A River of Many Cliffs

From the unpaved parking lot at Wolf Pit, I climb a thousand feet up rough switchbacks. A warm October sun bears on me. My gear rides well in the new pack I’ve loaded with more than I need, and I get the hang of trekking poles I debated about buying. Thank goodness I have them for balance and for my knees, which are twenty years older than the last time I ventured on a solo overnight hike. I climb toward the Mountains-to-Sea Trail where it runs concurrent with the Shortoff Mountain Trail, along the eastern rim of Linville Gorge in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. I ascend remnants of mountains that formed 480 million years ago. Trying to comprehend such a span of time challenges the mind. On this trail, so does walking. I concentrate on my path.

The trail begins to level as it nears the first water source. I unburden, stretch, get out my filter to begin filling four one-liter bottles, thankful I had the foresight not to carry almost nine pounds of water up the ascent I just climbed. Another hiker walks up as I catch clear water shooting from rock. He carries a camera with a large lens, has a small pack on his back, and no obvious water.

“Is this the trail?” he asks.

“Yeah,” I say. I point to a white disk on an oak tree. “There’s one of the blazes.”

“Oh, I don’t use the blazes,” he says.

I have no response. I make a mental note: 35 to 40 years old. Cargo pants. A rain jacket. String backpack. Carrying an SLR camera with a big lens. These details will make him easier to describe to rescuers if I find out someone has gone missing.

The guy with the camera walks past. When I get under way again, I see he has stepped out onto a small overlook. I quicken my pace to catch up with solitude.

I reach the first major overlook on Shortoff Mountain and approach its edge with care. The sound of the Linville River arrives as its rocks, cascades, and reaches come into view. Its distant roar describes a strong flow; I can see the water’s movement a thousand feet below me. The height of this overlook provides a familiar perspective. One thousand feet was a common altitude for search missions I flew in the Navy. It’s the altitude from which I looked at an unremarkable patch of ice beneath the left wingtip of our P-3 Orion as my crew and I circled the North Pole. We flew through 360 degrees of longitude—around the world—in three minutes. And it’s the altitude at which I flew over calves of the Petermann glacier floating in the Nares Strait northwest of Greenland. We often flew even lower, as low as 200 feet when we needed a closer look at something. From 200 feet I’ve seen waterspouts south of Puerto Rico twisting between dark clouds and a Payne’s Grey sea; a heavy red rope that must have been a mile long furled in a coil, looking like a fresh wound; and a pod of whales near Bermuda in sapphire water as calm as glass. Buoys we dropped from the plane radioed underwater sound back to us. Sometimes the submerged microphones picked up the haunting songs of whales from many miles away. Hundreds of hours of flying accustomed me to seeing the world from above. To hearing it, too, even when I can’t see the source of the sound.

Planning this trip, I could see on the topographical map why the Cherokee people called this gorge Eseeoh-la, “river of many cliffs.” A seam of rock runs along the western side of the gorge, forming steep cliffs above the river for most of its course. The overlook where I stand is also a cliff. Others lie farther up the trail. The river flows below many cliffs, all of which it played a part in forming. I think of the time it took for the river to carve a gorge to this depth. The gorge is much younger than the surrounding mountains, only a couple of million years old compared to hundreds of millions. That doesn’t make the age of the gorge any more comprehensible. I try again to grasp the scale of such a quantity of time. Maybe the ocean, vast and deep, offers a useful metaphor. I can see it from great height, step into its shallows, scoop its water with cupped hands. I comprehend its essence even though its entirety exceeds my view and a handful eludes my grasp. On this trail, wending through the oldest mountains in the world, I wade in an ocean of time.

Walking northeast along the gentle ridge of Shortoff Mountain toward a summit called Rockpeak, I think about the Cherokee who knew this gorge by such a descriptive name. My mother told me and my sister that her grandmother’s grandmother was a member of the Cherokee Nation. As a young adult, I told our mother with pride how I had visited courthouses in northeast Georgia and western North Carolina seeking documentary evidence of our Cherokee connection. Her dismissive response surprised me. “Why do you need proof?” Mom asked. “We know.” I explained that we don’t know, we only believe in a connection. I told her that proof empowers a person to know rather than simply believe. We didn’t need to take genealogy on faith like religion. Mom remained unconvinced, unimpressed, and dismissive. I dropped my investigation. Walking on this trail where distant ancestors walked, I recommit to finding proof.

Whether I confirm Cherokee ancestry or not, I feel an affinity with people who knew this region when it differed from what I see. The Linville Gorge for pre-contact Cherokee supported similar ecosystems and species to those I encounter—mixed hardwood forests, ice-age remnants of boreal fauna at higher elevations, large mammals, alpha predators—but with significant differences. Thinking of the differences makes me feel like I walk through a gallery of absence. I see beetle-blighted conifer trunks looking like standing driftwood. They are the skeletal remains of trees I saw here when I was a child. When I venture off the trail, I occasionally see an American chestnut stump. My father saw the last of the chestnut trees in this region when he was a boy; a generation before him, they were the most numerous trees in the Appalachian forest. When I sense something watching me, I know the feeling probably arises in my imagination, with a remote chance it could be a black bear or a bobcat or a white-tailed deer; it is definitely not a red wolf, a panther, or an elk. A Cherokee man or woman traveling this path two centuries ago—before removal by President Andrew Jackson—would have walked from lower areas of chestnut trees to higher elevations dominated by Carolina hemlocks and Fraser firs, and had reason to be wary of wolves and panthers in both zones. Now, many native trees, large canines and felines, and the Cherokee themselves are gone.

Past Rockpeak, the trail descends to a saddle. It offers a good campsite, large enough for several tents. I remove my pack and sit on a big oak log beside a campfire scar. I drink water, eat some almonds, and listen. A Carolina wren fills the chamber beneath the forest canopy with song, a soloist in a cathedral. This one sings its three-syllable call at a leisurely tempo. The only other sound is leaves reacting to a gentle breeze.

I’m about five miles into my hike. It’s mid-afternoon, and I want to gain elevation from this low pass before I camp. Both the paper topo map and the map on my phone show nine hundred sixty feet to the ridgetop a mile up the trail. Almost an hour’s climb at my unhurried pace. I heft my pack, situate its straps, grab my trekking poles, and get moving. The pitch increases. I pass another campsite, then lean into the incline and wish for switchbacks as the trail follows a spine of the mountain. This is how the Cherokee traveled, straight up wherever possible. My sense of kinship falters, as does my pace. I pull out on an eastward overlook for a brief rest. From here I can see the jagged formations of The Chimneys to the north. I drink some water, take a deep breath, and start the last leg of my trek for the afternoon.

When the trail levels off, I breathe a sigh of relief and lean on my poles. Rapid footsteps approach from behind. I turn around; they’re still behind me. They come from all sides. From inside. It’s my own heartbeat, pounding at a running pace. I let it slow, straighten under my load, and see the campsite I selected on the map. It lies twenty yards ahead on my right, vacant and clean, the way I hoped to find it.

I fix a cup of tea and sit on a rock near a cold fire ring. For several minutes I relax. The tea refreshes me. I muster some energy and set up my tent, rig a rope to hoist my food well out of reach of bears. I prepare supper, eat a tasty rehydrated meal of black beans and quinoa, clean up. A maple tree adjacent to the trail catches the setting sun in its leaves, the illuminated red-orange foliage perfect for a photograph. I take several, walk back to my tent, crawl inside, and read a poetry collection I’ve brought along. Eventually, I turn on a light to read a bit longer. The poems concern old places, ancient dwellings, spaces on and beneath the earth. People, traces of earlier people, and traces of a larger time before humans thought to sing or write poems, name geologic features, or paint on cave walls. Or hunt. Or gather. Or speak. An ocean of time existed before we ever washed up on the shore of now. The music of crickets and katydids and the call of an owl merge into a rhythmic pelagic sound. Sometime in the night, borne along on the current flowing toward dawn, I wake to silence.


After silence, after dreamless sleep, birdsong. I step from my tent. The sun has not cleared the horizon. Its light skims across the valley below, where fog has settled in every hollow and depression. People in each one wake, their view limited to immediate surroundings, and they conclude it’s a foggy morning. I clean up, eat, hang my sleeping bag and yesterday’s clothes to air out, and set out up the trail to see The Chimneys.

The ridgetop narrows. I walk through mountain laurel tight against my shoulders, with a sheer drop into the gorge three feet to my left. Large pieces of quartzite stand thirty feet tall on my right. Lichen covers the rock in places. It is a simple, slow-spreading, symbiotic grouping of fungus and algae and bacteria that has been present here for most of the time these mountains have stood. The lichen rode older, softer rocks down as the mountains diminished, taking hold relatively recently on the hard surfaces I see. I look closely at the lichen, take a photo, try to capture its mild color: like milk tinged with a drop of chlorophyl. Some of the lichens lie flat and spread across rock like pigment in a wash. Others form wavy gray-green sheets, or short stalks capped with bright red tips. These hardy life forms coat the exposed rock in some places. They mine nutrients for themselves and they help weather turn rock into soil, an act of transcendent patience.

With the chasm yawning to my left, I notice a cleft in the rock to my right. A worn path to its entrance shows where hikers have trod. I step between boulders and up onto a threshold, then into an antechamber and peer into a narrow cave. When I lean in, my body and backpack block the light, so I lean back into the narthex and look. A grown person could step a few feet into the cave. A smaller passage opens on its right side, chest-high, forming a shelf. Green moss lines the smaller chamber’s sides. The cave does not offer enough space to live in. Hikers enter it out of curiosity. I suspect earlier visitors would have entered out of fear or necessity. The cave provides space for a person to recede into shadows and wait for a threat to pass. On a whim, I prop the books of poetry I brought along on the shelf and photograph them in the cave. I put the books away, turn from the recess, and resume walking.

The trail through The Chimneys passes through a foliated autumnal spectrum: green mountain laurel, red sourwood, orange sassafras, yellow that looks like sweetshrub, and the copper leaves of a boreal tree I don’t recognize. Hard quartzite crests of this klippen stand against a cerulean sky. Out of the sky, a cluster of birds sweeps into the volume of air in front of me. A kind of warbler, I think, but the birds bank away in unison as quickly as they appeared. All I can say for sure is they were passerines.

The trail twists among rocks, at times between narrow gaps, up and over slabs. The quartzite erodes far slower than the great quantity of earth the river washed away during the last two million years. These mountains were already ancient when the river carved down a thousand feet to its current bed. The gulf between where I stand and the western rim is a geological newcomer here. To the young space, I am lightning, gone in a flash, with fading repercussions. 

I greet a couple of guys camping on one of the large slabs toward the north end of The Chimneys. One waves down to me, the other lifts a cup in salute. I continue a bit toward the Table Rock parking lot and see another hiker, a pleasant middle-aged man with a day-pack who looks well prepared for a solo outing. While I take a selfie with the gorge visible between two rocks behind me, I speak to a young woman heading southbound, alone, with a full pack on her back. She may be a through-hiker on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, or maybe just out for a few nights. She reminds me of my daughter, who has the nerve and ability to do something similar. It pleases me to see people out in good weather, mid-week, enjoying the wilderness.

Just north of The Chimneys I reach the campsites and picnic area of the Table Rock parking lot. The lot is paved. It has a restroom. A group of teenage girls and two adult couples are breaking camp near a sign that tells visitors camping is not allowed in the picnic area. I remove my pack and place it on a vacant table, sit on a bench, eat a fruit and nut bar. Instead of birds or breeze, I hear conversations. Camping equipment dropping heavily onto the floors of vans. Car doors slamming, reopening, and closing again. The metal restroom door banging against its frame. For the first time in two days, I hear noise. This is where I turn back the way I’ve come.


At my campsite, my tent and sleeping bag are dry. I stuff them, warm from the sun, into their sacks. My pack rides heavy on shoulders sore from yesterday. My legs move a bit slower, but they move without knee pain. I lengthen my trekking poles for the steep downhill trail and get under way to a campsite two miles from here, just south of Rockpeak.

Yesterday’s long, slow climb goes faster as a descent. The trekking poles arrest my momentum and let me step down gently, taking shock off my knees. I reach Chimney Gap and the Saddle Campsite in the early afternoon. I rest, eat a lunch of almonds, jerky, and crackers. I drink the last of my water.

To replenish my water I pick up a faint side trail and descend 200 vertical feet to a reliable source at Chimney Creek. I take care to make noise in the understory encroaching on the narrow route: this path, off the main trail and infrequently traveled, is not where I want to encounter a copperhead or timber rattlesnake. At a bend, my efforts at making noise occupy my attention and cause me to overshoot the hard-to-follow trail. I soon find myself several feet into the woods. The gaps I perceived between branches were a figment of my pattern-seeking, pathfinding imagination. This is how people become lost. I’ve only gone a short distance, less than a stone’s throw, but see no sign of the trail or my route to this spot. I’m not concerned, as I could proceed straight uphill and find my way back to the Saddle Campsite, but I don’t need to do that. The trail to the spring will be easy enough to recover.

Turning back, I step around an ancient stump. Although I can’t identify it, it reminds me of American chestnut stumps I’ve seen elsewhere in Appalachian forests. Some of them send pencil-thin green shoots reaching toward sunlight. The slick bark on the new shoots is impervious to spores of Chryphonectria parasitica that drift in the air and lie on the forest floor. Patient spores wait to invade small cracks when the shoots mature and their bark roughens. The fungus will inflict its damage before the new growth reaches reproductive age. Doomed for eighty years, a few chestnut trees strive, Sisyphean.

I reach the spring that issues from the hillside to form Chimney Gap Creek. I wash yesterday’s shirt with liquid soap. I bathe my upper body, face, and neck. Wash my hair. I smell of peppermint as I shift to the task of filtering water, drinking my fill, and filling all of my bottles. Four liters to last until mid-morning tomorrow. I would have expected that to be more than enough for the few miles I need to hike. But the temperature is almost 80 degrees Fahrenheit, unseasonably warm for mid-October in this region and at this elevation. I will need every bit of four liters.


I ascend from Chimney Gap to Rockpeak. Then I enjoy a gentle downhill stretch of Shortoff Trail, nearly level, until I arrive at the campsite. I set up my tent, arrange my sleeping bag inside. An early supper replenishes my energy. I take some water, a headlight and flashlight, my camera, and my notebook, and I walk ten minutes up the trail to Rockpeak to watch the sunset. Around me, katydids take to the air on gossamer wings. They look too vulnerable in flight to be the creatures that emit the authoritative bursts of sound I hear throughout the afternoon and evening. Along the trail, bottle gentian flowers hold their blue blossoms closed. Having seen them like this for two days, I wonder how they pollinate. Yet the katydids fly and sing and mate, the flowers bear seed and spread and bloom year after year. Both are part of seasonal cycles in mountains whose only enduring feature is their slow, ongoing change. Like sleepers waking to fog in a valley, we base our impressions on local and immediate signs.  At first glance, I recognize viability no better than I recognize impermanence.

At Rockpeak I clamber up irregular slabs that slant in parallel. They offer no ergonomic spot for me to sit. I make do. To the north, I see where I’ve been: The Chimneys, and Table Rock beyond. To the west, the opposite wall of the gorge. In diminishing light below its rim, the band of granite or quartzite mimics the river, its bends and its flow. Above, the sun sets clouds aflame. I take a photograph, then another. Several. The scene keeps changing. The gorge darkens, distant peaks of the Black Mountains fade. Pink light alters the expression of leaves. A time-lapse sequence plays out before my eyes. It moves forward but could easily reverse, the seasons passing in retrograde and accelerating. I would not be surprised to see a red wolf trot past, or a herd of elk graze and disperse; native people flash by on the trail; a glacier heave into view, pause, and retreat. All of these things happened, and they happened here. Not tonight, but in the shallows of a sea of time that eroded an entire mountain from atop this spot. Four hundred million years ago, the peak where I sit was a mountain’s heart.


In the morning, everything in the tent is wet with the dew of my breath. I should have vented the windows better. No matter; this is my last day. Eat, drink coffee, clean up, pack. Although I slept late, I’m on the trail by nine, seeing and hearing and thinking as I walk.

Today’s walk will take me out of these mountains. The thought dejects me. I go more slowly than when I hiked in. Soreness and fatigue play a part, but more than that, I wish I didn’t have to leave. The world of work and life and a set of responsibilities calls. That’s fine: I’ll return to explore further. I will tell my sons and daughter and others to come here and enjoy the sensations and realizations I’ve experienced. I will bring them here, help them understand the place and its deep past, but not dwell on it to the point of distraction. Not dwell on the absence of chestnuts so much that they fail to enjoy oaks and maples. Not miss seeing a whitetail deer while lamenting the absence of elk.

In his fascinating book, Horizon, a wide-ranging memoir of exploration, Barry Lopez wrote on changes in the environment: “To go in search of what once was is to postpone the difficulty of living with what is.” I want my children and my friends and strangers to appreciate places like Linville Gorge and the River of Many Cliffs, and to understand what Lopez means by “the difficulty of living with what is.” The difficulty, as I grasp it, is understanding the changes a place experiences over great spans of time, appreciating those changes, and differentiating them from exploitative and ruinous changes that people might inflict on a dynamic environment. Preserving a changing thing sounds counterintuitive. It’s not, when one considers that location and time inhere in each other and are vastly larger than our local, immediate perception of either. Consider that the present name of a geographic feature does not tell us all there is to know about a place. We can seek earlier names in order to know more. We can learn what was, look for its remnants in what is, and cast our thoughts ahead. 

For most of their existence, these mountains stood alone, unknown. Their great height flowed to the sea before people gave them names, and before other people changed those names. The first names came from the Cherokee and the people of other tribes in this region. My mother told me her grandmother’s grandmother was Cherokee. I believe that, but I don’t know it. I have walked across streams the Cherokee named; caught and eaten native trout descended from the fish my ancestors ate; suspended my food from tree limbs to protect it from black bears the Cherokee called brother. The earliest names for these mountains and their plants and creatures have flowed to the sky. Cherokee words have dissipated like the smoke of their fires. I have cooked over campfires of hickory and oak trees that thrive in space vacated by chestnuts. The oldest mountains in the world have seen so much disappear. The names by which I call them, printed on paper maps, may not be the names printed in a book on the moon or Mars, read by a grandson of my grandson, whose own son or daughter will look at nearby mountains ask if anyone ever wrote about walking through mountains on earth. My descendant will say yes, and will be able to prove it, and his child will know that I walked here.

I drift in and out of my reverie as I travel southwest on the level crest of Shortoff Mountain. A black snake startles me with a leap from his coil in the warm sun, followed by his uncanny glide into golden broom sedge. He causes a gentian flower to quiver, then he’s gone. I continue down the trail to Shortoff Overlook, drop my pack beside a patch of red chokeberry bushes, and inch toward a vertiginous 300-foot drop to the merely-steep lower wall of the gorge. No visible trash lies at the base, thankfully. No dropped climbing equipment, no body of a lone photographer who might have failed to sense the edge while looking through his viewfinder. I back away from the brink, watching my step as I do.

This time when I stand on the eastern rim looking west, I see once again the band of granite running the length of the gorge. Vertical cracks break the rock into sections. Dozens, hundreds. Each section is a cliff. Eseeoh-la. The phrase arrives in my mind as if I’ve heard it spoken. I feel meaning shift. Now I know: a Cherokee man or woman stood where I stand, looked west, and stretched out an arm. The arm moved in a slow horizontal sweep, its hand undulating. The Cherokee said to a companion, “See how the rock flows. It is a river of many cliffs.”

Imagine perceiving a body of time so deep, stone flows like water.


On my descent to Wolf Pit, I think about my last look at the river in the bottom of the gorge, and the river of cliffs on the opposite side. The river is another of the remarkable things I’ve seen from a great height. The Linville River, the polar ice cap, glaciers, whales, waterspouts. Fleeting glimpses of phenomena existing at different rates, disappearing, leaving different traces. I am a waterspout. Remnant words of the Cherokee language are whalesong from a distant source. Humanity is a glacier.

The present is a local, personal, subjective perception. We wake most days in a valley of fog, only rarely on a mountain. I descend from the mountain, stop to drink the last of my spring water. With my phone and the guidance of satellites, my compass and paper map, I take a final fix of my position. I know exactly where I am, and when. I am afloat in an ocean of time.