Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Day 135/365 Outlook Dismal

Somewhere in these mountains in southwestern Virginia is my bottom-line, most favorite of all places on earth: Dismal Falls.

Although I was a government brat who moved all over creation, seemingly every 15 minutes, during the summers we came home to the Appalachian Mountains and both sides of our extended family.

It was for all-the-world just like time travel. The deeper we got into the mountains, the further we were from 1960's America. My mother's side of the family still churned their own milk, slaughtered their own hogs, had no indoor plumbing, and got the worst TV reception I'd ever seen.

On Sundays, after church, Granddaddy would load everyone into a huge truckbed, and haul us all up the mountain on narrow, rutted dirt roads, just to go swimming at Dismal Falls. "Everyone" included my grandparents, my parents, myself, my cousins, my aunts and uncles, and anyone who happened to be stopping by whenever he decided it was time to go. If it was a really hot day, and we behaved, on the way back we might stop for cold Coca-cola's.

Dismal Falls is a tucked away secret - I suspect more people know about it now since the park service put up a sign, but at that time, just around a particularily sharp curve, there was a wide spot in the road, with enough space for maybe three or four cars to pull off. No sign.

And no warning that the trail dropped sharply downhill, maybe 60 feet, with nothing more to hang onto beside tree roots. If a person stopped to listen, they could hear the falls roaring below. Fortunately what little traffic there was for the most part just on drove by, unless they were locals, or trail hikers who'd been told about the falls.
That steep trail meant you really had to want to get down to those falls. No built-in steps, no handrails, and no place for any whiners who wanted a guidebook either. Occasionally we would run into another family, or a solitary hiker, or evidence of a campfire. Once I found the ashes of a campfire covered with hundreds of bright blue butterflies - they love the residue from the charred wood.
If you pay attention and watch your step on the slick algae-covered rocks, and the water is low, you can easily walk across the falls. Dismal Creek continues upwards across a broad rock shelf,and there's a smaller terraced waterfall that comes in maybe a quarter mile up the creek.
Looking back up at the falls you can see how it makes a little bowl that forms the main swimming hole. The deepest point is 10-15 feet deep, and unless it's rained recently, the water is fairly clear. When the water is low, the snakes may come out and sun on the rock shelves, so be careful where you put your hands (voice of experience here).

My memories of Dismal are permanently etched from this hot Sunday afternoon in August. That's me in my LSU t-shirt, around nineteen years old, helping my younger cousin out of the water, while her sister looks on. The water was crystal clear, and just cold enough to be slightly past refreshing.

But this picture, earlier by maybe 5 years, is my favorite. The colors have started to change in it, so I sepia-toned it. One cousin is walking across the falls, my aunt and uncle are standing on a dry rock shelf on the other side, my dad is to the left in the plaid shirt, and, right in the center are my grandparents, Charlie and Mary. I think I must have been behind the camera.

Granddaddy is probably deciding whether or not we merit Coca-cola's this particular day.

A year later everything changed - my grandparents celebrated their 50th anniversary, and a week afterwards my granddaddy was killed in a tractor accident up on the mountain.

I've been up to the falls many times since, taking potential boyfriends there (my version of a litmus test) and eventually my daughter. There's a few more people now, and some talk of it not being all that safe if you're alone, and inevitably more trash.

Still, even now, thirty-something years later, out of the corner of my eye, all I see are my cousins running across the rocks or diving off the top, and my grandparents, Charlie and Mary, sitting on the rocks.


  1. That first "blue" picture is incredibly beautiful!

  2. Really enjoyed this, Carole. Always heard you and your mom speaking of your family back in VA--but you know, I've never seen pictures....


  3. I stumbled on your site today, I think it was via The Pioneer Woman's site. Anyway, you're photos caught my eye, this is a great story about a super-secret hiking, swimming and family gathering place. I have a similar but not nearly as green and luxurious place at Lake Pleasant, Arizona, it's an unmarked trail but eventually the park rangers will publish the trail and everything will change.

  4. Yep it will. Enjoy it till then!
    We now spend the first part of every visit cleaning up beer cans...