By Patrick Dean
Leaving the trailhead on the southern edge of Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, I plunge off into Shakerag Hollow on one of my standard runs. The enclosing green ‘cove,’ as ravines are named around here, is named for the way the resident moonshiners’ customers once made contact: a waved cloth indicated that payment had been left. Past a dripping algaed sandstone wall on my left, the path tilts me sharply forward as I run, barely in control down the scree. A tree angles out from the steep ravine-side on my left, then up like an elephant’s trunk. On my right, the trail-edge drops steeply seventy feet to Shakerag Creek, gurgling faintly below as I try to dance with light feet on the technical trail.
It is late March. The writer and biologist David Haskell in his acclaimed book The Forest Unseen, set here in Shakerag Hollow, calls this “the peak of the year’s cycle of light intensity below the canopy. Winter’s hold is broken with blazing force, unlocking constellations of flowers and a cascade of animal life.”
Clouds regularly ride the prevailing winds over the valley floor a thousand feet lower and to the west of the plateau, then scrape across, enveloping everything in what the locals call ‘fog’ and dropping their saved-up moisture. Angling east to west, its high-angle south wall blocking the sun, Shakerag Hollow retains the clouds’ gift, releasing it to the lichens, mosses, immense tulip poplars, and an explosion of wildflowers that has brought thousands of visitors to hike this trail in the spring.
The trilliums, Dutchman’s breeches, and Indian paintbrush are still weeks from appearing as I follow the trail contouring along the slope, with its loose footholds and vertiginous steps down knobby root systems of oaks and hemlocks. But green is everywhere: the green of may apples and poison ivy, moss and ferns. Every leaf seems swollen, a sponge for spring’s overload of moisture.
Those vibrant, sodden greens have much less of my attention than the challenges of the trail at my feet. An unfocused Shakerag moment could easily mean a nasty tumble onto sharp sandstone. Transcendence takes a back seat to focus — until a mile and about ten minutes in, when I reach the bridge, and the waterfall.
Revealing itself fifty feet above me, just below the bluff’s rim, water pours down through a narrow, sharply chiseled channel, then forms clear liquid sheets over the wide, mossy boulders. Spreading out and slipping below the wooden bridge on which I stand, the stream continues behind and below me, down the rock-filled crevice.
Turned toward the bluff, upstream, I tilt my face to the sun, my arms hanging by my sides. Then slowly, without thought, I twist the palm of my left hand toward the waterfall, as if cupping and welcoming the positive energy radiating from the cascade.
Breathing deeply, I am transfixed in the moment. This new experience could be merely exhilaration at the motion and magic and beauty of the place. But it occurs to me, standing there, that there might in fact be something real but invisible flowing from this place of natural power and sparkling purity into my body. I close my eyes, letting the experience fill me with energy.
Surprised by this gift of water, moss, and stone, I can’t help smiling as I hop off the bridge and continue up the trail.