The decision to hike a relatively short loop of 3.4 miles on the Pine Mountain Trail was one I’ve made many times. This Saturday morning July 21st, five of us met in the parking lot at the Country Store at Callaway Gardens. We planned to be on the trail by 8am.
The were thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon. The same forecast everyday for the last 10 days. We discussed the weather. At 7:45 the sky was clear. We had all checked last night as well as this morning.
Stacey has been my most constant and consistent hiking partner. So many times we have hiked when others didn’t “because it might rain.” We are always lucky. Today was no different.
We started hiking by 8 a.m. We expected to and probably finish by 10:30 or 11. As we height, the sky became cloudy. There was a slight breeze so the hiking was comfortable despite the heat. By the time we crossed Highway 190 at the Gardens Overlook it was cloudy. We took the Chestnut Oak Trail which would loop us back to the Country Store.
The trail descends to Little Bridges campsite and a stream. As we reached the bottom of the descent the sky got dark. The area close to the campsite is wetland with plank walkways and low overhanging trees and bushes. The sky was as dark as night. Not a drop of rain, but we could feel it coming.
We realized that we were going to get wet. We started moving as quickly as we could. The wind picked up. A tree had fallen across the trail and was caught in the notch of another tree. As we were nearing the area, a large limb fell. We needed to get out of the woods as quickly as possible.
We tried to watch for dangerous overhangs. We would hesitate and then one by one run as fast as we could under them. The rain started with a torrential downpour. Within minutes we were completely soaked. With the rain came thunder and lightning. There are no shelters.
We discussed stopping and hunkering down. We knew a tree could get hit and being out in the open we could get hit. We determined that the best thing to do was to keep moving and get out of the woods as soon as possible.
I was in the lead. Stacey was behind me, then Vicky, then Cathy, and Summer was in the rear. It was lightning all around us and the thunder was rolling. The sound of the thunder and the downpour made it almost impossible to hear each other. Lightning hit a tree close by and we heard the crack. We were almost running.
I saw the flash of fire on my left foot as I felt the pain. “I’m hit,” I yelled as I was falling . My foot was burning so badly I didn’t think I could to walk. Within seconds, Summer was trying to get me up as the thunder and lightning continue to rage around us and the rain was coming down in torrents.
With Summer’s help, I got to my feet and started walking. One more step. One more step. One more step toward help, toward relief, toward the end of the trail. At first the pain was excruciating but as I walked/ran it began to subside.
We were approximately one mile from the end of the trail. When we got out of the woods the lightning and thunder had lessened, but the rain was still coming down. We immediately went to the Country Store. We had to get out of the rain and determine the extent of our injuries.
We stumbled into the store and immediately we had help. The people working there were wonderful to us. They called for a paramedic and tried to help us dry off. They let us take over the ladies room. We had to have a place to sit and get our boots off. Even though my foot no longer felt like it was on fire, I was frightened about the condition of my foot.
My sock has a burn hole about the size of a quarter on the big toe. My relief was palpable when the sock came off. There was only an angry red line across the top of my foot from the big toe to about 2 inches below my little toe with a corresponding red line on the bottom of my foot.
Cathy was experiencing a ringing in one of her ears. She had felt the electricity through one of her hands and in one ear. She has extreme anxiety attacks and was fighting to keep from falling apart.
Vicki also has extreme anxiety, especially about lightning. She was not aware of having felt the strike through her body, but she had seen what appeared to be swirls of fire on the ground.
Summer, who was at the end of the line saw what was happening and threw up her hands to protect her face. She literally caught the ball. Ball lightning occurs when the electricity swirls into a ball and then dissipates. One finger on each of her hands showed evidence of burning or broken blood vessels.
From the fire on my foot to the ball in Summer’s hands was only a fraction of a second.
The paramedic arrived and put soothing salve on our burns and kept telling us how lucky we all are. As we settled down from the ordeal, we realized that we had hiked the entire 3.4 miles in less than an hour and a half.
We needed to process the events of the morning. The 5 of us had an experience which was unique in and of itself, but also unique to the 5 of us. We found a place to get some food, dry off and try to make some sense of what had happened.
We talked, hugged, reassured each other, discussed our injuries, our lives, and our thankfulness. What an amazing group of women! I would choose to be with all of them in any crisis or emergency. We stood together, we supported each other, and we all did what needed to be done.
Others are quick to criticize us for hiking. After all, there was rain predicted. You can’t splash in puddles and see rainbows if you always avoid the rain. Remember ”bad decisions make great stories.”