It was an inauspicsious start. I put my boots down on the railroad tie behind my truck. Atticus promptly pissed on them. I told him he was a bad dog, but I guess if he’s trying to spread his scent all over the woods, he wins for ingenuity.
We make our way down the Pine Gap Trail, the first trail on the West Rim of the Gorge that makes its way to the main Linville trail, looking to make it to Babel Tower and back in the afternoon. We are down at the water after twenty minutes of twisty trail. Atticus jumps in the water and stares at me like “Yay! We made it!” But someone’s already put their hammock up, and we have more miles to hike today. He stares at me in disbelief, as if he can’t fathom why we would ever leave this perfect spot.
But leave, we do, and the trail climbs to the intersection of the Bynum Bluff trail. It’s and odd intersection, and I accidentally head down a side trail that heads for the river. I even pass an older couple who have stopped to evaluate the map, but I somehow miss seeing that omen and keep pushing ahead. I’m worried about the bend in the trail that offers a straight drop over the cliff, worried that Atticus will make haste over that edge. But he and Juno are hiking methodically, patiently. And soon we are at the river, walking up on three other perfect spots–glorious campsites, filed away for future use.
I know I have missed the main trail, but it doesn’t concern me. As long as the river is to my left, I know my bearings. I briefly consdier climbing back up, but I follow the path in front of me. This isn’t the first time I’ve ended up on a side trail and discovered some hidden nugget in this place, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to bushwack to get back on the main trail. After all, the main trail hugs the west side of the river, so as long as I keep to the West Bank, I should eventually run into it.
This is going on swimmingly. Large, even rocks protrude from the west bank into the Linville River, and we are trucking at a good pace. I come upon several hidden, secluded camping spots next to deep pools fed by roaring cascades, and I file them all away for future use. I feel like this trip’s post is going to be all about lucky missteps or being willing to take an adventerous route and being rewarded or some other such bullshit like that. Then the trail changes slightly. I’m climbing over fallen logs and through roots. The journey has slowed. I consider turning around again, but—too late!–I see the Bynum Bluff Cliffs (of insanity!), and sense my reunion with the main trail is near, so I push forward.
As the cliffs near, the progress grinds to a halt. The bottom of the cliffs drop to a sheer, impassible, vertical façade into the water. There is no way to continue on this side. My two choices are to return to the original trail or cross the river. I look to the other side: a shore line of large boulders and rocks jutting from the East shore. Boots off. Water shoes on. Making my way down to the waterfall on the other side—in my not so humble evaluation–should be no problem.
To be fair, my hiking has involved many river crossings this summer, so I am undaunted. My four-legged companions are less enthusiastic. Juno is supsect of the water on general principle, and Atticus—though he likes to slosh around in water when the can see the bottom—becomes frozen when he is unable to judge the depth in running water. No amount of wheedling or cajoling can get them to come forward, so I perform my version of the old joke about keeping the wolf away from the sheep while crossing the river. I drop my pack, come back, get Juno to the other side, come back, get Atticus—who has stood statue-still on a rock for the last five minutes–to the other side. I only fall once but I soak my backside to the waist. I catch my breath and we continue downstream.
There is, of course, a problem. I am a biped, six feet tall with hands that grip. My body, despite a battery of age and lingering injury, intuits a relatively swift passage to the water fall. My companions are quadrapeds, 1-2 feet tall at the most with bulbous paws. They’re really good at staying on a trail in front of them, or chasing a rodent off the trail and finding it again. But in a place where there’s no clear path, they’re kind of lost. They watch me for cues, but what is easy for me is not readily availible for them. I stand ready to pick them up by their pack, but they are not always eager to hike in this manner. Atticus will get to a point and stop, getting this “I need an adult!!!” look on his face. Juno, on the hand, whimpers and runs back, looking for an alternative route, or perhaps hoping I’ll follow her, back to the more sensible part of the trail.
Each time I have to climb over a rock and return—one at a time—to shepherd the dogs, I become frustrated. I take treacherous steps—a knee-to-nose climb—and realize that this is a full-body leap for the dogs. They stop and look at me, and I cross wobbly footing in reverse, then walk it forward again, dog in hand. Atticus looks at me like “Is this really worth it?” I wonder this myself. But we are on the dark side of the moon. The only way out is forward. Nevertheless, I can’t convince them with my powers of logic. They keep stopping and stopping, and running up the hill and running down the hill. Could they just follow me instead of making this such and ordeal???
Finally, we make our way to the top ledge of the waterfall. I see the older couple across the river, taking a small break. Atticus lets me lower him down. But Juno is tired of this tomfoolery. As I try to reach for her backpack, she sprints back through a fallen tree and up the rocks. I’m tired of chasing her. And I’ve hiked with her so long that I know I don’t have to. I leash Atticus to the rock below, climb back up to the ledge, and sit and wait for Juno to come to me.
I wait. Within a minute, she has walked beside me and is licking my face. I hold her backpack and begin to lower myself down to help her. But she refuses, leaping 7 feet down to the next ledge on the falls. We are at the pool. It’s not Babel Tower: it’s the swimming hole at the 90 degree bend where I was going to rest on the way back up the trail. But now it is the turnaround, and the trail is still on the other side of the river. So, I slip on my swimsuit and take my dogs, first Atticus then Juno, by the handle of the backpack, and swim them across the river.
It’s 4:00, three and half hours since I left the car at the trailhead. In some ways, I try to take this accomplishment as a measure of solace after a long, grueling trip. Neither of my dogs have swum any great distance. However, all of my muscles are so tired that it is difficult to feel celebratory. I throw down my pack and dig for snacks. I string up my hammock and begin to feel like myself again.
I turn to head back to the swimming hole, about 25 feet up the river. There’s a guy in a blue shirt. I think he’s talking to me. I walk closer. It’s my amigo—a fellow teacher from school. We talk camping talk all the time in the halls, and we have randomly run into each other a two hour drive and a four mile hike from home.
Atticus nuzzles up to him like he does with everyone, and soon we delve into the trail and the camping and what we’ve been doing all summer. We trade in knowledge. “I saw an older couple from Vermont,” he says. “They haven’t even broken a sweat.” Soon, I am jumping back into the river to clean off my hard-earned miles of sweat with an afternoon swim, testing the depths, leaping from the rock face, feeling the frustration of the trek wash away in the chilly water. By 5:30, I’m packed and up the trail, back at the car in an hour.
On the way back up the trail, I watch Atticus and Juno climb. A proverb comes to mind: “if you want to travel fast, travel alone: if you want to travel far, travel together. A couple of times, Atticus needs a boost, but Juno shows off her still fresh vertical leap skills. They are short, sharp-nosed quadrapeds. Amazing in many ways, but perhaps not as prepared to brave the nefarous terrain as a bushwhacking, boulder-hopper like myself. But this walk in the woods is a walk in the woods compared to the hike to the bottom of the Gorge. This place always has a way to humble your expectations, to present a more grueling experience that you had imagined. But in the end, the day was fresh air, strong exercise, a swim in a sunlit waterfall, a chance encounter with a friend, smiles and ear scratches and dog kisses and the whole posse coming safely home to sleep the best sleep in the world. The tough steps of the trail and the refreshing calm of the woods all wash over us as we drift out, as always, better for having made the journey together.