There is something mystical about Afton Mountain, a peak majestically sitting midway between Staunton and Charlottesville, Va. cradling the tiny, unincorporated community of Afton, resting at an elevation of 1,362 feet.
Although known for its physical beauty, Afton has numerous roadways joining together, including the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and Skyline Drive, while passenger and freight trains roll through the tunnel several hundred feet below.
When we first moved to Staunton, one rainy morning we were driving to Richmond shortly after sunrise. The rain had come down hard during the night and the clouds were starting to break on Afton Mountain.
As we started our incline up the mountain, we approached the peak of Afton. We saw to the side of us a deep fog in the valley that allowed only the steeples and weathervanes to peek through the bright white mist.
The clouds in front of us opened up and seemed to guide the highway straight up into the heavens, as the sun came bursting through the clouds and opened a pathway that felt like it had touched the face of God.
A few weeks later, on a gloomy, rainy afternoon, we journeyed eastward on Interstate 64 toward Charlottesville, as we passed through Afton. We encountered the same impenetrable fog we had seen previously in the hollows and valleys below.
Afton’s notorious fog had arrived, was encircling the mountain, and we were smack in the middle of it.
Sitting on top of Afton Mountain is a Holiday Inn that provides one of the most spectacular views of the Shenandoah Valley on clear days. When it is foggy, you cannot see the parking lot.
The fog is nothing new to the residents of the valley. According to historical accounts, one man related he encountered fog so thick his son had to get out of the truck and walk beside their vehicle to prevent his father from crossing the lane or tumbling over the side.
“There was no other traffic that time of night so dad turned off the headlights, rolled down his side window, and had me walk on the road with my arm through his window and my hand gripping his shoulder,” the son recalled. “My job was to use a flashlight to look down at my feet and walk on the dotted line while dad kept the truck slowly heading up the mountain. If he felt me pulling on his shoulder he eased back to the left, if he felt me pushing on his shoulder he eased back to the right.”
On our trip the weather was misty, but wasn’t of major concern to us. It was just another rainy Saturday – or so we thought.
The wipers were moving back and forth across our windshield like they had done hundreds of times before. We approached the bottom of Afton Mountain near Waynesboro and noticed the traffic was unusually slow climbing the mountain.
We weren’t overly alarmed. We should have been.
We began the eastbound climb up the mountain and quickly noticed the only thing we could see was the embedded runway-style fog lights used at large airports. We couldn’t see the taillights of the car in front of us, the headlights of the cars behind us, and the headlights of vehicles in the westbound lanes coming toward us.
My knuckles were white and fused to the steering wheel. I was doing my best not to panic. We literally could not see our hood ornament.
We knew Interstate 64 was a major highway for semi-trucks, and we couldn’t see them, even with all the outside lighting on the truck and trailers.
We were creeping up the mountain at about 10 miles an hour when I saw an exit sign. I knew the Holiday Inn was at the top of the mountain, but we couldn’t see it.
“Shall we try to find the motel?” I asked Brenda.
“Go for it,” she replied.
When I turned off the interstate I could barely see the white line of U.S. Route 250. We came to where we thought the motel should be, and by instinct started up another mountain.
Then we saw it. The marquee sporting an emerald green with big white neon “Holiday Inn” done in casual script. This was affixed to a red pylon atop which a yellow star exploded its energy into the night.
Meanwhile a winking Vegas-style arrow pointed tired and scared travelers to the office.
We pulled in and walked in the lobby. Both of us were shaking from our ordeal.
I heard the motel manger tell her staff not to be surprised if they had to stay on the mountain overnight or wait until the fog passed.
We waited, and waited and waited. Finally we could see a car in the parking lot. I walked outside and could see the lights of Waynesboro directly below us.
The fog had lifted.
Brenda and I were talking about Afton Mountain and the fog last week. We both felt the Holiday Inn had been a possible lifesaver.
We’re glad they had left the light on for us.
Pat Haley is a Clinton County commissioner and former Clinton County sheriff.