I really, really needed this trip. I needed to get out of town, to put on my pack and walk into the woods. I needed to spend a few hours in the car, music up and windows down. I needed to be alone in the woods, to take myself to dinner, to drink new beers, to catch up with one of my oldest friends. I just needed to go.
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.
I’d never done the drive from Texas to Virginia, although it’s one my grandmother managed a few times in her 89 years of life. She was born in Loop, Texas, between Lubbock and Midland, and then moved to Virginia and, much later, returned to Texas, to Houston, for her remaining years.
After coming home from my deployment, getting to Texas to gather up some of her things was among the pressing items on my to-do list. I was, thankfully, able to come home for her funeral back in November and was able to spend a week in Texas before I headed back to Kuwait. Then though, there wasn’t much time or energy for much else other than grieving and traveling from Houston to Loop and then back to the desert.
In planning this trip the first thing I did, of course, was look up what National Park units would be along the way. I’m trying to get to all of them, all 417 of the damn things, and any chance to get another stamp in my National Parks passport or to explore these exceptional parts of America – whether historic, scenic or otherwise – is a chance that I take.
I saw we’d be driving right through Chattanooga, Tennessee, a town I’d heard some good things about and home to the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, which seemed like a perfect excuse for a pitstop as we made our way northeast.
The park is comprised of four main areas: Chickamauga Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, Moccasin Bend and Lookout Mountain Battlefield, to include Point Park, which seemed like the easiest part of the park to visit given our route and also our big dumb truck.
The drive up the mountain was definitely an adventure. The truck, being so big and dumb, had a tough time climbing some of the hills and the narrow roads along the way made for some gut-clenching moments. It was a chilled February morning and most of the roads around Point Park were empty so we easily found street parking for the truck and spent about an hour exploring the park and taking in the absolutely amazing views of Chattanooga.
The Battle of Lookout Mountain was fought on November 24, 1863, and was part of the Chattanooga Campaign of the Civil War. Confederate troops were defeated there by Union forces led by Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker. It was called the “Battle Above the Clouds,” and there’s a massive painting by the same name in the visitor center across from Point Park.
I know military history isn’t everyone’s thing, especially when it comes to military history related to the Civil War, but I’m always fascinated by it. I suppose after 14 years in the Army, that’s to be expected and after living in Richmond, Virginia, for more than a decade, it’s pretty much impossible for me to ignore the Civil War.
It’s $5 per person to enter Point Park and it’s really, really pretty. You can see the whole city from up there, all spread out below you. Moccasin Bend, which has been home to humans for more than 12,000 years, is easy to spot and beautiful to see from above.
There’s an exhibit on Civil War photography in Ochs Memorial Observatory, located inside Point Park, and the New York Peace Memorial, erected by New York as a sign of peace and reconciliation between Union and Confederate veterans after the Civil War.
After the park, we needed snacks. We had another full day of driving ahead of us and figured a stop for some actual food would help with our sanity. I can only handle so many road snacks and while we’d packed a cooler full of goodies and had food of a higher caliber than that typically found at gas stations, sometimes just getting the fuck out of the car and sitting down to enjoy a meal can make all the driving seem a little less daunting.
We found Sugar’s Ribs right next to the interstate on the way out of town and it was damn near perfection. There were even goats hanging out in the yard, doing their goat thing.
We ordered more food than we needed, of course. We had the taco sampler that included a smoked pork butt taco, a wood-grilled chicken taco and a smoked brisket taco, along with some ribs, some mac and cheese and some brunswick stew.
It was all good. Every single bit was good. Every taco. All the meats. The cornbread was maybe some of the best I’ve had and I couldn’t even begin to pick which sauce I liked the best. It was brilliant food and the ribs made for a fantastic road snack a few hours down the road.