Rocky Road

Besides being a clever name for an ice cream flavor, the term can mean literally a road with rocks on it or, metaphorically, a difficult endeavor. In my case, my latest caper could encompass all three. If you substitute pie for the ice cream. It all started on a sunny morning with a comfortable temperature and the reopening of a popular trail in Old Fort. Catawba Falls is a pretty area which, until recently, had been closed for maintenance. Nothing in the online literature prepared me for the massive number of people nor the unfinished business, trail-wise.

Once we arrived in the parking lot at Catawba Falls, I began to remember all the little annoying details about this place. The first is the inadequate parking facilities. One small lot for the three hundred people who want to hike at 9:30 on a beautiful Friday morning. The lot was full. So we made our own awkward parking spot, pulling head-in on the outside curve of the strip of trees which separated the rows of parking. My husband and valiant hiking partner considers this move as perfectly legit–if other cars can get around ours and there are no lines painted indicating strictly enforced spacial rules. The lot surface was dirt, so…

We happily jumped out with our dog and our day packs for a hike along the riverside trail. It was while we were perusing the handy big map at the trailhead that I remembered the bathroom situation at Catawba Falls. Two. Two toilets for the multitudes. I recalled a previous visit where we had to wait in a long line for pre-hike usage. There’s nowhere to hide from the marching rabble for a quick pee along the trail, so a quick hop in the can was necessary. This time, we got lucky! Only two in line ahead of us. There were no hand-washing facilities nor even a sanitizer dispenser, but I am ever the resourceful one with both toilet paper and santizer stashed in my bag at all times. Once relieved and prudently cleansed, we gleefully anticipated our intended hike to the falls.

The area has two trails. One along the river which leads to the lower falls and the other up over a ridge which takes one to the top of the upper falls. The recently completed project consisted of a set of stairs with 580 steps from the lower falls to the very top. There were spots along the stairs that allowed access to the water in places where we could wade out or carefully hop on the boulders. We thought this was an excellent and safer way to hike up from the river to the top of the falls They forgot to mention that the River Trail was still under maintenance and a detour around the ongoing work would drastically change the nature of this hike.

After about 15 minutes of easy hiking, the River Trail ended and we were forced to take a hard right up over a ridge. The surface of the detour trail was mud. Narrow, short, steep sections switch backed through the trees. In places the mud was compacted by previously passing boots. Other spots were squishy in nature. I considered some of my fellow hikers seen down below and wondered how in the hell they would make it up over this ridge without falling or calling it quits after a short period of hiking. My own concern was for the return trip when going downhill in mud would be more treacherous. I had an established history for slipping down hills though those events usually involved sliding on small rocks.

But hey! We made it through the harrowing detour back onto the last section of the River Trail, with the lower falls just a short distance away. The last portion had clearly been improved by the park service with a wider path and some rocks for traction on the hilliest parts. Before this spot, all the hikers had been strewn out along the trail. Now we and they were converging at the bottom section of the waterfall and along the lower part of the brand-new stairway. I had mixed feelings about the staircase. It detracted from the natural beauty of the place but also allowed for safer and less destructive climbing to the top. We went up to two areas where we could hop off the stairs and enjoy a relatively level patch of pooling water from the falls. This was why so many folks had decided to brave the wonky detour trail to get here. Lots of people were taking pictures and I must say, everyone was polite, patiently waiting for others to move from their line of shot. There was a crowd of people with whom we had to share this scenic space, but it was a good crowd.

I sat on a rock near the water with my dog and ate my snack bar while my husband climbed further up the stairs. I wanted to rest my knees, cram some calories into the hiking machine and take in the beauty of the area before the dreaded downhill mud slide. While resting after a strenuous hike, I would usually find peace in such a place, sitting by the water on a lovely day. But the crowds, which included numerous dogs to be dodged lest our Mindy misbehave and the thought of having to traverse back down that detour trail left me a bit restless. Eventually, the time had come to complete one of the world’s most poorly planned slip and slides. I did not even make it to the detour before I ended up on the ground cursing like a longshoreman.

I’m not sure who decided the best way to preserve a trail was to throw a bunch of loose rocks over a steep hill. Seems like perhaps the hope was for thousands of pairs of feet to crush the rocks down into the soft soil to slow the rate of erosion and provide some traction for booted hikers as they traveled up or down the hill. My booted feet seem destined to be one pair of the thousands of travelers whose job it is to seek out the most slanted earth surface with the most newly applied rocks and smash them down for the benefit of both the earth underneath and the many feet who come after. There should be a plaque with my name on it at the bottom of any such hill commemorating my contribution to all the hikers who came a month later to enjoy a safer trip.

Downhill, here is how gravity works. Foot going downward hits loose rubble-sized rocks, which then do that which rocks like to do going downhill. They roll in a downward direction, taking foot along for the ride. Have you ever seen those roller things at the airport security station? They. roll and take your baggage along as you pass through the screening spot. Imagine one of those on a narrow, sloped trail and your foot is the luggage. It’s kinda the same concept, except luggage at the airport has a nice bumper to stop on, which keeps it from taking the wrong flight or smashing to the floor. A precipitous mountain trail has no regard for one’s intended destination and, if pebbles have been strewn across said path, you may end up in Timbuktu with a busted ankle instead of Cleveland for your niece’s wedding.

Before we even arrived at the detour trail for the return trip, I had an encounter with a rock-covered hill. I was so worried about the mud ahead, I failed to consider my history on rock-strewn slopes. This is the dialog which ran through my head as soon as I felt the downward trajectory of my right foot. Allow me to introduce your boots to our small, jagged rocks complete with downslope and a lesson in physics. Haven’t we seen you here before? Well, welcome back and to make it more interesting, we’ll throw in a side slide you won’t be able to correct with your hiking pole. What’s one little knee gash when you could have broken a hip?

I was more outraged than physically hurt. Why me? The knee gash was a new addition to my other slippy-slidey misadventures. My feet continued to roll with the rubble as my husband attempted to help me up from the rockpile. We finally managed to get me to my feet and I hobbled over to a log to sit and administer medical assistance to my bloody knee. I also carry a small first aid kit for minor mishaps in my day pack. Some days I feel like Mary Poppins what with all the stuff I carry in there. This day I felt like an exasperated nurse admonishing myself for not paying attention to the now established conditions under which I seem to find preference for falling on my ass.

As I sat for a while with my anger and bandaged knee, something eased in me. Maybe it was the fine day or the good company or the little laugh I gave as I shook my head over once again succumbing to what seemed to be the inevitable. When I stood, I found I could walk with only minor soreness. I held a terrified vigil of awareness as we made our way back down the muddy ridge detour. At the end of our hike, we were greeted by the sight of even more cars parked in every conceivable crevice of space around that tiny parking lot and down the road which lead to it. I looked forward to lunch in Black Mountain.

We found a parking space right away in the itty-bitty parking lot of Black Mountain Bistro. We waited mere minutes for a table outside even though it was just a little past noon. The coolness of the covered patio and the crispiness of the fried okra were beginning to comfort me at last. I wished they had rocky road ice cream on the menu, but we settled for pie to take home and savor later. How long does it take, how much repetition is needed to learn something? I can only hope that I will approach all rock covered hills with caution in the future and muster the good sense to relish all the pleasant moments before and after a relatively minor tumble. It turned out to be a good day after all.

Staying upright,



  1. You survived the hike from hell…by the hardest. Bravo.

  2. Ooof. My butt and knees and back and arms all hurt when I read about your tumble. Geeze. The parks people should know better!! So happy it was a “minor” tumble. ❤️‍????

  3. I have a healthy fear of muddy or sparsely scattered rocks on trails, even if it’s relatively flat. Just not as good at maneuvering as I used to be! And as for walking on rocks in streams, at the bottom of waterfalls, Nooooo!!!! They’re covered in slippery slidey invisible moss that will shoot your feet out in front of you, landing you on your tailbone. Been there. But I applaud your stick-to-itiveness.

  4. I’m not sure it’s as much fun as it used to be when I wasn’t worried about falling on my ass and/or breaking something important. But I do love being out there, so I guess I’ll be more cautious and keep my eyes on the trail. Probably run into a bear then.

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