My father loves to explore. He works as a freelance environmental consultant, bushwhacking through the woods in search of endangered plants. He doesn’t stop after work hours. Even on our family’s beach vacations, he looks at coastal plain grasses with the enthusiasm of a teenage boy peering at bikini babes.
I walked with him last year on the existing pieces of Tennessee’s still-unfinished Cumberland Trail. The Cumberland Trail (or CT) runs from north to south along Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau. Don’t let the word “plateau” fool you into thinking it’s all flat. The trail drops down into gorges and climbs up mountains. We walked it through a combination of day hikes and backpacking trips, taking our time so that we could explore in detail. Dad searched for plants often, but sometimes his attention turned to other things.
When we did our hike, the Cumberland Trail Conference’s map showed the spot of a crashed airplane near a small rock arch on Brady Mountain. It wasn’t on the trail but possibly within view of it. With the map’s help, we were sure to find it.
We hiked to the top of the mountain. We walked past red fire pinks and mountain laurel flowers. We stopped at a shallow pond where dragonflies laid eggs. Dad waded through the pond’s mud, not afraid to get messy in his eager search for rare plants.
Then, we saw the arch. It was smaller than I had imagined, but that didn’t matter. We had an airplane to find. So we hiked down the steep slope below it through poison ivy, leaves, rocks, shrubs and fallen branches. We held on to tangled vines for balance.
There was no sign of twisted metal. In frustration, I scanned the hillside for a single charred stump. Dad kept striding ahead and trusting his eyes.
“What if there’s nothing?” I asked.
“We didn’t come all the way here to see nothing. We have to spot something out of the ordinary I guess,” he said, smiling.
“Why are you smiling?” I asked.
“I’m smiling about it being challenging,” he said. Finding a plane was a treasure hunt of a different kind than the plant ones Dad did daily, but a treasure hunt nonetheless. Having a purpose makes hiking more exciting. Some people hunt for deer. Other people listen for bird calls. We hunted for an airplane.
“Are you seeing some sign of a plane down there?” I asked
“No, just wildly strolling along,” he said.
We never found a single scrap of the plane. Later, a frequent hiker in the area would tell us that the plane had been salvaged for its metal.
Still, I would not say that the hike was a failure. The view into Grassy Cove, below Brady Mountain was well worth it.
My still picture does not do justice to the view. It shows the fields and distant mountains getting bluer and hazier into the distance, but it’s just an image on a screen. When I looked out at it, tiny cattle grazed, birds circled and a single truck moved down the isolated road. I could feel the air and know that if I walked out too far, I would fall. A picture shows none of that.
Reality’s full expanse can be breathtaking beyond what pictures can show. Stroll wildly.