Fog and Forest
Words & Photography by Andrew Neel
The wipers squeaked and skidded back and forth across the windshield as we drove down I-40. It was a slow Monday morning in January so we had the highway mostly to ourselves. The sky mirrored the asphalt below and teased us with a soft mist. It's gloomy, overcast days like this that seem to draw me to the mountains most. I yawned and dragged my hand down my face, a poor attempt to wipe away the lingering jet lag from my flight the day before. I had spent most of Christmas in Budapest with my family and had just arrived back in the US. I was tired; but with the news of cloudy skies in the forecast, hiking quickly became a priority.
We changed lanes and caught each other up on the last couple of months. We sipped our coffee and gently wrapped our hands around our warm to-go cups to fend off the cold that was slowly creeping into the car. Clouds crawled up over the mountains in front of us and covered our car as we drove into Stone Mountain State Park.
Car doors slammed and gravel crunched under our boots as we grabbed our gear and headed toward the trailhead. Although we had hiked Stone Mountain in the past, the heavy fog made the path foreign; our surroundings struggled to give us context as to where we were. The fog was thick and weighed down on us like the packs that hung on our shoulders. It clung to the tips of needles, forming small droplets before falling silently to the ground. We pushed forward, climbing over fallen trees and through the dead leaves that covered the forest floor.
Our boots splashed through puddles as we approached the Stone Mountain lookout. We stepped out of the forest and into, what felt like an alien world. The sweeping view of the Blue Ridge Mountains that we had expected was hidden behind a wall of fog; the bare rock face the mountain had become known for was all that was visible. It felt as though we were walking on the moon. Illustrations from the “The Little Prince” that I had read as a kid came to mind. Curious to see what the edge of the world looked like, we ventured out, daring to go only so far before turning back.
The light faded fast as we headed back down the mountain, the darkness slowly closing in on us the same way the fog had earlier in the day. We retrieved our headlamps from our packs and turned them on, thankful for the spotlight that now guided us down the path. After a few minutes, I checked the clock on my phone and realized we had misjudged how long the trek back would take. The park was closing soon and we were still 20 minutes away from the parking lot. We picked up our pace and hoped we wouldn’t have to spend the night cold and cramped in the backseat of our car. Other than our sliding feet and heavy breathing, the night was silent as we hurried along. We returned to an empty parking lot, our car barely visible in the outskirts of a single street light’s halo.
We packed up and pulled out of the lot right as the forest ranger arrived to close the gate and escort us out of the park. The fog was finally lifting but still occasionally snuck in front of our headlights as we drove along. Trees lined the road and swayed in the wind, almost as if they were waving goodbye. “Promise” by Ben Howard played softly through the stereo as we relaxed in our seats and prepared for the long drive home.