The rain had just begun to fall as I stepped out of my car; I could see the drops dancing across the surface of the river even before I felt them hit my skin.
Stepping between the boulders that demarcated the end of the road, I wound my way along the edges of puddles forming in the path until I reached the edge of the river. Here, a creek met its confluence with the north fork. Mossy alders lined the banks, leaning in, delicate fingers of branches meeting to touch in the middle.
The river’s edge was lined with rocks tumbled round and smooth, as it cut through the massive basalt flows that make this canyon unique from its neighbors. Cedars and firs towered over the alders, and the steep ridges of the surrounding country towered above them all. Sword ferns cling to the hillsides, flattened and slick from a long winter of heavy snows and constant rain. Salmonberry sprang from the swampy, soft earth beside the river’s edge, and the low parts of the banks, where water naturally pools underground.
Plants like Salmonberry and blackberry, ever-present, are just beginning to push out those first buds of spring. Water droplets collect like lace along their branches, ready to release at the slightest touch. Moss, growing everywhere, is a vibrant, electric green; swollen like a sponge with the water in its belly.
Rain continued to fall from a flat, grey, featureless sky. I am quickly wet, but in a way that feels calming and grounding, so I accept it and continue on.
I pick my way across the rocks along the river’s edge, following downstream. I am taking my time because I know this walkable area is not long. Besides, I have nowhere to be. This is it, right now.
The sound of water moving over rocks, falling slowly downstream until it reaches the ocean is everywhere; it fills my ears. Rain drops slap on wet rocks, wet ground, wet leaves. I am surrounded by tiny sounds.
I detour up away from the water to avoid a fallen tree. It’s branches are laden with catkins, trunk fractured, jutting upwards, splintered wood fraying. The bark of this tree was already home to mosses, lichens and a few ferns in the crook of its trunk. The tree’s falling over had not impacted their future much, they continued to thrive just as before.
The confluence now behind me, I admired the glassy gem colored pool that went slack and clear at the bend, before funneling down again over rocks, bouncing off the far wall and cascading gently away. I climb up on the small embankment above the river and take a wander down a faint trail that leads me past two old fire rings, made of stacked stones. Seeing another opening to view the river, I diverted my path again.
The water was deep here, a beautiful vibrant blue-green. A dozen tiny birds flitted in the branches of willows and along the banks, trading places with each other. Arching vine maples formed the bones of mossy reaching arms, with jagged branches for fingers, each reaching for the other in the understory and along the banks. A blackened stump clung to the hillside; holding back its belly full of gravels, tendril-like roots coiling towards the river but not quite touching it.
As I stood there staring into the pool, two small, fist-sized rocks tumbled out of the underbrush and into the river.
What had caused those rocks to move? Was I about to see an animal? My eyes focused and then softened, waiting to catch a movement. I held my breath.
I watched the area in silence, but I never saw anything else. I stared into the green layers of needles and fronds, like I was suddenly going to see through them. I held still for a long time, waiting. I saw nothing.
When I finally broke away, I returned to my car. It felt like the weather was changing and the sun was preparing to set, besides.
I pulled back onto the main road and made my way down out of the mountains. The old, single lane road followed along the river when it could, passing waterfalls, framed in by great ice daggers, flanked by weeping walls of crumbling ice and snow. Grassy, open campsites waited beside the river. The grade began to climb steeply, clinging to the cliff-side as it made its way up to a pass in this landslide-prone canyon.
Reaching the pass, I rounded the corner and met two deer in the road; a mother and fawn. I stopped. The doe looked directly at me, and stepped sideways from the path of my vehicle. The fawn did not move and did not look in my direction. It was staring up at something, high on the cliff above me. I stepped out of my car.
I watched it closely, and my eyes followed its gaze. What was the fawn looking at? I couldn’t see anything on the hillside above us. A moment later, the fawn finally lowered its gaze to meet mine. It twitched a single ear, upright and round, before turning toward its mother and following along the road a short ways, and then they both dove headlong off the road together.
Continuing on towards civilization, I passed two small groups of elk grazing in pastures behind modest homes, smoke curling from their chimneys. Their distinctive brown-on-brown coats catching my eye as I came round the bend. They stared right back at me, chewing, unbothered, looking regal in the fading light.
My mind’s eye kept returning to the rocks tumbling into the river, the way I stood perfectly still, waiting for more. The weeping, icy formations that formed beside waterfalls, the little deer and his round ears, the way he stood perfectly still, watching the cliff above me. I could see the brown faces of grazing elk, their shiny, watchful eyes. The way the sky was lit up behind them as the sun set.
I had captured each moment carefully, by being present, by taking my time. I could keep these memories forever, if I choose, by keeping them close, turning them over and over again in my mind, like a well-polished stone.
A string of moments formed a memory, and a string of memories formed a place inside, one I can return to, any time I close my eyes.