It has been nearly 50 years since I first saw Linville Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Back then, getting there meant finding an unmarked gravel road and an unmarked dirt parking lot — really just a thicker place in the road to pull over into.
Then we followed a spongy, loamy footpath under the hickories and oaks toward the distant roar of the waterfall on North Carolina’s Linville River. No one was there but us and we picnicked on the rocks over the crashing water. The upper falls are a broad, shallow drop, but at the lower falls, the quartzite pulls tight, constricting the river and forcing it down a spiraling chute that drops over the edge of the cliff and down 75 feet to the river and Linville Gorge.
It is an impressive torrent with a basso profundo roar, and nothing will ever change the way it seemed to me that day, as I leaped over rocks, crossing the white water to the other shore so I could climb on the gnarled rock to see down the waterway.
Leaping from rock to rock across the cataract could easily have got me killed, swept over the precipice, but I was young, and therefore, an idiot.
I’ve been back many times over the years. The National Park Service built a paved road from the Blue Ridge Parkway, making it easier to find. Then they paved the parking lot and built a pedestrian bridge over the river upstream from the falls.
The last time I went back, there was a visitor’s center and a souvenir shop and a parade of vacationers trotting down the path to the fenced-in overlook. The falls are just as impressive, but the experience isn’t.
If I speed up those five decades in my head like time-lapse photography, I can see time take shape. It builds and it destroys in a constant rise and fall like an ocean tide.
And what comes in, ebbs.
A few years ago, my wife and I visited another familiar site, on Old Route 16, a dirt road that drops down the side of the Blue Ridge from Ashe County towards North Wilkesboro. When we lived in the mountains, we used to visit an abandoned farmsite along the road, halfway down the mountain face.
There was a clearing in the wood and an old wooden house with a broad porch that looked out over the steep valley below. Above us was the spot ominously known as the “Jumpin’-Off Place.”
We could picnic on the porch with the bluebird and tanager singing in front of us, the buzz of insects all around and the gentle breeze rattling the grass in the field.
It had been 20 years since we visited that farmhouse and we thought we should see what had become of it.
About three miles down the old dirt road, we passed where it should have been, but there was no break in the forest, no open field. We couldn’t find the house. We kept driving, hoping we’d find something that looked familiar, but we didn’t. Finally we stopped the car where the farm should have been and walked deep into the woods.
Buried a hundred yards into the tangle of maple trees was a naked standing chimney, completely eaten up by brush and undergrowth.
When I climbed down the hill towards it, I discovered the forest floor was spongy with rotten boards, completely collapsed in on themselves, with a few nailheads still showing.
In the years since we last visited, the old house had been completely digested by the woods, leaving only the indigestible brickwork of the twin-sided chimney.
And the once-glorious view of the declivity was now completely obscured by trees and brush. Instead of a vacant field overgrown, the house was survived only by complete woods.
In just those few years.
Nature can reclaim an entire farm in 20 years and leave nothing behind but the masonry. And that won’t last much longer.