The Fiery Gizzard, and the art of seeing


Laurel Branch ravine, Fiery Gizzard Trail.

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)

The Foster Falls parking lot was packed on a gorgeous, sunny November Sunday morning. We parked the Jeep and strolled toward the trailhead. Grady and Pratt were running the length of the Fiery Gizzard trail; my plan was a shorter out-and-back loop, and then drive to meet them at the other end.

As I began running, picking my way over the rocky beginning of the trail and across several bridges, I met backpackers heading in, presumably from having camped out the night before. They all seemed happy, even the group of three men and about 10 six-year-old boys, merrily clogging the trail like sheep being herded down a country lane.

“Hey, how’s it goin’?” “Have a good day.” “Excuse me - thanks!”

The trail followed along the bluff for the first two miles, bumpy and rooty. Then, suddenly, the trail stopped. There was no obvious way ahead; the reflective white trail markers were gone.

I retraced my steps, peered over a rock ledge: Surely that’s not where the trail goes? I went back the original way, wondering if I’d missed something. But nothing. I was lost, I suppose, but I certainly wasn’t capital-L Lost, much less LOST. Nevertheless, those few moments of confusion heightened my emotions and senses, and refocused my attention. It was rather like being in the woods when you realize there could be bears— suddenly it’s not just being outside.

That rock ledge where I stopped, it turned out, was in fact where the trail went, down into the steep ravine on Laurel Branch. I had worked up a sweat from running, but as I slowly hopped and slid from stone to stone dropping into the ravine, I became chilled. The climb out required a steel cable for a handrail, placed there by the park. Finally I was back on top, threading my way away from the bluff edge and into rolling wooded terrain.

I was able to pick up my pace and warm up, though the thick leaf cover made reading the path for roots and rocks essential. Mindfulness was mandatory, as I leaped the occasional fallen branch or muddy swale.

The unseasonal warmth that day caused startling clouds of inexplicable bugs, larger than gnats, silent and non-biting, but disconcerting as they stuck to my face. Swooshing through big-leaf magnolia leaves gave me the odd, dislocating sensation of being suddenly in my backyard.

It was time to turn around and retrace the trail, more surefootedly this time. I had a little extra speed and certainty down and up the Laurel Branch rocks. Instead of staying up top the rest of the way to Foster Falls, I followed the climbers’ access trail down below, then turned along the bluff edge, saying “Hello” to the climbers and their dogs, careful not to step on their ropes.

As I reached the swinging bridge below Foster Falls, two climbers were plodding out with big packs. I was torn between irritation that they wouldn’t let me pass, and gratitude that I was forced to take the steep stone steps a little more slowly.

At the top, I passed them and picked up the pace back to the parking lot. Time to drink some water and take the Jeep to the other end of the trail to meet my friends.

Only days afterward did I realize that I didn’t even glance at Foster Falls when I reached that swinging bridge. Frustrated by the climbers in front, focused on their being in my way, and thinking about the finishing climb, I never checked the gorgeous view right beyond the bridge,, the reason so many folks go to the park.

I had to shake my head and grin sheepishly at my own silliness. Next time perhaps I’ll do better at focusing on both the arduous trail at my feet, and the glorious sights to be captured just by looking over my shoulder.