As my boots descend from the metal steps of the bus to the frozen ground below, I quickly brace myself for the sudden change in climate. My classmates are already huddled around the large rocks at the trail’s head. Our trek starts as the sun rises above the tree line over the White Oaks Sinks.
After the previous day’s record-setting lows, today’s steady 10 degrees feels closer to 50. In high spirits, our thronged procession blunders down a curved trail that runs alongside the half-frozen stream. I had never noticed how many forms ice can take, but as we continue along the path, I find myself studying the differences between each patch like it is a new species, here it’s rough and dimpled, here in wavy ridges like a sand dune and here in clumps of crystal akin to the “natural minerals” grown for seventh grade science projects.
We follow the slight slope for nearly a mile without complication, when, with a sudden leftward turn, we abandon the main highway in favor of a well-traversed offshoot that descends ever faster into the giant bowl for which the Sinks are named.
This is not my first hike in the Smokies, but the experience definitely stands out in my mind as one entirely its own. The customary string of travelers and noises I am so used to encountering along the trails are replaced by blankets of snow and little sound beyond that of our own voices and a rush of water as we reach our destination.
Having descended ever more down between the sloping mountains, we follow a fork in the path to a toppled tree across the path. Climbing this final obstacle, we crest a ridge and stop one by one to stare at the marvel for which we have trekked nearly three miles into the woods to see.
Taking a breath, I stare into the mouth of Rainbow Falls. Upon first glance, I find it impossible to take in the entirety of what I am looking at. What must normally be a powerful spout of water cascading over the top of the ridge about twenty feet above us, now rests suspended in an ever-flowing expanse of frozen water.
The only movement exists at the top of the rows of icy teeth dropping from the rock face where the stream continues to flow up to the frozen edge and rush down, adding evermore to its static remnants. As we take a break from our morning of hiking and admire the fruits of our efforts, a large chunk of ice suddenly separates from the side of the pocket of rock and crashes into the cave below. Picturesque hardly begins to describe it.
This was the first major hike for this year’s Words and the Land J-Term class, an experiential course which uses the exploration of nature to facilitate and inspire creative thought. Throughout the three weeks of the course, the fourteen students and Kim Trevathan, assistant professor of writing/communications, set out on a number of excursions taking us as far as the Devil’s Racetrack in Campbell County. Beyond this experience, the students studied the work of prominent nature writer’s and begun to tackle questions such as what makes an area sublime, how cold affects our interactions with nature and what constitutes reasonable human impositions on the natural world.
Following the initial two weeks of the course, I have found myself at no want for writing inspiration. Each new experience has been abundantly more valuable than the amount of time that may have been spent in a classroom in its place. I doubt many students would complain about the chance to leave the bricks and buildings of campus behind and replace their three hours of class time with a series of forays and adventures.
As for the difficulty of the hikes, the students in the class come from a variety of backgrounds and experience levels, some traveled hikers and other very rarely venturing outdoors; however, without exception, this year’s class has completed the hikes without difficulty and found the rewards well worth the minimal amount of exertion.
Any Maryville student would benefit greatly from a few excursions into the natural wonderland around us and the work expected as a result provides ample opportunity to grow as a creative and perceptive individual.
In my experience, the course was useful in both its exposure to the natural environment and its ability to inspire creative thought. As a native of Maryville and a son of the Smoky Mountains, I have hiked up and down the many trails in our area on numerous occasions, but even so, I was surprised to find many new discoveries and adventures in my time with the course.
Furthermore, I was allowed to explore nature in my own way, choosing as a prospective journalist to focus on narrative writing and photography. This freedom allowed me to grow as a writer while developing my love for nature and all its wonders in the most personal, intimate way.
Trevathan’s Words and the Land class allows students a freedom rarely experienced in a course.
For any student seeking a unique January experience, a way to develop their writing or simply a chance to, in the words of our esteemed professor, “saunter” for a few weeks, Words and the Land is an excellent answer.
All photos courtesy of Chase Condrone.