By Denise Dunbar
A strange thing happened recently on the way back from our family beach vacation: a potentially devastating event turned into something else entirely.
The trip began just like three dozen or so prior sojourns from the beach in South Carolina back home to Alexandria. We wound our way from the shore to Interstate 95 and began the long trek up the East Coast’s major artery. Along the way, we drove alongside the usual assortment of vehicles — tractor-trailers, pickup trucks, sedans and SUVs.
Some of the drivers were courteous and others were aggressive;some of the vehicles displayed bumper stickers we agreed with, others not so much. The drivers, though, were uniformly anonymous. They weren’t people, but “the pickup truck from Georgia” or “the speeding Maryland sedan.”
About a half hour shy of Florence, S.C., we approached a major cloud mass with lightning in the distance. Unless we were extremely lucky, it appeared we were going to drive through quite a storm. The rain began with a few timid drops followed by a splat — then it was game on.
The lightning quickly went from distant flashes to strikes nearby on both sides of the roadway. I thought of how South Carolina used to be the fireworks capital when I was growing up; it was one of the few legal places you could buy bottle rockets and Roman candles. This natural display rivaled the man-made ones of years past.
Wind gusts rocked our tank-like SUV packed with a week’s worth of suitcases and beach gear. My husband gripped the steering wheel tighter, put on the hazard lights and slowed down.
We crept along with the rest of the traffic until the vehicles in front of us abruptly stopped. I flinched, wondering if we were going to be hit from behind. Thankfully, we weren’t. We just sat there, waiting, as the tempest raged.
Within a few minutes, the worst was past, but it was another 15 minutes before the rain stopped completely. Still, we sat.
Then a funny thing happened — vehicle doors began opening. At first just a few people popped out, like the first kernels of corn in a skillet. Suddenly, everyone was milling around — people of all races and ages — in the very road- way where just minutes before, huge trucks had been hurtling along at 80 mph.
Children and fathers — alas, not so many moms — slipped into the wet woods to answer nature’s call. Someone be- gan throwing a ball to the forest’s edge for their dog to fetch.
An older man with long grey hair and a beard — who looked like he could have played bass for Willie Nelson — climbed out of his pickup, pulled out a pocket knife and began whittling a piece of wire into a flower. People from neighboring vehicles wandered over to chat with him, while he leaned one leg into his open door and whittled away.
A man traveling alone in a sedan next to us strolled over to speculate on the cause of the stoppage. We chatted with a mother from Charleston who was taking her daughter to a Girl Scout campout near the North Carolina border.
A few people up ahead walked the half mile forward to where we could see a sheriff’s car with flashing lights. A large van sped along the road’s shoulder toward the commotion, followed a few minutes later by a police car.
We were baffled by the lack of fire engines or ambulances. If there had been a crash, surely there would have been emergency vehicles. If a tree had been felled by lightning or wind, someone would have certainly crashed into it. It was strangely silent.
After what seemed an eternity, but was actually less than an hour, the van pulled away. People hopped into their vehicles and our shared interlude on I-95 ended as fast as it had begun.
We quickly pulled even with the culprit — a huge tree that had been sawed into pieces and pushed to the side of the road. There were several more trees down with a lot of debris nearby. It looked like the remains of a microburst. Amazingly, there were no crashed vehicles and apparently no injuries.
Back inside our SUV, all of us were a bit in awe of what had just transpired. There were many hours to mull the experience before we rolled into Alexandria a little after 2 a.m.
The writer is the publisher of the Alexandria Times.