(rushing water sort of confuses the iPhone’s panorama function, but you get the picture)
Winter is exactly the right season to hike Eagle Creek, I think. The crowds are a little bit smaller (and the difference in the number of folks I saw between sunny-ish Saturday and drizzly Sunday was dramatic) and the water is stunning and powerful and everywhere. There are umpteen named waterfalls on this hike (I don’t know them all) and this past weekend there were many, many more falls and rivulets streaming by (and, often—as in that first photo above—across) the trail.
I had hiked Eagle Creek a few times before. Once as far as Punchbowl Falls, years ago, for a fall picnic, and once a year or so after that as part of my second-ever backpacking trip, a loop from Eagle Creek up to the Benson Plateau and the PCT and then back down Ruckel Creek Trail. We spent two nights in the woods and partied a little hard on the second night—I remember the hike out on the last morning feeling very, very long. This time I wanted to see Tunnel Falls, so I set my sights on the creatively-named 7 1/2 Mile Camp, seven and a half miles from the trailhead and a mile and a half past Tunnel Falls.
Tunnel Falls was breathtaking. Standing in the tunnel behind it, you’d swear a hurricane was raging just outside.
The crowd had thinned after Punchbowl Falls (two miles in) and again after High Bridge (3.3 miles in). After Tunnel Falls I figured I wouldn’t see anyone else until morning, because who camps in January when the forecast calls for rain? But I was sort of relieved when I saw two separate tents at either end of a sprawling campsite a half mile or so down the trail, and I considered camping nearby. But who camps in January when the forecast calls for rain? People who want to be alone, probably. Including me. I found a spot two campsites later that may or may not have been 7 1/2 Mile Camp. There are tons of gorgeous campsites just off the trail, it turns out, and I imagine they’re very popular in the summer. It was a treat to have a beautiful spot all to myself.
The catch to camping in January is fourteen hours of darkness. I cooked my dinner in the remaining daylight, then sipped some hot cocoa and snuggled into my sleeping bag to read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I read until I fell asleep and picked it up again when I woke up before dawn. I finished the book right around the time the sun came up.
“You and George didn’t go back on your promises.”
She laughed. “Let me tell ya something, sweetface. I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” She watched him chew that over for a moment before continuing, “They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt. Oh, there are continuities. He has always been fun and he has never been able to budget his time properly and—well, the rest is none of your business.”
“But people change,” he said quietly.
“Precisely. People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.” She flopped back against her chair. “Which is why vows are such a tricky business. Because nothing stays the same forever. Okay. Okay! I’m figuring something out now.” She sat up straight, eyes focused somewhere outside the room, and Jimmy realized that even Anne didn’t have all the answers and that was either the most comforting thing he’d learned in a long time or the most discouraging. “Maybe because so few of us would be able to give up something fundamental for something so abstract, we protect ourselves from the nobility of a priest’s vows by jeering at him when he can’t live up to them, always and forever.” She shivered and slumped suddenly. “But, Jimmy! What unnatural words. Always and forever! Those aren’t human words, Jim. Not even stones are always and forever.”
He had been taken aback by her vehemence. He had thought that because she and George had been married so long, she’d have high standards for everyone. A promise is a promise, he wanted her to say, so he could be angry with Emilio and hate his father for leaving his mother and believe that it would be different for him, that he’d never lie or cheat or run out on his wife or have an affair. He wanted to believe that love, when it came to him, would be always and forever.
“Until you get the measure of your own soul, Jim, don’t be quick to condemn a priest, or anyone else for that matter. I’m not scolding you, sweetheart,” she said hurriedly. “It’s just that, until you’ve been there, you can’t know what it’s like to hold yourself to promises you made in good faith a long time ago. Do you hang in there, or cut your losses? Soldier on, or admit defeat and try to make the best of things?” She’d looked a little sheepish and then admitted, “You know, I used to be a real hardass about stuff like this. No retreat, no surrender! But now? Jimmy, I honestly don’t know if the world would be better or worse if we all held ourselves to the vows of our youth.”
They’re on a spaceship bound for a planet near Alpha Centauri for that conversation. It’s a good book. So I was both far away and very present while I lay in my little yellow tent. In the morning I packed up in the rain, startling myself a few times with branches or tent pieces in my peripheral vision, a little jumpy alone in the woods, but pretty pleased with myself all the same.