Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Spruce Flats Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A short but rocky and rooted trail leads to the plunge pool at the base of Tennessee's Spruce Flats Falls. | Photo by John Collins


This afternoon's lesson is on geology and the 480 million years it took to form what are among the oldest mountains on earth. But what the dozen fifth-graders under my charge really want to see is the waterfall that comes midway through our hike. It's the first day of their weeklong class trip to Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, an outdoor-education center in the national park. 

When we finally reach Spruce Flats Falls, a mossy paradise forged in dark shade rises all around. Creek water tumbles over bedrock, writing in cursive as it runs past our feet. One boy belts out the first line of "The Star-Spangled Banner." I demonstrate how to make face paint using river stones, and the kids begin streaking their cheeks with reds and greens. Were I to yell "Free puppies for everyone!," no one would pay me any mind.

Another boy, I notice, has just peed in his pants. His body shakes a little as he gazes spellbound at the waterfall. I ask him if he's all right, and he whispers, "My mom would never let me do this if she were here." 

The hike, the face painting, the freedom he has been given to explore--it's all too much for him. And just right. As someone who grew up before helicopter parenting, I find it hard to imagine a mother wary of her son's exploring the world beyond four walls and pixels on a screen. But times have changed. 

"Well, she's not here," I say. "But I bet she'd be proud of you." I tie a jacket around his waist to obscure the wet spot on the front of his trousers. On our walk back to campus, I take up the rear, watching as his clumsy feet trip over easily avoidable objects. He glances around each time in search of the culprit rock or root, the expression o n his face saying, What in the world was that? 

The clouds roil over the mountains, while down in the leaf shade of deepest Appalachia, a boy is making first contact with the earth. Flashing a smile no one can see, I feel lucky to be witnessing it.

  • “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’”
    —Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring"
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