I felt my shoulders loosen on the drive down. When I got out of the car at the tiny house I’d rented for the weekend, I tilted my head back, looked up at the trees and exhaled, long and slow.
“You’re ok,” I said. “You’re fine.”
Everything had started to feel like too much, like I was being crushed by all the things, big and small. I felt trapped and cornered, like I couldn’t shake the heady anxiety that had coiled in my chest and made itself at home. I needed to leave. I needed a few hours on the road singing my favorite songs. I needed to sleep in a bed other than my own and explore a city I didn’t live in. I needed to step away from the noise, from all the things that were slowly and surely starting to drown me. I needed, more than anything, to walk into the woods, so I went south, to Asheville, North Carolina, and the Great Smoky Mountains.
I didn’t have a lot of time, just a long weekend, but I spent my days drinking craft beer in Asheville, catching up with an old friend, climbing a mountain, eating pizza, writing about my feelings and wandering in the wilderness. It was what I needed, to pull away from all the things that were weighing me down, to feel raindrops on my face and pine needles under my feet.
Then, too quickly, it was Monday, time to go home. But I wasn’t ready. I needed one last forest foray.
Over coffee that last morning, I weighed my options. I wanted a short trail, one that was relatively easy and close to the interstate.
There, at the top of the list of suggested hikes in the AllTrails app, was Catawba Falls Trail. It was 45 minutes west of Asheville, an easy scamper to a waterfall in the Pisgah National Forest just a few minutes off my route along I-40.
I finished packing up, put my hiking clothes back on and when I pulled into the trailhead parking lot just after 9 a.m., I was the only one there.
Sometimes I think the first few steps on a trail are the best, even better than getting to the top of a mountain or a waterfall or up to a view. It floods me with happiness and I feel it in my heart every time, a rush of optimism and joy. Knowing this trail would be my last for a few weeks, I took my time, stopping often to look at ferns and ruins, to listen to the sounds of the forest, to marvel at the movement of the water alongside the trail.
At the falls, I sat for a while. I thought about stress, about all the times I’d been to the wilds of western North Carolina before. I thought about the next time I’d get to wander into the woods, the next time I’d get to sit beside a waterfall. I thought about the drive home, the things I needed to do when I got there. I thought about what I’d learned on that trip, the ways I’d pushed myself, the way I’d felt immediate relief the moment I was in the forest and what that might mean for me long term.
I drank my trail beer a little ways up the trail, away from the falls. I tried to take everything in, to detail the exact way I was feeling. I knew I’d need it, that feeling of forest freedom. It’s what gets me through the shitty days when I spill coffee in my hat, when I have to wake up at 3:30 in the morning, when everyone and everything is just too much. It helps me sleep at night. It’s what gets me though the most boring of days, when I’m stuck at my desk staring at clouds moving past my window and thinking about all the other places I’d rather be. So I tried really hard, over that trail beer and a handful of Pringles, to grab hold of that feeling, the good forest feeling, and to release all the doubt and anxiety and stress and anger. I tried real hard to remind myself that, no matter what, the forest is always there. The desert is there, the mountains are there, the coast is there, all just waiting for me to carve out little pieces of time to go.
Catawba Falls Trail is a 2.1 mile out and back trail in the Pisgah National Forest, near Old Fort, North Carolina. The trail is easy. Don't climb on the waterfall unless you want to get dead.