Going off the Trail: Reflections from a Winter Day’s Hike

Cummins Falls State Park
Cookeville, TN
2/14/15


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Do you trust me?” she said to us. Without hesitation we answered yes. Yes.

After walking on the path through the woods we stopped at a light brown fence where a couple stood overlooking the water below. It looked so far down, and I wondered how we would get there. I wanted so badly to get there.

She walked around to the other side of the fence, and we followed. “It looks like we’re going straight down, but it’s not that bad,” she promised. I looked over the cliff and had my doubts; the water looked farther down than it had on the other side of the fence.

We’re going off the trail?” I asked with a small ounce of hope that I could change her mind. The pieces clicked in my head, and I repeated to myself: we’re going off the trail.

Still, we followed when she headed towards an opening on the left, curving around a small tree. As I followed the narrow path, curving around the cliff at a downward slope, I eyed every root peeking through the dirt. I followed her path closely, watching where she placed her feet and held on to the rock. I tilted my head up to catch one last glance of the wooden, light brown fence looked; it looked so far above now.

Having only moved down the rocky path a few, small feet’s pace, I looked down. Immediately my world began to move. I pictured my hand losing hold, the dirt under my feet slipping under my weight, and wondered how I would get back up if I fell the wrong way. A wave washed over the pit of my stomach, and I looked back at the rock I was surrounded by—both beside and underneath me.

Focus,” I repeated to myself– “Don’t look back and don’t look ahead. Right here. Right now. This is your world.”

And I quietly continued. I watched helplessly when they stopped below me to help our four-legged companion make it down the steep incline too. Out of fear the world would move on me again, I focused on them and on me. Not what lied ahead, not what was left behind, just where I was. The here, the now, this very moment.

We covered more and more ground. The dirt left my marks on my pants and I began to wish I had worn gloves on my raw, red hands. I realized, too, how absolutely weak I felt. Even more than a feeling, I took it to be true. I was weak then. And as I type this today—sore legs and arms and all—I am still weak. Maybe a little less weak than I felt in that moment, but I know today I’m still a feeble, little thing. Truth is truth even when it’s hard, and how considerably small I felt to imagine myself moving clumsily from rock to root.

If I had been watching the clock, I guess I could have told you we slowly climbed our way down the rocks and trees in 10-15 minutes. But honestly, concept of time left me; it felt neither longer or shorter. It just was. It just happened. We just did it.

And I guess that’s what it’s like facing fears. Even as I think back, “What fear did I have? Not heights, right? Falling to my death? Having an intense movie scene, except without the camera or the stunt double?” I can’t give an answer. All I know is this method of travel was so beyond me—beyond my comfort zone, beyond my routine, beyond the smallest scope of imagination telling me I could actually do this.

Once we finally reached the flatter land and stood only feet away from the water’s edge, I glanced back up at the path hidden by the trees and the great heights that stood between us and that light brown, wooden fence we had crossed so long ago. I didn’t want to think about how we we were getting back up. Our path for the next minute continued much flatter and closer to the clear, clear water as we climbed over tons of rocks and fallen trees.

I didn’t notice the sound of the falling waters become louder until I saw it. We had followed those waters, listening to its sound become louder and louder as we trekked closer and closer. And now we stopped. The journey to get here far behind us, we stood in awe as the cool wind filled with droplets from the close water fall hit our face.

The tough travel to this spot came full circle as I realized why she had led us off the well-known path.

“Isn’t it awesome? It’s so pretty! Ah, I love it!” we smiled at one another as we attempted to out-yell the waterfall that stood just ahead of us. Resting our bones and our backpacks on a large, flat rock a little further back, we just sat. I looked around, trying so hard to take it all in—the towering cliffs, the water rapidly moving over the stones, the gray sky so high above us—I thought to myself again, “I am so weak. So, so weak.” And somehow as the words filled my head this time, peace and contentment filled the cracks. This time when I felt those words, it wasn’t because of the shaking in my legs and my struggling muscles. It wasn’t even a mind game, or a weakness of struggling to focus on the right thing at the right moment. This time, I felt weak at the core of my soul. Even as I sat safely on this cold, gray stone, I felt powerless compared to the vast beauty I sat among.

So, what do you think?” she asked me.

It’s so quiet,” I replied. But then I thought again, “Well, I mean, it’s actually really loud, but—

It’s quiet in a peaceful way,” she finished.

Exactly.”

We ventured around, leaping from rock to rock, to catch every angle through the lens of both our camera and our own eyes. As we sneakily took candid shots of each other, and laughed at our four-legged companion as he  up on the couples sitting nearby, everything in the world seemed to fade as we lived in this moment, at this valley, with these people.

Eventually, I made my way alone to one of the rocks closer to the fall. Wrapping my coat tighter around me, I lied down. My eyes drifted from the bare trees overhead, the falling water in the distance, and the couple that stood gazing from the brown, wooden fence on the cliff. From the rock next to me, I heard her sing, “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee / How great Thou art, how great Thou art.” I closed my eyes, as I tried so hard to put this moment into words. Falling short, so short, my thoughts kept coming back, “Just be here. Be here now. This moment is enough. Just be here.”

At some point, the cold wind became more noticeable to me and I couldn’t wrap my coat any tighter around me. Jumping from rock to rock, I traveled farther back where my backpack and spare sweatshirt waited for me. Pulling the hard-back notebook from my bag, I shivered as my gloved hands attempted to find a grip on my pen. Scribbling words on the lines, I fought to ask what I felt. To know what I felt. To feel anything at all.

Make me like the waterfall: boldly full of grace, moving without stopping, a beautiful fingerprint of Your creation—

I don’t know how long I tried my best to take these moments for what they were. I don’t know how long I glanced at my paper and shifted my eyes to the world around me. At some point though, my thoughts were put on hold by our 4-legged companion. Jumping from me to the backpack to every other piece of space around me. Deciding it best to pack up, we did a timed-selfie and read a chapter of Scripture aloud, and as quickly as we had made our trek here, we turned to make our journey back.

Once we met the opening to the makeshift, off-trail path, I paused for a second and tried to find the wooden, brown fence so high above us. I didn’t wonder how I would get there. I didn’t wonder if I would lose my grip, or if my world would spin again. I set my focus on the moment I was in as I crouched down to take hold of every root and rock that looked sturdy enough to support my weight.

We followed one another as we made our way up the steep incline, just as we had watched each other coming down. When our 4-legged companion stopped at the most challenging part of the climb—right on a narrow overhang of stone, I watched helplessly again as they cooed and hoisted him up to the solid ground. As I came around the other side, curving around the tree and finding solid, walkable ground again, I spotted the brown, wooden fence.

Meeting them just a minute later, we all smiled out of relief and began walking on the marked path towards the car. From the other side of the fence, I turned one last time to glance at the water so, so far below us.

And just like so many other things hard and worthwhile in this life, I thought about what it looked like to climb down these obstacles and to feel the world shake at the magnitude of it. I thought about how crazy we might have looked—or felt—and the thing that made me want to keep reaching, making it closer and closer to those clear waters. Never mind the waves that overtook my stomach until the peace came—the stillness we had discovered in front of the falls made the hard journey down worth it. So, so worth it.

I couldn’t have traded another path for a missed opportunity to gaze at those falls. I couldn’t have stayed in my own comfort zone instead of throwing my arms back with a sigh, “I am here.”

Those are the things I wanna live for—the moments that have no reaction but to let go—

And now I know: I want to seek the off-trail opportunities more often.

:: bm

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Thanks so much to Elisabeth for driving and for keeping me on my toes with awesome conversation and music, Anna for the invite and leading us down the cliffs to the falls, and to Apollo for being the faithful 4-legged companion and adding excitement to not only our trip but also to the couples’ romantic moments at the falls. Galentine’s Day was a hit, and I’m stoked to have spent it with cool friends in a cool place in the middle of cool moments.

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