After spending all afternoon at the first watering hole, floating in the cool water and diving off cliff faces, back at camp we decided to hike to the falls the next morning. Not that there was much of a decision to be made about it, really. Cean had traveled upstream toward them four times before, yet on each of his previous camping trips at Arroyo Seco, for one reason or another, he’d never made it all the way. Not for lack of trying, or because it was all that difficult to get there (although it did involve sections where you had to swim upstream). It just — never worked out. His Irish luck.
It was our second day of his fifth time camping. Oak trees shaded our site from the morning sun for only so long. Kaelon, Cean’s best friend, was late arriving that morning. He was driving up from the coast and it was odd, Cean felt, for him to be this late. Kae was the up-before-dawn kind of outdoorsman. The kind that usually made me feel somewhat or completely insufficient about my whole imagined endeavor as a human who might have to survive like this someday. There was no cell service, so we had to rely on the older ways of communicating. By inference, most often, or guesswork or notes left on car windshields. After about an hour of that quiet, slow campsite deliberation, we decided to walk back up the hot dry winding path without him.
My sister Trin and her best friend Talya brought along their small dogs, Cruiser and Buster. Within two minutes on the path, I have bad chaffing on the insides of my thighs from all of the hiking and swimming and heat and not wearing underwear and was sauntering along the path like a cowboy. Eventually, everyone noticed and teased when we stopped in shaded areas to water ourselves and the dogs. It was a long hike, felt like at least two miles there and seven on the way back. Longer in distance, but shorter in duration, somehow, once you knew the path in reverse. One of the water bottles, Talya’s, still had ice in it. The path cut high up along the western side of a ridge, hundreds of feet above the river and the sun wasn’t quite yet visible on all of the northern faces of the sloping path.
We spend the rest of the morning at the first watering hole waiting for Kae, who does arrive, work having delayed his departure that morning, his arms stretched above his head in greeting hundreds of feet above us on the path. We collect the water toys that were unclaimed by anyone left there the day before, a snorkel and inflatable raft with a hole in it that Kae patches with duct tape from his backpack. We film slow-motion video diving from the cliffs, Kae and Cean from some newly discovered higher top at least 75 feet above, Trin and I from the middle and below, Talya across the water on an outcropping of rock counting down from three and holding the camera lens in our direction and then into the water. She won’t jump today; she hated jumping yesterday. We snack and hydrate and sunscreen and pack up, raft above Kae’s arms, the duct tape patch a perfect target for his head.
We hike in a single file line along the path toward the horse trail bridge, stopping at the fire warning sign for Cean, recently trained as a volunteer firefighter, to explain snags; dead trees, possibly from fires, that can fall unexpectedly and kill you, if you aren’t careful and listening. Heads up, eyes up. Also, the same sign, upon closer inspection, says that this trail is actually “closed.” But that’s only if you read the sign and follow its rules. Nothing else about it looked or seemed closed. We cross the bridge and begin to head upriver, christening the patched raft in the wide and shallow waters underneath the bridge, to carry the dogs and backpacks, and slowly walk upstream.
In the sections where we are swimming, the current is never too strong, and the rocky cliff edges line the narrows with shade and trees. We stop under a curving, swooping tree, fashioning its own furniture, for lunch. The river curves and dips, each segment like a small new scene, and now we are in the third act of the day. It turns, onto a scene where branches sip the water, curves into places where the rocks fall, paces itself down into a sandbar cove.
A single hiker, with a waterproof disposable film camera and inner-tube and rope all tied together, as if he were on an impossible adventure from the mid-nineties, passes our lunch area, stopping only long enough to monologue he is headed to the gorge, like us.
There is a pattern, for at least another hour after lunch as it was for the hour before; dogs in the raft first, surrounded by bags in the raft, float or walk or doggie paddle or frog kick up through the water again until it is too shallow or broken by rapids to continue in the water, or when the path is clearly better. Walking along the uneven rocks begins to hurt my hips now, but the chafing is relieved when we are in the water. My stomach is upset. It has been since we crossed the bridge, now that I’m thinking about it. Talya at various points vocally shares, in a sing-song kind of way that sounds like a joke, holding on to the back of the raft, that she is at her extreme limit of physical activity but nervously laughs, and Trin is the only one understanding perhaps that the laughter is the more serious discomfort.
We have unloaded and carried and reloaded and traveled through poison oak and pointed it out and hobbled and bouldered and kicked through sand at least a dozen times when we come around on land to a small sandbar campsite. There are two sleeping bags and signs of a cooked meal. I am starting to have a greater upset stomach, too, and think that if we don’t get to these waterfalls soon, I will need to stop and find a place to relieve myself in the brush and bush. The trees lean out over onto the water, tall and willow or aspen lower here than the oak above, and a large dirt cliff wall stretches up and then ahead of us. There is a big mouth of river before a long and deep slot canyon of at least two or three hundred feet and just as we are about to drop the dogs back into the raft to continue on, or I am about to suggest that I need to find a spot to pop a squat, above us someone has let off a single massive loud firework or fired a very loud gun.
Or crack of thunder in an otherwise a clear blue sky. And then a reeling crescendo of moving earth. Like it would sound in a large earthquake if the ground weren’t still so steady. Or it is an avalanche and we need to go — I’m not certain to where. We are all looking around, Kae and Cean ahead of me in the river ankle deep, Trin and Talya behind me with the dogs in the shade of the trees. It’s not good, is about all I’m able to think before I look up the cliff directly above us for a sign of a rock slide or movement. None.
Then, as my eyes turn back down to the river ahead of the raft, I see something. Upstream, between the cliffs, not more than 150 feet ahead of us. But I’m really not able to understand the scene unfolding for us, a massive oak tree upside down bouncing off the right side of the slot canyon, cracking at the large joint of the trunk, and exploding into the water. A rush of waves toward us. Then quiet again. Then a collective “wow.” Then laughter, I think from Cean. “Did you see that?” No, I was looking in that general direction but just couldn’t see what it was. Adrenaline kicks in harder now that the visuals matched the acoustics. Heart and everything body wise (except that stomach ache) heightened. More laughter. And fear.
A series of foot high tidal waves and debris crest at our shins in the water. Wet kindling or the dirty, unkempt mess of the outer edge of a barked playground, like evidence of play. Cean and Kae are ahead, I’m in the middle, Trin is out of the water with Cruiser, and Talya and Buster are back in the shade, already making their way back to camp between bouts of nervous laughter.
Kae says, “That was super rare. Not something you might ever see if your lifetime.”
From the trees, Talya asks, “Why are you laughing?”
“Because we didn’t die. I’m laughing because we are alive,” Cean replies.
The dogs are just fine. We are fine, in body. In spirit and emotion, things unravel. My stomach really hurts now. There is that sense, unspoken. If you can translate rock and river and wood, it’s spelling out O M E N. S I G N. H A L T. If you chose to believe in that kind of thing.
Cean thinks the waterfalls are close. Because he’s never been this far up. “We should keep going. I want to keep going.”
“That was the tree. There aren’t going to be other trees that will fall. That was its time.”
Trin walks up to him in the river now, “I know you don’t believe in signs, but I think that means we aren’t supposed to go any further.”
The pregnancy of danger was over, invisible, no bump in the gestation. Literally above us, out of sight, like the piano or anvil hanging. That was all before — now we were in the after.
The water is dirty. The water still moves, though. It doesn’t stop. I’ve walked out ahead of everyone else to get a better look. I turn back around and notice the personality test results standing in front of me. We all reacted in different ways, the danger like a spectrograph. Talya, over the limit, in the shade, already on her way back, afraid (rightly so, but feeling also like she was against the energy of the group). Trin leaning, not decisively toward the immediate (but multi-hour) return to camp. Kae and Cean both intensely aware of mortality and ready to push through. I didn’t die, none of us died, so I’d really like see what is on the other side of this river chasm. It feels close. It also feels like a sign. Of what, though, I’m not certain. Two minutes slower, and we’d have been — I don’t know. It’s tough to say. We’ve been hiking for hours (and therefore, it will take hours to get back, and there’d be just as much unseen, unpredictable danger behind as ahead).
The water settles but is still dirty. The weight of the tree, its impossible, villian-less, heavy bull-like strength when pressed back down into the chasm of the earth, at rest again. Just two minutes faster, I begin to think and pick apart our timeline. There would have been no time to move. This imagined pain, an accident but too small to be called a natural disaster, the way you could just be swept into a wet darkness. It dragged you under water. It knocked you unconscious. There was blood mixed in with the debris as it floated downstream. This nearly happened. Not just that you could have died, but there it could have reached down onto more than one of us and drenched the wick of our breath with its branches and trunk. There would have been diving, and tears, and vomiting from the water in your lungs. And witnesses, all alone. Intimate witnesses only. The imagination is the real killer here. You don’t think this just yet, but a branch slivers its way in and will never leave you. Naturally imagined trauma without the other dramas of life.
And here, standing in front of me, four personality differences and the edges of our individual and shared mortality.
I am directly in the middle of the group, feeling everyone and each of these positions equally. I suggest a compromise: “Let’s go swim up to the tree, check it out, touch what nearly killed us, and then we can go back.”
Three of us swim out. It takes, yes, about two minutes.
The trunk of the tree is wedged upside down, ants and charred black internal bits exposed. It seems relatively healthy. We can stand on it, however exactly it is lodged against one side of the cliff can’t be seen. Firm. Solid. We have the clear and green goggles we picked up in the morning and had not used until now. Under the water, starting about five feet below, us a kelp forest of the green tree leaves shimmers. Like an alien landscape from the surface.
“You ever see anything like this before.”
This tree just now dead, the leaves still green under the water. And they would stay, photosynthesizing until the water slowly attempted to do what it does. Push everything downstream.
Four minutes later and we would have just been swimming above this, leaves scraping at our legs; the whole conversation and debate about going further on the other side of the gap of narrows, if at all.
The depth below us is surreal. Green water, green leaves on branches reaching up toward the surface, and each of us take a turn with the goggles over our eyes, diving down between the branches. It’s beautiful, in a way that doesn’t seem reasonable. Like kelp.
We swim back to the shore and the raft and the dogs.
Talya is quiet but it’s clear there had been words, and Trin is unable to hold much more space. “We gotta go,” she tells us urgently.
Cean attempts to leave a note to the campsite on the sandbar – this is not a safe place.
Leaves and bits are swept downstream, some a fair bit ahead of us, others after we leave. The entrails of the tree, haunting debris. There isn’t a lot of talking for the next while. Just flashes of an unrequited trauma.