Hi there. Me again. A lot has happened since we last chatted. A lot has changed. One thing though, has not changed…not one bit. That thing being my knack for getting myself into humorous/unfortunate/slightlybutnotreallydangerous situations. I couldn’t think of a more fitting re-opening, so-to-speak, of this blog, than telling this specific story. Let me preface this by saying this was not my finest moment, but also not my worst.
First, a quick update. Since my last post I:
- Took a trip to Ecuador
- Completed a 9-month leadership discipleship program in East Texas. (A program that thrives on surprises and secrecy, and because I didn’t know what I could say without spoiling anything, I panicked and wrote nothing at all. Oops).
- Went to Israel with the aforementioned group.
- Worked at an 8th-9th grade summer camp as a counselor and a photographer.
- Moved to Tennessee.
- Started grad school.
So here I am, in Tennessee, living it up. And by living it up I mean surviving grad school by pretending I am not actually in school. If you are thinking to yourself that this is not a functional coping strategy and I should just pull it together and acknowledge this new stage of life, you would be right. But YOU try arguing with the Ali in my head. She is very persuasive, and somehow knows exactly the argument to make to get what she wants. Curious, huh.
Since moving to Tennessee though, I have had a few separate instances of culture shock. This is to be expected with moving to a new place, but the things that have shocked me have been unexpected. For example, no one has a license plate on the front of their car here! As if my Texas plates don’t exile me enough, now everyone on the road can tell of my unbelonging from more than one direction. The lack of a front license plate matters little to nothing in the grand scheme of things, but when I noticed, it brought on the strangest instance of homesickness.
One “shock” has stood out as more pleasant than the others: the existence of what is known as “peak week.” This my not be a new thing for anyone who has lived anywhere with actual seasons, but coming from Texas, where the leaves do not change colors with the season, the concept of a week of fall in which the autumn colors are at their brightest was new to me.
And upon learning of this so-called peak week, I lost my mind and decided I had to explore everywhere I could get to when I was not in class as to not miss the colors at their prime. (I missed my own prime, so I am acutely aware of others’). Last weekend I spent all of Sunday driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, stopping to take pictures and breaths of fresh mountain air. This weekend I decided to go on a hike to take advantage of fall, reminding myself that it gets *freezing* cold here in the winter and I am going to be miserable and stuck inside for months because I cannot handle the cold. A few weeks ago the temperature hit the low 40s and I was so desperate for warmth I left my house just to go sit in my car so I could turn on the seat warmers and have warm air blowing on my hands. I apparently need to invest in a heated blanket. And a hand-dryer? I digress.
I, being a Tennessee resident for only two months, had no idea where I should hike though, so I googled “best hikes in Johnson City” (classic), and chose the second link (we all know the first one pays a lot of money to be there, so I don’t like to give them the satisfaction of getting chosen). I scrolled until I found one I thought looked interesting. Laurel Falls. Not the one in the Smokies, turns out there are in fact two Laurel Falls. But the Laurel Falls in the Cherokee National Forest. I didn’t take the time to read the blurb about the hike, just saw that it was close to Johnson City, and decided to go. This was my first mistake.
I grabbed my camera, put on my Hoka’s instead of my hiking shoes (mistake number two), grabbed my half full gallon water bottle, my inhaler (my first intelligent choice), and left. I told one of my roommates where I was going and drove off. I arrived at the trailhead around 5 pm (mistake number three…you see how wells this is going so far). I wasted no time walking into the forest, not even time to look at the trail map (#4. Gosh Ali, how are you a functioning adult?), or to grab my water or inhaler (“my shorts don’t have pockets. I don’t want to carry all that and my camera”). I so boldly assumed it would be a short hike down to the falls, though I had absolutely ZERO basis for that assumption. (Do I even need to acknowledge this was a mistake at this point?)
The second I entered the trail I was floored by the nature that quickly enveloped me. I was surrounded by trees of the brightest yellow. Then the brightest orange. Then red. The colors were so bright, they were almost the right shade to be liquified, tubed, and labeled “Highlighter.”
I was walking at a slow pace, taking in the breeze and the trees (Dr. Suess, is that you?), and stopping about every 50 feet for a picture. I was quickly passed by a young man walking at a significantly faster pace, a pace that would cause you to assume he had somewhere to be and had to be there ASAP.
Soon after the initial shock of color, I was met with a rushing river to the right of me. A wall of rock, carved so meticulously you’d think it was by human hands not the water below it. A flurry of falling leaves dancing through the air and hovering just a second longer than seemed possible before delicately making their landing atop a pile of their own, so similar yet completely different.
People began to pass me coming back, though I thought nothing of it at the time. Still, I picked up the pace, anxious to see the falls.
Though I would consider myself a fairly seasoned hiker, I am currently in what I would call an ‘activity offseason’. Most of my current time is spent either in class, at work, doing online clinic, studying, or actively avoiding studying but bathing in the uneasiness of the knowledge that there is always something to be done. Because of this, the free time that I do have is rarely spent exercising, and instead cashed in for an extra hour of sleep.
Only, bummer, because I didn’t realize the effects my offseason would have on my ability to endure a moderately strenuous hike. Or on breathing. While the enchanting scenery provided a much-appreciated distraction from my huffing, it became clear to me that I was not in the hiking shape I used to be.
But, true to her nature, and always at the ready to provide the counter-argument in any situation, the Ali in my head reasoned with my shriveling lungs and my burning quads and exclaimed that we had to be close to the falls. Except we were not close to the falls. In fact, the rocks got bigger, and the steps got steeper, and I just kept walking. And walking. And stopping to take pictures but secretly just to take a breath. I looked at my watch, 6:30. The sun would be setting soon. I better pick up the pace. I keep walking, and the quick-footed man from earlier passes by, heading back to the trailhead. This was the sign I needed to push through. I was almost there; I just knew it.
I walk for another 10 minutes and look up to realize that dusk had descended on the forest. I had a choice to make. The logical part of my brain suggested we turn back. We would have to walk quickly to make it out of the forest before the stars came out. This was the obvious correct decision, and one I probably would have gone along with had The Brain not provided other options. The resident Debby-downer and queen of convincing me to dwell in regret reminded me that I had walked so far and suffered for this waterfall. I had to see it. Anxious Ali chimed in at this moment to point out that it had taken me an hour and a half to get here, and even if I did not waste time to take pictures, it would still take me at least and hour to make it back. There was already no way we would make it before dark, even without trying to make it to the waterfall.
Frustrated at all of the arguing in my head, I decide to keep going. Debby was right, I had come so far. I did however start a jog. If I was going to push on I would need to do it quickly. I jog for about 5 minutes then stop dead in my tracks. I can’t even hear the running water of the river anymore, let alone a waterfall. I was not going to make it. I wasn’t even sure I was on the right trail anymore.
So I turn around, and see the sunset. Sunset?! Startled by the dark clouds, I begin to speed walk, this time headed back to my car. I jump over rocks and slide down the steep portion I had found myself on towards the end of the hike. I look up and see three pink stripes streaming across the sky. “Crap”, I say out loud. (I say a stronger curse word in my head). And then I sprint. As I scramble down the mountain I look up again and see that the three pink stripes have faded into two. These were my lives. I had already lost one. Just like Jumanji.
I was going to die in this forest.
As the light grows dimmer, my feet grow clumsier. It is now that I realize my largest mistake in choosing Hoka’s over hiking shoes. My ‘Hoka heel,’ which I normally love for the added 2 inches it gives me, had turned into a death trap. A proprioception-deception. My body no longer knows where my feet are in relation to the ground and therefore, I lose my ability to properly move.
I sprint on, tripping over my own feet and also the rocks and sticks and holes, my mind racing even faster than my legs. I push my thoughts down, as to not jumpstart hysteria (because as we have already gone over, if you don’t acknowledge something, it can’t hurt you). My brain calms down long enough to realize I still have music playing. Specifically, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles. I laugh out loud at the irony, though the laugh comes out more like a a garbled cough.
It is at this moment I realize I cannot breathe. My sprint slows to a walk-with-purpose. A new song comes on. “Gallows Pole” by Led Zeppelin. Yep yep, thank you Zep. I am going to die.
I take a second to catch my breath and gather my thoughts. The way I saw it, I had a few options as to how I would meet my imminent demise. A ‘choose your own ending’ so-to-speak.
- I was going to die from an asthma attack. (Sub options: Either stop running, or stop breathing). Turns out that whole “mom gets a rush of adrenaline and lifts a whole car off of her child” type of survival energy does not apply to asthmatics.
- I was going to roll my ankle and be rendered helpless to move. This would inevitably lead to me being stranded out here and probably eaten by a bear.
- I could stop running and let the extended time I would spend hiking in the dark forest provide just the right window for a murderer to get in position to snatch me off of the trail.
I decide to stick with the fast walk in an effort to give my lungs a break and keep myself from breaking my bones. Extended dark was no match for me. I have trained for this.
I look at my watch: 7:00. I look at the sky. I can’t see it. I turn my flashlight on.
While I have more than one bone to pick with Apple and the iPhone, the biggest is the fact that their flashlight is absolute garbage. Though my light is on, I can still barely see a foot in front of me. The only plus side is the light now reflects on the trail markers on the trees. At least I know I am going in the right direction. The glow of the trail markers as they touch the light from my phone become the best sight on the trail.
At 7:15 I can see the headlights of cars rushing by in the distance. I let down my guard. I am going to make it.
Then I see a flashlight. It is moving towards me. No normal person is going to be headed into the forest in the pitch black, therefore, it has to be a murderer. I debate what my move was going to be, (do I say something, do I turn my flashlight off and hide, do I start running?) Except I spend so much time thinking of what to do, I find myself right in front of the flashlight man.
“Have you seen two girls?” he asks. “We passed by them earlier and they looked lost, so I thought I would circle back around and make sure they found their way out.”
“No, I haven’t”, I breathe out in an exhale, calmed by the fact that he actually seemed kind, and was apparently not going to kill me.
“Okay, I think I will keep walking for a bit just to make sure.”
He moves ahead and I turn and keep walking. I see the outline of my car. They sky opens up. I’ve made it.
My phone buzzes and I jump, my heart still racing from the prospect of encountering a possible murderer. It is my roommate checking in on me. I laugh as I text her back.
I get in my car and check the time. 7:20. On the drive home I turn my brights on, grateful for the extra light that I will never again take for granted. I also stop at Dairy Queen to get a blizzard to celebrate life.
As I look back on this adventure I can’t help but think of how perfect a picture this is for the fruitlessness that comes from striving on your own without the Lord. I mean, I went through all of that, and I didn’t even get to see the waterfall.