I Went Down to the River to Pray

It’s Wednesday morning and we’re up and about early. We’ld stocked the fridge yesterday with all a body could need first thing. So after a quick bite to eat we’re out on the road again, off to see some of the sights. On our journey from Greensboro yesterday the weather forecast predicted this to be the hottest day of the year so far, so we want to head for some greenery and water, plenty of water.

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We take a route south from Asheville intending to head across the Parkway; a drive up and through some of the national forestry land surrounding Asheville. But as so often happens we get waylaid and arrive at our destination via a more circuitous route. Along the way we get a glimpse into the lives of people here. The roads are dotted with churches of every size, style and denomination. Bill boards announce in stark black lettering service times, preacher’s names and proclamations of faith and charity: God is Love; Jesus Saves. We pass a small cinema in a hamlet that announces that it has mixed sex showings of films. Every business we pass seems to be a drive through – and not just fast food joints like you’ld expect, but drive through everything. Automobile showrooms punctuate the route on every side. And outside every home, sitting front and centre is Old Glory. You can’t help but be affected by the pride with which people here display their nation’s flag. It is always in pristine condition, clean, the colours vibrant and true and placed in the most prominent position possible. Businesses also sport huge oversized Stars and Stripes outside their own premises, often larger than and to the detriment of their own signage.

After some time we arrive at a Ranger station on the side of the road and we pull in to ask some advice on where we can go for a dip to cool off in the increasing head. The station is manned by Dan, an older, fine looking giant of a man. He makes the stuffed black bear in the foyer look like a child. Dan greets the girls with that easy civility and courtesy that we’ve come across everywhere. Of course once he hears we are from Ireland and the UK he has to tell us about his own Irish roots and his travels there. It turns out that both Dan and his wife have moved here from further north because times there have turned bad. ‘Maybe I’ll get to go back there when things pick up’, he tells us. Dan is certainly not young, in fact well past retirement age, but there’s a youth and vigor about him typical of many of the older generation here. And you can see the work ethic strongly in this generation everywhere – there’ll be no sliding comfortably off into retirement for this lot. Anyhow Dan gives us the skinny on skinny dipping and we’re off a mile or two up the road.

Pretty soon we pull into a layby and take the short walk through the woods to a wide slow moving river that coils into a deep pool on it’s bend. Overlooking this is a small rocky platform jutting out across the pool. Kids, their parents and grandparents lazy around, swim, skim stones and take crazy dives from the height into the water. Within seconds we’re stripped to our swimwear and are running for the water. I charge in and the water is absolutely freezing, more so considering the air temperature all around. Suddenly I’m in about eight feet of water and my right calf is cramping from the cold (the nine hour drive the other day hasn’t helped). I’m threading water with one foot, taking a healthy gulp of river water for my trouble without any sign of help from the girls. They take rather more time to acclimitise to their new surroundings but soon we’re all swimming and glad of the cool. We take a jaunt up the river bed for a few hundred yards. Here and there groups of children plunge into the small pools that have formed everywhere in the slower flowing areas of this wide river, whereas in the faster runs, even when it’s fairly shallow, the pace of the water makes you take your time getting your footing. Mary looses a flip-flop, but as it surfs elegantly downstream a previously disinterested kid comes to the rescue. Everywhere there are strange rock pillars, corrals, and runs erected by children from the stones of the riverbed and you can’t help but think of the stories of Tom Sawyer in this idyllic setting. I’m looking out for Indian Joe in the bushes!

We dry off and travel a little further up the road to Looking Glass Falls, a spectacular waterfall and swimming hole just a mile or so north of here. While it’s stunningly beautiful and the spray is like a cool drop of heaven, it’s too crowded for us. We decide instead to head a little further up the road to Sliding Rock, a sixty foot natural rock slide into a deep chilly pool.  I’m not kidding you when I say this thing is fast. We take more than a reasonable amount of time to survey the situation. Basically there’s a line of people climbing up a huge slab of rock banked at about 35 degrees. At the top they shimmy over to its center on their bums and basically let the water whip you away on one of the bumpiest rides I’ve seen. It looks as if you can, if you have any control, choose one of two routes. We scope out both and decide on the one to the left – the faster one. So Catherine and I (Mary is on photographic duties) join the line and sooner than we’ld like we’re at the top of Sliding Rock. We sit down into the absolutely freezing water and shimmy along the line to the centre of the slide. You can feel the insistent press of the water on your back and there’s little purchase on the smooth stone. I’m not sure whether I decide to go or I’m simply carried along in the flow, but within seconds I’m hurtling downstream. I hear a scream with a distinct Irish accent behind me and as my arse hits a bump and I fly up into the air and into the pool below, I know I’ll have company pretty soon. As I breach the surface for air I must swallow a pint of water but I’m up and out of the pool quick as a flask. Catherine whoops behind me as a cascade of water crashes over me as she hits the deck. We’re laughing and choking all at the same time.

Then it’s Mary’s turn. I go with her and it’s the same rush. Amazing. We chance a few more before we make the sodden trip back to the car. On the way we notice the reassuring presence of lifeguards hidden off to one side of the pool, but a rather ominous yellow spinal injury stretcher beside them. I’m glad I didn’t see that first.

We get back in the car and find the Parkway for our journey back to Asheville, winding downwards in ever decreasing spirals through tunnels, valleys and into increasing temperature. What a day!