A sunset captured by Thomas Lake at Yonah Mountain.

On a dark road in Georgia, a stranger cried for help

Updated 8:34 AM ET, Fri October 23, 2020

In a series of essays called The Distance, Thomas Lake is telling the stories of Americans in the pandemic. Email thomas.lake@cnn.com if you have a story idea.

(CNN)Five days after the roadside incident, I took my first coronavirus test. I felt weary and brittle, my head and joints aching, a flickering pain in my heart.

"I've heard that it hurts," I said to the blue-gowned woman who held what resembled a very long Q-Tip.
Thomas Lake
"I wouldn't say it hurts," she said, through my open car window, beneath a white tent outside an abandoned Kmart, "but it is uncomfortable, for sure."
She jammed the swab up my nose. It was uncomfortable, for sure. She twisted the swab. A tear rolled down my cheek. If indeed I had the virus, I knew of only one possible exposure. Had I done the right thing on that dark country road? Or would my wife and children suffer for my awful mistake?
We'd been so careful the last six months. No travel, no hairstylists, no friends or relatives inside the house. If either of us ran an errand in a crowded place, we came home and went straight to the shower. My wife bought a gadget that disinfected our phones with ultraviolet light.
And then, in the space of a few seconds, I flung all that caution into the moonlit night.
It began on a Saturday in early September. At home in the pandemic I sometimes felt trapped, almost claustrophobic, deprived of variety and new experience. That afternoon I loaded our three older children into the minivan and drove about 80 miles from metro Atlanta to Yonah Mountain, a solitary peak near the end of the Blue Ridge.
The trail was stunningly beautiful, with sunlight filtering through the canopy and boulders crowned with deep green moss. It took us more than an hour to walk up to the summit, where we looked for an opening in the foliage so we could admire the view. A path led toward an overlook above the valley, but there were no guardrails, no warning signs. This was a wild mountain, not a tourist destination, and at the end of the path was a great and terrible void. It seemed that all of life was contained on that mountaintop: the dizzying freedom, the cold touch of fear, the sense that you could do almost anything, even something catastrophic, and you were the only one who could stop you.
Part of the trail Thomas Lake was hiking in September.
We hurried down the mountain against the oncoming night. The western sky turned orange and then pale, almost white. Darkness followed, leaving us stumbling down the rocky trail, and we reached the end just after the sole of my sneaker broke apart. The children drank the last of the milk from the cooler. I felt exhausted, and also better than I'd felt in a long time.
It happened about 15 minutes later, on a winding two-lane road in the middle of nowhere. First I saw the smartphone, this white-blue rectangle waving in the dark. Then I heard a man calling for help.
Let me say this: I don't stop as much as I used to. Almost never, if I'm honest. I'll see a car on the roadside, think for a second, and then tell myself I don't want to put the children at risk. It's a convenient excuse, especially during the pandemic. Keep moving. Avoid strangers. Save yourself.
Somehow this felt different. Maybe it was the setting, the remoteness of it all, or maybe it was the sound of his voice. I stopped the van and opened my window and yelled. He appeared at the front passenger window. A young man in a white T-shirt, his mask dangling from one ear.
I rolled down the other window. What was I expecting? I don't know. Maybe a car wreck with severe injuries? Or someone having a stroke? This was nothing like that. He seemed a little drunk. He said he'd been in the car with his girlfriend, and they'd had a fight, and he'd gotten out, and now he needed a ride home.