Official waterfalls and other strange beauty

I spent hours driving away from Palouse Falls on the evening before Thanksgiving, rehearsing our visit over and over in my mind until it became a song low and quiet in the base of my skull, in the hinges of my jaw. I wanted to tell this story of our brief visit to the most beautiful place in the world.

And even now I’m sure there’s no way I can get it right.

We picked the destination as we usually do: we saw a photo, this one in the Visitor Information kiosk in Spokane. We are getting to know visitor information centers like some people do their office landscapes, we spend so much time in them. I thought I recognized the couple, the volunteers who staffed it, but that’s not possible; they are Spokane people and I’ve barely ever been there. “It’s Palouse Falls,” they said, explaining how in the summer people swim there at the base.

The photo we saw was enormous, beautifully edited, taken in the height of summer. We had our coats tight around us; the weather was below freezing. We would not be swimming. Our internet searches discovered it was Washington’s official waterfall; and it was basically on our way home to Portland.

The next afternoon, Google maps set, we turned off the main highway. with signs only telling us we were headed toward tiny towns that would end up being nothing but a couple of wheat silos and maybe a windmill, driving through landscape out of the ice-frosted freezer of my memories. It’s been decades since I drove through these landscapes, since I was really a child, maybe my youngest son’s age, maybe a little older. The weather was far different on those trips, the season summer. Still it is etched there, the colors of the wheat fields exactly like they were then, but now with ice everywhere. I cannot underestimate the spell under which this landscape is, tonight, driving as if every breath was a wild journey into a new land unexplored by anyone. But touched so by this new human hand, after millennia of the more gentle, native one: everywhere rolling fields of shorn wheat, solitary farmhouses, identical cattle. Stretched out into the horizon like a painting of the best possible beauty of a farm, a child’s soft palette of a farm. Feminine and frosted.

But not quite girly. Because the hawks were everywhere, one every minute or more, standing on iced fence posts or in the frost-covered branches of grand oak trees or swooping off these to travel low across the road or alongside it. The reddest red-tails we ever saw, the proudest most intricate peregrine breasts.

And all the while I know we’re getting closer and closer to this stunning waterfall and because I study these things I’m seeing clues in the land to what is to come but still to the eye of the uninitiated it is only the most magical farmland on the most magical late November afternoon. We turn off the smaller farm highway onto an even smaller one with so far no sign indicating the falls that lies ahead. It isn’t until we round the outcropping (a mound, I think, something left by ice age floods) a mile from the intersection that I see a non-descript sign. “Palouse Falls State Park.” No mention of wonders.

The hawks are ever thicker and now we’re seeing deer too, standing in wheat fields, dozens of them. More outcroppings of rocks but no hint of cliffs, canyons, rivers.

We turn onto a dirt road, cross a cattle guard. Now there’s a sign. But it’s not welcoming. “STAY FAR FROM CLIFFS,” is all I read. On the way out I’ll see the other two messages. “DANGER 4 RECENT DEATHS,” one reads. “WATER CURRENTS DEADLY.” Hawks everywhere like they’re guarding this place or watching over us. More deer. We drive into the parking lot and there are two other vehicles there. Of course it’s Wednesday before Thanksgiving. But it’s still not until you’re almost to the parking space that the canyon appears. Drops out beneath you like the molecules wavered and changed shape.

The waterfall is extraordinary. There is nothing else to say about it but to go to where the geology books turn to poetry so maybe you can understand it. These are the same basalt floods that made the walls of the gorge but this canyon holds so much more in remoteness. You feel as if you are the only one ever to see it even as the evidence is plainly otherwise. It is the Washington State Official Waterfall! It thunders on unmoved by such claims. “I’m young,” it says. “Many changes are yet to come.” One day the signs that warn of death and danger will thunder, again, away. The cattle will be gone then.
The hawks will not. The coyotes, whose tracks we saw on the hills everywhere, whose cries we heard when the sun began to sink behind the cliffs; I think they will remain.

We’re nothing. We humans with our disregard for deadly currents and clearly dangerous 200-plus-high sheer cliffs on ancient tectonic rifts, we’re nothing, and the agriculture we’ve put everywhere so ubiquitously is nothing and the romaine lettuce we cannot live without is nothing and these thundering waters tell of times before the times when we came here “exploring” and “discovering” and not believing native tales of what really happened, the movements of GODS, and they heard the warnings of us from their wise people but could not know how to resist the much-deadlier-than-fucking-e.Coli diseases we brought. They’re gone now. Hardly anyone remains. We took their land to grow wheat on and graze cattle. We tried to tame their rivers and cover their waterfalls with dams.

There’s more story here. One of the stories is about the things we do to see family and how we fit into the landscape and how we protect ourselves and how we do not. How we shroud ourselves with wheat fields and plastic wrapped beef and Caesar salad to make ourselves feel safe when really what we need to do is learn what the ancient rocks and old stories and medicine of the coyotes and owls that fly low in front of us are saying: but maybe it’s too late.

I have so much to translate, hours of this immersion into gorgeousness that hasn’t yet washed off me. I’m trying to get everyone to turn off the sounds so I can listen but I need to be louder in stating my needs.

It’s exhausting, figuring out where we belong and where we do not but feel like we should is exhausting, and it’s hard to be quiet in all the power of that emotion and listen but we must. Everyone, it is time for quiet, the coyotes and owls and rocks and raging water is talking and we must listen as if it’s the only sound in our lives. “Grateful” right now to me is a throwaway word I do not have time for. There’s something more powerful right now and I think it is “belong” and “listen” and maybe it is time to turn the lens away from remembering what the world has given us and think, instead, about what we have taken and what it is, ultimately, we owe.

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