High Gravity

A remote waterfall near my home

As a naturalist and trail ranger at many private, state, and national parks in the 1990s and early 2000s, I lost count of how many times I had to stop people – adult, seemingly intelligent, aware, thinking people – from climbing over fences (and doing other daft things) – usually just to get photos – but not always. More often than not these fences were at the top of sheer cliffs and waterfalls that were hundreds of feet in height.

These scenarios would almost always go something like this:

I would be quietly making my rounds on the park’s trails/beaches/backroads/highways, and byways when I would come upon a person on the other side of the fence holding a camera up to their face taking a photograph of the view. I knew the gravitational danger so I would quietly stand by and wait until they had finished their photo taking session and were starting to cross back over the fence and, therefore – as my reasoning went – they would be less likely to be startled. The absolute worse thing I could have done in these situations would have been to call out from behind them during their photography session, potentially startling them causing them to lose their footing/balance and topple over the cliff falling to their death on the rocks below. So, I would wait patiently and quietly until they were in a more stable position and then I would move forward making some slight noise with my feet on the rocks of the trail below to attract their attention, then, when I knew they had seen me, I would calmly ask them to come back over to the safe side of the fence. They would usually do so – while apologizing for climbing the fence. It was obvious they knew they were in the wrong and were not supposed to cross the fence. Maybe they just thought they would be able to get away with it… maybe because they did not see any obvious enforcement of the “Please do not cross the fence” warnings posted all over the place. For me, gravity – and the abrupt body-breaking, life-ending, sudden stop, on the rocks at the bottom of the cliff was all the enforcement I needed to tell me to not cross the fence…well, unless I had the appropriate authorization/climbing gear/PPE.

I would then ask them why they had ignored all the warning signs they would almost always reply – “The photos are better on the other side.” I would then reply “Really, how exactly does that work? You must have far better vision than I do because I am unable to see any difference in the view on this side or that side of this fence. The eye does not notice a difference and neither does the camera. The only difference is that you were on the unsafe side of the fence standing on a mat of moss/lichen that is very loosely attached to the rock and, had it or your shoes lost its grip on the rock, you would have fallen to your death hundreds of feet below – and I would have to clean up the mess.”

With this new knowledge the blood would often drain from their face and they would become silent as they realized the true gravity of the situation and the massive error in their recent decision making process. At this time they would then shakily apologize, and quickly move on – hopefully, never to make that same mistake again.

One of my most fond memories of this type of incident happened when I was working at Chimney Rock Park (now Chimney Rock State Park) in western North Carolina, USA. One warm spring day I found myself walking the trail near the top of 404′ tall Hickory Nut Falls – that’s it in the below photo.

Hickory Nut Falls Photo Source: https://www.visittheusa.com/state/north-carolina

After stopping at the cascade above the top of the falls to cool off in the natural creek shower, I then made my way along the Cliff Trail – a very narrow trail that hugged the edge of the cliffs following the mountainside all the way back to the area near Chimney Rock – the namesake of the park. After leaving the waterfall area I walked a short distance into the forest – approximately half-way between the waterfall and the outcropping left of center in the above photograph. I passed through a tunnel of Rhododendrons and was just about to pop out of the woods onto a more exposed section of the trail when suddenly, I noticed what appeared to be a female human crouching in the woods about 10 feet downhill on the cliff-side of the trail. Her back was to me and she was bracing herself against a small tree while holding something out of my view out in front of her. There were several small trees and shrubs between her and the edge of a cliff a few feet away so she must not have recognized the danger. She did not notice me as I silently made my way along the trail to investigate what she was doing. Then it came into view – she was holding a naked toddler! I stared in disbelief and then said – “Excuse me ma’am, may I ask what you are up to?” She looked up from the dangling child and snapped angrily back – “Can’t you see she is going to the bathroom!” I said, “No ma’am, I just arrived and was just curious because I have never seen someone dangle a child so close to the edge of a 400 foot cliff before.” She stopped, pulled the child against her body, and quickly clambered back up onto the trail, put the child down on the trail, hurriedly put on its diaper, picked it up, and started to head off down the trail without another word. I said to her back – “Excuse me ma’am, would you please return and pack out your used diaper? Not only is it smelly, unsightly, and an unsanitary danger to wildlife, but it could potentially spread diseases – and along with all that it is littering.” She had dropped the child’s soiled diaper on the side of the trail near where she had been dangling her kid near the edge of the cliff. She stopped dead in her tracks, shot me an eat shit and die stare, and went back to get the diaper without ever saying a word. She picked it up, shoved it in her bag, and stomped off down the trail. I followed her all the way back to the parking area because I feared she would just toss the diaper – or maybe even the kid – into the woods or over the cliff if I let her out of my sight. I wonder how long the trail of dirty diapers littering the woods and roadsides is for her and many more like her? Once in the parking area she jumped in her car and sped off down the mountain. While she seemed to clearly realize her serious safety error and was embarrassed by her mistake, at least she chose to keep most of her feelings to herself.

Sometimes, however, the individuals I would encounter and reprimand for their, often intentional infractions – would puff up, and strut and crow like a mojo-filled rooster, clucking loudly of this being a free country and/or an infringement on their personal freedoms, how much they paid to get into the park, and sometimes even cuss/insult my authority as a park ranger – or even insult me personally. When this happened I could only smile and calmly wish them luck because luck is all they had going for them – they clearly had zero intelligence/common sense and/or a great big chip on their shoulder – or all of the above.

On one of these crazy occasions, I was again working as Trail Walker ranger at Chimney Rock Park. I was again strolling quietly along the rugged, and wild, Cliff Trail on a beautiful summer day and I noticed what appeared to be several 20 something-year-old young men standing on a rocky outcrop I affectionately called “Turtle Head Rock.” Turtle Head Rock was about the size of a VW Beetle and it stuck precariously out of the side of the mountain and under it – open air all the way down for several hundred feet to the bottom of the cliff. On the top of the turtle’s head stood this troop of young men, one of them – the largest of the troop – let us call him Biff – stood upon a mat of the same type of moss I spoke of earlier (for those of you botany nerds out there it was Twisted-hair spikemoss (Selaginella tortipila). Biff then started to move forward on the moss mat…and then he started to lean out to get a look over the edge. One false move and Biff would have died a horrible death as his body impacted on the rocks hundreds of feet below. Outrageous! In this rapidly evolving situation, I had no other choice but to call out to stop him from continuing forward and making a huge mistake that ended only in a dead-end – so I forcefully said – STOP!

Biff and his comrades stopped, looked up, perplexed at the voice that came from seemingly out of nowhere. I stood in the middle of the trail, about 50 feet or so away, with the open-air gap between the cliffs and “turtle head rock” in between us. Biff stared with a glare of hatred that I felt might ignite me. I then said. “You are all in a very unsafe location. Please, everyone move back off the rock the way you came and cross back over the fence and onto the trail.” Biff stood up straight, put his hands on his hips, and said something insulting and guttural under his breath that I could not fully understand and then he said loudly – “WHY SHOULD I!?!?” I calmly said – “Gravity.” Biff looked at me in silent, beady-eyed, mouth-breathing, stupidity. Then, he and his troop of brainless bipedal primates turned and reluctantly started to make their way back over the fence to the trail. While they were clambering over the fence I quickly made my way to their location and waited for them to all cross onto the trail. Finally, the ape-like Biff crossed over the fence at which point he turned, and squared up with me – he was a head taller, a foot wider, and mighty muscled – his fists were clenched, his face was bright red, and he started spitting venomous words and insults directly in my face. I could smell the alcohol on his breath and this revelation helped me understand more about his recalcitrance. I let him finish his toxic diatribe and in answer to his final question of “Who gives you the right to tell me what to do!!??” Again, I calmly said – “Gravity.” He stared blankly at me and his face turned another shade of red. He then said, “What the fuck man, – are you some kind of know-it-all egghead!!??” I replied – “Yes, I suppose I am and thank you for the compliment.” He grunted, fumed like an enraged bull, with the veins in his neck popping out as he started moving even closer to me and at that moment I thought he was going to pile drive me into the trail with one of his meaty, sledgehammer-like, clenched fists. I backed against the cliff wall and had nowhere to go and simply said – “The moss you were standing on is not well attached to the rock. Had I not stopped you when I did, your dead, broken body would be bleeding on the rocks at the bottom of that cliff right now and your own stupidity – and gravity – would have been to blame.” He stopped, backed away from me, became very quiet, and stared at me for what seemed like a very long moment, a moment in which I could almost hear the tiny wheels turning in his minuscule, alcohol-soaked, monkey brain, pulsating somewhere in the dark void behind his squinting little eyes and his tomato-red, sweat-beaded face – he then backed off, turned, and said to his troop of muscle-bound monkey boys – “Come on team, this asshole is not worth our time.” They all then laughed at Biff’s lame comment and as a group then turned and started lurching like troglodytic cavemen along the trail. As I followed at a safe distance I could not help but notice that they looked like a troop of testosterone-fueled teen-aged baboons hell-bent on getting themselves into any and all mischief and mayhem they could find. Soon, we came to a fork in the trail where I found the group gathered around Biff looking at a park map. I asked if I could be of any assistance and Biff turned and yelled at me “Hell No! – you wimpy little MF!!”

That was it. These individuals – mainly Biff – were clearly unstable and a possible danger to themselves and to other park visitors so I calmly said “That’s it. It is time to go. Everyone head down that trail to the left and then to your cars. It is time to go home.” Biff turned and again squared up to me, his face even redder than before – and bellowed “you and what army!” I put my hand on my radio and said – “Just try it. In moments you will have a swarm of rangers, maintenance men, and police all over you and your “team” – and, by the way – there is only one way in – and out – of this park.” At this new knowledge, Biff chose wisely and backed down, turned, and they all headed down the trail to the parking area. I followed close behind – but at enough of a distance so I could discretely call ahead to the staff managing parking and let them know what happened. I gave them a description of the toxically masculine alcohol and testosterone fueled gorilla Biff and his troop of yes men and I asked them to escort them safely out of the park. When we arrived at the parking area Biff and his “team” got into their vehicles and sped off down the mountain – with the parking chief following not far behind. She later radioed me to report that Biff and his boys had stopped and tried to take off on another trail but she stopped them and made them get back in their cars and move along. By the time they reached the park entrance a few miles below, a local police officer was waiting to escort them out of town – just to put the fear of the long arm of the law into them and make them think twice about ever again acting like knuckle-dragging, slack-jawed, sub-human, primates* when visiting private property. *I know, this is an insult to respectable primates everywhere – but it is the best descriptivism I can come up with without getting really nasty.

Yet another example…

Once, again while I was working at Chimney Rock Park, I encountered a man and woman hiking down the trail in front of me – very slowly. This would not normally be an issue – people are free to hike at whatever speeds they want to. The issue on this particular day was the massive gray-green cumulonimbus cloud towering thousands of feet overhead and now starting to sink down under the mass of all the water it was carrying and about to unleash as fury on the countryside and all the tiny creatures therein. As I approached the slow moving individuals I could not help but notice that the male of the couple was a towering mass of tan, rippling human muscle with a neck thicker than my body, tattoos on his bulging, sweaty biceps, a tight mesh tank top, shorts that were several sizes too small, a buzz cut, and wrap-around mirror style sunglasses. The female was drop-dead gorgeous – maybe a model – with greatly enhanced centerfold/Barbie-doll proportions, a very revealing in all the right places red sundress, she had long flowing shiny-black hair reaching down to her waist, her hands ended in shiny black long fingernails, and her silky legs ended in red stiletto heels. Ah, that was it – the heels – that is what was slowing them up (why on earth would anyone try to hike this rugged, unimproved, mountain trail in stiletto heels – it is a wonder she had not already broken an ankle!) I ran up to them and said something like: “You folks need to get moving, the park is closing soon and you are the last ones on the trail and we are closing things up for the night.” The woman shot me a glare and the man turned his gorilla-like bulk toward me and said “What gives you the right to speak to us in that way!?” I just pointed up at the sky and said – “That massive storm and the fact that I am a park ranger and what I say, goes.” Then I said “Ma’am, if you don’t take off those heels right away and get moving a bit faster – we may all end up casualties when this storm unleashes its energy on us!” They both looked up and at that moment there was a huge clap of thunder and an icy wind screamed across the exposed cliff face where we were standing. Both of them looked instantly terrified and the woman struggled to keep her tiny dress from revealing too much – but the wind had other ideas. As she fought to keep her dress on she braced against her mountainous male partner, quickly removed her shoes – and they both took off running down the trail with me in hot pursuit. All the while I was hoping neither of them tripped and fell and broke a bone and I would then have to call for a carry-out in this kind of wild weather. Soon, we came to a great dark crack in the rocks known as the “Needles Eye” – if you have never ventured through the Needles Eye I will attempt to describe it for you – imagine a giant rock, several stories in height, with a narrow crack running through the middle of the rock. In that crack is constructed a precarious set of stairs with a spiral staircase at the midway point – it is probably one of the steepest spiral staircases in the world.

The Needle’s Eye from above
The Needle’s Eye from below

No two steps in the spiral are the same size – it was an amazing feat of engineering but sadly, it is no longer in existence due to safety code requirements. But on that day in the late 1990’s it was – and when we reached the top of the staircase we started down just as the clouds opened up and started dumping giant cold drops of rain – with embedded tiny ice crystals – all around and upon us. It was a beautiful show of nature’s power – but I also knew then that we were in for a monster of a storm. As we made our way carefully down the staircase we could hear howling winds and sheets of rain moving over the mountain and huge claps of thunder echoing throughout the gorge and the rocky crevice we were making our way through. None of us spoke, we just moved as fast as possible down the stairs and through the crack in the mountain – terrified at what was coming and hoping that we were not about to get washed out of the crack like the spider in the drainpipe. As we soon exited the relative safety of the Needle’s Eye the rain was now coming down in a torrent and our clothes were instantly saturated – I could not help but notice that “Barbie’s” tiny red dress was now clinging to her in a way that – even with the life-threatening storm screaming all around us – burned a mark forever in my brain (I blame my testosterone for that last comment). We all ran faster and made it to the trailhead at the parking lot just as larger hailstones began to fall. The couple thanked me, jumped in their Hummer, and sped off into the growing storm.

I made my way up the elevator to the Sky Lounge where I joined the other park staff to watch the storm unfold from the safety of the lounge. After the power blinked a few times and the storm did not let up, I and the other employees were dismissed to head home. As I drove down the mountain and through the gorge in my 1965 Series IIa Land Rover, I realized that this was not your average late summer storm – it was a real monster. Not only was the rain falling so fast and hard that my windshield wipers were useless, but the sheer volume of water falling from the sky and running across the road was unimaginable and truly frightening to witness. About a mile west of the park’s main gate I saw headlights shining up from the left at an odd angle – I slowed and peered through the torrent of rain to see a car half submerged in the Rocky Broad River! Its driver’s door was open and I could see that no one was inside as raging waves of water were crashing over the submerged trunk of the car. There was also no one around so I could only hope they had made it safely to shore. Then I heard one of the most frightening yet amazing sounds – a sound that I have only heard one other time in my life – the sound of huge car-sized boulders being pushed around in the river by the rapidly building flash-flood. Both frightening and amazing because the power of nature is both of these things. This was when I decided it was time to get the hell out of the gorge as fast as possible – or I may not be able to get out because I still had travel several miles of twisting narrow mountain road and cross one more bridge over the rapidly swelling river. After slowly making my way up the remainder of the road – and crossing several torrents of water gravity was pulling down the steep mountainsides from above – I finally came to the place where the bridge was supposed to be – and luckily, it was still there. I slowly drove over the bridge and started up HWY 64 towards home. The higher I climbed the lighter the rain became. When I topped out in the small community of Edneyville the rain had stopped and it was a beautiful afternoon. I pulled off the road and looked back toward the gorge only to see a massive towering anvil of a cumulonimbus cloud – one of the largest ones I had ever seen in the mountains. It looked more like a cloud one would see associated with a tornado on the Great Plains or a Hurricane out in the Gulf of Mexico – not sitting stationary over the Hickory Nut Gorge. It was truly a freak storm. As the hours passed that storm ended up being one of the most terrifying and terrible flash flooding events the Hickory Nut Gorge had ever seen. It dumped over a foot of rain in just a few hours and, due to the steepness of the terrain, it laid waste to almost the entire gorge area, destroyed several bridges, homes, and businesses, and shut everything down for several weeks until the damage could be cleaned up and repaired.

More on the storm of ’96 can be found here: https://www.weather.gov/media/gsp/localdat/cases/1996/Hickory_Nut_Gorge_Flood.pdf

On that wild wet day I listened to the warnings of nature, helped two absolutely oblivious individuals move along (possibly saving their lives in the process), and, as fast as possible, took measures to get myself out of what was becoming a very bad situation.

Similarly, in many other situations, I have had to separate countless people from potentially dangerous self-imposed situations with snakes, bears, alligators, deer, thorny and toxic plants, moving water, wind, sand, and even sunlight, heat/cold, ice, snow, and rain. It boggles the brain how so many people can be so incredibly stupid so often – and it is almost always just to get a unique photo or “not have their vacation ruined by the weather.”

After seeing this kind of crazy exhibited by so many humans at so many separate locales and situations I, and many of the wonderful rangers, naturalists, and officers I have worked with in these locations and circumstances – have come to the conclusion that, at least with a portion of the weekend-warrior type segment of the human population of this country, it seems that some of these individuals may, in fact, develop a syndrome we ranger and naturalist-types call the “amusement park mentality.” This is the idea that if one has to pay for access into a private, state, or national park – then that this area must be safe – like an amusement park is presumed to be. Somehow to these people, it seems nature must somehow be “tamed” in these areas, or fabricated, fake, a show, and nothing can hurt you – apparently not even gravity. The animals are friendly and tame, the snakes are all non venomous, the bees can’t sting, and – yes, even the bears are friendly and are put up in their cages for the night along with the waterfalls which are turned off when the park closes its gates. This – nature cannot hurt me amusement park mentality – has been the cause of many an injury and death of countless individuals in countless wild places all over this country and possibly the world. Oddly, from my observations of people from almost three decades of personal experience, it seems that – for whatever the reasons – it is primarily Americans who exhibit this bizarre, common sense lacking trait. I wonder why that is?

And today I find myself wondering if some of the people that I – and all of us park ranger types – have asked to step back from the edge, cross back over those fences, distance themselves from the wildlife, get out of the weather, etc. – are these now some of the same folks who choose to ignore the experts and not wear masks, not stay out of crowded places, not get vaccinated, open up their businesses, cities, and states too early, and/or believe all the conspiracy “theory” nonsense such as but not limited to the erroneous belief that the virus was manufactured in a lab as a bio-weapon or as a way to control the population, tracking devices in vaccines, 5G will give you COVID and/or allow the government to track you via your vaccine – instead of listening to the actual experts, the peer-reviewed evidence, and good old common sense during a global pandemic?

Sadly, and to put it bluntly – many of today’s big brained bipedal primates do not seem to be in any way fit for survival on this gravity-created, water-soaked, rock we call home. The only things keeping them alive are dumb luck, laws, and those who enforce the laws therefore keeping those who lack intelligence and common sense from making the stupid decisions that would have quickly weeded them out of the gene pool.

From a purely Darwinian perspective – could it be that by asking a certain some of them to cross back over to the safe side of the fence – we may have unintentionally spawned many of the problems we are facing today…

Nature is a harsh mistress.

She does not care about us, so if we want to survive, we must care about ourselves and care about each other. We must learn as much as possible about how things work and become naturally and scientifically literate – we must listen to those who know and trust their knowledge until better knowledge comes along.

Nature only gives us two choices in life: adapt or die.

Improvise, adapt, overcome, survive, thrive, live!

Please consider supporting my nature and wildlife conservation nonprofit organization Earthshine Nature Programs.

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