Of all the animated Disney movies, I recall Sleeping Beauty most vividly. Maleficent’s terrifying briars? Yes. But what I remember best — and with most fondness — is the forest scene where Briar Rose unwittingly meets Prince Phillip. Because there’s a waterfall in the background. A Disney waterfall, therefore pristine and perfect, blue as the sky, falling straight as a curtain, with random sparkling diamonds of reflected sunlight. Briar Rose could have Prince Phillip; I wanted that waterfall.
The friendly gurgles and babbles of your manmade waterfall in a park, or backyard “water feature,” or imported wall of boulders at a hotel are just fine for day-to-day ambience. But real waterfalls, the waterfalls I long for, lie waiting in the wilderness. I want to come upon one suddenly, unexpectedly, laid bare like a secret gift that’s been there all along, minding its business, biding its time, waiting for my stumbled-upon discovery.
For a satisfactory waterfall, unless it’s over a dam (and I love those waterfalls, too; I’ve nearly wrecked myself, looking backward to see what’s falling over the concrete slope at the Oak Hollow Lake dam outside High Point), you’re going to need a mountain. By the numbers — with at least 250, so far — Transylvania County is, and proclaims itself to be, the Land of Waterfalls. Waterfall maps and guides abound; many cascades are accessible by car, or easy trails. Others have yet to even be discovered. But for wildness, I’m taking my backpack and my boots to Linville Gorge, a rugged, designated-wilderness landscape with only one way in: on foot. Hike high enough, and you can easily view the topography that makes this deep gash a “gorge.” But to find the river that runs through it, and the Babel Tower waterfall, you’ll have to reverse direction, and descend. Steeply. Over roots and fallen trees. Sometimes on your butt, or reaching for a spindly sapling that has no intention of supporting your weight. Thinking, all the while, with dread, And I’m going to have to go back up this thing, too.
But somewhere in the calf-shredding struggle, you hear it: the faint, steady, white-noise whisper of falling water. It’s down there. In this case, what’s down there is the Linville River. The soft whooshing comes and goes with your footfalls and panting, but it’s there, no less a magnet than every waterfall you’ve ever gazed upon or played in, or tried to create: mounding rocks in the creek below our house in Rutherfordton as a child. Splashing beneath Toxaway Falls as a teenager. Misbehaving at old Beauty Falls in Stone Mountain on days off from a summer waitressing job in college. Watching my children discover Flat Creek’s friendly falls at Montreat.
And then, when you conquer that final thicket of rhododendrons, and clear the last set of practically-vertical boulders, it’s there, the surprise that shouldn’t have been a surprise, but nevertheless is: a gray-green-white froth of flowing water dropping into a waiting pool. Six of us are hiking together, and immediately, automatically, we fan out over the wide rock to our own views, and our own thoughts, and our own privacy. Not because the waterfall is loud — which it is — but because you need a minute, after the dense shade of the trail, and its closeness, and difficulty, to just gather yourself, and breathe, and be.
Why this love of waterfalls? Why the allure? Because this is as close as I’ll ever get to Middle-earth, Tolkien’s kingdom. To the enchanted world, a romantic world, where hobbits and fairies and trolls dwell. This is no gorge, but a glade, where I’m perched on a sun-warmed rock beside a waterfall that soothes the soul as it rushes by and over. Close your eyes, and coolness floats upward, the barest dampness. Open your eyes, and be transfixed by the tumbling and splashing that has been falling, and falling, and falling, all night long, all day long, for an unimaginable span of time. Gazing at — drinking in — a waterfall is like staring at moving, unstoppable eternity.
But as with every fairy tale, we love waterfalls for their darkness, too. For the delicious shiver along our spines, the possibility of lurking risk. At Babel Tower, the Linville River is tightened by a vise of high canyon walls formed a billion years ago, and forced to sluice through a stone gully. Compressed water is deep, fast, unfriendly water. Water that would take me in, and over, in a flash. Which is why, although the American Whitewater website notes that “the Linville River is hands down the most epic, beautiful, and quality stretch of whitewater to be found east of the Mississippi,” it sternly adds that “the same factors that make this run so incredible also make it a place where mistakes and misjudgments can prove to have dire consequences.”
I suspect that duality is at the heart of any fascination with waterfalls. The wildness and fierceness of them, the violence of water colliding with rock. But the romance of them, too: the way they seem personal and accessible, falling just for my pleasure. The wondrous, dramatic sight. The lulling, comforting sound. Simply sitting near that splashing, dropping a leaf and following its swift progress from sight, is a peaceful, nearly spiritual experience.
So are we irresistibly drawn to a waterfall’s constancy — and also to the fact that, when at last we turn away and begin the scramble back up the mountainside, it will rush and tumble on, unfazed by our presence or absence. So that, in the end, a waterfall’s very ceaselessness compels us to linger. And, finally, lets us leave.