Doe River Gorge Hike

Published 4:39 pm Monday, February 26, 2024

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By Deb and Robert Wood

The day was filled with that winter light that can be so clear and illuminating, you know, the way you can see everything because the trees are standing naked and reaching for the blueness and the sun beyond. Thinking it would be fun to walk the railroad tracks along the rim of the Doe River Gorge, and after checking in with the front desk clerk at the Doe River Gorge Retreat, where a smiling woman named Donna eagerly greeted us and explained the procedure for registration, we thanked her and started out on our Valentine’s Day adventure.

We headed toward the train tunnel which went through the ridge line. It was old, dark and black with raw jagged rock walls. It was a perfect segway from one world to another. We emerged, leaving all signs of civilization behind.

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Before us was a refurbished Tweetsie railroad track that had once served these southern Appalachian towns. The river lay far below us, and we used the rocky path beside the tracks and walked on the wooden railroad ties themselves, the breeze caressing our faces. The sky held a few perfect white clouds and the sun sparkled on the water for part of the way, but most of the vista was in shadow. We made a mental note to try our next walk there in the morning, when the sun would be pouring into the gorge. It would be a statement so glorious. The light breeze carried a hint of spring’s promise as we walked hand-in-hand on this Wednesday afternoon along railroad tracks. The sunlight, warm and inviting, painted the ridgelines gold, casting long shadows across the valley below. The wind hummed as it whispered its secrets through the trees. As we approached a random tree on the edge of the tracks a lone bird arrowed down into the gorge with a startled flurry.

To our right the water cascaded down mini waterfalls, gurgling and gushing over moss-covered rocks like liquid jewels. It danced and twirled, leaving trails of glistening moisture on the ancient stone. In some places, it trickled down in delicate threads, feeding the ferns and wildflowers that clung tenaciously to the rock face. Beneath the railroad tracks, hidden from view, the water flowed in unseen channels, its volume a mystery only revealed by the echoing gurgles.

Amidst the tapestry of green, white star-shaped flowers bloomed defiantly, their delicate petals a testament to the power of life. They emerged from a plush mat of moss, their pristine white a stark contrast to the vibrant emerald carpet of their birthing and other plants that sprouted from roots wedged oh so precariously in the rock fissures, it seemed the slightest wind would dislodge them. Each plant, a beacon of resilience, stood as a silent marvel, defying the calendar’s claim that spring had yet to arrive.

Their tenacity, their unwavering determination to thrive in the face of adversity, filled us with awe and wonder. We marveled at the hidden strength that pulsed within these seemingly fragile beings, a testament to the enduring power of nature. The scene unfolded before us like a living painting, a vibrant tapestry woven with water, rock, and the spirit of life. It was a symphony of sights and sounds, hidden within the mountain’s heart, a reminder of the beauty and resilience that thrives even in the most unexpected places, and everywhere there were growing things, moss, lichen, plants of all sorts. The rock and cliff faces were varied and sculpted by water; small rivers and little creeks and fast rapids, waterfalls large and small, trickles of water that splashed down on the ground and ran under the tracks, sometimes around them, sometimes disappearing we knew not where. No leaves remained on the trees as they had been stripped bare long ago by the winter wind. These silhouettes and the shadow of their past glories shared the same space as the resilient mountain laurel, ever vigilant, almost holy. Their evergreen leaves bowed low against the previous night’s frosty breath and they seemed to offer a silent blessing to our journey, on this glorious day.

It is our third Valentine’s Day together, and the love between us felt as timeless as the mountains themselves. I sent out into the universe a request for many more moments like this. The railroad tracks with its bed of crushed granite, crunched softly under our shoes, the rails and ties were remnants of a bygone era. We discussed what might have been transported timber, ore and coal too. We continued to banter, Deb and I, as we walked along noticing everything. We were so high up that vertigo ensued if we stood too close to the edge and looked down and down, to the river far below, then we would turn to the other side of the tracks where the view was just as lovely, following with our eyes the water meandering down to the main river, finding its way to the river’s bed of rocks below, or just making puddles full of reflecting stones, pink, white and gray.We were inspired by the beauty and the undeniable evidence of our talented creator and felt our souls rise in thankfulness. It has been a while since we both felt that way.

We noticed a maintained pathway that led down to the river itself and decided to take it rather than continue on through the next tunnel, leaving that for another day. As we descended the gorge, the sound of the Doe River grew louder, its melodic gurgling, a serenade to our love, bringing us ever closer to one another. We sought the river’s edge together. Sunlight dappled through the bare branches, creating a kaleidoscope of light and shadow on the forest floor. The trail was slippery with wet leaves and loose rocks but we kept walking until we came to a place where one could put in or take out a tube or raft along the river’s edge.

Upon reaching the riverbank, the pull to the water was too much for Deb, she bent her knees and reaching for the water she said, “It feels cool, not freezing.” I watched her as she let the water run through her fingers and I sensed it pleased her, and the water looked clear and clean.

Our path had led to the shoreline; to our right was a thicket of growth that prevented further shoreline exploration without getting one’s feet wet. To our left was a sandy beach with all the brambles and boulders one could imagine. It took a bit of maneuvering to reach the receded waterline and see around the curve in the river. We paused, captivated by the sight, the cliffs rising up on the opposite side of our riverbank.

But then we noticed some accumulation of debris. Oh, it saddened the heart. It would take a major clean-up to pick up tires, cans of all sorts, broken glass and various large pieces of plastic, the shoreline needed help, no, it screamed for help. We also saw large piles of leaves and branches pushed up against the trees growing there. We stood there like the sun-warmed rocks, our hands reaching for each other, our eyes locked momentarily for a silent conversation wondering what happened and we both said aloud “Flood!” We hoped a cleanup would be done before the camps started up again in the spring.

We then simultaneously looked toward the water; it was clear and vibrant, dancing over jagged and smooth boulders and stones. A peace rolled over us, touching our souls. No muddy water, today. We were content for that brief moment, I wanted this moment in time, but I knew adventures must continue and reach a type of fruition. We weren’t sure where this adventure would lead. We were in sync with one another and we looked at the river as the water flowed downstream. Sunlight sparkled on the water’s surface, like dancing diamonds, a perfect reflection of the sun-drenched world above our canopy. But was that all it mirrored? Did the water capture the echoes of our actions, whispers of our dreams, sending them rippling outwards into some unseen realm? Or was it vis-a-versa, was heaven sending down heavenly days for us to enjoy? I mused; did heaven keep a record of our fleeting moments here? A tranquility settled over me, broken only by the river’s gentle melody, and the quiet murmur of our reflective thoughts.

We watched the water flow by. Deb, my valentine and I rested, and she nestled her head against my chest. I felt warmth that had nothing to do with the sun was it God or was it Deb touching my heart? It was the warmth of love, of shared dreams, of a future yet unwritten but already brimming with promise. Deb released her hold on me and bent over and picked up a piece of rock close to the river’s waterway to examine it. The rock was pinkish and shone in the sunlight as if its surface had been polished. She offered it to me so I too could hold it and touch it and I wondered of the years it had taken for it to gleam as it did; its solid coolness brought us even closer to the river and its history and its travels through time. I gave it back and Deb carried it a while before putting it in her down jacket pocket.

Hand in hand, we ventured along the shoreline, carefully navigating the prickly blackberry bushes that guarded secrets of past bear and bird feasts. The crisp lingering winter air carried the scent of damp earth and decaying leaves as we wove through the trees, their gnarled roots protruding from the rocky ground like hidden claws. Sunlight dappled the path we had chosen, casting playful shadows that danced around our feet as we tiptoed across a hidden sandbar, a summer haven now revealed. We didn’t venture far, for fear of getting lost. Laughter bubbled up between us, light and carefree, as we retraced our steps back to the main path.

The snarled pathway felt less daunting now, a shared adventure etched in our memories. However, a stray bramble snagged on Deb’s dress, a playful reminder of the wild beauty we had explored. The man-made debris, a stark contrast to nature’s bounty, served as silent markers of our journey back to the main trail. We emerged, hand in hand, into the golden light of the setting sun.

Walking with Deb is like walking with joy itself, a constant source of warmth and comfort. And as we turned to each other, smiles sparkling in the fading light, I knew this was just the beginning of many more adventures we would share, hand in hand, hearts connected.

We reached a place where there seemed to be a set of challenging rope bridges, and came to realize that people must come here to participate in a kind of outward bound scenario, challenging themselves to do more than they would normally do, as we had done on this Valentine’s Day. We had fun discussing our limits and our abilities and what we thought the ropes were intended for, possibly rope bridges, rappelling sites, and ziplining. At that place there was a rough-hewn cross, and Deb touched it and kept her hands there quietly knowing that she had not been the first to do so, and she smiled.

As the sun began its descent, painting the sky in hues of orange and pink, we knew it was time to return. We now know the memory of this afternoon, the whispered promises exchanged under the watchful gaze of the mountains, would forever be etched in our hearts. This wasn’t just another Valentine’s Day; it was a testament to our love that bloomed amidst the rugged beauty of the Appalachians, a love destined to weather any storm, just like the resilient mountain laurel with its leaves bowing to the winter. Our love, destined to be strong and resilient within God’s great plan.

Doe River Gorge is so close to our home here on Roan Mountain. We gratefully knew we would return another day, and headed back to our car, exhausted but invigorated by our infusion of the mountain air.

“Robert, we have to write about this while it is fresh,” Deb said, and I agreed.

So here we sit in our Great Room, where we do all our creative stuff, sipping white wine and writing and I am sitting here gloating and telling her how I am doing, and she just smiles and smiles and listens to me as we write our thoughts, thoughts of how good life can be, and is.