The sleepy shop owner who just sold us a fly swatter looks at us with eyes like damp leaves when we tell him we have never hiked in the Smoky Mountains before. His jeans have large holes smeared in green like fresh open wounds, but he still has a tinge of nostalgia in his eyes.
I run my fingers over a cedar coaster that sits in the palm of my hand. Sean takes a practice whoosh with the new swatter, whacking dead an imaginary fly. We tell the shop keeper we enjoy his work. We mean it. He tells us it keeps him off the streets. He rolls his head back and laughs like a ruffian.
We can tell that he’s comfortable with silence as he assesses our city nerves. We dart our ping pong eyes around the shop at all the items he borrowed and made from the trees. Propped up against a table, is an intricately engraved mantelpiece. I can make out the carving of an eagle dipping in and out of grooves in the slab of wood. On the tables, there are piles of pine cones, empty nests, flaps of leather—bits and pieces dispersed, yet orderly, like a mechanic’s shop.
“Give me your map,” he finally says. I fumble the map before handing it over to him. He begins to trace the trails on smooth paper with his rugged fingers. He flips it upside down. He might as well be closing his eyes, reading braille. “Here. This one will feel like it doesn’t end. It’s a tough, old trail, but it’s the least crowded. And when it ends, you’ll sure as hell know.”
He nods his head simultaneously with our “thank you” like he already knows. He recedes into his shop like a bear into its den. We look back over our shoulders before we exit. He uses a small knife to carve the handle of something—another fly swatter, an eating utensil, maybe a hairbrush. Wood shavings fall to the floor.
An hour later Sean and I are standing where he pointed his finger on the map.
The wooden sign has chipped, white letters covered in splotches of bird poop. It reads, “Ramsey Cascade Falls 4.0 miles.”
Last night, the cicadas pulsed louder than our two voices. Shaking like hundreds of maracas inside our chests, they made it clear that the land in the mountains belongs to them. As we begin the trail, we can feel them watching us from the trees. They don’t say a thing as we crack twigs and rustle leaves underneath our shoes.
The breeze carries a light mist. I pull up my hood. Sean tightens the straps of his backpack. He is excited to break in his new pack. I remember when he first tried it on in our living room weeks ago. He had said in his deep, booming voice, “Trust me, Sarah. I used to be a boy scout.”
I squeeze Sean’s hand. We have little to say as we breathe in the soft, intermingling scents of pine and wet dirt.
The ground starts off with gravel, which is short-lived. The further along we go, the more the earth juts with jagged rocks. The grass gets heavier and begins to wander like wild sideburns on the sides of the mountain’s face.
Sean spots wild turkeys. He scampers after the mother and her two babies. The mother’s fatty wattles jiggle as she huddles her babies close, quickly escorting them away from Sean, who’s running at them like a jolly pup. His backpack bounces behind him.
I can’t take my eyes off the ground. Knobby vines crisscross through the dirt and make their way back to the trees. They dip into a palate of freckled stones. I pick up a stone and hand it to Sean. It’s smooth and looks like it has been splattered with white paint. He rubs his thumb over it before he slips it into his pocket.
This becomes routine. I find a red spotted leaf. It looks diseased. I hand it to Sean. He slips it into his pocket. White pedals float down from a looming tree. I catch one, feel its velvety skin. I hand it to Sean who slips it into his pocket.
I think of the sleepy shop keeper. I imagine him picking up his favorite things and slipping them into his pockets.
We wear our explorer eyes like 3D glasses. We spot thin brooks, gaping like scars between rocks. We ogle at bright, yellow fungi, flickering in the weeds like road signs warning passersby. Sean squints at the water spiders moon walking on top of water. They’re almost opaque; we can hardly see them. I have the urge to call them Jesus spiders. I point at a mud colored gecko on a boulder. It pretends to be dead. I find a cave. I ask Sean if he dares me to poke my head in, and he tells me not to be stupid.
Somewhere we read that a couple of hikers carelessly left food on this trail, and a bear helped itself to their leftovers. Bears start off afraid of humans. And then we give them reasons to track us—like littering our remains. Some rangers shot that bear down when it started attacking people. I wonder if the ground shook when the enormous, brown mass collapsed to the ground. I think about the surface area of plants flattened underneath the weight of a lifeless body, the animals around it watching from safety of their caverns, trees, and holes.
I remember all the objects in the gift shops with the beloved smoky beast tattooed on them—blankets, wristbands, shot glasses.
Passing the den, I hope to catch a glimmer of brown, but it never comes.
The trail quickly begins to elevate. I can feel a squeeze in the back of my calves. I grab at branches, roots, and clumpy ledges for balance. I push my palms into them and propel my body forward. My muscles surge with electricity as the steps get bigger, my leg span gets wider. Drops of sweat kiss Sean’s forehead. Somewhere beyond the next set of boulder steps we can hear rushing water.
This becomes a pattern. We climb and climb until we meet rushing water. We run into little falls collecting into shallow pools. We’re careful not to stumble over the slimy rocks when we dip our hands into the cool water. Sean crouches low over the water, cups his hands to fill them, and splashes the sweat from his face. He replenishes it. I scan his face to see if he looks younger, as if the water is made of secret magic. “What are you looking at?” he asks, and I laugh.
We lean our backs against thick trunks that stoop over edges crumbly as pie crust. The trees seem to look down. We follow their gaze that points to the falls. The little falls don’t look so little anymore. The higher we go, the longer their reach. They pile on top of each other and blend into one another. Each fall is a strand, and together they form a luscious, streaming head of hair. The mountains have long hair.
It’s a long way to fall. “Boo!” I psyche Sean out, and he staggers away from the edge with his hand on his heart.
“Hey, um, this is the closest I have ever felt to you,” I tell him. I know it’s not just the adrenaline speaking. And it’s not the proximity to death either, even though with a simple misstep, I could plummet. And I know that Sean wouldn’t be able to save me. The more likely reason is that there’s nowhere else I would rather be but here with him, nothing else I would rather be doing than climbing this mountain with him.
I never thought I would climb a mountain. And if I did, I imagined I could come up with something that wasn’t sprinkled with clichés, but everything I feel is what they say, except more enhanced because I feel it now. I’m here, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is true. I feel pure. I feel centered. I feel strong. Look at me climb. See my hands grab hunks of dirt. See my legs propel me higher.
The best feeling of all is feeling exposed. The vulnerability is as tender as a baby. Mountain climbing is intimacy—like a virginity I didn’t know I had until I lost it. It’s something you let go and give back to the earth. It’s as if you’re designed to do it.
I will backpack these feelings with me when I go to work, when I’m miserable in traffic. I will rinse and repeat, “I am strong. I am pure. I am centered.”
When I feel alone at my desk or even with a crowd of people, I will remember what it is like to be completely filled up with the sight of weeping waterfalls guarded by mountains. Or maybe the mountains are the ones who weep. It’s comforting to think they cry too.
The longer we climb, the louder we whine. “Are we there yet?” we pout with fat lips like kids in the backseat of a car. We drag our heavy limbs.
We hear a pounding like watered down thunder. This must be the end, we think. We pummel through the last set of steps. Our legs ache, but we ignore them. We hobble like turkeys to see what is on the other side of a colossal rock.
We sure as hell know we’re at the end. Water spills from every pore of the jagged, enormous rocks assembled in such a way that pulls the falls together. They knot into one, and I can’t tell which fall is which. The head of long hair is braided. The beads of water bounce from one rock to the next. We feel the spray on our faces. My lips tremble. All I want to do is touch it. I draw in close like a mosquito.
Sean and I cross the slippery platform. He suddenly loses his footing and plops down in the base of the large waterfall. I gasp and hold my breath for a second, terrified the current will sweep him away over the top of the falls, all the way down from where we first began to climb. The falls at the base of the mama waterfall are even more treacherous. They drop down soundlessly, but with violence. They would take Sean. There would be no time for words.
Sean stands up and brushes himself off. No big deal, the look on his face tells me. I huddle close to him, but we chuckle at his close call.
We inch closer to the grizzly waterfall. A family snaps photographs underneath the falls. We watch them grinning like children on their first day of school. One of the little boys is wearing swim trunks, wading in a pool of water. He has collected rocks and piled them on top of one another like a miniature Stonehenge. He had quite the inspiration for his pile of art.
Finally, we each reach a timid hand out to greet the waterfall. The water shakes our hands. It rattles through our entire bodies. Our teeth chatter, as we squint and smile against the spray.
“Beautiful,” the shy Sean says confidently. To him, this beauty is a fact. He doesn’t question it. And neither do I.
After our initial transfixion, we accept the sight of the waterfall. Sean and I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch the falls as if we do it every day. When we pack our things to leave, I feel a swell of pain in my chest. By now, the waterfall has become a friend.
We look over our shoulders for the last time, reluctant to leave. “Hey, let’s run,” Sean suddenly says.
“I accept your challenge, young warrior,” I say.
Sean and I race each other down the mountain. He doesn’t go easy on me. I don’t go easy on him. We’re not even Sean and Sarah right now as we become one bird that takes flight over the familiar rocks and through the trees we’ve met once before.