It was about this time of year in that fall of 1960. I was 14, and Troop 2004 from Greensboro's First Presbyterian Church was taking its second camping trip that October. A lot of troops in my hometown took maybe one trip a month; we went every other week, fulfilling our Scoutmaster's vision of seeing one end of North Carolina to the other -- and a lot of South Carolina and Virginia as well.
We had left after school that Friday afternoon and it was pitch black by the time we got up to the area where we could camp for the weekend somewhere near Table Rock in western North Carolina. I think we were in a state forest, though it might have been federal land. It was so dark we barely found our way in. There was no moon, and we had to hike in near total dark to find a campsite for a dozen tents. We had already had dinner along the way, so at least we didn't have to cook. That night the wind came up howling, and more than one of us found ourselves waking up in collapsed tents. We were on a steep slope, and a few found it hard to stay in place.
That next day was absolutely gorgeous. We hiked around the forest, found places where we imagined we might be able to see foxfire or maybe even the Brown Mountain Light -- probably way too far, but we had no clue -- and worked up huge appetites. That evening the winds did not drop, and Broadus Troxler, our scoutmaster, worried that the wind would carry sparks and set the woods on fire. It had been a dry fall, and the last thing anyone needed was a forest fire.
That afternoon we had hiked along a short stub of an old logging road, flat enough and wide enough and just protected enough that we could make cookfires. So we hiked back to that site in the dark to collect firewood and cook a hot meal . It was good to be out of the full force of the wind, a relief, actually, and we enjoyed the heat from the fires as we had the usual deep conversations carried on by 12 13 and 14-year-old boys.
Until, that is, someone looked up the mountainside that was blocking the wind and saw an awful sight. The sky above the mountain was red and orange and pulsing, and we knew what it was right way. "Good Lord," someone hollered, "the mountain is on fire. We've got to get out of here."
There ensued a mad scramble to collect food and frying pans and coats and backpacks and make a mad dash for the cars, parked way down at the bottom of the mountain, so we could get out of the forest before the winds blew the fire down on top of us. The Scoutmasters wanted to make sure we didn't panic, so he had us fall in by patrols, dress right and cover down in the dark and set off on route step. We would make an orderly, if hurried withdrawal.
Halfway down the mountain we ran into a lone figure, a forest ranger who knew we were camping in that area and who knew we'd be anxious. No, it wasn't a forest fire, he said, but it was an unusual event. What we were seeing, he told us,was the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, that on some rare occasions could be seen in the South. We hiked back up the mountain and spent the rest of the evening gazing at that nearly incredible phenomenon.
The other day Jorge Valencia's story in The Roanoke Times brought back that half-century old memory in his lead paragraph -- referring to skywatchers "who may have mistaken it for a mountain fire in the Alleghany Highlands."
I can vouch for any skywatchers who thought it might herald a fire. Indeed it was a fire, but in the sky, a solar storm that Monday night was seen as far south as Arkansas, the paper reported. I have been told that on some occasions the Northern Lights have been seen as far south as Florida. Maybe so. But I can tell you for a certainty that seeing the Northern Lights on a cold windy night on the side of a dark mountain is enough to make your jaw drop -- and make you want to run for safety.