I'm not the fearless adventurer, so often and well-represented in the movies with the character of Indiana Jones. I'm just a middle-aged, roaming photographer and wanna-be writer. But Indiana Jones and I have one thing in common. We both hate snakes, and I really hate Rattlesnakes. However, sometimes such unexpected encounters can make for the perfect metaphor.
In mid-May 2009 I ventured to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, on the Tennessee side, to do some spring nature photography in what has become one of my favorite locations for beautiful landscapes.
I went with the goal of hiking a few new trails and photographing some waterfalls and cascades not seen during my last two visits to the Smoky Mountains. There was also the rising need within me to be in a place where I always return to find peace and creative inspiration - in nature's beauty.
I'm learning that these ventures back to nature serve a larger purpose than just capturing new material for my growing photography business. There's almost a cleansing process that takes place, kind of like a mini "40 days in the desert." And through that process there is always the lessons to learn and nature's symbols and messages to be experienced, observed and internalized by this lover of life and nature.
But this time around I was not expecting such a symbol to come slithering across my path, just a few feet in front of me. At first I looked at it with a bit of curious excitement. It wasn't until a few days afterward that I pondered the chance encounter on that hike, and the hike itself, for what was - a representation of the journey all of us undertake, within the biggest and most visually striking landscape of them all - that of LIFE.
Before my trip I did what I usually do - research and plan the locations that I want to hike and photograph. I had read previously that Ramsay Cascade is one of the most beautiful sights in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. At 100 feet in height it's also considered the Park's largest waterfall. However, to say it's off the beaten path would be an understatement. It's a four-mile hike up the side of one of the larger mountains in the park, where about 2,000 feet in altitude is gained on the ascent. The trail is rated "difficult" within most of the guidebooks. What this translates to is basically "you're going to be on an incline the entire hike with quite a few rocks and boulders to scramble over." And then there's the knee-jarring four miles back down.
This would be a challenge for anyone under normal circumstances. I had the increased burden of hiking the trail upward with about 35 pounds of camera gear and tripod. Also my nearly 45-year old legs were already well beyond the standard, life-long mileage allowance, worn weary from many, many other hikes as well as forced marches in the military and long distance runs during my teens and twenties.
But I love a challenge and the promise of capturing an image or two that most other nature photographers would pass on. While most casual photographers prefer the more leisurely strolls within easy reach of their cars, I learned long ago that it's the photographer who goes the extra mile - or two or three or four - who captures the less common and more treasured image.
So off to the trailhead I went, on a warm and sunny May 13th, 2009, with back-pack, camera gear, one bottle of water (should have been two - you'd think I'd learn by now), a Balance Bar and arms, legs, neck and face covered with DEET. Once in the parking area I laced-up my hiking boots, threw the pack over my back and crossed the footbridge over the Ramsay Prong and started on my way upward.
This is where the story of life's lessons - symbolized and pondered on the trail - begins.
Step by step, I get into my rhythm. The first two miles aren't so bad. There's still a constant incline, but for the most part the trail is smooth as it makes its way through old growth forest, filled with rhododendron, large hemlocks and towering poplars. Always present is the background music of the downward flowing Ramsay Prong Stream, flush with spring rainwater draining from the heights of Mt. Guyot. Accompanying the sound of the dancing water is the constant, haunting notes of the Wood Thrush - a small, migratory bird with big, dark eyes who loves the upper canopy of Appalachian woodlands. It was almost as if this little guy was following my progress, from beginning to end.
These are the moments when my mind wanders easily to the place where I am most at ease. Despite the constant physical strain of the ascent I am in a place where my creative imagination flows freely and the feelings and memories of loved ones rise to the surface.
Some regrets arise as well, of what could have been. More importantly are the thoughts of what still could be, and thankfulness for the lessons learned. Thoughts of my children are foremost. I always have a deep desire to share with them my discoveries made through these journeys, both inward and along the trail. And of course there are those thoughts of more immediate comforts and small joys, such as enjoying that turkey and ham sandwich on homemade wheat bread, made for me that morning by the nice girl at the coffee shop in Townsend, now awaiting my return in the cooler in my car.
Up and up I went, with the a steady pace of long strides and ever-increasing steps over rock outcroppings and exposed tree roots, polished to a smooth shine from years of contact with the treads of thousands of hiking boots.
And then suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. At first I thought it was just a fallen branch lying across the trail. But then I noticed it moving, and when I saw the markings I knew immediately what it was. A Timber Rattlesnake, and a big one at over four feet in length and as thick as the mid section of a baseball bat.
The snake was stretched-out across the trail so that there is only about a foot of free area following both ends, and it didn't seem to be in a real hurry to get across. That was until I moved to take off my backpack and retrieved my camera and telephoto lens. Then he moved more quickly but only a short distance to the right side of the trail.
At that point he curled himself into a tight coil and pointed his thick, angular shaped head right at me. The back end of his tail went up in the air and he started in with his warning rattle and a hiss from his primeval-looking face. I got off a few shots with a 70-200mm zoom lens, which allowed me to get in close without having to step further toward the menacing reptile.
I've seen my fair share of snakes before, mostly the more common Garter and Black Rat Snakes that I see frequently in the woodlands of Southern Ohio. But with this Timber Rattlesnake there was something far more sinister - almost prehistoric in its angry posturing. The bony outcroppings over the eyes and the wide scales that lined its body. Once seen up close it is easy to see why these creatures were often chosen as the very embodiment of evil.
After capturing a few photographs, and getting too close to the snake's "danger zone," I turned around, placed my camera and lens in my backpack, threw my gear on my back and then I just stood there. The coiled rattler was still sitting on the side of the trail with his head up and looking right at me. It came to my mind that Timber Rattlesnakes have been known to jump nearly 20 feet when attacking. I would have to pass within five feet of him due to the narrowness of the trail. I stood still for a minute realizing I had come to a point in my upward journey where a decision had to be made - do I keep going forward, or turn around and go back the way I came.
This was when it occurred to me that this eight-mile hike up and down this mountain had become the perfect metaphor for one's journey through life, and this particular snake encounter represented one of those painful and trying moments of fear, doubt and insecurity.
The evil that eventually finds us no matter how well our lives are going. The test to see which direction we will go and if we have the courage to overcome those awful scenarios played-out in our heads. The "what ifs." What if that snake bites me ? What if no one comes along to help me ? What if I fail ? What if I lose everything ? What if don't get that job ? What if I lose my job ? What if the plane goes down ? What if, what if, what if.
For a brief moment I saw all the evil that has confronted me, eager to either bite and kill or see me retreat back the way I came, within the slit, reptilian eyes of that rattlesnake.
There was the icy, death grip of debilitating fear and anxiety and the life-numbing, dark blanket of depression. Left alone in the darkness with just a handful of people who had become lost in their own anger, fear and greed. Not just everyday obstacles, but huge walls that suddenly arise out of nowhere and block the path through life. Pitch black internalized, personified and crippling, to the point where it appears there is no way forward, backward or around. I know just how hopeless it can be.
Snake eyes, an angry hiss and a warning rattle. Out of the darkness comes darkness - fangs and poison at the ready. These are the moments that you look around for some help and support, or at least some advice as to how to proceed. "Do you think that snake will actually jump and bite if I try to pass it on the trail ?" But in the darkest of times there is no voice, other than what is in your heart.
Which direction to go ? Upward and onward, or the safe and secure retreat downward ? Or do you just stay motionless, waiting and hoping that the threat will just slither away.
This time around, many years after my previous encounter with the monster of darkness and subsequent fall to near death, something deep down had taken root which encouraged me to keep going forward - to not succumb to fear but rather continue to my destination.
And walk past him I did, even though it may have been a "quick walk." I stopped to look back. He was still coiled-up on the side of the trail with his head still pointed in my direction, but now I was on the other side. Upward I continued, regaining my previous pace and just a little bit relieved that after all that had played-out in my head, the snake did not strike.
It wasn't long after that encounter on the trail that I met some other hikers coming downward in the opposite direction. I stopped them and warned them about the Timber Rattlesnake sitting on the left side of the trail, and encouraged them to stay to the right.
Lessons are not only learned for the benefit of self-improvement. Perhaps more importantly the lessons that come from our own trials in life are meant to be shared - the "play it forward" attitude whereby the sting of all those mistakes and humiliations and failures rapidly loses potency the moment you help others to see, understand and avoid the angry obstacles that can be thrown their way.
Upward I continued on the trail to Ramsay Cascade. Soon I came to a stream crossing with a single log footbridge spanning the gorge, with only a hand rope on one side to hold on to. Though not as scary as my encounter with the rattler, the bridge still represented another life lesson along my hike - that of friends and the kindness of strangers in helping us get through those occasional rough patches we all must face from time to time. Not as frightening as the feeling of facing terror with nothing more than what can be mustered within the self, still these challenges can cause great difficulty and hindrance in the direction we must go.
Across the chasm I went, one foot in front of the other as I held tightly to the guide rope. Below me was the rush of a spring flow coming down from the upper areas of the mountain. A thousand smaller streams and flows feeding into the stream below my feet, which in turn would feed the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon River, and so on and so on. No singular droplet more important than the other, but all equal in something far greater than the individual - something so much bigger than what can be seen from my vantage point in the Great Smoky Mountains.
The difference between my hike up the mountain and that of the drop that joins the stream was a simple matter of direction. Downward a trillion drops journeyed a path I too would soon follow, so worn yet true.
Once over that first footbridge I regained my rhythm with steady upward steps. The trail took me through beautiful virgin forests, and still ever present was that haunting calls of a lone Wood Thrush. On both sides of the trail the always present lush green of rhododendron, hemlock and mountain laurel. The flora of Great Smoky Mountain National Park is perhaps the most diverse of all the national parks within the United States. Mountains, old forest and a hint of the Carolina Coast combine unlike anywhere else to present an unforgettable sensory experience for any lover of nature.
It wasn't long after the first stream crossing that I came upon two, incredibly huge yellow poplar trees. The trail squeezes between the massive trunks. The first thought that came to my mind was that of sentinels at a gate, standing strong and disciplined after over a 100 years of changing seasons, 10,000 hikers and everything that fierce weather could throw at them.
The trail made a sharp ascent to the base of the trees. I felt as if I would be required to recite the secret words of passage before continuing. I simply reached forth with a hand covered in sweat and touched the roughness of bark as if to pay my toll. For a brief moment I could still see the wet imprint of my open hand before the bright sun of that spring day erased it way. I wondered to myself what drives the human mind to always desire to leave a mark of where a person has been. It's as if this desire arises from a still linger primitive fear that when our bodies are no more there will be nothing left. I've observed life and nature so much to know otherwise, that what remains - what goes on - is often unseen but easily heard, when we choose to truly listen. More importantly, it is felt within the heart.
Through the great guardians I stepped, and soon found myself in an area where the terrain went flat. A plateau of momentary respite from the continuous climb upwards. Off to one side, just past the poplar sentries stood a singular, even larger yellow poplar tree. "Ah ha, the sergeant of the guard."
The plateaus I've encountered during my life's journey can be best described as "comfort zones" - what first appear to be welcoming respites but soon morph into numbing stagnation. The body and soul may get a needed rest, but the spirit soon starts to nag, prod and encourage to get up and continue.
Life in the corporate world immediately comes to mind. Day and day out of meaningless tasks where measurable results elude those who actually want to make a difference or are inclined to express themselves through individual creativity. Sure, there's safety and comfort that comes with a steady paycheck and benefits, but it comes at a far steeper price than most realize.
There's also been countless plateaus encountered with my personal life. Places where could have stayed put, secure in the comfort of some meaningless relationship or the controlled life in a cookie-cutter suburb.
These plateaus are well-populated by others who have decided for themselves to stay put. In their quiet desperation, misgivings and insecurities, they desperately try to influence other life travelers that indeed their decision to remain is the best decision and should be emulated. Sometimes these "others" can be easily ignored. Sometimes they seek to "influence" through the use of more insidious methods of manipulation beyond mere words of advice.
I've learned to easily recognize these places and people where life may appear to be quite comfortable, but little is gained or truly achieved beyond the false security of daily creature comforts.
"No, I will not stay, nor will I turn back," I say to myself. "Not this time."
Even when stepping out from the plateau there is uncertainty and trepidation as to what lies ahead, but there is also something else within that compels me to keep going, climbing and achieving.
As I exited this part of the trail to Ramsay Cascade I immediately came upon another single log bridge over another crevice with rushing water below. After crossing the trail I took a sharp turn to the right. This is where the ascent started to become even steeper, with bigger boulders and rocks strewn between path and more exposed tree roots.
As it would turn out, the last two miles upward would prove to be the most difficult.
I was sweating and straining under the weight of my backpack, tripod and about 20 extra pounds of body fat that I was determined to shed in the coming weeks. Rock after rock seemed placed apart like a staircase built to torture the legs. Each giant step upward required all the weight to be lifted by right leg quadriceps and then left quadriceps. And still the ever-present song of the Wood Thrush following my progress from his treetop vantage point in the old growth forest.
It had been a long time since I hiked this far on such challenging terrain. Perhaps not since the late 90's when I lived in Utah and frequented the mountain trails in the Wasatch Range, or the trail up into the Grand Tetons had my legs been this challenged. The accumulated years and miles were now being acutely felt.
The last mile to my objective required me to dig deep from what reservoir of strength. What also helped was just knowing that I was getting close. Soon a pair of hikers descended the trail in my direction. I didn't even have to ask when we met on the path. They could see the question in my eyes. "Not much further. Just about 20 minutes away. It's worth it." All I can reply with is a "thanks" between deep, exhausted breaths.
The last section of the last mile included a few portions of hand over foot climbing. I'd place my tripod on the ledge above my head and then lift my body up. Straining, pulling, pushing. "It's got to be just around this bend," I kept telling myself, only to be greeted by another series of boulders to scramble and sweat over. I would listen for the tell-tale sound of tumbling water of the waterfall. Finally it came to me like beautiful music that relieves the tension of an overly dramatic scene in a movie.
One last, strenuous push upward and there it was - the beautiful sight of my goal. I stopped at a flat, rock outcropping directly opposite the falls, unhooked the pack from my aching back and just stood there for a few minutes to regain some semblance of calm composure. One of the first things I discovered was the dramatic drop in temperature experienced when standing close to so much falling water originating from higher elevations. This was nature's air conditioner and I was standing in it with a thoroughly sweat-soaked t-shirt. But I did it. I made it to the top and rewarded with the incredible scene of a 100-foot, water cascade. After enjoying my much-anticipated snack of a Balance Bar I unlocked the legs of my tripod, slid the camera into the ballhead and began composing my exposures of what many consider the most beautiful waterfall in Great Smoky Mountain National Park - the Ramsay Cascade.
But more importantly I was rewarded with a sense of accomplishment, however small it may be in grand game of life. Just knowing that I could still hike four miles up the side of the mountain carrying a pack full of camera gear and reach an objective. I also ventured a bit within myself on this journey and I allowed the trail, the mountain and nature to teach me to see my life experiences for what they were and continue to be - rewards and accomplishments to be cherished as well as the challenges, fears and sadness to be confronted while always pressing forward. Sure, there will always moments of pause and regrets, but to persevere with the courage of the heart is to truly live according to the life direction that each of us is blessed with. Both good and bad, each and every experience becomes a part of who we are.
It was about one month after the trip to The Smokies and the hike to Ramsay Cascade that I received another incentive for continuing on the trail through life and keeping true to the upward climb.
My youngest daughter, Chloe age eight, was with me for the following month of June. Throughout the school year both Chloe and her older sister Emma live with their mother in Texas. After a long, dark winter alone I learned to appreciate and make the best of the time when my daughters are with me in Ohio.
On this particular summer day I was dropping Chloe off at a local tennis court. Earlier that week I had signed her up for an afternoon kid's tennis camp. I stopped the care at the entrance and Chloe, in the back seat, unfastened her seat belt. Grabbing her racket and water bottle she looked at me, smiled and said "bye Dad, I love you." I smiled at her and replied "have fun, I'll be back in a couple of hours. I love you."
And then she did something that caught me by total surprise. Stepping out the car door she suddenly stopped herself and looked back at me. "Dad, do you know why I never say anything after you say 'I love you ?'" I looked at her a bit curious and bemused. "No Chloe, I don't know why."
"It's because I want those to be the last words I hear in case I don't see you again."
I've made more than my fair share of mistakes in life. I've taken more than the average number of wrong turns and I still carry a heavy load of regrets that I just can't seem to shake-off. But I am still climbing upward. Along the way I'm sent messages of encouragement that say the goal of my journey is indeed worth every effort, every misgiving, all the strain and all the fears.
The waterfall at the top brings us all home to what truly matters the most.