There are so many reasons to say no – I hardly know him, trip preparations for a month of sailing loom, and I’m fighting a cold. He calls the night before and leaves a message. For a second I actually hope that he’s calling to bail so that I can gracefully reside to staying home. Turns out he’s just confirming logistics.
Over text, we’d come up with a plan for a two-night camping trip – he’d decide the location and surprise me, I’d bring wine and teach him how to tie a bowline. The days leading up to it left me biting my nails, worried about whether I’d be able to keep up with him, wondering if we’d run out of things to talk about after the first hour and I’d be left trudging away for the remaining 47 hours in awkward silence.
Friday morning he picks me up and says, “Whenever you want to know where we we’re headed, look in the glove compartment.”
I find a map of Linville Gorge.
“I was thinking about a loop on the Southern side, along the ridge, then down to the river,” he smiles at me.
I’m beaming. “I’ve climbed at Linville once and have always wanted to go back.”
We park at the end of Wolf Pit Road, hoist our packs, and hike up a fire-scarred portion of the Mountains to Sea trail. The area earned the nickname, the “Grand Canyon of the East,” for good reason – sheer rock walls punctuate the steep terrain, culminating in the thundering river deep in the canyon below. Each step transports me to other places I’ve hiked and we swap travel stories all the way to the Chimneys.
There the 360-views silence me. We spend the night under a cave, naming the mice who try to steal our dinner. I shine my light into the crevices of the rock and a huge rat darts out, putting my fear of mice into perspective. We spend the night watching shooting stars.
The next morning we hike down to the river. I follow him to the river’s edge and survey the first half of the footbridge before teetering over a foot-wide plank that ends on a boulder in the middle of the river.
The plank ends three feet above a rock. I sit on the edge, my feet dangling. I’m nervous about jumping down because my pack extends just far enough below my waist to get snagged on the rock and send me tumbling.
I decide on a plan – I’ll unstrap my pack, jump down, steady myself on the boulder and then turn around to grab my pack. Things don’t go as planned.
The moment I unbuckle the waist strap, my pack tumbles to the river twenty feet below. I scamper down to scoop my pack out of the water and slip on the mossy rock, landing right on my funny bone.
Stunned by the sharp pain, I watch my pack settle in a shallow pool and think about everything that’s getting wet – my sleeping bag, phone, and clothes.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“Just a bruised ego and butt is all” I wave off his look of concern, but my butt’s still throbbing too much to stand. I take my time getting up since he’s already rock hopping down to retrieve my pack.
After we regroup on the boulder above and I try to salvage the dry items from my pack, he points out that we have bigger problems – the second half of the Spence Ridge footbridge is out of commission.
“What are we going to do?” I ask, half expecting he’ll answer that we’ll turn around since the high water makes a crossing dangerous.
“We can swim across the river,” he gestures toward the calmest pool with only a ten-foot-wide jet of current streaming through. He studies the second part of the bridge where a line spans the river’s width where the footbridge once stood. “Rig up a pulley for the packs and pull them across.”
We spend the next thirty minutes searching for rope long enough and secure his pack at a few different points. He holds up the end of the rope. “Here’s your chance to tie a bowline.”
I tighten the knot as he’s negotiating around the rocks to make his way to the deepest part of the current. He swims across the river with strong decisive strokes, making it look easy. After he’s on the other side, he pulls his pack over and then mine.
Now it’s my turn to strip down to my underwear and swim across. I wobble on rocks that feel like slippery bowling balls and pause at the last boulder, dreading the plunge into the frigid water and swift current. I feel the eyes of other hikers watching and I tell myself I’ll jump on the count of five.
It takes fewer strokes than I anticipated before I can stand in the eddy on the far side of the river. I scramble up the rocks where he wraps me in a hug until I stop shivering.
Hiking along the river warms me up and the hours pass easily as we gape at the rapids and waterfalls. The water mellows and we find a riverside campsite.
Sipping on moonshine and wine, the river’s lullaby calms me as I stare into the fire. We talk well into the night, recounting our adventure – the mice and rat, the shooting stars, the panoramic cliff-top views, the cold-water swim, and the glimpse at the infamous Linville Gorge.
I soak up the fire’s warmth, basking in the companionship of someone who loves a good adventure as much as I do. After a few days outside, I feel like the best version of myself, somehow more expansive and unbounded by the familiar daily tasks. Even the most ingrained self-imposed limits fall away. The ember’s turn to ash and I think about how lucky I am to be sitting here, how grateful I am that I said yes instead of no.