Machine Falls: where endurance hikers, leaders are born

The accordion-like hike chugs along with ease.  Then, a collective cautiousness seeps in.  Ahead, a 60-foot descension. Disjointed stones, hard-to-identify wooden staircases, and protruding tree roots offer occasional guidance with each unsure footstep. A steep, jagged drop any hiker would question. Then, her voice echoes toward the group: “Take your time,” said Outdoor Afro volunteer leader Danielle Young, 35. “There’s no rush.” 

“Whew!” Some blurted. “Thank goodness!” Another wave murmured under their breath. Once that part of the hiking gauntlet completes, everyone temporarily lands back on solid ground. Young gives clear direction for this next part: It’s slippery entering the water. Which, by the way, comes to one’s knee. Something she gave notice about weeks before on Outdoor Afro’s Tennessee Meetup page. 

“So walk slowly,” Young said. “I will be there at the halfway point to tell you where to go next.” A woman of her word, she does. For the last time as an Outdoor Afro volunteer leader. An assignment she now passes to new 2022 volunteer leader Danae Gaiter, 36.  After a few mental scares and semi-water treading hesitations, the party of nearly 15 community participants arrive at their destination: Machine Falls Loop Trail in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Roughly an hour drive from Nashville.

The aerospace and aviation hub in Southern Middle Tennessee is home to the world’s most advanced flight testing center. Railroad construction actually created the community, which chartered in 1852. However, the city’s surrounding springs became popular tourist attractions alongside its growing avionics history. Machine Falls became one of Tullahoma’s many challenging sightseeing routes and waterfalls visitors wanted to test. Explore water life (creek beds and smaller waterfalls), fauna, and flora as pluses to the trail.

The Machine Falls Loop is one of the most physically challenging hiking trails in Tullahoma, Tennessee.

Positioned off a 4.1-mile loop, the more than 60-foot-tall waterfall is a top Outdoor Afro activity on Tennessee participants’ to-visit list. For the past three years, Young has guided those interested in the destination on Outdoor Afro weekend adventures. COVID paused group trips to Machine Falls until recently. However, Young found personal peace at the waterfall while waiting for network events to start again. Outdoor Afro has helped Young in present times of grief.

“Logging offline and heading into nature is just soothing, especially with everything that has been thrown at me,” said Young, a cyber defense major. Because Young plans to move closer to her sister who lives in Texas, she recommended Gaiter as her volunteer leader replacement. Gaiter, who participated in her very first Outdoor Afro activity in November 2021, accepted. As network events posted to Meetup, Gaiter joined more journeys with Young. Refreshed. Inspired.

“It felt so good to be with like-minded people,” said Gaiter. “Breathing in the early morning air. That sense of being welcomed. Getting all my questions about nature answered.” Sold on taking Young’s place, Gaiter applied to become an Outdoor Afro volunteer leader. After many screenings and interviews by the networks’ national program director, Chaya Harris, Gaiter joined the Class of 2022 volunteer leaders. Totaling 117 volunteers this year. Next, Gaiter hopped on a flight to Granby, Colorado, for Outdoor Afro Leadership Training (OALT) held at River Run RV Resort. 

Class of 2022 volunteer leader Danae Gaiter with former volunteer leader Danielle Young at Machine Falls.

Another weekend experience but for selected and trained applicants to gain the essential tools needed to guide local communities in nature sustainably and safely. The training is organized annually by Outdoor Afro staff and experienced volunteer leaders who share the organization’s history, values, best practices, and industry knowledge, including: trip planning basics; health impacts of nature conservation ethics; risk management; and effective social media storytelling. Select partners and guest speakers are invited to the training to provide field insights, and share inspiration and encouragement.

After training, volunteer leaders like Gaiter create and guide monthly trips that foster local program collaborations, and help strengthen community relationships with land, water, and wildlife. Volunteers center joy and healing, disrupting a false perception that Black people do not have a relationship to nature. “I’m really big on making people feel comfortable,” said Gaiter. “We belong in this space. I look forward to reassuring our participants that there is safety in numbers within group experiences.” Gaiter’s contributions are part of Outdoor Afro’s 60,000 participation network.

The national not-for-profit organization spans 60 cities across the country. Located in 32 states, including Washington, D.C. That moment at Machine Falls where participants made it safely and together to the cascading water scene is what OALT prepares volunteer leaders for. The arduous hike left 67-year-old Jesse Green Jr. of Nashville in anticipation for the local network’s next nature quest.  “I could have stayed at that waterfall all day with Outdoor Afro,” said Green Jr., a former YMCA certified swim instructor trainer. “I loved hearing the water. Although it was really cold water, it was a great experience with new people.”

Outdoor Afro MarComm Manager Candace Dantes interviewing Nashville network participant and sweeper Nicole.