Personal Essay about the courage to trust others and to just keep going...
The morning air pouring through my car’s sunroof felt cool and sweet on my face as I headed down the driveway. One of the most beautiful days in weeks even though the clouds were blocking the sun’s debut over the horizon. Ronald Reagan Parkway was deserted and still damp from the past few days of steady rain. Vibrant yellows, oranges and fiery reds played out a picturesque scene. My favorite old school DJ, YoungBlood, was playing all the songs I knew the words to, and I’m singing loud and strong as if I were on stage with the band themselves. I jumped on I-85 and headed over to the park & ride where the rest of the group were meeting to carpool for the eleven-mile hike at Panther’s Creek Falls.
The lot was half full on this early Saturday morning and I wasn’t sure who to look for since this was my first adventure with the group but the crowd in bright colors looked like they were going somewhere fun. By the time I found my group there were already twenty-five people gathered and ready to get started.
I stood in the circle and listened to the introductions and small talk, noticing that my boots felt heavy and familiar, the way well-worn boots should feel, I thought. I felt prepared with my signature hummus sandwich, fruits, and nuts with lots of water ready for a perfect day hike.
I joined the carpool with three others from the group of fellow hikers, all strangers and within an hour, we arrived at our destination. I shared that I’d left my hiking poles at home but was assured that I’d be okay. When I got to the trailhead, I grabbed a hand carved hiking stick, made from a tree limb at the base of the trail that had been left behind by other hikers; just to be sure.
We filed behind one another and headed up a muddy and leaf covered path that became narrow and slippery as we progressed upward. This didn’t help my footing which surprised me, and the left boot was slipping around uncontrollably. I found a spot off the path to check the problem and discovered that my left boot had very little tread and the right only had slightly more. We'd already hiked a few miles in by then and when I shared this alarming fact with the others who had lingered only long enough to admire the scenery, several assured me that the hike was easy and that I’d be alright. . Soon, the group disappeared past me up the side of the mountain, moving at an almost jogging pace and I struggled to keep up. The hike leader was soon out of sight too and a fellow hiker by the name of David lingered behind to show me the rest of the way. I admitted that it might be better for me to turn around and go back even though the path I’d already traveled was scary.
The path widened and became a bit easier but just as I began to enjoy the rich, deep, and earthy smell of the forest, my allergies were assaulted as the mucous from my sinuses waged an escape plan that mimicked a flowing stream. I quickly ran out of tissues, moist wipes, the dry areas on my sleeve and even my gloves were used to wipe my nose. I was forced to breathe through my mouth while my nose continued to run. Eventually I became skilled at holding one nostril while blowing through the other just so I could breathe. I also got really good at apologizing to my new friend David for holding him back to which he always replied, “I don’t mind”, even though it was the hike leader who should have stayed behind to make sure someone was bringing up the rear, fortunately David had volunteered and I found myself at the mercy of a total stranger. He said he’d hiked this area before and this approach was his least favorite.
There were several moments when I doubted his generosity. I mean who does this; stay behind in the middle of the forest to help a total stranger, risking his own safety. I wondered if he had ulterior motives and if he did there would be nothing I could do about it; other than jab him with the hiking stick I held onto for dear life. I decided to trust a stranger and pray for safety.
By the time we reached the elusive Panther Creek Falls in the Chute wilderness of Georgia, I was exhausted and trembling so hard I had to fight my body’s movement to make sure I was steady and not topple over the side.
The final path down into the gorge of the falls was wet and sloppy with mud. I had little control of either of my feet by then and I was forced to butt scoot down as others did only, I couldn’t stand up even halfway. Yet another kind soul of a man who’d been helping others from below held out his hand to help me down too. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, but I also wanted to give into my urge to release uncontrollable sobbing but didn't. I kept moving, with support and guidance until I completely landed on stable ground. By the time I found a rock to sit on I felt totally defeated and exhausted.
There I was at the base of the waterfall with the rest of the group, trying to eat my sandwich with hands that shook uncontrollably and after catching my breath I was able to take in my surroundings. I looked over at the water trickling down the side of the mountain and felt completely underwhelmed. “I risked my life to see this!” I thought. I was both annoyed and pissed but appreciative of those that came over to ask if I were ok and to reassure me that the path back would be easier. I was hopeful that this was true, I needed it to be true.
I’d barely finished eating before it was time to begin the hike out. I reluctantly packed up my things while looking up at the sky, the opening above the gorge and wondering how easy it would be to just get a rescue helicopter to pick me up. Would it be dark by the time it arrived; would someone wait with me? I never asked the question, instead, I found the courage to join the rest of the group for a photo op and pretended to be having a good time while I balanced on a large yet unstable rock in the stream.
Within minutes they were moving in the opposite direction of where we came in at what seemed a lightning fast pace again. And once again they were soon out of sight and hearing range and again, David stayed behind with me.
Tiny and large twigs jaunted out from cracks in the mountain and I marveled at how they appeared to grow straight out of rock. Most of the trail required us to walk in single file and when we crossed a path that had a fallen tree, it was tricky to climb over and land with sure footing on the other side. That’s where those precious tiny twigs and other vegetation became life savers, literally. I thought that since we started out in a different direction we would, or I should say I would have a better hike out, but it was the same path only worse.
We were about 3 miles in when the tears began to free fall down my cheek. In between trembling that I had to control for fear of losing my balance, I continued to pray for my angel’s help which could be heard as screams inside my mind. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed this hard in my entire life.
Each time I watched my foot slide towards the edge, I frantically searched for a branch, a leaf, anything to hold onto, I also called out for my angel's protection and then David’s hand would appear on queue. In return I had to extend my trembling hand and to trust that my reach would be far enough. Along the way I had many mini panic attacks because a full-blown panic attack might have been deadly. At one point I watched in horror as David’s boot slipped dangerously close to the edge too, and he struggled to keep his balance. I felt terrible that not only had I put myself in harm’s way, but I’d put this poor man’s wellbeing in jeopardy too.
After a while my mind began to plague me with a sick sense of humor as I heard the Temptations’ song “Rolling Down the Mountain Side” play over and over in my head. Singing may have been an option, perhaps subduing my fear if I could only breathe. I continued holding down one nostril and blowing hard enough to shoot the phlegm at a distance from my nose which provided relief for a little while. Vanity had been abandoned six miles ago, along with the last piece of tissue.
Large rocks jutted just far enough from the side of the mountain to provide shelter and I imagined crawling under one to just wait for that emergency crew to rescue me I thought about earlier. I could hear David saying “Come on let’s keep moving, it’s getting dark. And I’d respond, “No I’m fine, I’ll just wait here in this cave for the rescue team to pick me up. There were several moments where I wished I had the courage to give up. Full blown panic attacks and giving up were all luxuries now.
Amazingly each time I became wide eyed and panicky the angel that I realized God had sent me was holding his hand out again saying “come on, don’t worry I got you.” I did what was told and continued to pray that I didn’t slip and pull him over the edge with me.
Finally, we made it back to the trail head. A few waited for us, including the hike leader who said they’d been back for about a half hour or so. I’d thanked David profusely, again, and he continued to say it was not a problem.
He drove away in a red pickup truck and that was the last I ever saw of him. I went to the group’s site a few times to see if I could find him, offer to buy him dinner or a drink but never could find his profile, adding to the mystery of this helpful stranger.
On the way home, we had one more stop to make before grabbing dinner. Another waterfall to visit.
I’d have to endure the trembling that lingered in my body while I sat in the back seat trying to get a grip on things and my soul a little longer before making it home. I was too tired to protest and I was carpooling anyway so here we were at a college about half an hour away from Panther’s Creek Falls and the waterfall was behind the school. Thankfully there was no climbing this time. Just a short walk to the fall that was created by a dam that gave way in the 80’s and killed a large population of the town. A memorial was erected in their honor. After that it was on to a Mexican restaurant where I was offered a stiff drink that just didn’t help much, besides I still had to make it back to my car at the park and ride and make the long ride home. It was 8:00 pm when we made it back and my clothes were still wet with sweat and I was still a little terrified by the experience.
Later, when I saw the pictures posted on the Meetup site it “looked” like I was having a great time. One of the pictures at the smaller falls haunted me. A brilliant white light appeared to shine from inside my jacket. A reflector strip or angel? It doesn’t really matter but I’d like to think they must have been my angels still with me, protecting me, and all peeking out to get into the picture too.
How comforting it is to know that the screams for help inside my head were heard and taken care of, for which I am still very thankful and grateful.
Later I learned that the falls were also called Angel’s Falls, a place that truly needs a full staff of angels if you ask me. This all happened a week before my 50th birthday and yes, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d make it through to see my birthday. But my prayers were answered and there were many lessons learned.
Two months later in February, and after having fully appreciated my blessings and no chance of rain, I found the courage, a new pair of hiking boots, to get back on the trail near the area where I hiked before. With a group called Trail Dames this time, composed of all women whose motto is “We are as fast as our slowest hiker.” The hike from Gooch Gap to Woody Gap was mapped at an easy seven miles. A few miles in, we ran into a group of hikers on our descent back down the mountain. it was a narrow path which required the ascending group to move off path so we could pass. Several of the women seemed to know the woman in front of the group and exchanged greetings about how long it had been since they last hiked together. As soon as we were out of earshot the gossip began; “I haven’t seen her in a while, me either, not since her and David started dating, I couldn’t believe that they were both cheating on their spouses, well you haven’t met his wife, I saw him recently at the hike in November, isn’t that the hike where a hiker almost didn’t make it out, I heard the hike was marked easy to moderate when it should have been marked difficult, yeah she almost fell off the side…
Hiker almost fell, and wasn’t prepared for the hike. My ears perked up and I realized they were talking about me! I interrupted with “ that was me and as you can tell I’m not inexperienced, a little too naive and trusting of others that day and I made a serious error in not checking my equipment before leaving the house. Both my boots were treadless and it was David who helped me get through it all. I would have fallen off and into the gorge if it wasn't for him. In a way I feel terrible saying this because I’m not siding with people who hurt their spouses with public infidelity but I’ve got nothing to say about his character other than I’m forever grateful, It’s as if I’m looking the other way on his indiscretions. But again I’ve got nothing bad to say about him. In fact, on that day he was my angel and I’ll forever be grateful for him.”
The gossip began to taper off as they commented on how lucky I was and how they preferred to hike with this group whose motto is “ We are as fast as our slowest hiker, and no hiker is ever left behind”