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Given Shelter from the Storm by a Heavenly Host

Seeking shelter from a sudden mountain storm, a worried mother finds safe haven for her children.

By Joan Ripley, Charlottesville, Virginia

As appeared in

Finally, the storm clouds lifted! It had rained for nearly two weeks straight, our European vacation better suited for ducks than my two youngest children and me. Still, we’d had a wonderful stay with my elderly cousin, Tante Helga.

She’d lived her whole life in Thumersbach, a tiny village of about 900 people, and knew the mountains like the back of her hand. A retired obstetrician, she was a friend to everyone in the community.

Her villa, on the shore of a lake high up in the Austrian Alps, was like a scene from a storybook. It was magical.

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We’d been to cathedrals and museums, castles, outdoor markets and beautiful gardens, every historical site for miles around. But what I really wanted to do was go hiking! We’d come all this way, from our home an hour outside of New York City to walk the Alps.

I wanted Mark, 10, and Sandy, 7, to see my birthplace in all its rugged, breathtaking, snow-capped glory, to run through alpine meadows and dip their feet in ice-cold streams. But in the mountains storms can quickly turn deadly. No adventure was worth putting the kids in danger.

So that morning, when the sun burst over the horizon, it was like a gift from God. Right after breakfast, my friend Wolfgang knocked on the door. “C’mon, what are we waiting for?” he said. “It's a perfect day to touch the sky.”

“Really?” Sandy said, her eyes wide with wonder. This was the moment— the magic—I’d been waiting for.

“We’ll take the chairlift up,” Wolfgang said. “Then have a picnic at the top and a leisurely hike back down.” His wife and two children would come too. I could already see us dancing through a field of wildflowers, just like the von Trapps.

“I can’t wait to hear all about it,” Tante Helga said. We hugged her good-bye and set off on our excursion. The chairlift swayed gently, carrying us over the treetops, higher and higher, above the timberline.

“Look,” I said to Sandy beside me. Below us blue gentians and alpine laurel bloomed among the rocks. Above us, almost close enough to touch, was a powder blue sky and in the distance snow-capped peaks stood guard.

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“Cool,” said Sandy. I agreed.

Near the summit we feasted on a lunch of black bread, cheese and cold cuts, then drank our fill from a clear, pure mountain spring. The boys chased after each other, while the girls picked bouquets of wildflowers. Far below us birds circled lazily over the valley.

In a meadow we spied some brown cows, their eyes large and gentle, their colorful bells serenading us as they grazed. No one seemed to be watching them but I knew that milk cows were often let loose on the high alpine pastures where they could eat their fill of meadow grasses.

“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd,” I sang out.

“Lay ee odl lay ee odl lay hee hoo,” the kids answered.

I looked to Wolfgang to join in, but he was staring at the sky. “A storm’s moving in,” he said. “We need to find the trail and head down.”

I glanced upward. Black clouds blotted out the sun. In the distance we heard the rumble of thunder. “Let’s hurry,” I said.

We quickly reached the trailhead, Wolfgang in the lead, his long legs stretching farther with every step. Fat raindrops splattered on my arms.

We reached the forest, hoping for safety, but under the canopy it was nearly as dark as night, broken only by jagged flashes of lightning above our heads. We could barely find our way.

Wind lashed the treetops, branches bent and swayed madly. The rain fell in sheets, pelting us as we zigzagged down the switchback. My feet stumbled against rocks, yet there was no choice but to press on. Every minute we were outside increased the danger of a lightning strike.

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“I’m scared,” Sandy cried. “My feet can’t go this fast.”

“I’ll carry you,” Wolfgang shouted above the din. He lifted her, holding her tight against his waist. “But we need to go faster. The storm’s getting worse. Our best chance is to go straight down—to the road at the bottom. Follow me.”