Highway 64 snakes a serpentine path out of Brevard through the North Carolina mountains. Many of my most beautiful hiking memories have come via travel down this winding road. But this year has been a tough one for me and 64. In October, a solo camping trip in Panthertown Valley was aborted as 64’s curves claimed the axles of my trusty, careworn Pathfinder, which I sadly sold a month later. After this weekend’s hiking trip, I was starting to wonder if 64 hadn’t turned it’s back on me, becoming a cursed spot from which I should forever stay clear.
Yesterday was my friend Chris’s birthday, and as he will be leaving for Ohio, a land sadly devoid of mountains, next week, I could think of no better sendoff than to take him to North Carolina’s tallest waterfall, Rainbow Falls in Gorges State Park. So, I rose early Saturday, threw Atticus and Juno into the truck, snagged up Chris from his place, and hit the road.
Before 10, we were on 64, and I began pointing out to Chris where my beloved Pathfinder (god rest her soul) began that awful popping sound, nearly stranding me in a dark mountain night. A quick mile south, and we were in the state park.
We began our descent down the Grassy Ridge Trail, and a memory wove its way back into my consciousness, a memory from the first time I had hike this trail. Juno and I were hiking out and we came upon a large party—nine of them to be exact. Eight of them were strong, young men. The ninth was clearly physically handicapped, perhaps even paraplegic, to the point where this hike would have been impossible. But the eight had constructed an impromptu litter of logs and straps to carry the ninth. They carried him four at a time, switching off with the other four when they tired. The ninth was clearly having the time of his life, having seen the waterfall he never would have seen on his own. Even though this happened years ago, I often recount it as one of the most supreme and inspiring acts of kindness I have ever witnessed.
As day hikes go, Rainbow Falls is one of my favorites. The hike itself is a gentle 1.5 mile declivity and slow climb, just difficult enough to keep the crowds light, but not strenuous enough that a novice couldn’t undertake it. The hike’s big reveal climbs a set of stairs that takes you to a ledge overlooking Rainbow Falls. From there, two options are available: Door #1 veers to the left to the bottom of the falls, a huge open swimming area, cliffs for climbing and jumping in, and the thunderous torrent of water from nearly 400 ft above crashing down; Door #2 veers to the right and keeps climbing to Turtleback falls, a smaller swimming hole that boasts a natural water slide into the pool and a challenging climb back to the top.
We elected to take Door #2, go to the top to Turtleback Falls then work our way down. I tied Atticus to a tree and we both found a place to change into swimwear. After about an hour of playing in the water, we packed up our gear and headed back down the trail.
At the base of Rainbow Falls, I found the secret route to the ledge above the water and jumped in. We swam and ate snacks. Atticus dunked himself in the water. Even Juno was gracious enough to let some kids scratch her ears. The afternoon was perfect. As soon as we had our fill, I looked at my watch: I was supposed to pick up Nicole at the airport at 7. We had stopped just in time and began to head down the trail.
Perhaps a quarter-mile down the trail, we found a campsite behind the trees where we could change. And here is where the misfortune came in. Here is where I believed that this beautiful pocket of the world had become my nemesis. As I put my hiking shorts back on, I stuck my hands in my pocket for a content check. Knife? Check. Sunglasses? Check. Car key? Uh-oh.
“Chris, I don’t know where my car key is.”
Luckily, Chris is an encouraging person, and neither of us panicked. Logically, it could only be one place: back where we had changed in the first place. So, even though we were half way to the car, we turned around and hustled back up the trail. Chris took Juno and jogged ahead. Near the overlook for Turtleback, he had turned around and was talking to a shirtless guy with a Clemson hat, who swore he heard a guy find a key and was making his way up the trail. Chris and I thanked him, and hustled back up the trail, in hot pursuit, trying to find the guy with only a vague description: tall, wiry, tanned, with a wife and a little girl.
Chris and I double-timed it up the hill, jogging for a significant part (no small feat in Chacos with a Rottweiler attached to my waist, I assure you.) We hoped to over take him, or at the very least that he would be at the top or would have given the key to a park ranger. Something. Anything. But we got to the top. We talked to the ranger. Nothing.
We were spent. The dogs were panting heavily. We slunk over to the shaded picnic table at the trail head. I took off my pack and filled the dogs bowl with water. Then I took everything out of the pack except my water and snacks. I checked my watch. 3 o’clock. I had to act fast in order to still get to the airport in time.
“Okay, here’s the plan, Chris.” You stay here with the dogs, I’m going to run back down, asking every person I see. At the very least, I’ll get back to where we changed and find it.”
I steeled myself for a grueling run. I was just getting into my groove. But every person I asked said, “No” with that horrified sympathy that knew: “He lost his keys in the woods.” I tried to retain my resolve, but their horror was mine as well.
I turned the corner that would began the descent, and there was a man, a shirtless man with a Clemson cap, holding a Honda key high in his hand. Smiling. “I’m going to hug you,” I said, and did.
Matt (the guy’s name), had run into the tall, wiry, tanned man with the wife and the girl at the bottom of Rainbow Falls. The man said he actually left the key where he found it. Matt, knowing we had hustled to the top, hustled back, grabbed my key, and ran it back up. “I was lucky,” he said. “I’m supposed to be in Seneca in an hour, so this made me get out quick.”
I’m not one of those people who believes that everything happens for a reason. The idea that suffering or misfortune happens so that goodness and kindness can manifest itself is often at the core of Russell’s atheistic critiques, that a God or universe that allows or even creates suffering to create goodness is a sadistic one, far inferior to one in which the suffering and misfortune never occurs in the first place. But I knew that as soon as I knew I didn’t have my keys, I would likely not find them again without someone else’s act of kindness and compassion, whether it was Chris running ahead or Matt going back for it. So while I scoff at the idea that suffering or misfortune is necessary, I do believe that any form of misfortune or suffering, be it losing your keys in the woods, being stranded on the side of the road in the dark, or being paralyzed, unable to see beautiful waterfalls on your own, creates an opportunity for others to show compassion and charity, the love that understands our common frailty as part of the human condition. And being on the receiving end of such compassionate charity is often the sweetest gift of all.
All of this swirled in my head as I rushed to load the truck and hit the road. As I got back of 64, that feeling that this area was cursed for began to recede. I remembered again that the night my truck broke down, Isaiah, a perfect stranger offered me and Juno a place to stay when the motel was full. At his house, I was fed with music, spaghetti and companionship, as we sat around a fire picking tunes on guitar and banjo, all about half a mile from the entrance of the park. I may have had two misfortunes on 64, but this area had shown me three of the kindest acts of unsolicited charity in my memory. Good luck and good fortune, it seems, always comes in threes.