On the advice of National Geographic, I decided to spend the bulk of my waterfall time with Latourell Falls rather than the much more known (and crowded) Multnomah Falls. Latourell is in a state park right on the Historic Columbia River Highway in Northern Oregon. You can see the falls from the overlook in the parking lot, where I snapped a few photos and took a look at the park map and information.
The lower falls photo spot was listed at 0.3 miles up, and the upper falls at 0.8 miles. I figured I could do 0.8 easy (because I forgot the whole “uphill” aspect), and started up the trail. As I went up, the trail got muddier. At one point a small stream of water was going right across the path and I had to choose my steps carefully to avoid soaking my shoes. The area was idyllic and green. I can’t think of a better time to use the word lush. I could hear the water to my right the whole time, and I could sense the drop off on the side of the trail. I thought there would be a great view soon, once I got to a spot where the trees thinned out.
I let my thoughts wander, I hopped over a downed tree, and I got thirsty. I began to regret not bringing my water, but it seemed like such a short hike and it wasn’t even hot out. After a while I noticed that the rushing water sound was coming from a creek, and I realized I must have passed the top of the falls. I remembered the upper falls having a bridge the went right over the water, so I figured it must go over the creek. I couldn’t be far.
As I kept going my eyes would catch flashes of the creek just 20 or 30 feet below. I started to get tired, and the lushness was losing it’s charm. While the trees were beautiful, they were also thick, and I had no idea how far I’d gone. I hadn’t looked at the time when I set out. Had I been very smart, I would have remembered that my camera tracks the time photos are taken and I could use the pictures I took from the base of the falls to know that I’d been walking for more than half an hour, but that brilliant idea wouldn’t come to me until much later.
There was a small group hiking ahead of me, and sometimes I would look up to see if they appeared to have crossed a bridge yet. I looked up one final time, realized there wasn’t a bridge in the immediate vicinity, and decided to turn back. I was on a schedule, and after all, waterfalls are always more interesting from the bottom than from the top.
As I walked down, I saw a bench I hadn’t noticed on the way up. I must have been too focused on the trail. It was one of those dedication benches, with a long quote from the dearly departed engraved on it. I read the quote, then turned around. Benches usually face something, after all. This one, it turned out, faced a fantastic and clear view of Latourell Falls. It was exactly the view I had hiked up to see, and I had completely missed it. I looked at the trail and saw the small stream of water I’d worked so hard to avoid before. That must have been it. I was so focused on staying dry that I missed both the bench and the view. What an unfortunate coincidence that they would be in the same place. I took a few pictures and kept heading down.
And there was the waterfall again. And again. The view continued almost the entire way to the base of the trail. It was intermittent, but it was there more often than not. I had been so focused on the muddy trail and on carefully putting one foot in front of the other, I’d missed the whole thing. In my memory, the trees to my right were too thick to see through the entire way up the trail. Even after I went back down and discovered this to be completely false, I can’t replace those trees with the truth in my memory. Because in reality I was never looking up at all. I was looking at my own feet, and my brain made a picture of the world around me. Because my eyes weren’t looking up far enough to see the falls, my mind invented trees.
When I think about the implications of what I did, I keep remembering the phrase, “That’ll preach.” It’s something I’ve heard said among my fellow young adult Episcopalians when talking about a line of thinking, philosophy, or ideology that one could easily turn into a sermon. I could tell this story and talk about how we get so focused on little things, especially negative things, that we don’t notice the big things. I could talk about the need to slow down and take in your surroundings, or how important it is to be present in the moment. I want to encapsulate the experience into some witty phrase, like “Can’t see the waterfall for the mud.” But something seems forced in all of that. Maybe because I feel like I’ve heard this story before, with any number of morals tagged onto it.
I re-wrote several endings to this post, some hopeful and some depressing. I got a little carried away with myself and had to keep deleting and writing the ending over again. Which might be an indication that the good and meaningful parts of a story sometimes take longer to process.
For now, there’s really only one lesson I’m sure I learned. Focusing on something doesn’t always improve results. I still got mud all over my shoes.