A few hours after we got home, I asked my daughter a question. The question was simple enough. How long was I on the ground?
She looked at me with that pained, confused look so common to young adults. Something in my question didn’t compute, so I reframed the question.
“When I landed, I was on the ground for a while. How long was I down for?”
She shook her head.
”You weren’t down long at all, just a few seconds,” she said. “You went down, and you were back up. At least sitting up.”
Nothing she said made sense. I remembered being on the ground, my chest in the shallow water, my patella protruding from my knee at an unnatural, 90º angle. I remember thinking to myself this is going to hurt for several seconds before I rolled onto my side, the small wedge of boulder freeing my hyper-extended kneecap and allowing it to pop back into place.
I remember the sound it made. And I remember grasping my knee. But mostly, I remember the pain.
The fall in question had occurred only a few hours before, at the bottom of a river-carved ravine near Twin Falls in Tennessee. I had hiked the trail a half-dozen times, and Kya had joined me at least once or twice. On this particular morning — Labor Day Weekend, 2018 — we had decided to go for a swim and head out to the smaller of the two falls.
The hike down had been uneventful, save for the warning from a park ranger to be careful. “The rocks are very slick right now,” he had said as we entered the park.
Famous last words.
For water to fall, the land has to fall beneath it. Those steep drops make for awe-inspiring vistas. But they also make for difficult hikes. The trails of our favorite hike to Cummins Falls takes hikers quite literally up the channel of the creek to the base of the falls. The creeks run through rocky crevices flowing water has carved over many millennia. But this particular hike is one of the less challenging in Middle Tennessee, which is saying something considering the topography, geology, and overall stamina of Tennessee hikers. Within just a few hours’ drive of Nashville are some of the most scenic hikes in the eastern United States, including a dozen or so waterfalls.
Great Falls Trail descends almost about ninety feet from the parking lot to the Caney Fork River, and it clocks in around two miles each way. Allowing for excursions to this rock or that tree, the hike can stretch to a few miles. But mostly, it’s over hard, dry land. The rocks themselves are usually your friend.
There we were, on our way back, and I’m straddling a small trickle of water coming down the ledge and into the river. One foot is planted firmly on a rock to the left of the small tributary, and the other is planted firmly on a rock to the right. Standing astride this tributary, I strike a pose, Colossus guarding the bay. Kya is getting hungry, and we’ve been on the trail for more than two hours now. It’s time to head back.
As I move to pivot, the rock under my left foot slips ever so slightly. I adjust to the right foot, and that’s when the tread of my hiking boot, which had been wedged perpendicular to the peak of the boulder, decides to go tobogganing down the ridge of the boulder.
I have an out-of-body experience and see myself suspended there, flailing against the air in a futile attempt to gain stability. I’m Wile E. Coyote, and very shortly, I’ll meet the business end of the ground.
How long was I down for?
You weren’t down long at all.
Three years later, I still haven’t been on a trail. I’ve gained forty pounds. I’m out of shape, post-Covid, and spend most days struggling for the energy to move about the house. The idea that later this year I’m going to return to hiking, that I’m going to hike the Inca Trail? That’s preposterous.
But that’s what I’m going to do.
And I’m going to chronicle it right here.