Mary Buford Hitz was in her late 20s when Hurricane Camille’s devastating floods hit Nelson County on the night of August 19 1969, killing 153 people in a few hours and forever changing the mountain landscape.
Hitz, a Richmond native who now lives in Charlottesville, was staying on family property in Afton that late summer week. Five days after the skies cleared, she and her brother drove 10 miles south on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Reed’s Gap to survey the damage.
“The creek was back into its little confines, but 30′ from it, there would be a shed stuck in a tree, dead cows, farm equipment that just ended up there.”
She’s carried those sights and the stories of death and survival that emerged in the wake of the storm with her all her life. Last year, they became the framework for her first novel, Riding to Camille, self-published through Authorspress in Charlottesville.
“You never have the same sense of security that that kind of thing can’t happen once you’ve witnessed it happen,” she said of those days in the Blue Ridge. “It’s proof of the forces of nature that can strike with total randomness.”
Hitz has long been a writer, but never of fiction. When she and her husband, former CIA Inspector General Frederick Hitz, were living in Northern Virginia in the ’70s, she began freelancing for the Washington Post and later penned stories for the Richmond Times Dispatch and area magazines. In 2000, the University of Virginia Press published her biography of her mother, Elisabeth Scott Bocock, a “flawed but feisty” woman who pioneered historic preservation efforts in Richmond.
She wrote from life, from experience, from memory, so penning novels never occurred to her. “I don’t go around with plots fomenting in my brain,” she said. But the year her book on her mother was published, she was handed some characters who begged to be put on a page.
They were strangers, thrown together on a horsepacking trip through New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The trip was write-home-worthy in itself—Hitz tripped while leading a horse down a remote mountainside and broke her leg, requiring a rescue initiated with a call from a 40′ antenna erected in a sheep hut. But it was the people who captivated her: A gruff male outfitter estranged from his distant, cold wife; a young Swiss woman who seemed to have seized his attention; a collection of smart young travelers who banded together in the face of adversity.
She found herself imagining their backstories and the events that led to that trip full of tension and trouble. It was a natural step to set the unfolding of their imagined personal calamities against the backdrop of Camille, a disaster in a time and place so perfectly burned into her own memory.
“I didn’t really invent the story,” Hitz said. “The characters gave me the story.”
They came to life through a long writing process that led her to a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts in Amherst, where she hunkered down for 11 days, getting herself “in a mood of catastrophe”—something she found was necessary before she could screw up the fortitude to write vividly about violent ends.
The result is the story of an unsuccessful marriage rocked by a sudden, passionate tryst just as the historic storm tears apart a group of horseback-riding tourists on a mountain outing. Woven in is Hitz’s own passion for horses, for histories, and for a landscape that, while achingly beautiful, can be a setting for destruction and death. Because as fascinating as she found the novelist’s task of filling in the blanks, what moves her most is still the true story underneath the plot.
“I wanted to make someone who reads it, who had no contact with Camille at all, understand that everything that happened to individuals in the book—the fictional characters—actually happened to somebody,” she said.