Mountain Waves

Observing notes from the weekend of May 30 - June 1, 2003

Well, I didn't really get in any observing, but thought I'd share my adventures anyway...

Have you ever heard the saying that “no good deed goes unpunished”?  Well a recent camping trip pretty much affirmed that this saying is true when it comes to my good deeds.  As the weekend of May 30, 2003 approached, I planned to go camping at Grayson Highlands State Park, located in the mountainous region of Virginia.  I had been promising my kids a camping trip for some time and thought it was time to make good on my promise. And since the new moon corresponded with this weekend, it would be a good time to get in some stargazing.  Fellow astronomy club member and co-worker John Roth also made the trip.  The last forecast I saw for the region called for isolated thunderstorms on Saturday, something I could easily deal with.  John was setup in a tent, across the path from my pop-up camper.

Friday night started out pretty well.  With clouds in the skies, we decided to have a campfire and roast marshmallows, much to the kid’s delight.  And just as bedtime for the kids approached, and the fire was dying down, the sky cleared up beautifully.  Thousands of stars glistened and called my name.  But it turned out to be a gigantic sucker hole.  Despite a sore back, I get my 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope all setup.  I get all my charts and accessories out.  I get the telescope polar aligned.  And just about the time I am ready to put the eye to the eyepiece for some deeply desired observing, the clouds start rolling in.  I did manage a peek at the ghostly smoke ring M57 before the sky was totally covered.  Oh well.  I packed up everything and spent a gusty, rainy night in the camper, dreaming of objects I didn’t get to observe.

I awoke Saturday morning to weather that alternated between beautiful sunshine, to rain with gusting winds.  The kids desperately wanted to see the wild ponies that live in the area.  I figured being a good father, I would do all I could to find them.  During one of the sunshine “traps”, we hiked up Massie Gap a little bit.  Boy, was that a mistake.

Hiking up to the first ridge line took quite a bit of effort.  The howling wind was so strong at times that we literally just had to stand there and brace ourselves to keep from being blown over.  After hiking past the ridge a ways, I spot the ponies far in the distance, on another ridge line.  It was much too far to attempt.  And although the sun was shining brilliantly when we first stepped out of the van, it had now been replaced with rolling dark clouds, racing across the sky.  So much to the disappointment of the kids, I announced it was time to turn back.

As we slowly started to make our way back toward where the van was parked, it started sprinkling rain.  No big deal I thought.  It was kind of refreshing, though wind swept drops do sting a bit.  Then it started raining.  At this point I was thinking we might still be able to stay somewhat dry, since we all had jackets on.  We kept trudging along.  Then the bottom fell out!  Think of the worst possible rain storm you can think of.  You know the one, where you're stuck inside the Kmart or something, and the rain is heavy and loud, and blowing in sheets across the parking lot.  The one where you don't even chance a run to your car because you know you'll get soaked.  Well we were stuck walking in that kind of rainstorm.  At one point, we stopped under a little tree, to try and get a little shelter and relief from the driving rain.  That’s when it started lightning.  A loud thunderclap convinced us that being under a tree wasn’t such a great idea, so we moved on.  Staying somewhat dry was no longer on my mind.  I just wanted to get back to the van in one piece.

That's when it started hailing.  My daughter first noted the hail, but I said no, it was just "hard" rain.  I was in complete denial.  Luckily, the kids had hoods on their jackets, and the hail was very small in size.  I placed my hand over my ear because storm driven hail is just a wee bit painful.  We sought shelter a second time beside a small wooden billboard.  As the ice bounced off my body and shoes, and started collecting on the ground, I just couldn't deny it any longer.  At this point we are soaked through and through.  There was no use in trying to stay dry, we just wanted to get out of the hail and rain.  We could actually see the van in the distance, though it was still quite a ways away, across a field and up a small hill.  I present the van key to my kids and tell them to go on without me.  Save yourselves I say, you're young.  I've lived a long life and I'm prepared to go to my heavenly reward.  It was more of a good parent gesture, since I doubted the kids would venture on in the storm without me.

Well, I couldn't tell if the kids shed a tear or not at the thought of leaving dear old dad behind.  Mainly because they were drenched with rain, but secondly because they grabbed the key and ran so all I could see were their backsides.  When the kids got about half way to the van, I decided that I would not "go gentle into that good night", so I raged against the storm and headed slowly toward the van myself.  As I trudged through the rain and hail, I see that my elder child Victoria, henceforth known as "key grabber and runner", is trying to climb the last little hill at the van.  Am I wrong to feel some glee when I see the wind literally blow her back down the hill?  She recovered quite quickly, and both her and her brother were soon out of the storm.

I finally arrived at the van and didn't even have to tell them to unlock the door for me, though it was hard to get it open against the howling wind.  I cranked up the van and put the heater on full blast.  One look at myself in the mirror and at my kids, causes me to bust out laughing.  We were soaked to the bone, not a dry spot left.  Water streamed down our faces and dropped off our clothes.  With the windshield wipers going full blast, I could just barely make out the "warning" sign at the entrance to the hiking trail.  It said something to the effect of "severe weather changes".

Despite our hiking adventure, Saturday night was the real test of our resolve.  The wind roared over us all night long like ocean waves.  I guess you could call them “mountain waves”.  And it really sounded like ocean waves going by.  I would hear it building in the distance, coming over a nearby ridge.  The roar would race across the trees until it would finally reach my pop-up camper.  Although we were dry and warm under an electric blanket, the camper would shake violently, rattle, and roll with each blast of wind.  Then it would die down for a few seconds, until I could hear the next “mountain wave” coming through the trees.  A few times I was really worried the camper would either topple over or buckle.  Since I didn’t take down my awning, I thought it too might be blown away.  I could hear it flapping and every now and then it would snap full of air, like a parachute does when first deployed.  I guess I really had it tied down quite well.  The kids and I huddled together and lit the ceiling of the camper with my red LED lights while I told ghost stories.  They soon drifted off the sleep, while the storm kept me awake most of the night.

We were still there the next morning.  Everything survived, although bits of leaves were plastered against the camper and van.  Well, John Roth was gone, and I briefly entertained the thought that he was blown away in the storm, but finally figured he had enough misery and packed up early.  I didn’t get to do the star gazing I had hoped to do, but we had some wonderful memories and adventures that we could share with others.  Though truth be known, I’d choose star gazing over “mountain wave” surfing any time.

Jeffrey L. Polston

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