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Hike offers reminder to explore at own pace

As much as I love seeing rainbows, I hadn’t intended to hike to Rainbow Falls, where, according to Waterfalls of the Smokies, the afternoon sun can create a wondrous rainbow effect. For some reason, I’d gotten it into my head that the trail would be more strenuous than this 2022 Steve Kemp Writer in Residence could handle.

Would it really be too strenuous? Having successfully reached Alum Cave with my residency namesake, I began doubting my doubts. True, the elevation gain of 1,685 feet over 2.7 miles at Rainbow Falls is 500 feet more than the elevation gain at Alum Cave. But while it felt somewhat daunting, I found myself channeling the courageous locomotive character from The Little Engine That Could, telling myself softly, “I think I can, I think I can.”

Knowing I was approaching the residency’s end, I adopted a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” attitude. With a tuna sandwich and a variety of trail snacks tucked into my backpack, I drove to the trailhead, located just outside the entrance to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. I pulled my hiking poles from the backseat, took a deep breath to settle my nerves, and made my way to the trail.

As I stood staring into the distance, a couple approached, and we set out at the same time. Initially, I was ecstatic for the company because it kept me from worrying about the climb ahead. I quickly realized, too, they were lovely people. I enjoyed hearing Jacque share one of the secrets behind her and her husband Henry’s marriage—an annual trip to the mountains.

We talked as we walked. One of the things I appreciate most about meandering with strangers is discovering how much we tend to have in common. Henry and I were in the midst of conversation when we realized Jacque was no longer behind us. We stopped to let her catch up.

That was the moment hunger pangs set in. I had discovered, over the course of the residency, that I can’t eat breakfast before setting out on steep-terrain trails. Small snacks work best until the halfway point, at which time my simple sandwich du jour feels as celebratory as it is satisfying.

After grabbing a granola bar from my backpack, I also realized how out of breath I was. While the climb was somewhat strenuous, the real issue was that I had been keeping pace with Henry and ignoring my own rhythm.

Knowing I needed to replenish my personal resources, I let them trek on. According to my somewhat accurate step counter, we had hiked about 1.4 miles together. That meant I had approximately 1.3 miles left to meander on my own.

As awesome as their company was, and as helpful as it was to have interesting conversation to keep me from focusing on the trail’s challenges, I reveled in the remaining 1.3 miles. My new slower pace created the perfect opportunity to pay closer attention to my surroundings. There’s something much more intimate about hiking in the fall once the leaves have fallen. It’s as if nature is inviting you to look at her without makeup on.

I found myself contentedly contrasting the deep blue of the sky with the rugged browns of the earth beneath my feet. I kept looking up to watch the sun as it rose higher and higher in the morning sky, illuminating a tree here, a boulder there. I studied the texture of bark, reminding myself this is a good time of year to learn who’s who in the zoo when it comes to trees. I gazed across now-barren tree limbs to spy mountains in the distance, stopped along a narrow log bridge to listen to LeConte Creek’s alluring melodies, and listened, too, for what I wasn’t hearing, an intriguing idea a friend introduced on a recent trip to Baskin Creek Falls. The more I focused on the beauty of my surroundings, the more ease I felt as I continued climbing.

On a humorous note, having not been to the falls before, and having only skimmed my reference guide before setting out, I imagined I had reached the falls when I reconnected with Jacque and Henry who were of the same opinion. Although we had expected more, I firmly believe every water feature is a gift.

After a short break and renewed conversation, the three of us began the downhill journey, discovering about a mile down, thanks to some passing hikers, that we had missed the actual waterfall.

Despite a clearly justified moment of intense frustration, we couldn’t help but laugh. The voices in my head immediately chimed in, debating the pros and cons of a second attempt.

Having gotten so close, I knew I would return before the week, and my residency, were up. Given my before-noon ascent, there was no rainbow when I reached the falls a few days later, but that was of little concern. The falls, enveloped as they were by a stunning array of boulders and rhododendron limbs and leaves, were glorious enough.

What stands out most in my mind, though, is not the waterfall but the reminder that accompanied the journey—how important it is to find and then follow the pace that suits you. If you think about it, the lesson is one that applies, not just to hiking in the Smokies, but to charting the path of life.

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