It was a perfect summer day along a gorgeous riverside trail when our multi-generational entourage—two dogs, five people—set off for a high-elevation adventure in North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. But my enthusiasm was mixed with nervousness.
We were hiking at the request of my mother’s mother Nana, 83 that summer, and it had been my job to pick the trail. And while it wasn’t my first rodeo choosing a trail for the now-annual Mom and Nana trip to North Carolina—this year marked the fourth trip running—the truth is there are few hiking options in the mountains if you’re looking for a level stroll over an even grade.
Now, Nana is just about as fit as is possible for an 83-year-old to be. She rides a bicycle, plays tennis, and does multi-mile power walks around the neighborhood. But she’s not exactly well versed in the ways of backcountry recreation. Her typical hiking outfit involves white shorts and white sneakers, which she takes great pains to avoid splashing in the muddy seeps and puddles that inevitably pepper any trail. Hiking in the rocky and rooty woods is much different than walking a paved suburban road.
But Nana had surprised me on that first hike we took together, several years before. I’d found a reasonably flat 5.5-mile trail near Brevard, and though it took about five hours to complete, Nana spent the rest of the year raving about how nice the trail was and how beautiful the mountains are and how lucky I am to live in such a beautiful place. A tradition was born. Every year there was a visit, and a hike.
That brought us to summer 2017, when the three of us—this time joined by my two sisters—stepped off the trailhead at Graveyard Fields. While I’d never done this particular trail, I’d hiked all around the area. I knew this route was immensely popular with tourists, including the flip-flop-wearing kind, and that it followed a stream that eventually led to a waterfall. It seemed like a good pick.
In many ways, it was. It’s hard to beat the Shining Rock Ledge anytime of year, summer included. At 5,000 feet, the air is cool and clear even in the middle of July. A tunnel of rhododendron marked the entrance to the Graveyard Fields Trail, leading down to Yellowstone Prong, a gentle mountain stream with startlingly clear water. The trail eventually exited the woods to enter a series of grassy meadows before dipping into forest again and sloping upward toward Second Falls, a trough of boulders over which the water cascades down into the lazier portion of Yellowstone Prong.
But what I hadn’t anticipated was how rocky some portions of the trail would be, or the long steps required to complete some of the stream crossings. The going was slow, Nana often needing an arm to keep her steady on the rougher sections.
When we finally reached Second Falls, everybody was looking forward to relaxing over a leisurely lunch. But such was not to be. The sunny day rapidly eclipsed into clouds, rain threatening. The final push up to the falls had been incredibly rocky; the last thing Nana needed was to descend it once slicked by rain.
So began the return hike, Nana leaning on my arm as she carefully picked her way downhill. Human crutch became my semi-official job over the remaining miles, an imperative task once the clouds finally burst, turning the trail into a patchwork of mud and puddles.
Poor Nana—her white sneakers didn’t stand a chance.
Nana, however, proved much tougher than her shoes.
Throughout my childhood, it had been a common exercise to laugh at the seriousness with which Nana took all things health-related. She fastidiously devised her diet to include all the things that “they” said would keep your heart, brain, skin or whatever else healthy forever. She was a supplement-taker, a sun-visor-wearer, a morning power-walker. I mostly saw those things as silly and slightly obsessive.
But as we journeyed through the rain, stepping over stones and sloshing through mud while two crazy terrier mixes raced around us, I began to see it differently. Nana was 83 years old, fearlessly embarking on a hike featuring trip hazards and sharp inclines galore. Plenty of people her age use walkers, canes or wheelchairs. Yet here she was, hiking in the mountains with grandchildren 60 years younger than her, unassisted except for a steadying grasp on my hand. That’s amazing.
So I held her hand, admiring her grit but also marveling at the shift in relationship that the touch signaled. Relationships with grandparents begin at infancy, with babies learning quickly that grandparents are the people who feed you, hold you, give you snacks your parents would say no to, buy you toys your parents wouldn’t buy you.
As the rain poured, it hit me. I was no longer an 8-year-old begging fresh-baked cookies. I was 28, an adult with my own life in my own town, able to host family and plan activities—and offer a hand to my Nana when she needed it.
We finally made it back to the car, soaking wet but satisfied with the day’s adventure. Despite all the difficulties, Nana was quick to say how much fun she’d had, how beautiful it was, and how thankful she was for my help.
I told her she was welcome, and I meant it. Because now I am an adult, and it feels good to be able to give something back.
This piece was originally published in the June/July 2018 issue of Smoky Mountain Living. Reproduced by permission.