Highlands is the former Seven Caves attraction, which has been closed to grow the bat population. When we stopped at the former gift shop, now museum, library and guide station, one college friend, the plant pathologist for the State of Tennessee, carried on quite a conversation about the white mold that's diminished bats. Fortunately, the attendant said, it hadn't reach Highlands; another reason the walkways, electricity and tourist traffic were removed from the caves.
This slice of beauty seems to maintain the perfect balance between nature and man, preservation and cultivation, awareness and relaxation. The lodge and surrounding trails were perfect for our group's reconnection. I arrived first – barely. The drive out State Route 50 was slow and beautiful, easing me into a more contemplative rhythm. Peering down the paved path from the drive, I spotted more than enough white rockers for our group and took that as a welcome sign. Inside, I dropped my bags and just sighed. This was it, the place I have been searching for: rustic, but not antiquated, preserved, but not stuffy. Seems the original 1920s wicker in terrific shape has been retained. Five bedrooms with two single beds each line the sides of the lodge. In the center is a fire place and staircase to the lower level of kitchen, prep area, large dinging room and porched piazza. Upstairs are two living rooms, a large porch with swings, two more intimate, closed porches and a bathroom with double toilets and showers. This would be just fine, I told myself, scrambling to think of other opportunities to rent this gem.
We arrived in clumps, all within an hour or so of my entrance. And, the parade of food never stopped. We began to wonder just how long we'd intended to stay, but with a gathering of mothers, we never go hungry nor run out of conversation. I think we all wished the weekend wouldn't end.
After a late night chatting – some into the wee hours – we shared breakfast (pumpkin waffles and maple syrup) and headed out for a hike. Two planners selected the trail, but we opted to stop at the station. Unfortunately, with four of us crammed in the back, the driver hit an undetected old stone. Ouch, her SUV said. Its owner was much more gracious. Back on the narrow roads, we passed the hidden trail, then backtracked, parked and walked to the river. I happily crossed into the water and over stones in my Vibram Five Fingers, my yoga shoes with separate toe compartmments. I caught some flack earlier for wearing them, but squishing in the mud is wonderful. Dead end. The trail began on the other side of the road. Go figure, it wasn't visible from the car and literature mentioned it wouldn't be as they encourage hiking, but want to preserve and return the forest.
It was a beautiful hike on an Indian summer afternoon flanked by women I grew up with: through finals and flirting, serious relationships and break-ups, good roomies and bad. I was so intent on listening to a conversation as we walked single file, that I lifted my eyes from the trail and tangle of roots only momentarily when, I felt a glacial shiver in reaction to contact with something cold and slimy on my ankle. Instinctively, I walked past until my mind ached to know what sort of mud would reach only above my foot and not encase the rest of the shoe. Not mud, but a very long, writhing and rising snake, unhappy with the close encounter. We all took many giant steps away and watched as it seethed from being disturbed. I felt empathy – from a distance. I hadn't mean to disturb this creature and seemed to have stepped up against its coil, not directly on it.
I wouldn't get close enough to identify it, but we were pretty certain it wasn't a rattler or copperhead. Even in that moment of recognition, I felt as if this were a symbolic experience, not necessarily a visceral one. That thought was reinforced minutes later when, on another path, an even longer, very black serpent of sorts slithered across into an old shed. In all my years of visiting the Smokies and heading out solo once to the desert to paint and realizing that was ridiculous, I've never seen a big snake outside of glass. Then two within the hour? We were all a little stunned.
We returned to the cabin warm and sweaty, ready for showers and a cold beer. There was a squeal as Deb discovered a wide worm in the drain. What sort of conspiracy was this? Alone, she probably wouldn't have thought twice about collecting him and tissue and letting him loose off the front porch. But a third slimy thing?
When I returned home and caught up my best friend, she automatically said it meant that I had brushed with something dark and it hadn't harmed me. That I had gotten past unscathed. Interesting, I thought and, later googled the symbolism of the snake. I wasn't expecting its significance: primal energy, life source, healing, transformation and ... purification. Wasn't that the VERY same word my spiritual director drew for me at the beginning of the year; my word for the year?
The snake or serpent also signifies spiritual guidance, a period of transition or personal growth, stepping into the unknown, needing support and a reminder to stay grounded as one moves through changes. These are big ideas that do mean something in my life. They connect to other events and experiences. I see them as hopeful and positive, perhaps not always easy.
However, when I read that the snake represents our vital energy, coiled at the base of the spine and the movement of kundalini, I was reminded of my last shamanic/massage session two days before the snakes appeared. I had asked for opening and, of course, hip work. My careful therapist waited til the end to get to the hips, especially the one injured so many years ago. And, he actually got a part to unlock. "That old, stubborn thing," I'd carelessly remarked. "It doesn't know any different than to hold all of that energy," Gary responded. So I have been gentler, waiting ... for the snake, I suppose.
• When have I had an encounter with an animal that held a message?
• How aware was I in that moment?
• What were the circumstances?
• What did I learn?
• What place do I believe animals hold in the world?
geared up to
relax and play
of the five years
since we'd met
face to face
all of us
the bonds of
growth we collectively
and, together, we
took the untrodden
path, hard to
locate, yet beautiful
and terrifying as
clothed just as
the forest floor
and out of
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