There is nothing like tent camping to make a person hate storms. From the comfort of a home or even a trailer, storms can look like a lot of fun. The sudden fireworks-burst of lightning and the concussive boom of thunder. A powerful display of God, nature, the helplessness of mankind.
There are three instances that come to mind when I think of storms at Cornerstone Festival.
One was just after midnight. We were just settling down to go to sleep when Sally Watkins came by. Her meager flashlight bounced off the sides of the tent like a meandering firefly. From inside I heard her going from tent to tent warning occupants that the police had informed them that a powerful storm was coming. I didn’t know whether to be thankful or freak out. There was actually nowhere to take cover. So all I could do to prepare was stay awake and listen for distant thunder moving closer. I’d seam-sealed and laid down a ground cloth. I’d even taken the pre-caution of setting up beneath the wide canopy of a tree in order to keep off the sun and rain. An updraft billowed the sides of the tent. I could hear wind shrieking through the tree top, violently shaking branches above us. Then one snapped. Even in total darkness I knew what had happened. It hit the tent with force and slit the rainfly as well as the tent roof before bouncing off onto the ground, as if it’d hit a trampoline. It was only later in the morning light I saw how lucky we’d been.
The second storm also happened at night. The fest had just finished up and thankfully we’d been spared storms and excessive rain. We’d certainly seen years of mud fest. So this storm wasn’t exactly viewed with fear or trepidation. In fact now that nothing could get ruined or interrupted, rain was welcomed; it might settle the dust, cool the earth, and help the grounds to recover. We watched at lightning in the far distance came closer and closer. It was like waiting for a train down the tracks to come and sweep by. From across the ground, under the arc of a street light I could make out a curtain of rain let down, a gauzy veil dancing, racing toward us. We took off running, as if we could out run Mother Nature, time, fate, as if we could escape our destiny. We ran hurtling our bodies, turning over our legs as fast as we could into the darkness.
The third storm was the worst, still brings back bad memories. It was the kind of day that went from perfect to terrifying in an instant. We’d been working all day in the exhibition tent where it can be stifling hot under the canvas. The side shad been rolled up to create air flow. Anyway, it was almost time to break for dinner when in the southwest corner of the horizon a cloud appeared. I went over to the pump to clean up and then into my tent to change. I’d come out early and the rest of my family was due to arrive later in the evening by car. Through the tent walls I overheard a kid, my neighbor’s kid asking his dad what they’d do if a tornado came. I didn’t want to burst his bubble, but 1) what could they do, any of us in the face of a twister, and 2) who said anything about a tornado? Yet I turned on a radio and tried to tune in a local station. All I could get was chatter about taking cover. If in a trailer get to a permanent structure immediately. And, I thought, what if you are in a tent and the only stable structure nearby is a trailer? I was screwed either way. The block toilets a mile away were the only permanent structure on the grounds. But, again, who said that a tornado was on its way?
Then the radio announcer delivered in monotones as if reading cables from the Weather Service—life threatening conditions, danger is imminent, take cover, cell approaching Fulton/McDonough County area. The festival straddled that very county line. Emergency services could never untangle who to send because we were half in and half out of both jurisdictions.
I opened the tent fly and saw several other tents not staked down roll down toward the lake. I thought I saw the exhibition hall tent and then I could see it any longer. A powerful wind was coming. I zipped up and lay flat on the air mattress as if it were a life raft. The updraft was significant, in fact it wasn’t as much as an updraft as a river, current of air lifting me and the tent and air mattress to which I clung. It only took a second but in that moment I knew I was going to die. The likelihood of multiple fatalities was impressed upon me in an instant. That I might be one of them seemed sure. I breathed out prayers for me, my family, all of my friends. It’s all I had time for. And hung on.
Time ticked by, slowly, until I came to a point where I thought, maybe, just maybe I might live after all. It passed much more quickly than I imagined, the storm was over. I once again undid the tent flaps and stared out. Like the lone living creature after the apocalypse, I emerged into a wet world raked by winds and swept clean. The huge exhibition tent was gone—as were most of the neighboring tents. A few trees were down. The trailers were unscathed.
Slowly other survivors appeared and together we started to pick up the pieces, save merchandise blown to smithereens or into puddles in the fields. We worked way into the night sorting and cleaning and talking through our fears.