Throwback Thursday: Dusk hike to Grotto Falls, #hike30 of the #52hikechallenge

So yeah, it’s been a little busy around my life, y’all. Finding/securing/moving in to a new apartment, figuring out a new job, hunting foliage and views in Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s all good stuff, but it means I’ve had little time to do more than experience whatever event or emotion is right in front of me before moving on to the next…not a lot of time for blog-worthy introspection.

This is why I decided to force myself to write tonight. Because amid all the wonderful, I worry that I will forget the lessons and discoveries. So without any more ado, let’s dive in.

Exactly two weeks ago I was in the Smoky Mountains with a friend, enjoying one of our twice/thrice yearly adventures. It was day 7 of 12, but it was only our 2nd full day in the Smokies. Until the day prior, we’d been adventuring amid waterfalls and caves, but we hadn’t done any real hiking up anything worth writing home about. It’s worth noting that there had been a few uphill sections and those had pretty much kicked my ass, because, you see, I have been living at sea level for several months now. Not just on flat land, but literally next to the sea. I hadn’t been up a real hill since I’d left Boston back in the summer. Plus, living in a place where the only real way to get around is to drive, I’d let myself get out of shape. No doubt about that.

So, it was Thursday. The day before we’d done our first real “hike” in the Smokies, a relatively easy 4ish-mile trek that nonetheless killed me. On that Weds hike, I’d had one of my moments where I had to send my friend ahead because I was freaking myself out: about how slow I was, how tough the uphills were, how much of a loser I was. It got to the point where the anxiety in my head was defeating my determination to be cheerful, and my body was threatening an onslaught of tears that really had no basis in reality. I told my friend (who, incidentally, had been living and hiking in the Western mountains for the past 6 months, and thus was barely even breathing hard) to walk ahead for 5 minutes and wait for me, and I stopped and gazed, mostly unseeing, out at the gorgeous mountains, willing my throat to relax and my eyes to dry.

I have come to recognize that these moments are likely to happen any time I take myself out of whatever routine I’m in, and jump feet-first into adventure; they have happened on every trip and I’m sure they’ll happen again. That doesn’t make it any easier to cope with in the moment. After all, I’m supposed to be a fierce and strong and independent woman who can do anything, right? It’s tough to claim that when you can’t breathe after walking uphill for a barely more than a mile.

Anyway, I got myself together, set the slowest pace I could manage, and plodded on. I eventually found my friend lounging on the side of the trail. He gave me a smile and said “pull up a rock” as if absolutely nothing was wrong in the world, and I knew it would be ok. I would make it up the hill and through whatever else we planned to do. Maybe slower than I’d like, but I’d get there.

The next day, Thursday, I was feeling better. I had to work that morning, so that afternoon, we did a wonderful – and again relatively easy – trek up to a gorgeous place called Alum Cave Bluff. I’ll share pictures when I get them off my camera; that’s how busy it’s been around here! Anyway, I felt good about the hike – we weren’t speedy, but I didn’t suck wind quite as much. The views were lovely, and we enjoyed a leisurely journey down, stopping to take pictures of the river and the just-beginning-to-turn leaves. At the end of the 4ish miles, as late afternoon was turning to evening, we weren’t ready to be done with the day. So we decided to find a hike we could do in the dark.

My friend, fearless one that he is, would have been fine tackling another 5 miles or so of mountain, but I knew I needed to treat my newly-found confidence with care. So we hopped in the car and drove out a long, winding, one-way road to Trillum Gap, and the trailhead for Grotto Falls. By the time we got there, dusk was falling.

The whole reason I wanted to write this post can be summed up by the first few minutes of this hike. As we started up the trail, 2-3 groups were finishing up, and they all looked a bit askance at us. After all, it was getting dark. But you see, this friend and I have figured out the night hiking thing. Our first hike together ended as an unexpected night adventure, where I was so slow coming down from a NH White Mountain that we had to hike our last 1.3 miles out via one measly flashlight. We’ve climbed to the top of canyon overlooks to take star pictures, and there was that time we got separated, at night, in the middle of Arches National Park (a story for another time). We are prepared; we have headlamps, layers and batteries, plus a healthy appreciation for the invisible power of hidden tree roots.

So as one outgoing hiker suggested we bring carrots to help our vision, and another asked warily, “Um, do you have lights?”, I felt a sense of tremendous satisfaction that we never broke stride, just smiled and said “yes, we do”, and headed off into the evening. How far we’d come…how far I’d come in the years since we started these adventures, that I was actually planning on and really looking forward to a hike up a hill in the dark.

Because, you see, we were heading for a waterfall, and I’d never seen a waterfall at night – at least not one that I’d hiked to. The trek was easy, muddy, and quiet…I don’t remember talking much. As always, I watched my feet and concentrated on breathing. Before long, we could hear the rush of tumbling water, and a few careful steps on slippery rocks later, we glimpsed Grotto Falls. It was lovely, and after a few moments of looking, we both agreed that we needed to get closer, so up we went, this time over some slightly more serious wet, rocky terrain. In fact, we went all the way up and UNDER the falls, and had a riot shining our headlamps on the water to try to take pictures. Well, my friend did, at any rate. For some reason, I left my fancy camera in my bag and on a whim, just held up my iPhone to see if I could capture the contrast of white water reflecting the last smidgen of light left in the day.

I got this:

IMG_0385

When I looked at it on my phone, I gasped. Magical, I thought to myself, then tucked my phone away and headed back to the falls to run my hands under the water.

Then, it was back down the hill by the light of our headlamps. I joked with my friend that this was one time I would not ask him to go ahead of me. I wanted to lead the way down, to enjoy knowing he was right behind me and not likely to wander off, to appreciate the feeling of dawning strength in my legs, and to ponder how incredibly lucky I am to get to see waterfalls in the dark.

When we got back to the car, I didn’t really want to drive away. I stood for a moment, looking up at the black sky, smelling the trees, and wishing I could freeze time so I could always feel how I felt at that moment. But we did have to leave, back down into the reality of what to cook for dinner and the knowledge that life can’t be entirely about wandering in the woods. That’s ok, really. I’m just glad I get to have moments where I know for a fact that no one, other than us, got to see the world as it was on that night. That night, the world was nothing but a waterfall and some rocks to clamor over, and it was more than enough for me.

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