Updated: Aug 5, 2022
The River Trail is well marked, though no one has traversed it since the last wind storm. A canopy of oak and black walnut has scattered dead branches across the path. I try to tidy nature by laboriously dragging them off the trail, a foolish yet compulsive habit. My feet scuff crunchy leaves, finding toe holds on a steep slope. I fling arms wide, balance on damp rocks when crossing a stream. My body is at home here, remembering childhood wanderings in the woods on crisp fall days like this.
Blue metal triangles lead me down an incline, through a thicket of rhododendron branches conveniently providing handholds as I struggle to keep my footing on the slick, red clay. The stream narrows, gaining force as it seeks freedom through a cleft in the grey stone. The trail leads downwards and the water is soon above me. Spray freckles my face as the stream becomes a waterfall, spilling over the edge, plummeting onto moss-covered boulders. It spreads out, making its way to the much bigger river that has been my goal this afternoon, the North Toe in the mountains of North Carolina.
The North Toe is broad, running strong, rushing over fingers of rock that stretch 25 or 30 feet into the river. These fingers are worn smooth, charcoal grey in the afternoon sunlight. Train tracks high on the east bank coil around the mountain like a rusty snake. They are the only sign of civilization in this pristine place.
My feet carry me back and forth, searching for a pool deep enough to hold my body. When I find it, I strip off my clothes and, with a gasp, wade in. It is October; the nights are frosty; the river filled with the last of the summer rains from high in the Appalachian Mountains. While beyond cold, the water is a gift. The shock of it lifts the fog of grief that has shrouded my brain for weeks.
I look down at my body, tan lines from the fierce New Mexico sun just a memory. Rather, my fair skin is the color of the quartz streaks running through the rocks. The only color on my body is a tattoo of coreopsis and cosmos flowers splayed across my right hip. They represented cheerfulness and joy when I lay on the artists’ table. These hopeful sentiments, like my tan lines, have faded into nothingness.
Sinking down, I brace myself against the current, which is strong even in this pool. In just a few seconds there are little nibbles up and down my legs, small fry of some sort are tasting me. I squeal as a tiny fish bites my butt and then giggle at the wonder of the beautiful world I live in. Joy and Cheerfulness, these are always choices… not just tattoos. Relaxing finally, I lay all the way back, looking up at the expanse of blue. My ears hear the voice of the rushing river, but what it is saying? Whispers of Joy, Cheerfulness, Peace, Contentment, Love, Patience, Hope, things a river knows nothing of, are swirling around me, holding me up, buoying my spirit.
Finally, I pull myself out of the water, wanting to catch the last rays of the afternoon sun. Needing it to dry me a bit before it disappears behind the autumn painted mountains. I lie spread eagle across the warm rocks, knowing if a train comes by, I might garner a whistle or two. This makes me laugh… then cry, because laughter and tears are sisters in my heart these past few months; one does not go anywhere without the other.
Teardrops hit the stone, indistinguishable from the droplets left by the surging current. I contemplate the loveliness of dissolving into stone. My body hard and smooth, impervious to anything but the power of the river wearing away jagged edges. Pain numbed by cold, never having to make another decision.
With a double sigh, I sit up, wrap my arms around my bare knees, lift my face to the last rays of sun. Though I am not sure God and I are besties anymore, I proclaim my gratitude for river songs, fish nibbles, for blue skies, the feel of water on my naked skin, for places to just BE, if even for only a few hours.
Scattered clothes slip back over my body. I lace up my shoes, say goodbye to the river, then reluctantly follow blue metal triangles back to where people have to wear clothes and be civilized and can’t go around laughing and crying at the same time. That’s ok, my body and my soul are refreshed; I should be able to hold things together for another day or two.