the two inches that made everything happen
I'll never forget the day my roommate Heather and I were hiking up to Abram;s Falls in Cade's Cove. It was a hot day and we had our swimming suits on under our hiking gear. The plan was to hike to the falls and then enjoy a dip in the crystal clear trout pool at the base of the 35-foot drop. The swimming hole was wide and calm away from the rocky edge of the falls and on that particular day the sun was shining and I was thrilled to be hot and sweaty in those blessed mountain trails, with a good friend, and then cooled off in a mountain pool.
As Heather and I were swimming and trying to catch the Brook Trout that swam past our legs with our hands (no luck) we saw a few college guys hike up to the top of the falls, stand on the edge, and jump off! It didn't seem that high, 3 stories. And they all seemed safe when they got out of the water. I was full of piss and vinegar so I looked at Heather and said "Let's jump" and she shook her head no. (Heather is smarter than I).
I climbed up the falls from around the back (brushy, but a well worn path was there). And watched as another frat boy made the leap, now from the top. Suddenly, 35 feet was a A LOT taller. I'm scared of heights, but it was too late now. I was standing on the edge of the falls. I looked right below me and there was harsh and mean looking jagged rocks. A hiker told me "You need to jump out at least 5 feet or you're plasma" and I nodded, because at the time that seemed easy. But when you are shaking, 5'3" and scared of heights...pushing yourself 5 feet seems damned near impossible. Something went off in my brain and I pushed out best I could. I jumped. I didn't make the 5 feet.
I can still remember, clear as a frame from a movie, seeing those rocks coming at me. I remember closing my eyes, the regret of the weak jump, and then the slap of my body hitting water and I was under. I remember the relief and the joy, and opening my eyes to see myself whole. I think that time under the falls was years, but in truth seconds. When I swam to the surface and I remember how it felt like a baptism. A second life. I was Ebenezer alive on Christmas Morning. I was a phoneix. I was an idiot...
A few of those boys were standing on the edge of the rocks, all of them pale and stuttering... "We thought for certain we'd have to go in after you... you missed the rocks by this much" and he showed me an inch or two of distance between his fingers. I started shaking at that realization, and pulled myself out of the water to the safety of the giant river rocks where I curled up in my towel. No one else seemed to want to jump much more that day. Heather and I packed our bags and hiked back. I shook the whole hike back to the car. I had never been so happy to be alive. Never felt more awake. Never been so scared. Never felt true gratitude before it was all nearly gone in blood and rocks.
I got a lesson from those mountains from that jump, and it is the reason I am here writing you today. I jumped, and while it was stupid, I was proud of surviving it. And the next day a few kids on holiday from their University went for a swim in the pool and a grown man drowned under those falls. He didn't jump. He just swam to close them and the force of water pushing 30 feet into the pool sucked him below the deep and he couldn't swim out. He remained there until a rescue team pulled him out with ropes.
Life can be taken from us at any time. It can be our own doing or someone else's. We all worry about Cancer, Health care, aging and such but the truth is a person with one too many drinks on a curvy road can change the world. Life is a lot less certain and fragile than we could possibly fathom in our everyday comforts. It took two inches to teach me that. But I tell you what friends, five months later I was out of Knoxville and on a rented farm in Idaho. In hindsight an erratic and crazy change in my life, but I am certain the only reason I could pack up from the city and move cross country alone was surviving that jump. If I made it that time, I could make it again.
And had I not left for Idaho I would have never started backyard farming nor met Diana, my mentor in all things chicken, farm, and bees. I would not have asked Storey to write Made From Scratch. I would not have gone to Vermont after, or found Washington County outside books and blogs. There would be none of this. I'd be another person. Probably in a brick loft on Gay Street over the Tennessee theatre. A hipster with a wall of musical instruments and a useless stack of farming books by her bed, the pile for "someday." I think I am getting allergic to the word "someday."
I ended up missing Tennessee very much after I left it. I think it was that strong romance I felt for the experiences there. The people, the music, the back roads to Asheville and the thriving scene of creative and scrappy people. That same winter I left the South I bought a cheap fiddle off eBay and Wayne Erbsen's book and taught myself the fiddle. It was something I always wanted to try, but was scared to take on the hobby. After the Falls, it seemed as simple as walking up stairs. Not that the music learning came that easy, it was hard work!, but simple in my calmed mind. If you can jump off a waterfall you can learn to drag horse hair across metal strings.
The Smoky Mountains remain home to me in many ways, no matter where I live. It is the place that made me face fear, accept my own death, and choose to keep living until it came, whenever that was. Those mountains made it clear that waiting to live the life you want is a ridiculous and dangerously comfortable luxury. Waiting to make a change is just taunting fate. You could be 9.7 years into your ten year plan and get thrown under a bus my a teen texting her boyfriend in the 4 seconds she wasn't looking. Life is short. It can end tomorrow. Sometimes it takes really feeling this to get over the clutter in our souls to make a change. Don't waste your life not living it the best way you can. It's pissing on your most valuable gift: Your short time here.
So just jump. If you can do it. If you can gather the strentgh to clear the rocks...jump. You won't regret it. You won't regret trying even if you get banged up along the way. If you fail, well, you're going to die anyway right? Might as well make these few years you have left a poem instead of prose. And yes, I know everyone has different situations and stories. I'm not telling you to be careless, just a little foolish. Govern your own life, but whatever you do, do not let fear or other people's excuses hold you back from feeling air between your fingers and toes. Get the blood running again today. Make the choice to look at the falls, smile, and jump. It'll be scary and it's stupid to try, but you might find your real life on the surface of that mountain pool.
(By the way, Heather did jump after me and did it far better.)