"Peaceful, beautiful, tranquil, powerful, often violent displays of our planets most critical element, water. Maybe it’s the sights and sounds of nature, maybe it’s the thrill of the hunt, or perhaps it’s just a life long love affair with gravity."
What could possibly motivate someone to hike thousands of miles, often times, in some of the most unforgiving terrain the Eastern United States has to offer? What could be so important to endure bee stings, venomous snake encounters, aching muscles pushed beyond the point of fatigue, and repeated exposure to potentially life threatening situations? Why all this just to stand in one place for a few simple moments? With rare exceptions, I chose to seek out these places completely alone, in the middle of nowhere, with only my thoughts and judgment to see it through.
I did not wake up one morning and decide to spend almost 3 years of my life hiking to over 400 waterfalls. As with many things in life, sometimes one event leads to another, and another, and before you know it, you are completely immersed in a seemingly impossible challenge. There is no medal at the end, no certificate, no real reason to cross the finish line other than a feeling of satisfaction and personal accomplishment. In the end, I did find something magnificent in these waterfalls. I found something I thought I had lost forever and what I found was beyond my wildest dreams. I found myself, the man inside of me.
The first notable waterfall I hiked to wasn’t even in the state of North Carolina. It was in located in the small town of Pembroke, just a short scenic drive from Blacksburg Virginia, home to Virginia Tech. It was my parents who took me here one fall weekend when I came to visit for a Virginia Tech Football game. The date was Sunday October 17, 2010. The waterfall was The Cascades; a 66-foot tall waterfall located on Little Stony Creek in the Jefferson National Forest. I didn’t know it at the time, but The Cascades is among the most well-known and magnificent waterfalls in the entire state of Virginia. I still remember that overwhelming sense of awe when I turned the corner and saw it for the first time. It was impressive! I had never seen anything quite like this before in person. The Cascades was the largest waterfall I had seen in my lifetime. I didn’t know it at the time, but in part, this moment would not only change my life, but save it as well.
I was a very different man in October of 2010. Back then, I was a very fragile, broken soul caught in a perpetual downward spiral of self-destruction. With 225lbs on my short 5’8 frame, I was extremely overweight and completely out of shape. A recent trip to the doctor that same year revealed that my triglycerides were through the roof and I had been diagnosed with high blood pressure. My liver enzymes were dangerously elevated, over 5 times above the normal healthy range. To make matter worse, my stomach was full of ulcers and my kidneys hurt on an almost daily basis. Several years earlier, my gallbladder had been removed. My skin was pale, clammy, and beginning to show signs of jaundice. I was severely depressed, hopeless, and had quit my job 5 months earlier. This was rock bottom. The only thing lower from here would be death and quite frankly, that wasn’t too far away. This is a picture of a man loosing himself to alcohol. For well over a decade, I had been drinking myself to sleep every night. By the end, I was drinking a pint of bourbon, a bottle of wine, and half a dozen beers every single night. The reality was, I had long since forgotten what falling asleep even was. I just passed out. Scariest of all, I knew this path was killing me but I had already accepted it long ago. I could no longer control it. That’s just the way it was.
The night before hiking the Cascades, I had stayed up late drinking vodka straight from a glass. This was pretty normal for me. At some point in the night I had blacked out. The only reason I even knew was when my girlfriend and parents told me about it the following morning. I had apparently done some quite lewd and embarrassing things in the back yard. I won’t get into details. What I will tell you is that a wicked hangover made that 4-mile round trip hike to the Cascades absolutely miserable. Somehow, even through blood shot swollen eyes and a splitting headache that rattled my skull like a dozen tiny fists, I remember moments of peace looking up at that waterfall. It was really something. It was beautiful. It was #1 of 400. But, that count wouldn’t begin for well over a year later. On this day, it would just be a small ray of light in a very dark, dismal time of my life.
“The longest journey
begins with a single step.”
“Blood, sweat, victory!”
Waterfall on Mill Creek
Fast forward to Sunday October 12, 2014. Almost exactly 4 years later, I arrived at the base of a waterfall on Mill Creek in South Carolina. This waterfall marks the last plunge for a small creek that flows directly into Lake Jocassee. It also marked my last stop on an incredible journey to hike every waterfall listed on the map Waterfalls of North Carolina. I had actually done it and Waterfall on Mill Creek became my 4ooth waterfall in the region!
There is a reason this particular waterfall was the last on a very long list. Its location makes it practically inaccessible by foot. The only way to see it from the base is to make the journey by boat. I suppose I could have rented a boat and cruised easily across the lake but where’s the adventure in that? Instead, using maps and my knowledge of the area I had gained over the years, I plotted my own route that I appropriately dubbed “The Lewis and Clark Expedition.” It required driving 10 miles down a primitive road only passable to high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicles. This road allowed access to an old iron bridge that spans the mighty Horsepasture River. From here, we set out on Kayaks paddling and dragging our boats down a 1 mile stretch of whitewater until the river met the flat waters of Lake Jocassee. With low clouds and rain falling, we navigated the remaining 2 miles across the lake, around a bend, and into a small cove where Waterfall on Mill Creek splashed 40 feet over rock into Lake Jocassee. The victory was short and sweet. In order to make it back before dark, we had to retrace the same route we took to get here. This of course meant wadding 1 mile back upstream, against the full force of the river, while dragging our boats behind us. It was a feat of brute physical force, careful footwork, and unbelievable endurance. Without a doubt, this little adventure was among the wildest and most difficult trips I’ve come up with yet, but IT WORKED!
Today is October 14, 2014 and these are my first written words of this book. Until now, I had only shared my struggles and past with a very small group of people. It’s just not something I enjoy nor care to talk much about. But this day, I stand a completely different man than when I started this quest. Today, at 177lbs, my iron 5’8 frame is supported by solid muscle and driven forward by an internal determination to explore and truly live every moment I can. Today I am in the best physical and mental shape of my life. I stopped drinking August 5, 2011 through the support of my family and friends. I remain sober to this day and my recovery continues. I’ve found a career doing what I love, teaching and inspiring others to experience the outdoors. I have met countless amazing friends and best of all; I met my best friend and love of my life. Recently, we got engaged at Yellowstone National Park where I of course, proposed at a waterfall. Currently, I continue to push my body and mind to new limits as I train for a summit climb of Mount Rainier in July 2015. My love for exploration into the heart of the mountains is unquenchable and my drive forward continues.
What follows is not only a story of adventure and exploration into some of the most majestic environments on the planet, but also a journey of discovery and rediscovery into the depths of the soul. Many things have happened between my first waterfall and the completion of my 400th. Physically and mentally rebuilt from rock bottom back up, come join me and experience the gravity of Wild North Carolina Waterfalls!
Blood. Sweat. VICTORY!
“Keep close to Nature’s heart…
and break clear away,
once in a while,
and climb a mountain
or spend a week
in the woods.
Wash your spirit clean.”