By Dhimiter Qirjazi
The forest began to thin out and we heard the roar of Arethusa Falls up ahead. As we neared the cascade, the brilliant blue sky opened up above us. The water flowing down the rocks was almost blindingly white from the reflection of the afternoon sun. We had finally made it.
We kicked off our shoes, peeled off our socks and our sweat-soaked shirts, tucked our gear behind some shrubs, and walked down towards the beckoning waterfall. We saw and heard other hikers ahead of us and shuffled like excited children, barefoot, to join them.
“It’s safe to drink, right?” I asked, as we waded into a pool of refreshing cold water. I pointed to the surging cascade up ahead. “Up there, I mean.”
“Yeah,” Nadir replied confidently. “Only where it’s rushing, though.”
It was our first real hike; we knew nothing of water-purifying tablets or Giardia infections.
We climbed up to the waterfall and drank from where it ran over smooth, clean-looking rocks.
“That pure, natural water,” said Nadir, letting out a loud, contented sigh as he took another gulp from his cupped hands.
“Tastes damn good,” I replied, drinking, laughing, running the cold water through my hair.
We took turns standing beneath the waterfall, testing how long we could handle the achingly cold water, the unbearable sensory overload. Afterward, we stretched out on the sun-toasted rocks and listened to the sound of the crashing water around us. It was a perfect day, with not even a wisp of a cloud in the sky to obscure the sunlight that spilled over the clearing.
The sun warmed us from above. The spray from the waterfall kept us cool. I listened to the water, shaded my eyes from the glare as I watched it crash down, contemplated how many centuries it had been falling and how long after we were gone it would continue to fall. I imagined how in the early morning, long before the arrival of hikers, the undisturbed falls and the stream up above would be teeming with wildlife.
Finally satisfied, we decided to try to make it to the top of the waterfall. We were back in the thick of the forest, shirtless, eating pistachios and carelessly tossing the split shells aside, ducking under branches and climbing the steep, natural rock steps of the trail. Our canteens were filled to the brim. We were hot and sweating again, and sucking down water.
We stumbled upon a sign that said “Ripley Falls” with an arrow pointing to the left.
I looked at Nadir. “You all right with going to a different one?”
He shrugged. We began down the path.
After another hour in the forest, we arrived at Ripley Falls. Just like before, we felt the moisture in the air long before we heard the falling water. The sky opened up and the leaves above us cleared away once more.
We stopped in our tracks and stared silently at the vast green mountain range ahead of us. The stream rushed past us, tumbled over the lip of the falls and down one hundred feet to a crowd of waving onlookers. We waved back.
We had accidentally hiked up to the crest of Ripley Falls.
“Well,” Nadir said, eyes glowing, a wide grin stretched across his face. “We made it.”
I laughed, and stared in disbelief at the idyllic, undisturbed setting we had stumbled upon.
Just as before, we waded into the first pool of water we could find, scrubbed the dirt and dried sweat from our bodies, drank from where the water rushed fastest over the rocks. We filled our canteens by facing the openings away from the flow of the stream.
“Keeps the sediment out,” Nadir said.
We sat for a while, took our lunch from our bags – two quinoa and lentil bean salads we had brought for the occasion. My hamstrings were tight from the uphill climb; it felt good to finally eat, and even better to wash it down with the naturally cold stream water.
After we ate, we walked up the steadily-inclining stream bed to see how far up we could go towards the source. As we climbed over an uprooted tree, we noticed the several thin claw marks spanning its length. “Probably beavers or something,” I said.
Minutes later, we stumbled upon a dead, decomposing beaver caught between two rocks. Its lifeless tail waggled in the stream that flowed around it.
“Dude,” Nadir said. “That’s wild.”
“We drank that.” I shuddered.
He looked over at me, expression blank, eyes wide and eyebrows raised high.
“We gotta snag a picture.”
I looked back at the sun crawling down towards the mountain peaks. “I think we gotta head back. Not much daylight left.”
We dried off, packed up our things, snapped a few pictures and were off in the forest once more. Our map showed a shortcut out of the forest and back to the parking lot alongside a railroad that cut over and through the surrounding woods.
We eventually reached the railroad. There was absolute silence. The green mountains and the still-blue sky and gray clouds hanging over them showed so vivid and clear that it felt as though we could reach out and touch them – maybe pull out a paintbrush and add to the panorama.
We walked further along the railroad. The sun was just setting and the sky was turning a deep blue, and pink-orange at the peaks of the mountains ahead. The near-full moon glowed in the darkening sky. To our left we saw smoke coming through the dense cover of the trees – dozens of campfires way down below.
We walked until we reached the railroad bridge. We crossed it carefully, our sneakers sticky with tar from the railroad ties. Halfway across, we stopped and stood on a platform that overlooked the green expanse of the forest.
“What do you think?” asked Nadir. “Worth a little tainted water, right?”