Freaks of Nature

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The giant sequoias inhabited me, and I don’t want them to leave. These mutants — with their fire scars and boils protruding unapologetically on their red skin; with their unreachable branches, their impossible girth and height — are the impenetrable towers in command of the Giant Forest located in the heart of the Sierra Nevada. One could only dream of climbing them. One could only dream of owning them, too. Many entranced settlers have tried, but have ultimately failed to claim ownership over the goliaths that long ago claimed themselves along with their mesmerizing, green kingdom.

To get to the big trees, we had to twist up the Generals Highway with its endless hairpin turns and rolling foothills covered in playful poppies and gangly lupines, which look like cornhusks with bright purple bulbs. The highway runs alongside the Central Valley, climbing toward the Sierra’s snowy peaks. We drove slow enough (or else!) to notice what was buried in some of the tight curves — slender streams of water spilling alongside jagged cliffs. Sean pointed out pine trees on some of the highest cliffs with tips slipping into the clouds. Once we had reached an elevation of 6,000 feet, I had to remind myself to exhale the large gulps of the thin mountain air I held in my lungs. I tried to read what I brought for the long drive (Patti Smith’s newest book, “M Train”) and managed to take in no more than two pages in my wordless marveling.

I remember the first one I spotted. Even in a forest filled to the brim with firs and pines, the Sierra giants are easily identifiable. I let out a big eek, like a child laying eyes on the Disney World castle for the first time. As trite as this sounds, seeing that first sequoia was a fairytale come true. It was enchanting, yet at the same time I invited its freakishness into my heart immediately, accepting its enormity. I grabbed for my phone and recorded the drive through the Giant Forest, trying to still the view, instead of shaking with excitement.

When we arrived at the Giant Forest Museum parking, I rocketed out of the rental car, but froze in my footsteps. There were three massive trees congregated together beside the lot. I stood there with my mouth hanging open. Sean urged me to hurry up so we could start a trail, as there would be plenty more trees to see. I couldn’t help but want to greet and study every single one, which was just as hideously beautiful as the next.

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Just outside the museum stands the ginormous Sentinel tree, which is “average” in height compared to others. The Sentinel is covered in barky boils. Carved into the right side of it, is a scar shaped like a church steeple.

The Giant Forest was named by John Muir, the famous Scottish-American explorer, writer, engineer, environmental philosopher, and early advocate of the American wilderness. He is known for his preservation efforts of Yosemite Valley, Sequoia National Park, and other areas. Muir along with others, such as George Stewart, the editor of the Visalia Delta newspaper, who led the movement to create the national park — hell even the U.S. Calvary — have worked hard to protect the sequoias and the land they stand on.

I learned that many people have been bewitched by these beasts. Settlers into the 1890s set up shop and built hotels, stores, gas stations, among other facilities. Finally, the Sequoia National Park was created to protect the giants, ending all Sequoia logging activities. Still, it wasn’t until the 1970s people began to truly realize that their presence was affecting the trees’ ecology and beauty.

So many of the trees have names. Let’s see. There’s Clara Barton with her numerous craters. Presidents Lincoln and Washington. And the fallen Michigan tree.

And let’s not forget, General Sherman, the largest tree ON EARTH. General Sherman is estimated to be somewhere around 2,200 years old with a height of 279 feet and a weight of 2.7 million pounds. I couldn’t wrap my mind around General Sherman.

The giants have that way about them — of boggling minds. The first people to stumble across (and keep stumbling) the giant sequoias had to prove to the skeptics that these things actually existed. A number of trees were sacrificed, chopped into bits, and sent overseas to museums who even with proof had deemed them a “hoax.” What oddballs. What freaks.

Many of the trees in the Giant Forest as well as the 75 groves in total have sequoias with shimmering black bark and hollowed out trunks damaged by fire. General Grant is a tree with a massive fire scar. Sean took a picture of the pine tree located next to General Grant to reference just how large the scar is, and how staggering it is for something with that much damage to live on. However, I learned natural fires occur in national parks all the time, and actually, the giant sequoias depend on these fires. Like phoenixes, the sequoias that actually fall (more likely to fall from toppling as opposed to fire) recreate new life and live on through their offspring.

The museum offered a lot of information on the giant sequoias’ impenetrability. There was a John Muir quote on a wall near the exit that particularly stuck with me. “Everything in nature called destruction must be a creation — a change from beauty to beauty.”

I felt an electric surge down my spine as the trees’ profundity washed over me. Feelings of awe and respect called to all the little hairs on my arms. Tears streamed from my eyes and down my cheeks. Sean squeezed my shoulder. I cried the entire way from the museum to the car. I couldn’t stop.

I know what it’s like to have a piece of me destroyed by fire. Little do most people know, I lived in Southern California for a couple of years, and in 2003 my family’s home was taken from us in a wildfire. I remember the flames licking the mountains, the cold sweat that clung to my forehead. I remember shaking my mother awake, tearing through my clothes, grabbing for my photo albums. After weeks of living in Ramada hotels and camping on friends’ couches, we drove back. Trees with chard limbs haunted the landscape. When we sifted through our home in the dust and rubble, nothing stirred, and no one said a word.

We think clothes, pictures, cars, items of sentimental value define us. But in the end fire burns everything like it’s made of paper — scrolls unfurling and curling into themselves. And even though I knew this, I was still left reassessing who I was and what I was made of without my beloved earthly possessions.

These sequoias are naked to me. They’re defiant. I hardly know these trees, and I love them. And my love for them inspires me to be open and bruised and big.

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Mary Ann

The gas station attendant wasn’t moving fast enough. A man in front of me huffed as the attendant scurried about the store fixing things, moving with a slight limp on her left side. She was all of sudden aware that there were people at her door, so she started rushing to please us guests. The man was irritated in an airy, hot headed in summer way. He left with a half-grunt when she told him to enjoy the rest of his day.

When it was my turn at the register, I asked why she apologized so much, and she said it’s something she does (and she was sorry that she was sorry). I do it a lot too, and I tried to tell her with my face and leaning in language. She wore glasses, gray, stringy hair that hung in her face, and heavy wrinkles that sagged on her cheeks. She had to be at least in her 60s. I don’t know; I can only really tell age by how worn-in a soul is. Hers was a broken in mitt, an old tune that everyone remembers the words to when the melody starts to really pick up.

My eyes were hungry for her smile. And then it happened, proud and tooth-heavy. I asked if she could break a five-dollar bill for me, and she made a ripping movement with her hands. I cackled at her joke.

We held up the line talking. Five people were soon standing behind me as I asked her questions about her life, which seemed to revolve around being a gas station attendant. I joked about rushing and time. With a crooked smile, I glanced at the fake watch wrapped around my wrist. She laughed. When she laughed it wasn’t scratchy. It was gurgly and girlish in the way that girls get when they think no one is looking.

Her name is Mary Ann, and she’s alive and limping but well in Empire, Michigan. If you run into to her, hold up the line and make each other laugh. It will carve out the browning parts of your insides.

A Day in Bay City

San Francisco — where buildings dot the horizon like assorted Easter eggs in a cramped basket and climb up up up on sidewalks. The streets give me that pre-fall kind of feeling. My eyes start off frog-like, protruding from their sockets. But I tone down my gaze, demote it to a mild shiftiness, still cautious and untrusting.

I think about a lot about brakes. About how continuously pressing on them is probably not so hot for cars. I wonder if anyone could last a lifetime here without a dent or scratch or two. How many precious hours of the day do drivers spend shaking their heads, waving their fists, or honking their horns?

We drive around and around, our car hiccupping down slopes between red lights. Sean chomps on a piece of the beef jerky we packed for road snacks.

“There’s a shitload of Teslas on the road. And blonde women driving Land Rovers. What’s up with that? And bikers — oh shit, I didn’t even see that guy,” he notes, his attention strictly on the road.

Sean steers our bare bones rental car. I imagine he’s homesick for his wet dream of a Suburu, probably missing him back and sitting in its lonely spot at the O’Hare airport.

“There’s also a lot of people without homes here,” is my first input.

I know we are on vacation, and I don’t want to be a buzz kill, but I can’t help but take more than a causal notice of the amount of people sitting like stones or wandering with no direction in mind. Back in Chicago, this is a commonplace sight and interaction. I’ve stood witness to lingering individuals as well as gotten as close as listening to a few stories, passing off a few cigarettes, purchasing a few sub sandwiches. But this feels different. It’s a clear pronunciation with extra glare. Here in the glittering California daylight, the numbers are overwhelming. Somehow in a city built on top of itself, with homes towering on hills, the lost and forgotten are at the base of it all, making it more visible, larger.

I try my best not to make anyone feel like an exhibit, but can’t help watch a man meticulously stack aluminum cans in a cart bubbling over with newspapers, bags, paper plates, lamp shades, and other odds and ends. He ties a rope to the end of the cart and drags it along the street with ease, singing in a voice as scratchy as the beard on his face. Here is a man at work if you look close enough. There are others working in between intersections. While we wait for a light to turn green, we watch two men shake hands and slip something into them.

There’s people slouched in lawn chairs, stooped over walkers, huddled under bustling, blue tarps used to cover cars to be sheltered from rain and people.

A woman, fast asleep on the ground, stirs at the sound of a sharp whistle. A cable car scrapes along metal strings in the sky like a marionette on wheels. The woman opens an oversized jacket, and out pops a puppy with fur the color of coffee with extra creamer and piercing, alert eyes that match the sky. The woman rubs her eyes in between petting the puppy. Her lids are puffy; she wears a look of exhaustion that says she hasn’t truly rested in years. She watches the passersby move swiftly past, not holding her gaze on anyone in particular, just the general blur of pants and sneakers whirring past her face. The puppy licks her hands as she continues to soothe him.

Sean clears his throat and redirects my attention. He suggests we explore the sights. We cross the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The traffic crawls, which gives us a chance to stare up at the high, metal beams.

“If you look to the right, you can see the Golden Gate. See, do you see?” Sean says.

Sean is wearing his boyish face. He’s all bright eyes and big smiles. Halfway through the bridge, I realize I have to pee. I cross my legs and whistle along with the radio. We’re listening to KFOG-FM, and the radio DJ keeps calling his listeners “fog heads.” I wait until I can’t take it any longer, and I inform Sean of my emergency. He makes it worse by telling me to stare into the bay water.

By the time we reach the Wharf, I’m screaming at Sean, demanding he pulls over. He barely reaches the curb as I rocket out the car door and haul myself into a fresh fruit market. I march bow-legged to the checkout area.

“Can I use your bathroom?” I wince in pain.

The cashier is a young man with a shaggy haircut and a nonchalant stare. “Uh yeah, but it’s outside. And I need your ID,” he said.

“I don’t have an ID on me right now. I literally just jumped out of a car, and I’m about to explode. Please, I gotta go.”

“Okay, but please return this key. Oh, but before you return it, be sure to use it to the lock the bathroom door.”

He hands me a silver ladle with a key hooked on the bottom of it. I thank him from the bottom of my bladder.

Outside the bathroom, a man asks me for a dollar. His teeth are nicotine-stained and his shirt is oily with a large hole near the collar. I search my pockets, even though I know my wallet is in the car.

“I’m real sorry, man. I don’t have anything on me,” I tell him, feeling guilty.

Sean and I drive on in silence. I apologize to him for snap-turtling him during my moment of urinary weakness.

“That’s okay. What’s next?”  he asks.

“I want to see the Full House house. I want to thank Uncle Jesse for helping me through my childhood.”

Instead, we visit the Palace of the Fine Arts, a colossal domed structure that sits behind a lagoon with a fountain and drowsy swans warming in the sun and curling into their wings. The giant building looks like it was taken from a page of Greek mythology. There’s a motif on the structure that especially catches my attention — the weeping women, statues who are stationed at the corners of boxes above the colonnade. I can’t see their faces. I only can tell they are crying and holding on the best they can.

People on bikes ride and families with strollers saunter along the lagoon. Someone is running with a GoPro strapped to the front of his helmet.

A young girl rides between Sean and me. She’s wearing a helmet with ladybugs and pants with butterflies. She brakes, and all four of her bike’s wheels screech to a halt.

“Excuse me,” she says. “But did you know that there’s ice cold lemonade over there?”

Sean and I follow her stubby finger to the stand aside the lagoon, manned by two children who look her age.

I smile at her. “Do you happen to know the kids working the joint?”

She bashfully twirls the glittery streamers pouring from her handlebars. “They’re my cousins,” she admits.

“Well, I am kind of thirsty. What about you, Sean?”

“I could use a drink,” Sean plays along.

“What’s your name?” I ask the girl.

“Sasha,” she giggles.

“Well, Sasha, I like your salesmanship. And also, your butterfly pants.”

Sean and I feel good about ourselves as we walk back to his car. We slurp down our lemonade.

Sean pats my knee, telling me he’s low on caffeine. We stop at a coffee shop on Columbus Avenue. I volunteer to retrieve the coffee, and Sean stays with the car. The woman working the register is a magnificent piece of street art — tattoos swimming down her arms, Cleopatra eyeliner, curling nails, bleached hair, a halter top, no bra. Lana Del Rey gushing from a radio. The shop has a couch, a few tables and barstools lined up along the window.

Two women sip coffee at one of the tables, setting their cups down every now and then to interject an exclamation into a conversation that’s muffled against the sound of grinding beans.

A man lumbers in. He wears a wrinkled plaid shirt and a black hat with a straight bill and a patch of worn thread. He’s carrying a large monitor in one arm and pulling off a backpack with his other arm. He sits down at a table behind me.

I order an espresso and a mocha latte.

“Excuse me, but you can’t do that in here,” says the cashier.

“What … ” I hesitate.

I check my hands and glance at my feet to see if maybe my limbs are doing something without my knowledge.

“Sir, you need to leave,” the cashier says in a stern voice. She moves from the behind the register and steps into the sitting area.

I swing around to face the monitor man. He’s holding a blunt the size of a Cuban cigar in one hand and an orange BIC lighter in the other.

“Are you serious right now?” he asks, lurching from his seat.

“I mean, it’s one thing if you’re going to sneak it into the bathroom. But like, really, right in the open? Not cool. This is a business, and I need you to leave,” she says. Around her wide eyes are black eyelashes, straight as raised cat hair.

“Come on, Bro. I buy a coffee every single day here, Bro. You’re trippin’ right now, Bro,” the man says, raising his voice, taking a step closer to the cashier.

The women who were talking at another table begin to quickly gather their belongings. They tiptoe out the door. I’m the ghost in middle of the coffee shop with my mouth hanging ajar, standing numb and still, wondering if I should inform this guy that the cashier is not, in fact, a “bro.”

I look into the man’s eyes for the first time. There’s a yellowish tint in them. His eyebrows are scrunched together tight enough to become one brow. I can see the individual drops of spit flying out of his mouth. I’ve never seen someone angrier. He doesn’t seem to be looking at the cashier though, rather beyond her, like he’s confronting the demon standing on the other side of her body.

“Why are you playing me like this, Bro? I’m a good customer,” he pleads, his voice cracking with desperation.

“Leave. Now, before I call the police,” she thunders.

This sends him spilling over like hot coffee. “Bro, fuck the police. I’m not leaving. I’m gonna bust your face in, Bro. I’m going to break everything in this motherfucking store, Bro.”

I feel as inanimate as the plastic lid I begin to stare at in the middle of a table. I feel like I should say something. Except, I don’t know who to sympathize with. Should I utter words to soothe or distract him? Or should I back her up, tell him to get the hell out?

In the end, I choose motionlessness. I choose silence.

They both stare wildly at each other, daring each other to move first. The cashier makes the first move. She pulls out her phone from her back pocket.

She dials. Her voice quakes into her cellphone, “Yes, I need help. There’s a man here who is threatening to put his hands on me … Yes, it’s a real emergency … I swear … Yes, this is a business … Can you please come?”

Why does she have to convince the police to come? Aren’t they supposed to show up, no questions asked? I brew a silent war for her and other women who work alone.

He whirls around, rips his things from the table in one movement and flees the coffee shop.

“I’m so sorry this happened,” I tell the cashier woman who finally allows her face to appear shaken; creases line her forehead, which she rubs with her palm. She nods without really hearing my words, and I feel as if there’s nothing I can say to void the current events.

Business as usual, she finishes up my order and hands me my drinks. She follows me out without a word and locks the store behind me.

I walk to the car. Inside, Sean taps away at his phone.

“What took so long?” he asks.

I say nothing. I close the car door and take a sip of my coffee. As we drive, I scan the streets for the fleeing man.

On climbing mountains

The sleepy shop owner who just sold us a fly swatter looks at us with eyes like damp leaves when we tell him we have never hiked in the Smoky Mountains before. His jeans have large holes smeared in green like fresh open wounds, but he still has a tinge of nostalgia in his eyes.

I run my fingers over a cedar coaster that sits in the palm of my hand. Sean takes a practice whoosh with the new swatter, whacking dead an imaginary fly. We tell the shop keeper we enjoy his work. We mean it. He tells us it keeps him off the streets. He rolls his head back and laughs like a ruffian.

We can tell that he’s comfortable with silence as he assesses our city nerves. We dart our ping pong eyes around the shop at all the items he borrowed and made from the trees. Propped up against a table, is an intricately engraved mantelpiece. I can make out the carving of an eagle dipping in and out of grooves in the slab of wood. On the tables, there are piles of pine cones, empty nests, flaps of leather—bits and pieces dispersed, yet orderly, like a mechanic’s shop.

“Give me your map,” he finally says. I fumble the map before handing it over to him. He begins to trace the trails on smooth paper with his rugged fingers. He flips it upside down. He might as well be closing his eyes, reading braille. “Here. This one will feel like it doesn’t end. It’s a tough, old trail, but it’s the least crowded. And when it ends, you’ll sure as hell know.”

He nods his head simultaneously with our “thank you” like he already knows. He recedes into his shop like a bear into its den. We look back over our shoulders before we exit. He uses a small knife to carve the handle of something—another fly swatter, an eating utensil, maybe a hairbrush. Wood shavings fall to the floor.

An hour later Sean and I are standing where he pointed his finger on the map.

The wooden sign has chipped, white letters covered in splotches of bird poop. It reads, “Ramsey Cascade Falls 4.0 miles.”

Last night, the cicadas pulsed louder than our two voices. Shaking like hundreds of maracas inside our chests, they made it clear that the land in the mountains belongs to them. As we begin the trail, we can feel them watching us from the trees. They don’t say a thing as we crack twigs and rustle leaves underneath our shoes.

The breeze carries a light mist. I pull up my hood. Sean tightens the straps of his backpack. He is excited to break in his new pack. I remember when he first tried it on in our living room weeks ago. He had said in his deep, booming voice, “Trust me, Sarah. I used to be a boy scout.”

I squeeze Sean’s hand. We have little to say as we breathe in the soft, intermingling scents of pine and wet dirt.

The ground starts off with gravel, which is short-lived. The further along we go, the more the earth juts with jagged rocks. The grass gets heavier and begins to wander like wild sideburns on the sides of the mountain’s face.

Sean spots wild turkeys. He scampers after the mother and her two babies. The mother’s fatty wattles jiggle as she huddles her babies close, quickly escorting them away from Sean, who’s running at them like a jolly pup. His backpack bounces behind him.

I can’t take my eyes off the ground. Knobby vines crisscross through the dirt and make their way back to the trees. They dip into a palate of freckled stones. I pick up a stone and hand it to Sean. It’s smooth and looks like it has been splattered with white paint. He rubs his thumb over it before he slips it into his pocket.

This becomes routine. I find a red spotted leaf. It looks diseased. I hand it to Sean. He slips it into his pocket. White pedals float down from a looming tree. I catch one, feel its velvety skin. I hand it to Sean who slips it into his pocket.

I think of the sleepy shop keeper. I imagine him picking up his favorite things and slipping them into his pockets.

We wear our explorer eyes like 3D glasses. We spot thin brooks, gaping like scars between rocks. We ogle at bright, yellow fungi, flickering in the weeds like road signs warning passersby. Sean squints at the water spiders moon walking on top of water. They’re almost opaque; we can hardly see them. I have the urge to call them Jesus spiders. I point at a mud colored gecko on a boulder. It pretends to be dead. I find a cave. I ask Sean if he dares me to poke my head in, and he tells me not to be stupid.

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Somewhere we read that a couple of hikers carelessly left food on this trail, and a bear helped itself to their leftovers. Bears start off afraid of humans. And then we give them reasons to track us—like littering our remains. Some rangers shot that bear down when it started attacking people. I wonder if the ground shook when the enormous, brown mass collapsed to the ground. I think about the surface area of plants flattened underneath the weight of a lifeless body, the animals around it watching from safety of their caverns, trees, and holes.

I remember all the objects in the gift shops with the beloved smoky beast tattooed on them—blankets, wristbands, shot glasses.

Passing the den, I hope to catch a glimmer of brown, but it never comes.

The trail quickly begins to elevate. I can feel a squeeze in the back of my calves. I grab at branches, roots, and clumpy ledges for balance. I push my palms into them and propel my body forward. My muscles surge with electricity as the steps get bigger, my leg span gets wider. Drops of sweat kiss Sean’s forehead. Somewhere beyond the next set of boulder steps we can hear rushing water.

 Sean pack Sarah climb

This becomes a pattern. We climb and climb until we meet rushing water. We run into little falls collecting into shallow pools. We’re careful not to stumble over the slimy rocks when we dip our hands into the cool water. Sean crouches low over the water, cups his hands to fill them, and splashes the sweat from his face. He replenishes it. I scan his face to see if he looks younger, as if the water is made of secret magic. “What are you looking at?” he asks, and I laugh.

Sean splashSarah falls

We lean our backs against thick trunks that stoop over edges crumbly as pie crust. The trees seem to look down. We follow their gaze that points to the falls. The little falls don’t look so little anymore. The higher we go, the longer their reach. They pile on top of each other and blend into one another. Each fall is a strand, and together they form a luscious, streaming head of hair. The mountains have long hair.

It’s a long way to fall. “Boo!” I psyche Sean out, and he staggers away from the edge with his hand on his heart.

“Hey, um, this is the closest I have ever felt to you,” I tell him. I know it’s not just the adrenaline speaking. And it’s not the proximity to death either, even though with a simple misstep, I could plummet. And I know that Sean wouldn’t be able to save me. The more likely reason is that there’s nowhere else I would rather be but here with him, nothing else I would rather be doing than climbing this mountain with him.

I never thought I would climb a mountain. And if I did, I imagined I could come up with something that wasn’t sprinkled with clichés, but everything I feel is what they say, except more enhanced because I feel it now. I’m here, and I don’t want to be anywhere else. This is true. I feel pure. I feel centered. I feel strong. Look at me climb. See my hands grab hunks of dirt. See my legs propel me higher.

The best feeling of all is feeling exposed. The vulnerability is as tender as a baby. Mountain climbing is intimacy—like a virginity I didn’t know I had until I lost it. It’s something you let go and give back to the earth. It’s as if you’re designed to do it.

I will backpack these feelings with me when I go to work, when I’m miserable in traffic. I will rinse and repeat, “I am strong. I am pure. I am centered.”

When I feel alone at my desk or even with a crowd of people, I will remember what it is like to be completely filled up with the sight of weeping waterfalls guarded by mountains. Or maybe the mountains are the ones who weep. It’s comforting to think they cry too.

The longer we climb, the louder we whine. “Are we there yet?” we pout with fat lips like kids in the backseat of a car. We drag our heavy limbs.

We hear a pounding like watered down thunder. This must be the end, we think. We pummel through the last set of steps. Our legs ache, but we ignore them. We hobble like turkeys to see what is on the other side of a colossal rock.

We sure as hell know we’re at the end. Water spills from every pore of the jagged, enormous rocks assembled in such a way that pulls the falls together. They knot into one, and I can’t tell which fall is which. The head of long hair is braided. The beads of water bounce from one rock to the next. We feel the spray on our faces. My lips tremble. All I want to do is touch it. I draw in close like a mosquito.

Sean and I cross the slippery platform. He suddenly loses his footing and plops down in the base of the large waterfall. I gasp and hold my breath for a second, terrified the current will sweep him away over the top of the falls, all the way down from where we first began to climb. The falls at the base of the mama waterfall are even more treacherous. They drop down soundlessly, but with violence. They would take Sean. There would be no time for words.

Sean stands up and brushes himself off. No big deal, the look on his face tells me. I huddle close to him, but we chuckle at his close call.

We inch closer to the grizzly waterfall. A family snaps photographs underneath the falls. We watch them grinning like children on their first day of school. One of the little boys is wearing swim trunks, wading in a pool of water. He has collected rocks and piled them on top of one another like a miniature Stonehenge. He had quite the inspiration for his pile of art.

Finally, we each reach a timid hand out to greet the waterfall. The water shakes our hands. It rattles through our entire bodies. Our teeth chatter, as we squint and smile against the spray.

Fallskid falls

“Beautiful,” the shy Sean says confidently. To him, this beauty is a fact. He doesn’t question it. And neither do I.

After our initial transfixion, we accept the sight of the waterfall. Sean and I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and watch the falls as if we do it every day. When we pack our things to leave, I feel a swell of pain in my chest. By now, the waterfall has become a friend.

We look over our shoulders for the last time, reluctant to leave. “Hey, let’s run,” Sean suddenly says.

“I accept your challenge, young warrior,” I say.

Sean and I race each other down the mountain. He doesn’t go easy on me. I don’t go easy on him. We’re not even Sean and Sarah right now as we become one bird that takes flight over the familiar rocks and through the trees we’ve met once before.