For six hours on the morning of May 24, 2017, my older sister, Zahra, and I crawled along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in an ebony Toyota Camry, blind. For 105 miles, we took in the scenic views of various shades of mist: white, very white, and did you know that mist is white? Beyond the edge of the road’s snaky curves, a 3,500-foot drop awaited us. We only knew that, of course, because every few miles we encountered wooden signs, taunting and thick, that announced our elevation. What the drop actually looked like, the mist — let’s call it the White — left to our imagination.
Zahra had wanted to celebrate her college graduation with beautiful views of nature, which she consumed with the enthusiasm of a food connoisseur in Paris. My research had brought us to Skyline Drive, a scenic highway that ran through Shenandoah National Park in Western Virginia. Zahra, too spontaneous to plan a trip but too madcap not to undertake one, had left the logistics to me. I had been as thorough in my research as any history major and budding journalist should be: cheapest motels, best tourist spots, most convenient rest-stops. I’d even planned around the rainstorm creeping towards the East Coast. As it turned out, the Weather Channel’s forecasts didn’t apply 3,500 feet above the ground.
We were warned, by the apologetic park employee at the entrance to the Skyline, that the White had overrun the entire stretch of road ahead. It loomed as far as the eye could see, which was not very far at all, and like any occupying force had no estimated time of departure. My sister and I, like so many generic protagonists in horror B-movies, simply smiled and nodded our heads and carried on. The White enveloped us in an embrace whose tenderness belied its wickedness. Not to say the White hurt us. It did something much worse: It bored us. The near-zero visibility reduced our speed to an average of 20 miles per hour, allowing us to appreciate the futility of our quest. I would say it didn’t take long for us to lose our minds, but in truth we had lost them the moment we decided to enter the Skyline.
By the third hour, I realized the White was too stingy to yield even a silhouette of a tree. Zahra, however, remained convinced that every next turn would yield an Instagram-worthy shot. I didn’t have an Instagram account, but as a self-styled amateur photographer, I made sure to snap a couple of pictures with the 5-megapixel camera of my iPhone. It captured the most compelling sights of the trip: the beige dashboard, faded jeans, greasy smudges on the passenger door window. Still my sister believed.
I did not share her generous view of the White, but she was the one with her hands on the steering wheel, so on we crawled, our car straddling the yellow line at the center of the road as steadily as we did the line between determination and delusion. So not very steadily. In the meantime, we filled the emptiness left by the missing view — and our missing lunch — by munching on Doritos and debating whether Zahra had or had not seen The Hunger Games. I played and replayed my most recent musical obsession — a song by Tennyson, a band consisting of a brother-sister duo.
“It’s a beautiful world. Can you see it anymore … ?”
Only at the fourth hour, or maybe the fifth, as we approached the U.S. Route 33 exit at Swift Run Gap after 60 miles of the White’s maddeningly gentle assault, did I suggest that we flee the Skyway, preferably swiftly. The Skyline’s next — and final — exit at Rockfish Gap wouldn’t arrive for another 29 miles. At our speed, that meant another hour of gentle torture. Ever the realist, I insisted that we cut our losses. Zahra, ever the optimist, shook her head. I saluted the exit as it receded into the embrace of White oblivion. We spent the remaining time discussing the fate of Zahra’s myriad job applications — Teva Pharmaceutical Industries, Parker Laboratories, Insight Global — even as she squinted to see the unclear road ahead of her.
The White never did donate a view. An hour later we exited the Skyline and sped south to salvage one from Roanoke’s Mill Mountain. The city hailed our arrival with sheets of rain and blankets of mist.
“What for? What for?”
That night, our bellies writhing with mediocre Greek noodles, Zahra and I debated the last place we would visit before we began the 450-mile drive back to New Jersey. Our original plan — a drive to Pilot Mountain in North Carolina — guaranteed us some sort of view. But we had a riskier option: drive back up the mountains, this time on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway, on the off-chance the White had cleared. The first option guaranteed a decent view, the second risked a great one. The first assuaged the anxieties of the realists, the second demanded the most unhinged of the optimists. To see or not to see — that was the question.
I do not recall how we made our decision. I do recall myself arguing that we should return to the Blue Ridge Mountains. Somehow, the past day of failed plans and stolen sights had inspired me to trade my dour realism for Zahra’s dogmatic optimism. She did, ironically, have her doubts. My pragmatic views seemed to have finally made an impression. But somehow we settled on the dicier choice. We went to bed that night aware that we might have just consigned ourselves to another day of misty gluttony. Our decision, like that at the Skyline entrance, was a gamble. We couldn’t see the future.
For nine hours in the morning and afternoon of May 25, 2017, Zahra and I crawled along the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, our eyes feasting on the luscious green of the sweeping mountainous vistas and drinking in the Caribbean blue of an earnest sky. Some White persisted in the form of clouds, but I didn’t mind. Much like myself vis-à-vis Zahra, it had learned to share the view.
“You could be the whole world. You could watch it all unfold…”
Ahmed Elbenni | firstname.lastname@example.org .