Last weekend, violent storms shredded the East Coast, killing 17 and leaving more than 3 million without power. Speaking for the Wright family, we’ll always wonder whether that first number could have been higher.
For weeks my family had been planning a weekend camping trip to a friend’s property near Wolf Gap, Va. It’s a familiar spot and the family loves the private fishing and hiking. If mom and the kids are good, I even let them ride the go-cart I got for my birthday a couple years ago.
To be clear, we’d seen the weekend forecast and knew the heat would be miserable. Temperatures were predicted to bob in the 90s and flirt with 100. But with an air-conditioned cabin nearby and the property owners so graciously giving us a key and permission to use it, we felt comfortable sticking with the scheduled trip.
At the last minute we invited Bill and Amy Meyer and their four children. The Meyers are good friends from nearby Winchester, Va., who we hadn’t seen in far too long and who’d been hankering for a camping trip for even longer. On Thursday morning we met at the campground and the adventure began.
The afternoon gave us go-cart rides that began in a large meadow and snaked down one of the long trails that knifes through the property and skirts a national forest. Later, my 8-year old son led a nature hike to a goldfish and minnow pond nestled in the trees a few hundred yards from camp.
It’s true: the temperature soared past "soaked" on the T-shirt scale. But we kept our campers happy and hydrated with dozens of bottles of water and parked both the go-cart and the kids in the shade for ample breaks.
After tinfoil dinners, burgers and hot dogs, we fished a small pond that you’d expect to yield small fish. You’d be wrong. Everyone, even the youngest fishermen, caught perch, bluegill and bass with worms that almost seemed eager to sacrifice themselves to avoid the smothering evening heat and humidity. I noted that the Meyers' kids caught so many fish they could have opened a seafood restaurant.
Before the night was over, I’d caught a small perch that I let linger in the water just long enough to attract one of the largest fish I’d ever caught. Forget sponsorship by Bass Masters; this guy needed an endorsement deal with Jenny Craig.
The kids won’t soon forget watching one fish already on my hook become dinner for a beefy pond bully. But because we didn’t have a scale to weigh him, we’re left with only pictures and my scientific estimation that he topped the scales at 32.5 pounds. Can I help it that he’s big boned?
The night ended as most camping trips do, with tasty s’mores, flaming marshmallow torches and campfire chatter among adults about life, faith and politics.
In the morning, my wife suggested for the first time that we needed to break camp and head home instead of sticking with the schedule and returning home Saturday afternoon. Our friends needed to leave early for work commitments anyway and my sweet wife’s instincts suggested we needed to be home when the sun set.
Her nudges became stronger as the day wore on and we decided to break camp with our friends. A potentially dangerous mid-afternoon go-cart mishap confirmed our decision to play it safe and tuck the tents back in the garage until our next excursion.
Hours later we were shaken from our beds by 80-mph winds that battered our home and by brilliant lightening that illuminated pictures on the wall. It was like an Independence Day fireworks show that just couldn’t wait. We huddled with our frightened children in the basement until the storms passed.
In the morning, our backyard looked like the Lowe's lawn and garden and lumber departments had a UFC fight. Debris was everywhere, siding lay on the ground and an 8-foot section of a heavy wooden fence was knocked from its post. While our power survived, millions on the East Coast and many of our own neighbors in the Shenandoah Valley weren’t so lucky.
Crews rushed to restore services and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell quickly issued a state of emergency. The National Weather Service called the unusual storm a "derecho” and our governor called it the largest non-hurricane power outage in state history.
Days later, many are still stuck both in the dark and heat and trees of all sizes remain on the ground like unattended coffins waiting to be cared for.
Me? I’m only left to wonder.
What if we’d spent that night in tents built to defend nothing more than soft summer showers and cool breezes?
What if we’d been sitting at a campfire when winds picked up and carried flames into the hundred dry acres surrounding us?
Most importantly, what if I hadn’t married a woman who listens to her spiritual instincts? What if I weren’t so madly in love with a daughter of God who knows his voice and isn’t afraid to disrupt long-laid plans in order to follow it?
Years from now I’ll remember this as one of the most enjoyable camping trips of my life. I suspect my family would agree. And though we’ll never know what might have happened, we’ll always know what didn’t.
Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of eight books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The Wedding Letters." He can be reached at [email protected] or www.jasonfwright.com.