GRIEF IS A SNEAKY THING
“The best way out is always through.”
All week I’ve been thinking about waterfalls, but which one? Western North Carolina has an abundance of them. Big and little ones. Easy roadside or hearty hike access. Family-friendly and those with a stouter constitution. I decided on Catawba Falls. Last December, I was there in the afternoon and realized to have the light on the falls I needed to come in the morning.
The trailhead for Catawba Falls is about a 20-mile drive east of Asheville near Old Fort, North Carolina. I’m an early riser by nature, and today was no different. What was different that I wasn’t out the door by 7:00 a.m. For whatever reason, I dilly-dallied. It was almost 9:00 a.m. when the dogs and I pulled out of the driveway on what the weather forecast said was to be a sunny warm 82º day.
As I drove east on I-40, a ribbon of concrete snaking between the green mountainsides, I felt as though I was going somewhere. After months of staying close to home, driving on an interstate highway felt like a real road trip, even if it was only 20 miles. Seeing swaths of yellow Day Lilies brilliant in the sun at on/off ramps—part of NC DOT Wildflower Program—made me smile. Descending Old Fort Mountain on the steep winding six-mile stretch locally known as the Pisgah grade, I was in a different world. Still green and lush, but now in the foothills.
There were more than a dozen cars in the parking lot of the trailhead when I arrived at about 9:30 a.m. More than I would have liked, but the perils of a late start. No matter. Dogs and I are on an adventure.
The sun was shining brightly, almost intensely, an unusual experience as we’ve had a lot of overcast, drizzly days lately. No more than three steps onto the trail, the brilliant sun became dappled light, and the temperature dropped noticeably.
My pace is slow and steady as I take in the beauty around me, which means I often stop, ask the dogs to sit, allowing others with a quicker pace to pass. It was a pleasant surprise to see Rohodendron blooming along the trail and up the hillside.
We came to the place where you could ford the stream by walking over rocks. I decided to use the new bridge a little further down the trail as the water was a little high for my comfort. The dogs, however, did enjoy their first splish-splash in the stream.
On the shore by the bridge is the moss-covered stone shell, remnants of a power station from the 1920s. Focusing on taking a photo of the sign about the power station, I was startled by a voice calling out, “hi.” I turned to find two women, each with a dog at the end of the bridge. I thanked them for letting me know they were there, stepped to the side, and put the dogs in sit, allowing them to pass.
We walked a little further, smiling at a family with young children clambering over the smooth boulders near the stream. It’s not unusual for the dogs to draw comments from strangers on the trail. Today was no different. We had a brief socially distanced conversation with a couple returning from the falls about Zorro and Essie’s breed.
Not much further down the trail, Zorro decided to poo. As I reached into my back pocket for the every ready poo bag, I checked up and down the path as picking up poo is always a precarious time. There was no one. Deed done, pick-up complete, bag tying in progress, my back was still to the trail when the dogs lunged. To my surprise, there was a couple behind me with a dog. I don’t remember their exact words, but the essence, they were unhappy with my dogs lunging to meet a new friend. I apologized as I pulled Zorro and Essie back. Usually, I would have just left it at that, but not today. I am very aware that we need to speak out to offer a teaching moment regarding personal responsibility. In addition to apologizing, I added if they had paused a moment and let me know they were there, I would have had better control. In my mind, I was thinking of the courteous ladies on the bridge. The man replied, “just get over it.”
Okay, enough. The voice within said something wasn’t right, and it wasn’t the day for this particular waterfall.
As we headed back down the trail, Essie, who always has a good nose for water, decided to take a small side path. Sure enough, it leads to a secluded spot on the stream with a handy mostly flat rock upon which to sit. An excellent place to reflect and figure out what’s going on.
THE BIG CRY
The instant my butt hit the rock, the tears started. Giant tears were streaming down my cheeks. The shoulder shaking sobs soon followed and continued, and continued. Both Essie and Zorro looked at me with concern, then tucked in close.
As the crying went on, I felt like the weight of this year was closing in around me—the albatross of clipped freedom induced by the pandemic. The images of masked faces at the grocery store flashed across the video screen of my mind at high speed. I let the tears flow. My soul felt the sorrow of limitations imposed by stay home orders—the tears flow with the apprehension of an unknown future for me and the country—more tears.
All good crying bouts end when the pent up emotions are released. I had felt Essie’s chin on my left knee the whole time, but as I opened my eyes, I saw her looking at me penetratively. I stroked the top of her head, telling her she was a good dog. Zorro, always sensitive to my mood, stood guard on my right.
Vision cleared from the sobs; I looked upstream to see two cairns on a large boulder in the stream—someone else found this a holy place. Now in possession of a clearer mind, I took a moment to reflect on my crying as I built a little cairn from the stones within reach around me. Many feelings came to mind: sorrow, angst, worry, sadness, melancholy, anger. It was with the anger I realized I was experiencing grief. I was mourning the loss of days gone by never to return but in memory.
There was also grief for the unknown. A little shocking as I have a track record for dealing well with change. Then I realized I’ve always been able to picture the future in my mind, but this time the images were pixelated. There was no clarity, only uncertainty. Indeed we are moving into a new world where nothing will ever be quite the same. Enough for now.
As we came up the path to the main trail, we needed to pause for two large groups of people to pass heading to the waterfall. If I had any doubt in my decision to head home, none remained as social distancing would be impossible with so many people plus the ones already there.
Here’s the photo of Catawba falls from last November. There will be another sunny morning for photographs.
How has grief snuck up on you this year?