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Tuesday, 17 August 2010 20:29

A few wrong turns on the way to paradise

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I grabbed my guidebook and pen and wrapped my camera in a plastic grocery bag as it started to rain. Stuffing it all into my backpack, I headed down the ancient looking road, nothing but two narrow ruts overgrown by tall weeds. I wasn’t going back to Waynesville till I found waterfall 50.

I was approaching the last day of my internship, and I had less than four days to complete an online map identifying, describing and providing directions for waterfalls in our widespread Western North Carolina coverage area.

The road lead to a smaller path that headed straight for the creek, and I sloshed upstream in search of the trail on the other side. The path weaved from bank to bank, and it continued to rain.

I waded up the creek around a bend, and there it was — a 60-foot beauty known simply as the Upper Waterfall on Sols Creek.

Two months ago, with Kevin Adams’ waterfall map spread out on a Rubbermaid tub filled with back newspaper issues in the office, some coworkers and I decided which waterfalls to include in the map.

The list of potentials was daunting. More than 270 waterfalls fell in our four-county coverage area and neighboring parts of Transylvania County. With so little time, seeing them all would be impossible.

Since we don’t distribute papers in Transylvania, most of the county’s beautiful falls got axed from the list first, followed by those that involved bushwhacking or hiking more than two miles to access.

After having lived in Charlotte for 10 years and being the descendent of Midwestern farmers and Lutheran pastors, I didn’t want to do anything that would test my limited high-country outdoors experience beyond its limits.

With friends headed on vacations or tied up with summer jobs, my pool of hiking partners dwindled. And although I was afraid to venture out on my own, I had to reconcile myself to the fear of getting lost because if I didn’t get started soon on my own, I’d never finish.

About a month and a half later — and about 30 waterfalls into my journey — I set out to find Yellowstone Falls in Graveyard Fields off the Blue Ridge Parkway. My directions, in short, said to find a trail at the back of a couple of campsites and follow a path to the river.

I never found the path to the river. Instead I found a path that at first seemed like the right one, but eventually dwindled to nothing more than trodden grass, and beyond that a thick maze of tangled, impenetrable rhododendron bushes. When I tried to find my way back, I reached another dead end at a blackberry briar.

Had I not just come this way? A sinking feeling in the bottom of my stomach overtook me. I was lost.

I retraced my steps back and forth a few more times, then started to rip out pages of my reporter’s notebook, leaving them on the tree branches I passed.

Making no progress, I sat down at a small campfire ring. Small grassy footpaths like the one I came in on spread out like a spiderweb from where I sat. I dug my phone out of my backpack and figured the worst thing I could do was panic. Thank God for cell phone towers — I had one bar.

I called my editor, Becky Johnson. She studied a trail map of the area on the other line, but I still couldn’t determine which direction was out. She gave me the number for the Forest Service, and I called them next.

A few hours later, I heard them yelling my name from the other side of a blackberry briar a couple hundred feet away. They stomped a path through the blackberry thicket. I was getting out and going home!

After loafing around my apartment the next Saturday, convincing myself I had better things to do than hike, I finally found the gumption to face Graveyard Fields again.

I didn’t try to find Yellowstone Falls but had to get Upper Falls crossed off the list. I found a few hikers eating blueberries and followed them to the waterfall.

Even having to face what scarred me most didn’t dull the obsession with the Western North Carolina landscape that brought me to a summer internship at The Smoky Mountain News.

I knew that if there was paradise on Earth, it had to be at the base of some of the region’s waterfalls. And I wanted to see them all, but I now know that’s impossible.

So as I pack my boxes and prepare for my senior year at UNC-Chapel Hill, I’m left with the same sentiment most reporters feel when the deadline approaches for their big stories: I wish I had more time.

For now, 50 waterfalls will have to do.

— Elizabeth Jensen

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