When I was eight years old, my family went on a trip to Tennessee state park, Fall Creek Falls as one of our uncommon but appreciated outings. There were three of us kids with me being the oldest, my six year old brother, Bradley, and Enid, my baby sister. Dad drove and talked about what was stressing him out at work until he got bored and turned on the radio, at which point mom either sang along lightly or disappeared into the sanctuary of her thoughts while staring out her window.
To Bradley and I, the drive was taking forever, but we knew better than to complain. I attempted a quiet conversation about video games, but all he ever wanted to do was “Play with toys! Play with toys!” he’d say. A stern glare caught my attention in the rearview mirror as I realized dad was giving me “the look”. I learned early on that, regardless of the culprit, if a crime was committed, I was always the culprit, therefore, it was my responsibility to keep Brad quiet.
“Okay, I’ll play with toys.” I’d say, forced to accept his least favorite. On we rode, to the point that it felt as though I’d be stuck in some imaginary world I couldn’t fathom as the constant villain forever. Just a boy myself, I got a little carried away from time to time. To me it was fun to pretend the action figures could fly, then I’d bang them together repeatedly, which I thought was funny as hell, and he hated it when I would do it, but when he saw them do the exact same thing in the anime, Dragon Ball Z, it was the most awesome thing he’d ever been exposed to.
Finally, dad said, “We’re almost there”, which was actually code for, “I need to start paying closer attention to the road. Of course, we always fell for it. Knowing we couldn’t just pick up where we left off in whatever game we’d been playing, Brad and I silently looked out at the creek below.
“Isn’t it pretty?” mom asked.
“Yeah!” Brad exclaimed. I just wished we were there, because if the drive was that long to get there, it was just as long on the way back, and honestly, this was not my idea of a day off. Sure, it was pretty, but you could see the same thing on television, so what’s the difference?
Although a hateful drama was already welling up within me, in actuality, there wasn’t that much more ground to cover. We arrived to a parking area that was at capacity, which was apparently not what dad needed at that particular moment. He had given a whole justification speech for why there shouldn’t be anyone out and about that day, and I thought about that irony with silent joy. Dad began driving deeper into the park, trying to find some open spot.
“I’m about ready to just go back home.” he declared. Mom shot her hand over to his shoulder empathetically.
“If you want to go home, then let’s go home.” She said. Then there was silence again for a while as dad cruised, attempting to quell his anger. As for me, I could sense his anger long before that moment, and even though I knew I was not the direct source of his rage, it wasn’t all that comfortable being in close proximity with it either.
Finally, dad rebelliously pulled in much too close behind some back of the line car, virtually half of our vehicle in the road. In fact, we had to pile out of the left side of the car because we were parked so close to the hillside. When we were all out, mom with the baby in hand, dad looked back at his work and was triumphant. I was still disappointed we couldn’t just go back home.
We walked single file for about a quarter mile on a twisty white line with cars passing much too quickly on the left and a sheer drop on the right. We could hear the blaring, splashy crashing of the enormous falls far before we laid eyes on them. Until then I’d been doing a fair job of keeping myself in a consistently huffy mood, but it was really cool. From the stone, bridged road we were standing on, the falls rushed down just feet ahead of us. Dad seemed happy as he yelled something to us, but I couldn’t hear a thing.
Even more interesting and, dangerous, I thought, were the people I could see high above, playing right along the crestline of the falls. I expected at any moment that surely one of them would slip. Straight down a waterfall, I wondered if anyone could actually survive falling from that height. I reasoned that they probably wouldn’t but probably could.
We backtracked through the main parking area to reach the base of a trail that would lead us up to the top of the falls. The trail was clear and marked, but it was narrow and steep. I walked just behind dad as Brad walked just behind me. It was tiring, but we knew we couldn’t say anything while mom was still at the bottom carrying Enid. We reached a small plateau and, prompted by dad, we turned around to check on mom’s progress.
We could still see cars passing behind a wall of stationary, parked vehicles just past the trail’s opening, which was where mom was. It was always clear when something bothered dad; it was written on his face.
“Stay here.” He said before taking off back down the trail, slightly annoyed. There wasn’t really enough room for playing, so my brother and I just grabbed onto the cable handrail that were posted along the steeper spots on the path. They were meant to catch you if you fell or lost your balance, but they clearly weren’t designed with the height of children in mind. Brad, who was doing scissor kicks in the dirt, lost his footing. Fortunately, instinct kept his grip tight around the cable, so he didn’t fall, but he couldn’t quite get back to his feet.
“Ah! Ah!” He began to yell out, helplessly hanging with his feet dangling down a steep hill.
“Bring your feet back. Just stand up!” I said, trying to calm him down. I dreaded the look on dad’s face right now. Seeing that Brad wasn’t going to help himself, I wrapped my arms around his torso and pulled him backward until he was solidly balanced again. He choked back tears as he wiped his eyes. Dad approached, now holding Enid, with mom close behind.
I was surprised when dad didn’t say anything about our incident.
“Ya’ll ready?” He asked. A short while later and we came upon a stony, beachy area where people were running and playing, sitting and picnicking, and suddenly I was feeling very self conscious. It was like my first day of kindergarten all over again. Immediately, I felt as though all eyes were on me. I looked around from face to face and they all seemed to be searching my own for some sign of weakness.
Fortunately, people didn’t scare me as much when I was with dad. Dad wanted to know what we wanted to do from there, but we had no idea. I was still trying to calm myself from the onset of a minor panic attack. I shrugged and mom pretended he wasn’t also talking to her.
“Swimming!” Bradley yelled. All of a sudden, the danger of the rushing water had completely vanished from my mind; I just didn’t want to take my shirt off in front of all those strangers. I wasn’t feeling all that comfortable with my tubby little belly hiding safely behind my t-shirt as it was, and people were stationed all around the water, so to go swimming was to put myself directly in the center of attention.
“You swimming?” dad asked. Nervous and embarrassed, I shook my head no. He nodded and said, “alright Brad, we’ll stay around here for a little while, but there’s a trail I want to take you on that most people don’t know about.” I decided to lean against the base of huge rock wall which loomed over the falls, casting a shadow and providing shade.
Brad played in the water with mom while dad, planning ahead, scoped out the path we’d be exploring. Above, dirty looking clouds slowly creeped over us. As I began to feel more comfortable, I decided to walk around. I listened to families of strangers as I feigned a deep interest in this tree or that stream. Some of them seemed to be afraid to get caught out in, what they thought, was an impending storm.
The rain has never bothered me. Actually, I was caught in the rain several times during my walk home from school. On one occasion, it had started pouring just as I stepped off of the bus (my bus delivered me most of the way, but it always dropped me off at the entrance to my neighborhood, and though it was probably only about a quarter mile hike, it was almost exclusively straight up). At first, I was slightly irritated by the timing; it was as if I was being picked on by God. Still, I arrived, drenched, to my own driveway, but knowing I’d have to undress before entering the house, I decided to lay down on my back, close my eyes, and let it rain.
Several groups decided not to risk being caught in what might’ve been a quickly approaching storm. I spied dad noticing the sky above, but he did not let it phase him.
Mom must’ve grown bored of the water, because she convinced Brad to get out and dry off. By the time they’d fastened their shoes, the sky had completely cleared, which I found fairly funny. If only we’d been just a little later to arrive, there would have been plenty of open parking spots.
Following dad’s lead, we began hiking up a steep, jagged incline. The trail did seem well defined, yet I was beginning to doubt that it actually led anywhere, as it was becoming increasingly narrow and littered with fallen branches and even some trees, over which they were necessary to vault. A cool breeze chilled my sweating forehead and arms, and I realized that I was actually having fun.
I allowed my pace to drop, so that I fell to the rear of our little trekking pack. I imagined I was a little indian, sneaking through the woods. My family ahead, I was following them, wondering where they would lead me. I ran up to trees to hide for a moment before bursting out and slipping to the next. At different times, each of my family turned to see what I was doing, but they simply let me be.
We were stopped in our tracks by an abrupt, bellowing bark of thunder. Only moments later, and the rain began to pour. In moments, the sky was overtaken with darkness, and the atmosphere around us took on a grayish, blue color. I could smell the soaked dirt mixing with the scent of grassy bark.
With a now screaming one year old in tow, my parents decided that we should probably call it a day, though, again, dad was visibly frustrated. As the trailing member of the hiking line, I promptly became the leader of the line.
My tennis shoes slapped and splashed into newly formed puddles as we retraced our steps. Before long, I was utterly drenched, my clothes uncomfortably sticking to my skin while simultaneously hanging heavily upon me. I wondered how far behind me they were, but I couldn’t hear anything over the clamorous chatter of rainfall, and I didn’t want to slow down in case they did happen to be right behind.
Surprisingly, there were still a few scattered groups of people back at the swimming area taking cover under the trees; one lady, who had clearly thought ahead, sat peacefully under a canary yellow umbrella, looking out at the view from the top of the waterfall. We used this opportunity to regroup, and the storm had begun to ease.
Dad took the lead with mom behind him and Brad and I behind them. Just as we’d reached the top of the stone hill, the sun cut through the clouds and the sky cleared, revealing a rich, pale turquoise sky, though nothing about this revelation was beautiful to me. I was almost disappointed that the rain had stopped, because it meant that dad might change his mind about leaving. I began to think about all the things that had kept me in such a foul mood before ever arriving at this point. At that moment, I just wanted Enid to stop crying, I wanted to be dry, I wanted to be at home, in my room, playing video games. No one asked me what I thought, so I kept quiet.
We paused, and dad, hands on his hips, looked around, huffing and smirking to himself. Not enough to really do any damage but just enough to screw up the entire trip, I suppose he was thinking about the rain.
“What are we doing?” Mom asked, nervously. Dad turned around with a defeated, half smile.
“I guess we’re going home.” He responded. Suddenly, upon hearing the news, I was rejuvenated; my mood was instantly restored.
“Well, I’m going to slowly head that way.” She said before turning away to head down the trail, still carrying a crying Enid. As if he could sense my intention, just before I could move my legs to follow her, dad spoke.
“Alright, we’re right behind you.” He said. After a moment, he turned his attention to Brad and I. “Come on, I saw a path behind the posts over here, let’s go see if it goes where I think it does.”
“Is it dangerous?” I asked, forcing myself to make my objections known in the form of a stupid question.
“Be careful.” He answered. We crossed the barrier posts and started on a narrow trail. Below, the ground curved forward like a ramp with trees growing generously throughout. Bradley, who was almost constantly stepping on dad’s heels, refused to take his hands off of the rock wall beside us. The ground was covered in mulch and pine needles as we approached what seemed to be a clearing. “Almost there.” Dad said.
Dad easily stepped on top of a large rock platform to reach the field ahead. Bradley whined as dad coaxed him to take his hand, so that he could pull him up. When Bradley was secured atop the rock, dad brought his focus to me. He extended his hand for me to grab hold. My shoes must have gathered so much dry mulch, that any grip remaining utterly failed me. The ground gave out below me. My foot slipped backward and, slamming my gut against the curve of the ground, I fell.