When the River is Just the River

One late summer day my friend Katie and I were hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, above a waterfall in one of the side canyons there. We had spent the morning clambering over moss-covered rocks, throwing sticks for our two exuberant dogs, glorying in the sights and sounds of clear water flowing from pool to pool to pool over dark basalt in a green forest.

Now it was time to return to the city, and we had to make our way back across the stream whence we had come. We had just spent half an hour talking about how neither of us is as nimble as we used to be; when we fall now, we fall hard, and we are more aware of the risks we take when we move from rock to slippery rock to cross a creek. I never was very nimble, even when I was young; I have a daughter who leaps from boulder to boulder with no fear and who never falls, but I have been falling flat on my face ever since I can remember.

Getting across the stream in the first place had not been difficult. Rocks are often dryer on the downstream side, but have slippery moss or algae on the upstream side. If you cross in an upstream direction, using the downstream side of the rocks, it can be easy. But coming back across, using the wetter side of the rocks, it is harder not to slip and fall in.

On this day, it would not have been terrible to fall into the water. It was only a few inches deep, the day was warm, and it was only two miles back to the car. I could easily have hiked that in wet boots. But sometimes, we humans get fixated on an idea about how things should be. How they must be. And it seemed to me on that day that I should be able to cross that stream without getting my feet wet. I must be able to.

So I was concentrating with all my might on moving carefully from one stone to the next. My whole body was rigid with tension, my brow furrowed so deeply it felt like my face was one big frown. I had to do this right, I had to get across the creek without falling in.

Then Katie said to me, “Leisa, look up. Look at the river.”

I looked up. I saw the river. It was exquisite. It was so beautiful that I could have died right then and there in perfect happiness. Clear, cold water flowed over basalt, moving around stones with ease and fluidity. The shining surface reflected green upon green upon green, with a few yellow splotches where maples were beginning to turn. The sound of the moving water was paradise. There are simply no words to describe the incomparable beauty of a clear stream running through a forest.

As I looked upon this perfect beauty all the tension in my body flowed away with the water. The music of the stream entered me and I saw how I flowed with it. I was water, standing in water, hearing and seeing and smelling water, feeling water. I stood like this for a long time outside of time. When I came back to myself, I was relaxed and unafraid, and easily stepped the rest of the way across the stream. Katie crossed behind me and we made our way down the trail.

When I thanked Katie later, for saying just the right thing, at just the right moment, she said, “Sometimes the river’s just the river. Not a problem to be solved.”

Sometimes the river’s just the river.