Sunday morning is my sanctuary. One of the dogs wakes me, and I slowly roll out of bed and walk ten minutes to a yoga class in my neighborhood. When done, I walk ten minutes back in a neighborhood of old-growth trees and creeks.
This past Sunday was beautiful, with just the right flavor of breeze to make the trees sway a hypnotic dance and remind me that I hadn’t gone on in a long hike in a couple of months. It was enough to make me rush home, grab Nic and the dogs, throw everything in the car and head west. Unfortunately on my agenda for the day? Home repairs. Yes, in this extra wet summer we’ve endured here in the South, one of my gutters decided it needed to be free, and I need to convince it to stay, lest I continue to have rain leak behind the paint of my bedroom wall.
Ordinarialy I enjoy home repair as well as a root canal. Look, I get the virtue of it, and the cost/benefit analysis for it. But do I enjoy it? No. I always find myself mulling the opportunity cost…where I’d rather spend the money and time, which takes a ding on the “job well done” feeling. Not to mention I feel our culture has a strange fetish with home perfection that I never have been able to buy into, what Kahlil Gibran calls a “lust for comfort” that “murders the passion of the soul.” However, today while in the last few still minutes of class of yoga, I found myself at peace with my chores, and realized that if approached them thankful that I had a sound house in which to dwell that my attitude toward repairing it might improve, that I should love my house and love the work I do on it.
It also didn’t hurt that I was going to go hiking later in the week, making the tedium of the labor easier to endure with that on the horizon. When your only day off is a weekend or a holiday, spending that time sweating on housework is soul-crushing. However, when you’re on vacation, not only can you wait patiently, you can wait until there are fewer people with the day off and you can have sweating on the hiking trails all to yourself, a sentiment posed beautifully in the song below–when you have every day off, weekends and holidays is when it’s crowded for you. One of my friends once posed that this NOFX song should be the summer anthem for every teacher, and that remains to this day the smartest thing he has ever said.
So while everyone else went back to work on July 5, I threw the furry beasts in the back of the truck and headed west to Wilson Creek, kind of a modern no-man’s land, if you will. All the trails are off dirt roads, and you can’t really use a conventional driving GPS to plot it, so it feels like you are going deep in the middle of nowhere to get your hike on. If Sunday was working on building the sanctuary from the storm, Wednesday was my mid-week pilgrimage to hike unknown (to me) paths, to find undiscovered (by me) waterfalls.
The goal for the day is Grogg Prong Falls–I know, a mouthful–for a turn around. According to one website, it will be about a 6-7 mile out and back. According to the same website, this hike and this waterfall can be treacherous when wet. As I walk down the trail, I hear a distant drum roll of thunder and realize that my rain coat is in the car, not in the pack. Too far down the trail to want to turn back around at this point, I shrug it off and make my peace with the potential rain. It’s summer. There’s always some threat of thunderstorms out here. When it does rain, it’s usually just enough to cool things down. Unless it dumps, then, of course, you’re all wet in the muggy, muggy woods, hiking yourself into certain rashes and abrasions. If only there were a roof and gutter system to keep me dry and comfortable.
But rain does create other dangers as well. Rocks slicken. Rivers bloat. Trails muddy and erode. And in this part of the world, when things get wet, they stay wet. It’s clear from early on the trail that rain has been here recently. Slippery roots frame muddy bogs on narrow trails that overlook the river. On one section, maybe six inches wide and thirty feet up, it seems that the trail has completely eroded. A family camps across the river, and they later tell me the had to but slide down and wash it off. Ugh, river crossing, the gentle dance of the trail. Always a game of “do I take my boots off or do I rock hop?” which includes the extra obstacle of the dogs getting them all good and wet before I start. But seeing this ubiquitous wetness as a series of obstacles is a very “hiker-centric” orientation. The continuous moisture animates a world of colored fungus and fauna that puts any pre-planned garden to shame: life–vibrant and unpredictable–sits around every corner.
About an hour and a half into the pilgrimage, I reach the turnaround–Grogg Prong Falls. The water begins in a pool atop then slides down in a serpentine twist down a gradual rock face into an open valley flanked by tall cliffs on either side. The solitary swimming at the bottom is enticing, but the path is treacherous. Someone has even taken the liberty to paint yellow arrows to the best possible path to the bottom.
However, the rain that has glazed the rocks and churned the dirt has made its mark here as well. Though it is sunny and warm, all the rain in the soil atop these cliffs have slowly bled down the rock face, creating a continuous, mossy slick. I begin to inch my way toward the bottom, but Atticus is a good bellwether. At 100 pounds he does well, but he’s not always the most feathery on his feet. As he stares at me panting, I remember a maxim good for hiking and life in general–any thing you climb up, you need to be able to get down, and anything you climb into, you need to be able to get back out. True for humans, but more so since the dogs are my responsibility. By the time I’m twenty feet down, the whole time sliding butt to ankles, I catch my center of gravity precariously turn just enough when I look and see that the sheerest part of the face is all wet and I imagine it turning past the point where I can catch myself. A few more inches and I may find myself sliding another twenty feet. I’ve reached my limit for day. Maybe another day during drought situations this place is safer to scale, but today is not that day.
“Pushing your boundaries” is one of those classic outdoors cliches that people use to justify all manner of risk-taking. I’m not saying to don’t push them, but I’m also not an adrenaline junkie. Sure, I’ve taken risks when they’re available, but I’m pretty good at looking before I leap. Also, I didn’t come out here for that “rush.” of pushing to the edge of death. I’ve been down that trip before. But I do make my way into the woods to find things deep inside that I can never get sitting in the four walls of my house, staring at my television. I never really know what it’s going to be, but opening myself up to those possibilities–the touch of fingers on rock, the wild rush of water, the slight fear at the edge of danger–always yields something that makes the pilgrimage worth the effort.
A clap of thunder breaks me out of this eddy of thought. I gauge my time, probably an hour back to the base of the trail, where Hunt Fish Falls and a gorgeous swimming hole await, and another 30 minutes to the car. So to play it safe in case the rain decides to fall, I start to hustle back to the south. By 3:15, I’m out on the rocks underneath the falls looking for a quick dip in the water before the patches of grey overwhelm the patches of blue and break a deluge on me.
Every thread of my hiking clothes are drenched in sweat and my legs and shoulders are getting the beginning of fatigue. I figure this will be a short swim with the storm looming, so I change quickly. The thunder rumbles behind me to the east, so I waste no time diving into the water, climbing up the rock face next to the pool, and jumping into the waterfall current, swept back to a large, mostly flat rock jutting into the river. Atticus romps happily through the water while Juno explores all dry areas to eventually lie in the shade with utter indifference. Soon, I am back on the rock, and the grey has receded slightly, seemingly moving to the south of the area, so I sit on the rock to dry.
But just as quickly, the storm returns. The leaves flutter in the soaring wind, warning of the deluge to come. Then the water starts: small droplets, medium droplets, but curiously never enough rain to chase me from the spot. just enough to cause discernable coencentric circles in the waters surface, a slight percussion just enough to edify the dreamy melody of this perfect afternoon. Then the sun returns, its light refracting through the river surface to create a fractured golden glow beneath the falls. Its glow is the perfect temperature for a brief nap on the rocks, lullabied by the gushing water, the calls of birds, the receding timpani of the sky. The very molecules of my body vibrate to this harmony. I rise to find a part of me will always stay here, and a part of here will always stay with me. As I gather my things, a group of fellow hikers make their way to the second level of the falls and melt into the waterfall. The life without me and within me flows with effortless connection. I find myself in a subtle, peaceful bliss as I head up the trail.
It’s a moment now etched in memory, one I could have never grasped had I allowed myself to be consumed by a “lust for comfort.” Through these journeys over muddy trails and through muggy air, there are often these moments that are too beautiful and perfect for words, too unpredictable to be planned and packaged. I cherish them in sacred space of my memory. But they come only to those willing to brave the storms to take the blind pilgrimage to receive them. As Gibran says, those who can not be tamed by the lust for comfort see their house as “not an anchor but a mast.” And so, the glow of the afternoon fading into evening, I make my way up the 30 minute climb out of the gorge and point my ship to the sanctuary of my home, the comfort of my bed, where I will sleep dry, rested, and sated–the best sleep I ever have–until the call for the next pilgrimage comes.