"Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest."- Annie Dillard
"Man, I lay in bed thinking about this place at night" Bobby said as we ride up to the Upper Nantahala River on a July weekday afternoon. We are both in town for a reunion, yet both prioritized getting ourselves out to Wayah Road so we can stand next to the Upper Nantahala. To spend 5 days in Cherokee County and not jump into a mountain swimming hole is a sign of poor planning and failure to be an outdoors man. After searching for correct pull off, we parked our car on the side of the narrow road and could hear the waterfall below when we get out of the car. We climb down the steep brushy incline and we went our separate ways, with separate goals: I want to swim, Bobby wants to fly fish.
If there is anything free in the world, it is doing this. I climb up the side of a 8 foot waterfall, hopping and crawling from rock to rock, in the 3:30pm weekday sun. I am not the incredibly fit, strong young man I was at 20 when I first came here. My left ankle is still healing from a basketball sprain and I do not have a life vest on. I am hesitant as a 32 year old man unsure of my swimming abilities. Why did I forget to borrowing a life vest? Standing on one side of the upper swimming hole, I wonder if I can cross to the other side. I put my feet in as water is rushing powerfully in front of me, to see if I can cross to the other rock area, aware of foot entrapments and the loudness of the waterfall to my right crashing down into a pool. I hang on to rocks, as the water pushes me downstream. If I get stuck will I drown, facedown? If I started to call out for help, could Bobby hear me, since he is fishing 100 yards downstream? Is this stupid? This isn't safe, but it is fun.
Upper Nantahala vs. Lower Nantahala
Certain angles of the waterfalls on the Upper Nantahala are similar to those default National Geographic desktop wallpapers that come on your laptop hard-drive. Stand on a rock down beside the river and look up----it resembles a Bob Ross painting of a narrow staircase of gray rocks and boulders with small cascading waterfalls and swimming holes. Depending on what rock you stand on, every waterfall looks slightly different, since every rock is slightly different.
Many North Carolina citizens are familiar with "Nantahala River" which runs along highway 19/74, where you will see many people white water rafting throughout the summer and fall. The Nantahala river is at the bottom of a gorge and is shaded by overhanging Rhododendron trees. The shiny gloss of the dark green trees give the river a relaxed feel, until you actually touch the water which is shockingly cold. Most who refer to the "Nantahala River" are referring to the Lower Nantahala. The Lower Nantahala is commercialized and more tame with people eating pizza on the side of the river at picnic tables, blue and yellow white water rafting busses, rafting outfitters every 2 miles, people in groups of six walking around in helmets and paddles, and self-consciously cool individuals walking in and out of Nantahala Outdoor Center. In college, my friends and I were rafting guides on the Lower Nantahala while working for Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters. It was fun, but we attempted to venture out to more obscure places on the weekend.
My friend James Vaught grew up in Cherokee County (the westernmost county in NC) and lead us to private and public swimming holes on the weekends. James knew of trails, cliffs, rivers, waterfalls and camping spots that known by the locals, most unmarked on maps. A group of us from camp would regularly be on the hunt for a waterfall down a fire service road that was located off some side road, miles from the main highway. It seemed to me as if we were going down someone's private driveway and I would become paranoid we were trespassing, but the places James took us was mostly public land. I began to think of Nantahala National Forest as this gigantic wilderness playground that few ever visited.
When I swam in the Upper Nantahala in 2004, I realized that God made mountain rivers for more than just to sit, stare and reflect on life, but mountain rivers existed for people to jump in and swim. Being trained rafting guides, we knew how to float down the river on a raft. However James Vaught provided the affirmation that we would not drown if we went into these swimming holes and ventured underneath the waterfalls. Once I hesitated to jump in because I knew how cold the water was (even in the middle of June). James said "Don't think, just jump." I took his advice; it is always better to jump in with both feet and feel the shock of mountain water, which is painful for about 5 seconds, but then your body adjusts to the temperature.
Reasons We Don't Explore Nature
What are we really seeking when we visit a beautiful national park or hike on a trail? The beauty of God's creation is something that helps us reflect on ourselves and our past, present and future. Theologian N.T. Wright says "Beauty is both something that calls us out of ourselves and something which appeals to feelings deep within us." In an increasingly digital world that can keep us indoors (whether at our jobs or at home), time outside is necessary. Being a teacher, much of my time is spent in a classroom or an office. Some people might respond to beauty by taking a few photographs with a phone or camera. As Wright said, beauty appeals to our feelings deep within us, therefore we may want to capture those feelings by taking a picture. But rather than taking a picture, what if we had permission to go jump in the waterfall, climb the tree, or surf in the ocean?
There are a few reasons we often sit back and look at a waterfall or an ocean sunset rather than push ourselves to participate. First, it is healthy for us to sit and observe nature. It is good for our brains to reflect on the past, present and future while pondering alone, praying alone or hang out with friends while enjoying the scene. This is a kind of passive participation. Second, we may not participate in nature because it can be dangerous. Knowledge is power when it comes to nature, the more we know, the less we fear. For me, I know very little about hunting deer, which is one reason I do not hunt. To have a friend who is a local or experienced in wilderness areas is crucial, but not required. A third reason someone may not participate in nature (or even passively enjoy it) is that we are self-consciously attempting to capture a photo of it. There's something about taking a photo of something that helps us to "capture" the beauty. Sometimes this can prevent us from enjoying what is in front of us. John Mayer sings about this in his song "3x5"
"You should have seen that sunrise with your own eyes
It brought me back to life
You'll be with me next time I go outside
Just no more 3x5's."
It is very human to want to capture something (in a sense I am doing it now on my blog). But the energy put forth to capture the moment can sometimes ruin the moment or prevent someone from "being there."
The fourth reason we often hesitate to participate in nature relates to this question: "Who owns that beautiful property? Are we allowed to swim there?" Personally, this is the reason that prevents me from exploring nature. What prevents me from exploring is a matter of what is allowed. I say "I would love to go take a nap under that huge tree in the middle of that grassy field" but of course I cannot because it is on someone's private property. Private property laws often prevents me from participating in nature. I can take a picture, but I can't go sit underneath that tree or wander freely in the forest behind my parents house because it is private property.
When I was in middle and early high school, I grew up riding my four wheeler through the uninhabited woods in central North Carolina. There were trails that lead behind my parents house sometimes 1/2 mile to a mile back into wilderness through cow pastures, state- maintained gigantic power-lines and abandoned tobacco fields. I would be trespassing, but it would be at 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon, where seemingly nobody ever went. I got addicted to riding my automatic Polaris four-wheeler back into the silent woods temporarily stopping and turning the engine off in the middle of a large grassy field to imagine having a big field party-camp-out with bon fire. But it would not last long, perhaps 3 minutes, because I knew to always look over my shoulder in anticipation that someone would catch me trespassing, enjoying the view. I loved riding through those woods, but there is never a true freedom when you are trespassing even on a four-wheeler. The enjoyment is not 100 percent.
But that's the bad news. The good news is that we can wander around in state and national parks for a whole day without being paranoid about trespassing. The Upper Nantahala, doesn't require a permit or a guide since it is part of Nantahala National Forrest. Even better, it is right off the side of Wayah Road so you only have to know over which ridges to look to see the waterfalls and swimming holes.
Legally Getting Lost in the Woods
If you go at the right time of year to the Upper Nantahala, you won't see a soul for hours and feel if you've found an untouched part of the wilderness, deep in the woods on private property. I think there is a freedom in knowing that you are legally OK to be exploring in a certain part of the woods. The Upper Nantahala is one place where I feel I have permission to jump in the swimming hole and relax, without self-consciously breaking some law, trespassing, or having a group of tourists stare at me with frustrated faces for messing up their pure nature shots for Instagram/personal photo collection. We often need permission to "participate" in nature, someone to say "You can do this------I am local and this is public land." While the thought that someone might drown is a legitimate concern-----I think that fear of trespassing is what typically limits me from exploring new areas-----that someone will call the cops on me. When I get permission to jump off of big rocks into lakes-----I get very, very excited.
So on that July day at the Upper Nantahala I was able to freely swim in the cold water and challenge myself to climb around the waterfalls in seclusion even though I am a 32 year old man (too old for playing in the woods?). For those 45 minutes, I felt free and fully living, not thinking about anything except the rocks, and I was called "out of myself" into what I have a hard time doing----not being self-conscious. Nature writer Annie Dillard explains self-consciousness like this:
“Self-consciousness, however, does hinder the experience of the present. It is the one instrument that unplugs all the rest. . .Self-consciousness is the curse of the city and all that sophistication implies. It is the glimpse of oneself in a storefront window, the unbidden awareness of reactions on the faces of other people . . .I remember how you bide your time in the city, and think, if you stop to think, “next year . . .I’ll start living; next year . . . I’ll start my life.” Innocence is a better world.”
The advantage of being in the woods alone or with a few friends is that it allows your mind to relax and your worries fade. Dillard argues that this happens much easier deep in the woods in solitude much more than in society among other people or in the city.
God created me to both observe nature (to reflect) and also for me to participate in nature (without being self-conscious). Thanks to National and State Parks Land, we can get out and enjoy nature free from paranoia. National Park Land is like a library. Anybody can check out a library book, just as anybody can go jump in the Upper Nantahala (at their own risk). While most of America is private property-----there are many, many national and state parks we can escape to.
If you are ever in Cherokee County----check out Nantahala National Forest and the Upper Nantahala waterfalls. Directions to waterfalls I've described above: Starting at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, drive up 19/74 a 4-5 miles and take a left onto Wayah Road. Drive another 3 miles on the winding road and you'll be following the Upper Nantahala up Wayah Road. It will be on your left and right. The best waterfalls are 3 miles up, you will see gravel pull offs, room for one car. Find a place and climb down to the waterfalls.
Photo Credit to Brittany Pleasants