THE GREAT FALLS
Light rain started splattering his windshield as the sign for Old Dominion Road came into view. Rain had been intermittent since he left Georgetown and, given the low, grey November clouds, expected. Short days, cold nights… the season was sliding into winter, autumn’s furious color lying extinguished in mats of brown leaves, leaving behind the bones of an unattractive landscape, the hope of spring still too far away to contemplate. Whatever beauty remained was obscured by the grey attitude of a cool, wet, morning. It was the natural way; time for everything to come to an end.
He turned on the wipers and concentrated on finding the parking lot he knew was not far ahead. Just past the park buildings, an extended asphalt slab crept into view to his left, abandoned of cars, and for good reason. He pulled in and parked, his car pointed toward the Great Falls, flickers of white visible just past the rocks and trees, more so at this time of year than any other. For a moment, he just sat there, the wipers continuing to make slow arcs punctuated by a faint clunk at either end, the car motor still obediently running.
Michael faced forward, lost in thought, recollections and despair. He had started driving this morning, first heading south across the Potomac, then turning west to follow the river, more an effort to escape Washington than achieving a destination. The Falls area had beckoned him, an old pleasant memory had resurfaced, pushing itself in front of his present life, its stress, its mistakes. He remembered the Potomac of his youth, but farther west, near Harper’s ferry where the snaking Shenandoah adds its volume to the Potomac. The spot he recalled was far from the Falls, the narrow river there more at peace with the lovely Virginia countryside. And he was just a boy then, tanned, innocent, the world an adventure still waiting on him.
Michael shut the car off, leaving the wipers stopped halfway through a cycle, the blades intersecting the windshield at an odd angle. Indeed, he could feel as well as hear the great falls, even from this distance, the power released shaking the ground and pulsating the air, especially today, as the run off from heavy rains in the mountains surged toward the Chesapeake. The large parking lot reflected how much the public loved this place, how much in awe they held it. But on occasion this area was under water when rain coupled with snow melt of early spring, the gorge then returning to its fearsome natural state.
Across the river, along the Maryland shore, were the remnants of the Ohio and Chesapeake canal and railroad. An early attempt to enable navigation of the river from the mountains to the bay. Toward the Virginia side, the river crashed through a restricted channel, dropping seventy-five feet in a short distance and creating a spectacle of nature’s primitive forces, in fair weather drawing people from the nearby megalopolis to stand and marvel.
Michael opened the door and got out, at first just standing and looking toward the river, a moment more of indecision than hesitation. He pulled the collar of his raincoat around his neck, preventing the damp chill of November from engaging his neck. One last look around reassured him that he was indeed alone, just himself and the Great Falls with no one to interfere nor console him. He started walking in a deliberate manner toward a path behind the park office, one paralleling the river and leading toward one of the lookout stations near river’s edge. His polished black shoes and grey wool trousers were out of place, and the continuing drizzle quickly soaked both. What was appropriate for the Capitol was impertinent while visiting the wild river. As he walked, the white noise of the river grew louder, each torn wave contributing to the collective roar as black water foamed grayly over black rocks. Water, in the form of mist, was being projected into the air above the massive rapid, drifting along with the light wind created by moving water, then settling down by river’s edge, mixing imperceptibly with rain from above.
He turned left onto the first path, heading directly for massive grey rocks bordering the river. Picking his way between and over the wet, ancient schist, he slowly came close enough to stand and survey the gorge. From his elevated position, he could see the river foaming through the big cut nestled against the Virginia border, frothing down against rocks, boulders and massive formations of stone, hissing threateningly close to the stone buttress he was standing on. The violence and vibrations stabbed fear into his chest, rendering him hesitant to look too long, lest he awaken the river, alerting it to his proximity. The immense power flowing through the gorge was too awesome for Michael to actually comprehend. In abstraction, the cubic feet per second, the drop in height, measured and calculated would give a numerical sum for the water flow, but a fragile human body standing close by will see it in different terms, more personal terms. Cataracts, such as this one, demonstrate ancient and inevitable forces, the same ones which have created the planet. Rock and water mixes here, fights here, and is inseparable here. The resultant roar is the voice of the planet, the entity which ignores the existence of fragile and temporary human beings.
Michael recovered somewhat from his instinctual fear of this place and moved closer to the edge, his leather soles slippery on the wet and mossy rock. Without warning, his footing gave way and he fell, inches from the canyon edge, impacting the rocks with his hip and face. As he lay there for a moment, too stunned to move, he realized that he was perilously close to falling into the raging torrent below. With his face against the stone, the pulsating throb of the river came into his ear like a voice, a voice which spoke of the fragility of man, his meaningless existence, his nothingness. Water and rock and sunlight are important, never mankind. Six more inches and Micheal would cease to exist, his problems, his fears, his proud moments would disappear, all being restored to their proper place among the molecules heading for the endless ocean of other particles, their original form extinguished, their purpose forgotten.
Slowly, he pushed himself to a sitting position, his legs extending over the wall, the torrent of water racing just below. His arms trembled… fright, injury, or his dropping body temperature all equally responsible. A warm sensation drew his hand to his face and found blood, and he realized that the fall had enabled a stone to impact his hip and face with destructive force. He wasn’t sure he could stand without assistance, and the position he found himself in made him feel that his body was inching toward the edge, pulled by gravity, lubricated by the ever present slime and water.
He became calm, forcing his eyes to follow the water and waves, the sound now, for some reason, restful, purposeful. Michael felt part of the rock, the water, the power of the rapid. He was meant to be here, nothing else was important any longer, a sensation of freedom, of belonging came over him and he smiled.