This week, the humidity returned, and we were reminded as sweat soaked through our shirts that summer is not over. It’s still nowhere near as hot as the past five summers in my memory. We’re still being spoiled by this July, so I am careful not to complain about this relative spike in the thermometer. Several years ago, when we melted every time the we stepped out for the mail, mid-90s would have seemed like a major cooling event. It’s interesting how quickly so many things become relative to what’s happened most recently.
Last week, I did not work because of my school residency week, so this week I was out to make up those hours. This month, I typically work 30 hours a week, so I was shooting to work 50-60 hours, so we wouldn’t have to take a week-long hit to my paycheck. Working double what you’re used to is difficult on the body and mind. I wasn’t very good for conversation, housework, or even sitting up in the hours I got home. Too much work really diminishes our abilities to live any other sort of life. I didn’t want to prepare meals, searched for easy, less healthy options and even found myself caring less about eating. If that sort of attitude continued, I would make myself even less healthy, impacting my wakefulness even more, creating a scary cycle making life more and more difficult to enjoy.
On Tuesday morning, several buildings on Murray’s court square caught fire long before the sun rose. Todd and I were the only ones in the studio, preparing for morning edition, and Todd spotted the fire from the balcony outside our studio. I called the fire and police departments, and they didn’t have any information for us to report. Todd then said for me to forward the story I was working on to him and to get out there and find out as much as I could. I sprinted home, grabbed my Rebel camera, and jumped in the car. The whole court square had a cloud of smoke surrounding it. My eyes got blurry, my shirt smelled like a camp fire. I walked the court square as the sun was rising, taking pictures of the smoldering building and firefighters who had been working for four hours already using all their means to keep this fire from spreading.
Building fires are probably not a big deal for reporters in large cities–I’m sure they happen on a pretty regular basis. But, this felt exhilarating to me. Here was this pretty tragic event, and I was being trusted to tell it’s story to the whole city. I wasn’t looking at it in that cynical news way of getting the scoop, I really felt myself wanting to find out about it and capture what was truly happening so people who cared could feel that too. We were one of the first media outlets to report the fire and our internet traffic got up to places I hadn’t seen before. A few other news organizations called to ask permission to use my photos. I felt like I had seen something important and shared it with lots of other people.
I generally try not to look forward to the weekend, past an entire week, because that typically results in overlooking the goodness of the days in between, but I couldn’t help but anticipate my weekend trip to the Smoky Mountains. My parents planned a family trip to Pigeon Forge, and it was hard for me to be completely present during my 12 hour work days, when I thought about hiking in the mountains, surrounded by forests and rushing streams. On Saturday, we got out for a drive through the Roaring Fork Motor Trail in two vehicles carrying different combinations of my parents; Allyson and me; and my sister Tracye, her husband Adam, and their kids Elliot and Adelyn. Periodically, we stopped to walk in a mountain stream, climbing on the rocks, feeling the cold water on our feet. Elliot played with us, and Adelyn had her feet put in the water a little. I wonder as these young ones grow, how experiences like this will stay with them. I wonder if there will be a peacefulness come over them some day that they don’t quite understand that has its roots in experiences like these–something their brains and hearts hold on to and store deep inside them to remember much later. I think about times I came to the Smokies as a teen. I remember climbing on those rocks so vividly. Now, I hear those sounds, feel the air, touch the rocks and something fresh and new is breathed through me. I wonder if they will know this too.
We took a side trip from the family vacation to Cherokee National Forest to Bald River Falls to meet some of our best friends for a hike and a surprise engagement proposal. Our friend Justin schemed with us to plan a scenery-filled stroll past rivers, rock cliffs, and a pretty impressive waterfall, when at just the right moment, he would drop to one knee and pop the question to his unsuspecting love. He wanted friends to join in the event, so Allyson, Danielle, and I were lucky enough to be in the neighborhood. The day would have been fantastic on its own–we saw fantastic overlooks of this river, and climbed to the top of an overlook surrounded by larger mountains and the sounds of a rushing river below. Cool air blew up from the water, and I felt so alive to be in front of things so large. When we returned to the waterfall, walking along the top, Justin dropped down and pulled out the engagement ring. Amanda jumped back about 10 feet she was so surprised. Allyson took copious amounts of pictures, but it didn’t feel completely creepy, because the waterfall shushed the sound enough that only they could hear each other. Allyson and Danielle cried, and even wanted to tear up a bit, seeing my beautiful wife touched so much, seeing her good friend in such a happy moment (but I manage to hold onto manly virtue and just grin really big).
Amanda has an affinity for waterfalls. They have a spiritual significance to her that goes beyond the typical wonder any human being naturally has for them. She sees metaphors that speak to her that she explains much better than I can relate in this post. Now, Justin has thrown this new layer on their meaning–hopefully it will also be a meaning of their life together for the rest of their lives. Meaning in images and experiences can grow so much with us. We attach ourselves to things, at first, because we are just drawn to them. Over time, as we try to understand them, they actually do more to help us understand ourselves. I’ve been in love with giant trees most of my life. When I married Allyson under Coastal Redwoods in California, I attached myself to them even more, and I attached my life to hers. These trees inspire me now, they speak to me about what I believe, what I trust, who I want to be. Sometimes these giant images that we stand and stare at describe us much better than we can pen words for.
Early, on the last day of our trip to the Smokies, I woke before dawn, before the rest of the family was up. I drove out to the Laurel Falls Trail head when it was still dark. The had been a hard rain the night before, and all the rivers were huge, covering the rocks, muddy brown. I knew the Laurel Falls, which I had never seen, would be enormous, and I even wondered if I could even get to it, because of high water. At the beginning of my hike I could hardly see anything besides the paved trail just in front of me. At one point, I thought I saw some creature or person or maybe a ghost. I realized it was a sign instructing me not to feed the bears. I spoke to myself repeating some of my radio breaks, so if there were bears or other wild creatures I might not want to encounter in the dark, they’d hear me and run away (this is what the survivalists advise you to do when hiking in bear country). There I was walking in the woods in the dark, saying “This is WKMS, inviting you to join our membership at wkms.org anytime…” Soon, the sun brightened the world, and I began to hear the water moving, powerful, down the mountain.
The falls were blasting from their high point down the mountain, so loud you couldn’t hear anything. Water covered the foot bridge that typically stands above the water. I was not sure at first if I could make it across the trail, because the water was rushing over it so fast, the wrong step might send me over the falls. I removed my shoes and very carefully stepped out, inching my way more and more into the path of the falls. It got even louder and the wind from the falls literally knocked the wind out of me. The water was not too deep, I could stand there, but I felt like the power coming off the falls itself was more than I could handle. I kept saying, “Holy shit, Holy shit, Holy shit.” I thought about turning back, but kept moving, feeling my way across for the most shallow spots and finally crossing to the other side. Physically, it wasn’t that difficult, but it had a heavy impact on me psychologically and emotionally. I was still saying “Holy shit,” after making it to the other side. I could not believe what I was seeing, what I had felt. I thought this must be what its like those times in Scripture when people encounter God or an angel, and it’s so powerful they don’t know what to do.
I continued on the trail and made my way into some old growth forest sections of the park. There were poplars and oaks that must be hundreds and hundreds of years old, still standing because they were lucky enough to be in places loggers could get to before the National Park was established in the 1930s. I stared at these trees, stood at their trunks with my nose to them, looking up. Branches 100s of feet high were the size of many decent sized trunks. Just seeing these old sages standing, rooted in the side of mountains gave me feelings I don’t know how to express in words. I was profoundly moved just by being near them. It was amazing what these 4 miles of walking had spoken to me, out there alone, early in this morning.
Life is a difficult proposition. I look around at so many of my dearest friends who have seen so much undeserved pain. There have been tragedies that I wish I could erase from their lives. When these tragedies descend on us, they leave scars. We experience trauma that shapes us. The body forgets certain things to protect us, we develop beliefs, habits, ways of protecting ourselves in the future. I wonder too though, if there is a good kind of trauma. Some sort of body altering from the amazing life experiences that mark us forever. I hope the body is paying equal attention there. That when we stand in the face of something powerful, that is almost scary in its ability to give us wonder that it takes us to a place that heals us, inspires trust and compassion. That when we stand in the face of that waterfall and all we can say is, “Holy shit,” we are just happy that we stand as it pours over us and hope we are strong enough to enjoy it.