Written by Blake Blackmon
Images by Trey Walker
I did not wear appropriate shoes. A pension for aesthetic obscured any level of practicality for the terrain that lay ahead. I knew the destination: large rock forms towering at the edge of mountains where our pictures were to be taken at sunset. What I hadn’t considered was the uneven terrain in between where we parked and were to end up. The boots were heeled. I made my way down like a newborn fawn, legs wobbling as I navigated roots, rocks and more rocks.
When I finally was able to take my eyes off my feet, I found myself stilled in awe. A mere 2 hours away from Columbus, Ga, up a winding road, is the tallest point in Alabama: Cheaha State Park. The walk to our destination was short, made difficult merely by the aforementioned poor choice in footwear. The clearing before us may not have been the highest point, but it was enough to cause my palms to sweat.
180 feet above the ground, we stood, an expansive view of treetops stretching for miles before us. A lake reduced to a puddle by distance sparkled in the afternoon light made golden by the onset of fall. Mountains surrounded the drop. It had the kind of bigness that makes one feel like a speck; ocean bigness. Two feelings warred within me: exhilaration and fear and I tethered between the two the entirety of our stay.
What was foreign territory to me, was a comfortable and well-known playground for our photographer: Trey Walker. Trey is a multi-talented photographer based in Columbus, Ga who captures everything from brand images, portraits, weddings to adventure photography. Cheaha is one of his most treasured locations. He’s led workshops, conducted photoshoots and even repelled off the mighty cliffside.
As he bounced from rock to rock, camera in hand, it was hard for me to believe he was once afraid of heights. He moved comfortably at the edge as he talked with us and guided us into positions. At first, we shot close to the woods, the edge looming before us and we inched closer and closer. A steady pulse of discomfort, the good kind, moved through me in waves. I gripped the rock as I inched my legs to a near dangling position, I couldn’t quite commit. Trey was great about checking in to make sure we were comfortable, and I was great about continuing to be in denial with myself about my fear of heights.
The true test came at sunset. Golden light flickered through the trees and the sky became an impossible shade of pink. He motioned to a large rock extending out into the horizon and asked if we were up for it. It looked as if it floated in space above the trees so many miles below. I swallowed. To get to the rock we had to scale the side of the mountain damp from a nearby waterfall. I would have to go barefoot.
I studied Trey’s every movement as he demonstrated where to hold on and place our feet. Once he reached the other side after stepping across a small rock wedged between the two, I hesitated. I took a deep breath and eased my body down the side of the mountain trying to get my foot and hand placement just right. As I began my way across, I gripped the edge, pressing my body as close to the rock as it would go, I made the mistake of looking down. Between me and where Trey stood was that small, wedged rock that exposed a narrow peek of the drop below. Trey stretched out his hand before me and DB stood behind me hovering. I didn’t realize I had been holding my breath until a large exhale escaped me on the other side.
We made our way to the edge. It felt dizzying to be situated so high up with this panoramic view of spectacular color. My fear and awe twisted inside me as we posed for the sunset photos we came for. Trey got the shots he needed and we lingered before making the tricky cross back.
In Cheaha, high above where we normally experience sunsets in a matter of seconds, the splendor lingers, an encore after an already magnificent show. As I stood taking it in, I felt myself already feeling a sense of nostalgia rise within me for the current moment. I was watching the never-ending sunset thinking already of its end.
Back in the car I felt my comfort zone restored. I flipped my mind through the past months of quarantine and couldn’t remember the last time I felt myself slip in and out of comfort. Being on the outermost edge of one of these giant rocks where the normal safety of immediate surroundings dropped away like a curtain was the push I didn’t know I needed. As we drove the experience transformed itself to memory and I smiled at the thought of the golden edge of fear.