The Perfect Summer: Cummins Falls

A hidden swimming hole in Tennessee

Illustration: Illustrations by Jawaan Burge

I first came to Cummins Falls a week after it was opened as a Tennessee state park, and it was morning, and we had it to ourselves. We’d driven ninety miles from Nashville, then hiked an hour, first down into a gorge and then back up the river, and such was the sight of the falls—a little Brazil, or a little Hawaii, hidden all this time west of the Cumberland Plateau—that at once I was hurrying to be as close as I could to it.

It’s funny how I still do this, how my feet still get light when I’m going there. And funny to remember an early impulse I had that first trip, to go home and lie and say it wasn’t worth seeing. As if those green pools, and the great arc of limestone, and the endless falling of water could ever be diminished under the gaze of eyes, or as if beauty is ever mine. But innocence seems to prevail here, and the small thought is easily carried off.

I still like to go early, before the crowds, and after a swim I climb higher again and sit on some matted algae with the thinner waters falling right on me. The sun comes around the ledge at the end of morning, and the brightened mist is almost unbearable. At this time I tend to imagine Native Americans, a tribe name I should know, and I wonder if they came here with wrapped lunches, and if the older ones would also jump into the pool and remember being children. Down below a dad has carried a big cooler all the way from the car. And here are some pale visitors who work in offices. All around they are jumping and waving and slipping and shouting. But I cannot hear any of them, just the great hush of the water and walls. This is like a silent film, I always say. And if the beauty’s not ours, the glee is.