoah NP, Virginia
We all have those moments in life when we see clearly what we SHOULD do in our brain, but we choose to ignore it. Well, one evening, I nearly let “National Park Fever” kill me. I was on a trip to Washington, D.C., and I decided to take the short drive out to the northern part of Shenandoah National Park after a meeting to see if I could catch an hour or two in the park before sunset. It had rained all day, but I was still hopeful. It took me 45 minutes to drive the first 5 miles in the traffic, but once I hit the freeway, it was smooth sailing. The clouds started lifting, and the rain let up a bit along the way, but as soon as I got to Front Royal, just north of the park, the clouds began to look ominous again, and the rain began to fall lightly. As I pulled up to the entrance, the Park Ranger said, “I have to tell you, there’s a tornado warning in Page county about 30 miles south of here, and it’s moving north, are you sure you want to go in?” I told her “well, I’ve driven all this way, I might as well drive in for a few minutes and take some pictures; do you think I can just scoot down to the Thornton Gap Entrance and out?” She looked at me and said “that’s right next to Page county.”
I sat there for about 20 seconds and rationalized to myself, “I can always just turn around and come back,” so I paid my entrance fee and started uphill on Skyline Drive. Because I didn’t know how much time I would have, I stopped everywhere there was an opening, ran out with my camera, shot a picture and ran back to the car, dodging a few big raindrops that were beginning to fall more consistently. The clouds were still high in the east, and the road was to the east of the ridge at this point, so the vistas weren’t too bad. I saw plenty of deer run across the road, but it was getting too dark to photograph them. And then I crossed the ridge line. . .
As the road crossed to the west side of the ridge, there in front of me at eye level and about 5 miles away was one of the nastiest clouds I have ever seen (and I’ve lived in the plains of Kansas and Wyoming). It was greenish blue with hints of red, and there were spikes sticking out of it at weird angles. I thought to myself “so THAT’s what they were worried about!” The storm was moving toward me and was about to cover the road where I’d just come from. I took a quick picture and decided to keep going because the road in front of me looked better than heading back and getting caught by that thing! As I drove, I noticed a few other cars, but like smart people, they were heading OUT of the park.
Just as I was thinking things might work out pretty well, the heavens opened up, and the deluge poured forth. In no time, the visibility went to nearly nothing, the road turned into a little river, and I found myself creeping along at 10 miles per hour with the windshield wipers trying frantically to keep up. Lightning flashed all around with terrible thunderclaps right on its heels. The noise was deafening, but I didn’t dare stop lest the storm catch up. I didn’t dare drive faster either because there were still deer all about, and now I couldn’t see them! My heart began to race as I flitted in-and-out of downpours, and every time the rain let up, I began to hear loud, low-pitched vibrations like the sound of a freight train. Was it a tornado??? Was it just the noise of the tires throwing water into the wheel wells??? I had visions of the next day’s headlines “National Park Enthusiast Killed by Tornado in National Park.” How ironic, I thought; but then I thought “how will they even find me–does anyone know I’m here?” In reality, a coworker knew I was there, but it wasn’t very comforting at the moment. I began to pray as I pressed farther and farther into the park, cursing my stupidity for getting myself into this and hoping I was now making the right decision and the worst was behind me.
Little-by-little, the rains began to let up, and I could relax a little. By this time, I had the park to myself. I passed the Thornton Gap Entrance Station in hopes I might find a little break in the weather to get a couple more photos. I passed through the tunnel on Skyline Drive, and as I emerged on the other side, all around me were wisps of white clouds mixed with the trees and a pink sky of clouds illuminating it softly in golden light. It was beautiful, and as I pulled into an overlook and stepped out, the cool, wet air and view of the mountains after the rain struck me with a refreshing sense of renewal. After a long, quiet moment, I got back in the car and decided to go just a few miles further, but unfortunately, fog covered the road and obscured the view. As I came around a corner looking for a place to turn around, I saw bright headlights around the bend. As I drove around the curve, the headlights got brighter and brighter, and soon I was squinting hard against the yellow-orange beam. But instead of headlights, I found myself staring through the lifting fog at a beautiful setting sun framed by barely visible trees and hills. It was absolutely breathtaking! I stopped and stood there in awe of the magnificent Creator who had made the raging storm and now bathed his creation in the softness of this sunset.
My decisions that day were certainly not the smartest I’ve ever made, but I am thankful God loves us and takes care of us even when we’re stupid sometimes.