Saturday, January 28, 2012

Things in the Sky: A True Story

In my twenties I spent a lot of time traveling from our capital city of Charleston to the sleepy little town of Clendenin. There are two main ways to traverse the forty-some miles between these locations, each having its own merits. Route 119 is a winding two lane which follows the Elk River; in places , the hills press right up against the edge of the road and you never know if a rock slide, frightened deer, or a fallen tree might await around that next curve. Despite cutting through a couple of medium sized towns, most of the trip is spent with scattered houses nestled along the river valley zipping by and at night it’s so dark that the stars look like handfuls of glitter blown from the cupped palm of God. It was along this route that I witnessed one of the most beautiful sights my eyes have ever beheld.

It was October and I was on the way home from my future wife’s 21st birthday party, which would have made the year 1992. I’d stayed late into the night and the roads were desolate with no oncoming traffic to blind me with the glare of headlights. The radio was blaring, most likely either Danzig or Suicidal Tendencies given the time frame, and I watched the road scroll by as I made small talk with my passenger.

We’d hit a straight stretch and as we smoked and laughed a bright light streaked over top of the car. Without streetlights or the glow of businesses, we could see it clearly: a fireball so low that the details were imprinted upon my mind, despite the fact that it was gone within a second. The meteor at its core burned like a giant cigarette ember, pulsing orange and red between coral-like patterns of black as sparks shot away from the body, reminding me of my grandfather sharpening a lawnmower blade against his electric grindstone. Tongues of flame licked the velvet blackness of night, flickering and wagging as strands of spiraling brown smoke were left in its wake. And then it was gone, disappearing behind the hills and curves, leaving me to wonder exactly where it had impacted the earth, how far it had traveled, and if I would ever see anything so breathtakingly amazing again.

The other method of getting to Clendenin is I-79 and it is along this interstate that the second topic of this post was observed. Again, it was night, though not quite as late this time; if forced to pull an exact time from memory, I would have to say it was close to midnight. A string of cars followed behind me and the sky was clear. There were no low hanging clouds, no strange atmospheric conditions to account for what I saw that night. I hadn’t been drinking or anything like that; anyone who knows me realizes how very strongly I feel about driving under the influence. Nor was a sleep deprived or bored. Again, I had a passenger in the car with me and he saw it too.

A hill sits just off the Elkview exit of I-79 and as we approached it we saw the lights. Vaguely triangular, they hovered above that hill like the lights of an inverted city seen from a short distance. I remember a sense of depth, of seeing what looked like illuminated columns and rods, smaller "structures" nestled at their bases like little blocks of light, and the way the light was steady and unfaltering. Nothing flashed or twinkled, there were no pulses of brightness or wavering of intensity … and there were no colors. These lights were as steady as white fiber-optics on a massive scale and it was the impression of enormity which truly imprinted upon my mind. This triangular thing dwarfed the hilltop below it with the lights extending beyond the tree-covered base and I immediately changed lanes.

The majority of the cars behind me did the same thing. Like an exodus, we took Exit 9 and drove until we reached a shoulder wide enough to pull over. One by one, car doors flew open as people sprung from their vehicles, and spun around with necks craned skyward. But other hills now blocked the view. I hopped back into my car and made a U-Turn as the other vehicles did the same, each of us merging back onto I-79, this time heading south toward Charleston… the exact opposite of our original destinations.

Again, a string of cars pulled onto the shoulder and we all looked toward the hill where the lights had been. But now they were gone as completely as if they’d never existed and I thought of the camera in my glove box and how badly I wished I would have thought to tell Jamie to grab it when we first saw this thing in the sky. But sometimes a sense of amazement and wonder overpowers reasoning and you’re left with nothing more than a memory. A memory you know a lot of people would never believe.

True story.

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