We broke up six months ago, but there we were, driving south from Richmond to Gatlinburg, Tennesse, toward the Great Smoky Mountains. It was an unintentional farewell tour, a trip hatched months ago, planned and booked right before things broke again and executed defiantly and stubbornly because that’s who we are, defiant and stubborn humans with an excessive amount of love for one another and hopelessly divergent viewpoints.
On Thursday I pulled up the trip planner for Great Smoky Mountains National Park and gestured to a list of waterfall hikes.
“Pick one,” I said.
“That one,” he said, pointing to the short description of the hike to Ramsey Cascades which listed the waterfall as one of the tallest and most spectacular in the park. The 8-mile roundtrip hike, the guide proclaimed, was strenuous with a gain of more than 2,000 feet in elevation along “rushing rivers and streams” and “through [an] old-growth cove hardwood forest.”
“Are you sure?” I asked, a little surprised by his choice.
“Yes,” he said. “If we’re going to hike to a waterfall, we should hike to the best waterfall.”
“Okay,” I said. “Deal.”
Before the hike, we went to the visitor center, picked up a jar of local honey, a Ramsey Cascades patch and a walking stick for him.
At the checkout counter, the cashier asked if we’d done the Ramsey Cascades Trail. We told her we were about to, that we were headed there next.
“Now?!” she asked. “Are you sure? What time is it?”
It was just after 10 a.m., not late by any real standard, but once we told her the time she launched into a series of questions, asking if we had flashlights, if we had crampons to help us navigate through the ice that she was sure we’d find at the top of the trail, ice that could, she said, prevent us from making it to the waterfall.
“It’s eight miles, right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “The hardest eight miles of your life.”
We walked back to the car mostly silent and then, as I put my seatbelt on, I asked him if we should still attempt the hike. She’d rattled me, that lady, and I was nervous.
“Yes,” he said. “Of course we should.”
We stopped for snacks, loading his pack with water, pop tarts, beef jerky, gummy bears, almonds and bugles and then turned into the park at the Greenbrier entrance, winding our way down 4.7 miles of bumpy road to the trailhead.
At 11:20 a.m., we stepped off and started our hike. I was still nervous, but he reminded me of our collective fitness and the 34 years of combined military experience that have launched us through all sorts of terrain and tribulations.
“We’ll be fine,” he said.
The first mile and a half of the Ramsey Cascades Trail was easy. The trail led us down an old jeep road, slowly gaining in elevation and while the path was rocky, it was wide and easy to navigate.
“Maybe she was crazy,” I said, careful not to explicitly contradict the cashier’s dire warnings and half-convinced that any shit-talking would irreversibly jinx us into an unnavigable trail of doom.
We kept walking, me stopping periodically to talk to the moss, to marvel at the brilliance of life that springs from a downed tree, and he to wait for me to take pictures of tree bark, baby pinecones and the river.
After the 1.5-mile mark, the path turned steeper and rockier and became laced with tree roots. It was harder, for sure, but not nearly as hard as we had been led to believe. The trail wasn’t consistently difficult and it seemed that every time I’d almost need a break to catch my breath, the path would even out.
Plus, it was beautiful. We crossed bridges and walked past some of the biggest and oldest trees in the park and the trail followed the river all the way to the cascades.
The last half mile was the hardest. The trail was steep and it wound through, around and over several large boulders, causing us to scramble and hop our way over them.
“Look,” I said, mid-scramble. I’d caught my first glimpse of the waterfall, barely visible through the trees, and I didn’t want him to miss that first look.
As we reached Ramsey Cascades, the only other couple there was preparing to leave and within minutes of our arrival, we were alone. He dropped the pack and together, we sat, putting our butts on the layers we’d shed during the hike while rifling through our snacks, tearing open packages and taking bites of nearly everything.
While the trail was free of ice, the waterfall wasn’t and as we sat, munching our snacks, a chunk of ice fell from the falls and crashed into the water below. The sound was enormous and we both froze, eyes locked on the ice falling from the waterfall right in front of us.
When the noise stopped, we exhaled, looked at each other, laughed. It felt significant, watching the ice fall, like the cascades had put on a show just for us.
We sat for maybe 20 minutes until our bodies cooled and we started to shiver. We layered back up and headed down the trail, turning once or twice on the way down to catch a few final glimpses of the waterfall.
“I’m so glad we did this,” I said. “I was scared.”
“I know,” he said.
We spent the return trek scoffing at the cashier’s warnings, grumbling about the “hardest eight miles” of our lives, kissing on bridges, linking pinkies and holding hands. We saw a raccoon, briefly, and maybe a dozen other hikers, but mostly we were alone.
By 4 p.m. we were back at the car, tired, but happy. We hadn’t spoken much about this trip in the weeks leading up to it, hadn’t spoken much at all, but being there felt like the right place for us to be, like maybe an adventure in another state was the right way for us to say goodbye to our relationship and to each other.
We got a lot of things wrong, me and him, but we always excelled in love and adventure.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is one of the nation’s most visited national parks. Admission is free and the park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For more information on the Ramsey Cascades Trail and other hikes in the Smokies, click here.