My friends generally think I’m nuts, especially when it comes to photography. I work 18-hour days. I get up at 4AM. I crawl through caves. I spend 365 days a year either planning, shooting, editing, posting, or writing about photography and travel. And I do it with the biggest smile on my face. But yesterday I took a little adventure that was easily one of my Top Ten Dumbest Photography Trips I’ve ever embarked upon so for once…I agree with my friends. I’m completely bug nuts. Here is why.
I was hanging around my house in Abingdon, Virginia around 7PM on Tuesday night. I knew a string of storms was coming our way. The local WCYB news station was blasting warnings on Facebook and Twitter about the potential for strong winds, hail, and severe lightning. So I pulled up the Vaisala Lightning Explorer (my favorite tool for tracking lightning) and my mouth hung open. A string of storms stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico was bringing more lightning than I’d seen on this map at any given time.
When I was a kid my dad used to tell us to stay away from the windows, stay off the phone, and stay out of the bath tub during lightning storms. Most of it was just urban myths (can you really die while talking on the phone and lightning strikes the utility pole?) but he was very strict about it. My dad just happened to be visiting with me for the week when these storms hit. I ran downstairs and found him watching the current weather report, so I knew he was well aware of what was coming.
“Do you want to come with me?” I asked. “Absolutely not,” my dad immediately replied.
Just ten minutes later I had changed into my Columbia rain gear and rain boots, grabbed my Lowepro Flipside Sport loaded with all the camera gear I would need, and I was out the door. As I jumped on Highway 58 I noticed nearby Whitetop Mountain was still in the sunlight as the front was just beginning to move through. So I had an idea (that would later turn out to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever had): let’s head up to the summit of the highest place in Virginia you can drive and get some photos of the lightning as the storm moved through the area.
It took me about 35 minutes to get to the gravel road that leads up to the summit. During that time, it had not rained on me yet but the skies were dark. VERY dark. As I turned up the gravel road leading to the summit, I lost the sky. The first 2/3 of the journey to the top is completely surrounded by towering trees, so I couldn’t really see the status of the approaching storm. It wasn’t until I reached the first parking area that I saw what I had done to myself.
That gravel road is a rough road. It’s an non-maintained road. It’s full of pot holes, ruts, and ridges with large boulders protruding from the ground at various points. You can’t go very fast up this road, maybe 15-20 mph. It takes awhile to get up to the first parking area, probably 15 minutes. At this point, the trees break and you get a good, clear view up the rest of the mountain. Whitetop Mountain is probably about 80% bald at the top, which is what makes it such a beautiful place to visit.
So, when I got to the point where I could see the sky again, I realized a few things. First of all, I was ABOVE the base of the thunderstorm. Second of all, the front edge of the storm was RIGHT HERE. Third of all, LIGHTNING was everywhere. I slammed on my breaks and came to a sliding stop, facing up the mountain. Up the mountain that I couldn’t see. Up the mountain that was already swallowed in a black cloud that was moving toward me awfully fast.
I keep my photography gear in the backseat behind the driver’s seat. It makes it easy to get out, open the backdoor, and grab my camera for a quick shot. As I stepped out of my Explorer I saw, far down below me, a bolt of lightning. That’s when I realized I was above the bottom of the cloud layer, so I was about to end up INSIDE the thunderstorm. I pulled out my camera, quickly dialed in the correct settings (I had never been so happy that this has become second nature to me by now), and snapped off a series of 7 bracketed exposures. That was the only photo I managed to capture. You can see it below.
I had turned back toward my Explorer, thinking I would put my camera back in the camera bag in the backseat and continue up the mountain to the next hairpin curve and get another photo. But before I could reach my Explorer a bolt of lighting sizzled the air right next to me. The hairs on the back of my neck and arms stood up, I could smell burning ozone, and the light was almost blinding. It almost seemed like the thunder came before the lightning but either way it was LOUD.
That’s when I decided to get out of there. I mean…I was sitting on the second highest mountain in Virginia at about 5,200′ (the mountain is 5,518′ tall). I was out of there as fast as a feather in a hurricane.
I got to the bottom of the gravel road, to the paved Whitetop Road, and headed back toward Konnarock. That’s when the storm hit. It was just a few minutes after sunset, so it was already dark. The rain came down so hard that even with my wiper blades on full it was like sitting in car wash. But the worst part was the fact that the actual cloud was hitting the mountain road, so it was like driving through a thick fog, at night, during a rain storm. I couldn’t see more than 10′ in front of the Explorer as I tried driving down the curvy two-lane road.
The only thing I could do was keep an eye on the white line on the side of the road. Lightning was flashing every few seconds which actually helped me drive for a moment at a time. This particular road did not have any reflectors built into the roadway and the guardrails were eerily dark. The only thing that helps me in the curves was the occasional arrow sign pointing in the direction I should keep going. What took me about 10 minutes to drive up took almost 45 minutes to drive down.
Once I got to the bottom to an abandoned gas station in Konnarock (which used to have really fantastic deli food when I was kid) I pulled over, got out of the Explorer, and started laughing. It was the most intense, insane, instantly favorite moment I have ever spent chasing after a storm. I watched as lightning continued to streak across the sky above me, thunder booming in the distance. From the beginning of this trip until this moment, all the way through Damascus to Whitetop Mountain and back to Konnarock, I was the only vehicle on the road.
But of course! No one else is this crazy/dumb/insane/determined to get a fantastic photo. I got exactly one photo all night, but I think it was well worth it. And I drove away with an amazing story to share!
Disclaimer: Pretty much don’t do anything I just mentioned above. In fact, let’s treat this as a “What Not to Do” scenario. Although I may do it again myself, I am not exactly “normal”.