After a rough night of grieving, I woke a little late and fired up the computer a little too soon to start working. I immediately jumped into juggling several important community-related things. Then I had to take a break to pay bills and well – that is never a fun experience. By then, I was done – stressed, frustrated, and sinking into despair. It was time for some nature therapy. I dug some clothes out of a bag (I hadn’t gotten to the laundry, either – no added stress there!) and hopped in the car. I knew I was going to go for a drive through the Columbia River Gorge on the Historic Highway, but I didn’t know where I was going to stop yet. I was thinking “waterfall” but since there are dozens in the Gorge that didn’t really narrow it down. But I really enjoy just getting in the car and seeing where it takes me – intuition, spirits, and gods guiding the way.
I passed all of the waterfalls on the way out, and thought maybe I would stop at Horsetail Falls, since I hadn’t felt the urge to stop anywhere else. When I didn’t get the nudge there either, I started to feel like maybe I would just turn around and go home. But then I remembered I hadn’t continued out Highway 30 to it’s junction with the interstate. I drove a couple more miles and pulled off at the parking area before I got back on to Interstate 84. I looked at the sign – Elowah Falls trail. Oh! I had read about Elowah Falls, and the name struck some chord in me*. I checked in and got the definite ‘Yes – GO!’ so I tightened my hiking boots and set off, not really sure where I was going or what to expect.
The trail is just under a mile to the falls, with a few hundred feet of elevation gain; its just enough to make me feel like I’ve worked to get there. Combined with the first time on a trail with no field guide, the exertion and the unknown was enough to start wearing down the walls I’d put up to hold myself together. The trail parallels the interstate for the entire length of it, adding some frustration and a heaping dose of paradox.
It is beautiful – vibrant rain forest above and below, roaring highway to the south. It is such that you can’t actually hear the falls until you get close enough to see it peeking through the trees and you start descending a series of switchbacks. It is a bit labyrinthine – trees growing across the trail at odd angles, washouts and rocks, green leaves and flowering plants obscuring your view.
And then you start to feel the water – the air sings with it, the earth softens with it. The trees and rocks are covered in moist moss. I dipped my hand into the pool beneath the small stream falling from the rocks and touched the sweet water to my head.
A few more steps and I stopped, my breath caught as a rush of energy went through me and tears came to my eyes. Opened before me was a great amphitheater where water played, cascading over rocks and singing with such playful joy. Elowah was falling majestically from the cliff. It felt like another time, another place; something out of a fantasy novel. The spirit of this waterfall presided over it all with a kind and joyful, reverently guarding presence.
As I came to the falls a crow flew over my head, joining a hawk high in the sky. They did not seem to do the usual territorial debate, rather they circled and danced in the sky. Dozens of swallows flit above me, birdsong resonating through the open canyon. There were no other embodied humans there.
I usually do, at waterfalls. At least the ones that aren’t displayed as tourist attractions. Something about the singing in the air, the joyful play, the gentle power – the timeless presence that is constantly in movement. It resonates with my watery-airness in a way that is comforting and fills me to overflowing.
And I think about how grateful we should all be that such beauty exists. That sense of awe cannot be replaced or duplicated.* And yet, our capitalist society doesn’t appreciate it enough at all, beyond value as a resource. I wept for the highway that cut through this place, wept for those beings, human and non-human, who used to be here. Oh, the land spirits in the Pacific Northwest are strong and lively beings, make no mistake. But what must it have been like before we paved it over? Before we ran out and murdered the indigenous peoples that knew them as kin? Before we named new spirits in the name of progress?
I marveled at the fantastic geological formations, at all of the forces that merged and dance and broke apart over millions of years to create this place. I watched the faces in the waterfall, and formally introduced myself to the spirit there.
As I left the Gorge and made my way back into the city I had to stop the car to cry again. I can’t really tell you what that was about. It was a moving cascade of things. Rather like a waterfall.
I’ve returned many times since this first visit, at different times of day and in different states of my own being. Each time the face of the falls has offered a different glimpse, had different songs to share. I feel the pull to this place as I feel the pull to my own altars, to my own heart, in this relationship we are developing.
*A note on the name of the falls – Elowah. In the brief research I have done, it seems no one is claiming to know the meaning of the name or why the falls were named Elowah. A mountaineering club had the name changed in 1915. If it is/was a word in the language of the indigenous peoples, I haven’t been able to find it. In Hebrew, Elowah is another word for God. I got the sense that the spirit of the falls liked the name okay and the feel of the word is appropriate, but it is not the right name. As is usually the case.
**Even when we can’t access wild spaces, we can be grateful for their existence. The sense of awe that they inspire is not the only source of such awe, but it is one source, and is not more or less valid than any other.
Originally published on Call of the Syren