Danger and Serenity in a Frozen World: Thoughts from Linville Falls and Gorge

Walking alone through a silent, frozen forest only to emerge at the precipice of a frigid gorge with cascading waterfalls and biting winds is all at once unsettling and entrancing to my mind. I arrived to the trailhead of Linville Falls and Gorge just at sunrise. The uncleared snowy field that was the parking lot was the first hint that this was going to be a wondrous adventure with a hint of danger. There was no one else there. There were no other cars in the parking lot or any other sign of life. There was no cell service too, so as I geared up with my backpack, hiking sticks, and extra layers of clothing, I knew that this trek required an ever-vigilant and hyper-aware headspace. There would be no room for carelessness along the steep, icy paths and frozen stairways leading to the various overlooks along the main trail. I pushed forth anyways, for I knew that the difficulty of getting to the gorge would be matched by the beauty of its hostile splendor.

It was a hostile world, one that would suck the very warmth of life and breath from me if I entered its domain unprepared. It was around ten degrees that morning with heavy winds, which would be especially harsh along the exposed and elevated gorge overlooks. But the trail started off in a pristine, mostly flat forest. The snowy trail twisted and turned through dense layers of pine and oak, tall and majestic, piercing the clear morning sky. This was the only time the winds were subtle. The forest was a silent refuge, blanketing me from the harshest pangs of the winter winds. Looking up, I could see the tops of the trees getting pummeled by the occasional gusts of wind. At eye level, the trees seemed so rigid and sturdy and unwavering, but taking a moment to look up and simply watch the happenings around me, I noticed how loose and mobile they really were. The tops were dancing to the cadence of the winds. And then it hit me. The trees can’t afford to be rigid and unmoving. Their tops shift and swirl and glide, answering to the call of the frigid airs above me. A rigid tree will simply break and snap with time but they adapt and swing with the harshness of the wind, making it part of their dance of life. They dance to survive. They dance because they must. It was a gentle reminder of how I could do the same.

Further along, well into the forest now, I noticed a patch of dead pine off to the right of the trail. The withered trunks were still standing tall, each having a dense series of splintering branches following all the way up to the tops. They seemed bare and out of place at first, catching my eye immediately on passing, but as I observed longer, I noticed that they were right at home. Their sharp, jagged brown/grey dreariness added to the compositional beauty of the forest. It made me think of my late grandfather.

When I was younger, there was a landscape painting in my grandfather’s den above his favorite recliner that he always sat in in the evenings. I recall that it was a painting of a barn on the edge of a forest on some gloomy, overcast day and there in the foreground of the painting was a tall, dead pine tree. I remember all of the countless times that dead pine tree in the painting would catch my eye whenever we visited growing up. I don’t know what happened to the painting after he died but it is so vivid in my mind and makes me think of my youth with him. All of these years later, that painting came back to me and I realized I was existing in the painting of my youth. I felt the spirit of my grandfather in that moment. I missed him in that moment but I was reminded that like the pines that have passed on, their essence still stands tall and continues to paint and beautify the world around them.

I eventually made it to the branching trails off of the main trail that jutted upwards or downwards to reach the various gorge overlooks. These off-shotting trails were steep and icy, some with stairs that were covered with snowfall from the night before. I had to be extra careful here. One slip could mean a broken arm or ankle. I was all alone with no cell service. Thoughts of being injured and the inability to make it back on my own flooded my mind. I thought about the biting winds and how unfriendly they would be to an injured wanderer. I thought about being alone out there during nightfall, when the degrees would be in the single digits and the cold would overtake me. This was no place to stay for very long. Still, I trekked onward, almost relishing the presence of danger, as it seemed to enliven the air and make me that much more perceptive of my environment.

Reaching the gorge overlooks, I could look out to see Linville Falls and the steady rush of the river. Ice covered the jagged rocks around the water’s edges, adding to the already turbulent, violent nature of the scene. The sharpness of the ice matched the sharpness of the rock, amplifying the menacing yet gorgeous effect.

The scene was loud, not just with sound, but with sight and feel. Here in the clearing of the overlooks, along the cliff’s edge, the wind grew furious. It spit and hissed at the exposed flesh of my face, leaving it numb and tingling with a sharp pain. Like the idea of danger, the sting of the air had its own appeal that only added to the beauty and hostility of the world around me. This really was a hostile world, I thought. It’s almost like staring into the face of a giant monster, one that could devour me with one gulp. But still I wasn’t afraid, I wasn’t offended, I did not judge. This is just simply what this world is. Upon further reflection, I thought was this place really even hostile at all, or is that just how I feel to label it from my limited, vulnerable human perspective? Perhaps it simply just is and that is it, and that we as humans tend to label things as it relates to our very specific experience.

Still, it reminded me that pain and hardship don’t have to be my enemies, they can be embraced as parts of the full experience. I was reminded that the perceived difficulty, challenge, and hostility of this place was also the reason that it was so breath-takingly gorgeous. And here I was all alone, experiencing the totality of its beauty and influence without distraction. It was all for me. And so is life I thought, all of life. It wasn’t just the warm beat of my fluttering heart in that moment but the frosty sting of my numb face. It was all happening inside me, through me, and for me. Joy and pain are simply appendages to the whole. Wonder and danger are branches from the same tree. Life and death are the perfect pair of dance partners, each needing the other to create beauty and art.

I was spellbound there at the edge of the cliff. There amongst the frozen, layered rocks texturing the landscape and supporting the way for the fierce vein of water flowing throughout the gorge, I found my peace. The sound of the water was entrancing, almost seeming out of place in the frozen stillness and silence that made up this wintry dreamland. The water seemed to grow louder the longer I stood there. I felt the water flow through me. I felt it in my soul. I felt the water match the rhythmic flow of blood through my heart. The water was the same as me, rolling strong and steady and despite all the odds, resisting being turned into ice and becoming stagnant, flowing ever onwards.

After some time, my face had become completely numb and was beginning to cause quite a headache. I felt light-headed and foggy and so I decided that I had spent all the time in this space that was allotted. The hike back through the woods had an extra layer of serenity to it, as the danger and uncertainty was now behind me. I passed the dead pines once again, silently nodding and paying homage to my grandfather. His adventurous and wondrous spirit is inside me now and these adventures are an honor to his memory. Making it back to the parking lot, I breathed a sign of relief. I had gone where no one else seemingly dared to go that morning. I had shared a moment of solitude with the forces of Appalachia and come out with a new story to tell.

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