The best thing about Triple Falls is just above it. Oneonta Creek is dropping steadily from its headwaters – not much further up the mountain – and just before the falls, it threads around a number of flattish rocks. It’s as easy as anything to walk out onto them, into the middle of the flow. Right to the edge, if you want. With the clear water combing itself out straight to either side, step up to one of the raised knuckles that squeeze it into three distinctive strands. Look out – and down. Resist the sudden compulsion of your own wings.
I remember balancing up there, alone, feeling like a goddess of the forest. A goddess has no fear, no reason for it. She lives in that thin, beautiful space on the edge of death. Is it as beautiful to her, without mortality to flavor it with awe?
That I left that space alive, every time, is due to nothing in myself, but entirely to chance or fortune, the goodwill of water and rock. Or a goddess of the forest.
My friend Rachel laughs when I tell her this. We’re sitting across from Triple Falls in the mellow light of an autumn morning, watching the three streams split and spill into the air, white and flecked with sunshine like that goddess poured out a melted opal. “I used to do that, too,” she says. We were both invincible once.
Before – what? What changes that unexamined conviction that life is free, and known? Remember when you could reach out and take every offered risk, swallow it whole, smile at the danger? Then you have children, or a partner, or just time behind you, and you begin to articulate what is at stake. You don’t stop taking risks, but you start to see them as something you might be wrong about. You start to calculate them, cost-versus-benefit style: How much do I need this moment, to be me?
Today we are picnicking on a rock further up the creek, sitting cross-legged with our backpacks in our laps, sharing our apples and chips. Getting out to that rock was easy, sitting up here in the sun fairly safe. Yet there’s always a critical risk in a place like this. I could slip and break a leg, Rachel could lose her balance and strike her head on a stone. We’re as secure up here as the world can make us, which is less than it seems, and more than enough, usually.
Rachel and I both have a memory of someone who went out into the wild one day and never came back. Mine was a cousin of my father’s, never met because he went rafting on the Colorado before I was born – and was never seen again. Leaving your nest is always a risk. Though staying isn’t much safer.
The world is shrinking, I keep hearing that. And I can see it for myself, in a way: suburban sprawl and instant internet connections with the other side of the planet; perfect reception today on a lonely mountain that wouldn’t give me half a bar two years back.
But aside from the fact that I’m not sure this constitutes shrinking, precisely, there’s also this: it’s an illusion. It’s harder, now, to walk out your door and disappear, but you can. The world is still that wild.
Rachel is a tough cookie: she likes deep wilderness, the kind that scares me. I learned just today that she worked two summers in Stehekin, Washington, a remote spot in the North Cascades you can reach only by trail or boat – a long trip either way. The place has one road, no neighbors, and about 100 regular human residents. Hiking here in the Gorge, you aren’t likely to see a bear even once, but there Rachel expected to share space with the ursine population. I’m both fascinated and deeply uncomfortable with this.
This place we’re walking today is not, by Rachel’s standards, wilderness. It’s almost noon when she says this, and it’s hard to disagree: our route descends a popular, relatively easy trail from Ponytail Falls, on which we’re politely passing and being impolitely passed by hordes of visitors. One woman looks completely bored, picking her way over leaf-draped stones in thin-soled flip-flops. The pikas in the rocks and the birds in the trees have gone silent – except for the corvids, who aren’t so easy to intimidate: their shouting matches our collective rumble, easily. But no one on this motley human pilgrimage even glances at the scolding jays.
I sort of assume my own definition of ‘wilderness,’ so much so that when I tried to articulate it just now, I failed. So I looked it up, and this is the closest I found: “An uncultivated, uninhabited, inhospitable region.” The western Gorge both is and is not all of those things. It’s much less inhabited than it might be, thanks to its 1986 designation as a National Scenic Area. And its thick forests and steep walls are a tough climb, especially in the Pacific Northwest’s famous wind and rain – so there’s the inhospitable part.
It’s also cut by a major freeway, and its easier lower reaches are a huge tourist draw. Graceful, solid Depression-era stonework reinforces, and, I think, beautifies many trails and overlooks. Does the reliable ebb and flow of a non-resident human tide – and all the stonework and guardrails and signs that go with it – disbar a place from wilderness status?
And if this place is not wilderness, should I mourn that? I am glad not to expect any meetings with megafauna, and guilty for that sense of relief.
My relief coexists awkwardly with my suspicion at the very idea of ‘comfort’ with the wild. Hiking is joy to me, but a little fear and trembling goes with the territory. If I do not tremble, what does that mean? If I do not want to tremble, what does that mean?
I’m just getting settled in wrestling with these ambiguities when I run up against another, one that throws the match. Before there were European-descended people in America, arguing about wilderness preservation or species conservation or responsible use or whatever, there were people here already. They weren’t visiting the wild; they lived here, shaping the land to their use. Their ‘wilderness’ wasn’t uncultivated, certainly wasn’t uninhabited.
Of course, you know what happened: a forcible changing of the guard, wherein lives and languages are lost, and concepts like land and wildness are today defined by a power structure based largely on profit, self-interest, and the all-important right of ownership.
Who owns this land? Ostensibly, the American taxpayer. (A designation that, depending on their treaty status, may or may not technically include the Native Americans we took it from in the first place.) A portion of our individual incomes funds the management of the place, and it’s here, preserved in some form, for us to…well, to use.
And do we ever use it. Our use is the modern, Romantic sort: we come here to get exercise, to experience a wild(?) place, to find inspiration, or peace, or to identify plants or to play with our kids in a mountain-cold pool. We come here on family vacations and school field trips, to see something bigger than we are. You could say we come here to feed our souls.
Our culture treats places poorly when profits are on the line, so I’m glad our Gorge is at least partially protected by its public ownership. Sometimes we treat wild places poorly anyway, through ignorance, or through love. Our early hydroelectric dams, for example, blocked the annual salmon runs. Today’s large-scale pilgrimage of urban individuals to the wild comprises both adoration and desecration, as we trample fragile trails and strain waste disposal capacity. Are we – am I – justified?
It’s part of my identity that I must walk around outdoors, regularly, preferably in places with less visible human imprint than the small city I live in. Does my inner Romantic then justify me? Is the risk worthwhile? One thing we do know: the wilderness – or whatever this is – survives change by humans, though in altered form. (It’s humans who don’t always survive that.) Is that enough?
Hard questions, but I’m out here walking while I ask them. Moving forward, into a life I hope is mostly good and right. Even more, I hope it’s never too sure of itself. Yesterday’s solid ground is sucking bog today. And yesterday’s barren streambed is a river in full spate, complete with waterfall.
The prettiest way to reach Triple Falls is from the trailhead at Horsetail Falls. This way, you get three waterfalls in one hike, including the truly astonishing Ponytail Falls, which you can walk behind. Take interstate 84 east from Portland, and leave the freeway at exit 28. There’s quite a bit of parking at Horsetail Falls, and you don’t even need a permit. The total hike, depending on exact route choices, is only a little over 4 miles. Although it’s not difficult, rocky footing, a few steep stretches, and lots of small ups and downs ensure a good workout.