Lessons from the Edge (Part 1)
By Kimberly Phinney
Plummeting over 411 feet, Whitewater Falls is the kind of majestic force that demands an audience. Located in Sapphire, North Carolina, and considered the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi River, the falls are both awe-inspiring and deadly.
When you first arrive, it’s obvious that this natural wonder brings on-lookers of every kind: the young, the old, families, lovers, and friends. It’s often you see them picnicking, strolling, and snapping photographs, but as you venture further along the trails, the masses peel back, leaving the young and old behind. Soon you cease to hear their voices or feel their company, as the rustling leaves and distant roar of the falls replace them.
With each step, you know you are getting closer.
Once you arrive to the first clearing, where the tangled firs and longleaf pines separate, you see it: the massive falls of white as they beat on the layered rocks that split the woods and sky. But as you look closer along the opening, you see something else: a barricaded path and a weathered sign that reads “DANGER- Stream rocks are slippery. A slip above a waterfall can be fatal. Stay off the rocks and away from the edge. 18 people have died here.”
I know all of this because I have been there.
I jumped the barricade and traveled down the two mile path for the first time when I was eighteen. I did it again at 21, 24, 28, and 29. And each time, I met something enormous on the other end. And it wasn’t just the waterfall.
To do it right, you have to wait until no one is around to witness you jump the barricade and disappear along the overgrown path. This isn’t very hard, but it does require a little bit of patience. Once you have your opportunity, it’s a rush as you cross the point of no return.
Along the path, there are stories to be told. I’ve climbed down to the top of Whitewater Falls with my sister, my husband, and a good friend. Good sense tells you that standing at the edge of a waterfall is not something you should do, but if you must, you certainly shouldn’t do it alone. With every step we took, we knew we were making our own stories. And yet I’d often find myself thinking about the lives of the 18 who died doing exactly what we were about to do. I would wonder if they were in love or in peril. If their plummets were intentional or accidental. I wondered if they were ever found and how long their loved ones cried for them.
After a while, you come to a small clearing on the right where there is usually some debris and ash, along with a few empty beer cans—all signs of a late night bonfire left by the last crowd that defied the warning sign and jumped the barricade. That’s how you know you’re in the right spot to begin your climb down onto the rocks.
Just behind the camp-out is a small, dark burrow where the woods become thick and the path drops off at a sharp sixty degree angle. This is your entry point, a place where the real journey starts, and it’s one of the many reasons not to go it alone. Each time I have made it down onto the top of Whitewater Falls, I had help. We spot each other, pace each other. We hold each others’ hands as we make our way down… and down… and down again.
The further you go, the louder the waterfall becomes—to the point when you feel like you are yelling just to be heard. After some time, crawling down rock, stepping over roots, and clinging to hanging branches, you have made it to the final and most breathtaking clearing of them all. You, my friend, are a mere thirty paces from standing on the edge of Whitewater Falls.
And once you get there, you will never EVER be the same. I can promise you that.
Standing on the edge of nothing is nothing short of a miracle. Your limbs get really heavy-like and your heart jumps loud and hard in your throat. I guess it’s your body’s way of telling you it knows what you’re up to and it doesn’t like it one bit—but then again, it could be because everything is so expansive and extreme, and it’s your body’s way of being overwhelmed by beauty.
I’m fairly certain our bodies and souls intuitively know—more than our brains—that Nature has always demanded something from man that requires his life in exchange for her stunning indifference. It’s why mountain climbers like Rob Hall are willing to die ascending Mount Everest and why Christopher McCandless was called into the wild of Alaska—and died there, too.
There is something about Nature that entrances us and can tell us things no one else can. It’s why we stare into fires in a warmed trance and gaze across oceans as the sunset speaks to us. For me, it’s where I find God more than anywhere else—more than in society or in churches. And it’s why standing on the edge of Whitewater Falls had the power to change me again and again:
Those moments on the edge and the way the sun transformed the flowing waters from golden to black and the way the air was sweeter there than anywhere else on earth
The way the ice-cold water engulfed my feet as I went barefoot in the streams where 18 others lost their lives
The sensation of crashing waters as they pulsated in my chest and the experience of looking down over the edge and feeling so very small and infinite all at once
And it’s those moments, all at once, that bring about several intangible takeaways that aren’t just my memories but a guide for my life…
And I’ll share those lessons in my NEXT blog: Lessons from the Edge (Part II).
Photo credit for the Whitewater Falls dominant photograph: https://www.flickr.com/photos/captnjed/7310199420/?ytcheck=1.