“Batten down the hatches, Matey!” as the old saying goes. All the signs and predictions called for a sodbuster of a lightning-thunder storm, slated to begin its performance about 9 p.m. central time on Monday, April 4, 2011.
In the Talladega National Forest, the only Internet/wireless reception I could find was high up on a hill across Coleman lake, roughly 20 miles from Heflin, Alabama. As I set up my portable Internet station at 6:00 p.m. that night, clouds raced by me in an easterly direction, aglow with sunset colors reminiscent of renaissance paintings: salmon-pink with tones of gray-white against an azure blue sky. As viewed from my position high on the hill, the clouds appeared to be running from something. Having checked and sent my email, I wove my way back toward my lakeside campground thinking to batten down my trailer hatches…be ready.
Instead I wandered off down a “calling”, dirt, side road to Sweetwater Lake. This is a four-wheel drive kind of road with mounds and hillocks challenging enough for a mountain goat. It was getting late but I thought I would make good use of my time prior to the storm. The setting sun was creating magnificent tree shadows, stream luster, and turning everything it shone upon to a beautiful shade of Tuscan Orange.
As the shadows lengthened and the sky grew darker, the setting sun was overtaken by storm clouds causing the road to Sweetwater Lake to seem endless. Finally in an act of self-preservation I turned about, and returned to camp leaving Sweetwater Lake for another day’s outing.
Beneath the darkened sky the forest road was dismal, even with headlights and fog lamps. Soon enough I was back at camp making necessary rig adjustments, allowing for battering rain and blustering wind. Around me the longleaf pine, sweet gum and oak trees stood tall and majestic. I spoke out loud to the wind and trees, “I will tolerate no large falling limbs or ‘worse.’ My future is ahead of me, still to unfold!”
All ship-shape, I ladled out a healthy portion of the chicken stew I had brewed earlier, buttered a slice of whole wheat bread fresh from Piggly Wiggly and hunkered down, turning up the volume on my computer to enjoy the Streisand “Last Concert” album on DVD. About 8:30 p.m. I checked outside, all was quiet. Almost too quiet. The campground was empty except for a young woman with two small children parked over near the restroom. I took my dog, Miss Minna for a walk, not wanting to be walking later. A young couple drove into camp, selected a site down the way, and put up a pop-up tent! Holy Moly! This was hard to believe in light of the threatening conditions. We made the round of the circular camp road returning just as the rain plops started to fall. Time check: 9:00 p.m.
We snuggled up inside our camper, the bedroom roll-out jalousie windows remaining open a bit, and lay down to watch the show. Horizontal lightning crashed off in the distance but not much wind ocurred, I thought. Then the storm began to rage in earnest. I must say, in all my seventy years I have never experienced a storm like this. I remain fortunate to never have gone to war in my life but I can imagine the lightning and thunder crashing and flashing just above the tree tops as a crossfire aerial bombardment on the beach in Normandy. Crash, slash, boom, bash.
The storm raged as Miss Minna and I politely closed the windows and scurried off to the safety of a corner, unbelieving of what was happening. I was counting, as I did during childhood, the seconds between lightning and boom of thunder: 1-9, 1-4, 1-2, 1-9, 1-8, 1; the lightning flashes were startling but the thunder actually rocked the coach and Miss Minna began shivering. The rain pounded down on our tin roof. Pine cones fell, giving us a start, and an occasional tree branch hit the ground nearby as the wind picked up. At 9:30 the storm still raged. I made some tea and settled back down. The clock ticked away, rain pelted the windows. The far wall of the trailer was lit like flash bulbs exploding. Every now and then our lightning shadows showed up on the wall like the two robots silhouetted in the old “Mystery Science Theater 3000” TV show.
About ten, the lighting and thunder abated as the rain continued but, just when we thought we were clear, another round of crashing and flashing commenced. I fell into a fitful asleep but was awakened by shining lights and by blustering winds rocking the trailer to and fro. I had placed corner braces under each corner to help brace us but they had little effect. A branch crashed down on the roof but no damage. I peeked out the window for the source of the headlights and saw the couple from the pop-up tent dashing through the downpour, making a switch to their truck. A wise move since, in addition to the soaking rain, the temperature plummeted from about 80 degrees in the evening to 37 in the early morning that night. The truck’s headlights illumined the surroundings revealing nearby trails awash with rushing water and leaves. Everything that wasn’t battened down was flying through the air. The rain, now driven by wind, slammed almost horizontally into our camper. (In the morning I would discover a child’s Tonka toy truck, I spied the previous day, had been caught in the rush, driven by water-force into a rain culvert under the camp road, shooting out the other side, then pushed by a 12-foot long fallen tree, smashing it head-on into a tree trunk as the stream turned abruptly down toward the lake. Trees did fall in the storm, large ones but not near us.)
At midnight, the forest quieted down as the rain turned to sprinkles, then to heavy drops from the surrounding trees. I got up noticing the power had gone out but since our batteries were in good standing we were fine for a while. Getting back under the covers I had to push Minna aside out of the warm spot but she curled up close to me when I settled down. I fell right asleep, waking in the dim pre-dawn light, realizing I had been tossing and turning because the heat was off and it was 37 degrees. Minna was shivering, as was I. No wimp am I, having spent many a night camping with much less than these comforts. So we shivered and snuggled until I finally arose at 6:30, turned up the furnace and made some tea. We moved outside, I wearing my warm parka. Sipping tea I watched the morning sunrise as I recalled to Minna: The Storm of a Lifetime.