Today I’d like to share with you the occasion of the “About Me” photo on my blog, which was taken last Summer. It is one of the most significant and joyous “little victories over MS” I have experienced since I began eating this way. Telling this story is part of celebrating my five year anniversary of eating as a fat free vegan, which began in February of 2008.
For all my deliberate slow thinking about what to say and how to say it, the force of my life seems also to be moved along by instantaneous events and the decisions that arise from them. Or they seem instantaneous. Actually I think they wait at the depth, like water below bedrock, until there is an opportunity to rise and surface, bubble up. One of those opportunities came on a weekend last August while my son Mike and his girlfriend Kelly were visiting.
On that Saturday morning, we began tossing around plans for the day as we sat around the table after enjoying our Esselstyn style “big bowls.”
Mike and Kelly had been taking day trips to water all summer and were planning a drive out to Elk Creek Falls. It was hot. Mike’s car has no AC. But he had surprised me with a gift of cooling cloths and a cooling vest, so I could ride in the car. I had opened these the night before and was surprised at how light and helpful they were. So I was sitting at the table listening to them deliberate. Now I can’t remember what I said, but whatever it was, Mike responded with, “Do you want to come?” The way he asked it revealed an eagerness for me to come intertwined with his years of knowing something like this was not doable, and having to live with the reasons why. Also surprise that he may have detected that I wanted to, and hope that I might. I heard myself say, “Yes!!” And realized that I had been saying “ask me, ask me,“ to myself because I had the feeling I might be able to pull it off, but I didn’t want to butt in. I said something to that effect. “Oh no, “ they both said, “We’d love to have you come.” And thus the return to Elk Creek began.
It’s been almost two decades since I’ve been there. It’s about 49 miles east of where I live, just west of the town of Elk River, where the rolling hills of the Palouse give way to mountains and forest. Beautiful country. There are three falls: upper, middle, and lower. The round trip is about 3 miles on a dirt trail in forest It’s an easy hike by backpacking standards, but it isn’t level. Some of it is steep, and twists in switchback down the slope to the falls.
(It’s called Elk Creek on the internet and the signs, but around here people call it Elk River, too. So I may interchange the names as I write.)
Elk Creek Falls was the first scenic place Mike and I went to visit in our first month in Idaho. Mike was none too happy with me for hauling him up to the boonies and away from his life in California, so I wanted to show him something he’d really like here. But we didn’t see it that day. When we got to the parking turnout we were met by a state ranger that told us the falls were closed. A teenager had slipped and fell, hit his head on a rock and drowned. They were searching the water for his body. It turned out this boy was the close friend of the son of one of my new colleagues at the university. I ended up attending the memorial service, which was so large it was held in the junior high school gymnasium, and then the burial. So one of my first introductions to our new town was seeing people gather together in memory, love, and mourning. It was a powerful threshold to witness, and to feel. I later wrote a poem about it. I haven’t sent it out for publication, but it did find its way to the friends of Jacob, the boy who died, and I’m told they put it on his grave. So Elk River Falls lives in me on that level as well.
Mike and I must have gone back to actually see it, but my memory of that is dim. I do know the following summer while he was back in California visiting his Dad, I brought two of my visiting friends from California out to it. At none of these times did any of us venture down to the creek bed or near the water. We looked from the benches, leaned on the rails at the overlook. That’s all.
Years later when Mike himself was in high school, I remember a summer day he went out there with two friends. They brought the dogs and I packed a picnic lunch for them. We had no clue what fat free vegan eating was in those days, but we were pretty much vegetarian, and I made them “eggless” tofu salad sandwiches. Mike says he still remembers those sandwiches. I knew the boys, and probably the dogs, would go in the water, but I also knew somehow they would be safe. I remember our golden retriever Tinne was stiff for a day, and slept like a log after having the time of her life on the trail and in the water with the boys and Molly, the other dog that went.
I had also never been there in very hot weather. The summer I took my friends up back in 1993 it was cool, and we wore flannel shirts. This time, it would be above 90. In the car I wore a cooling cloth on my neck, and later one over my legs when they were directly in the sun. The ride went smoothly. I had no motion sickness, nausea or vertigo. I did have that strange feeling I get when I’m actually leaving the very small orbit I live in most of the time. (Sort of a cross between Christmas morning and floating in a pool on an air mattress.) When we got to the turnout where the hike begins, the cooling vest was still wet but had evaporated to the point to be light enough for me to walk in. It was hot and I knew I needed it. In a few minutes I didn’t notice the small amount of extra weight I carried by wearing it.
I’d packed a “taco” salad for myself. We had apples, grapes, and potato salad. And of course water. The dogs took big drinks before we started out on the trail.
First we hiked to the middle falls. The overlook there was in the sun and it was very dusty. This alone would have set my face aflame before I began my fat free vegan lifestyle but after years of dietary refinements to help address the problem I only felt the most remote tinge of irritation. The way down to the water was a tiny foot trail winding down a very steep hillside of dry grass. It was so steep you couldn’t see the creek itself, just the falls. I sat there with Romeo and ate while Mike went down the hill to find the water, and Kelly stayed with their dog, who loves the trail and the people, but is nervous about the water. Some very hot tired hikers appeared from up that steep hill. Kelly asked them about accessibility at the upper falls and one of them explained in detail what the trail down to it was like, and that the access to the water was much easier there. She went ahead with their dog, Lucy, to scout the way we should go.
At the point before I pulled out my lunch, I was tired, on the edge of that feeling I call “shattered glass,” and wondering if I could keep going. I knew I had to eat and stop moving around kicking up the dust, so that’s what I did. Romeo rested at my feet, and I ate about half my salad, filled with black beans, veggies, kale, cabbage, sweet potatoes and torn up corn tortillas. Then I felt restored and ready to keep going, even though it was almost my usual nap time.
The switchback trail down the slope to the upper falls where the best and most accessible swimming is was steep for me at times, and my legs were tired, especially the muscles in the front of my thighs, but I had Mike’s hand (and smile) helping me up or down, as needed, and Romeo at my side. Kelly was behind me, so I was covered front and back. And a sense of adventure was definitely buoying me along (and, I imagine, all manner of nature spirits, guardian angels, you name it). As we made our way down the slope toward the creek and the upper falls, the air cooled off and became more moist, which in itself was a wonderful boon. At the overlook there were two long benches on the dirt platform cut into the slope and a flat space for the dogs to rest and drink more water.
We sat and had our picnic, and enjoyed the view. Only a few people were down in or near the water. Romeo ate beans and pieces of tortilla and sweet potato out of my salad. The kids had “Tings” (Vegan junk food) and the dogs loved those too.
Then it was time to get down the embankment, something I had never done so many years ago, though I had wondered what it would be like to. It’s a short embankment, soft packed dirt, tree roots, a small rock here and there, but quite steep. It’s actually under the water earlier in the year, when the creek runs high with snowmelt, or certainly can be. I had seen it that way once, which I remembered as I looked at it. Beyond this soft dirt embankment is a small dirt beach which becomes a relatively flat rock platform, another portion of exposed creek bed. I decided when I saw it not to worry about how to get down it until it was exactly time to try. When that time came, Mike took my hand, and Romeo was next to me, but when it got so steep, I just sat down, Mike still holding my hand, and scooted the last few feet until I was on the dirt and flat rocks at the edge of the creek bed. I couldn’t believe I was there. I sat down on the flat rocks right at the edge of the water, and put my feet in. I could feel the creek moving over my feet, welcoming me. No more watching and wishing. I was there, feeling the movement of the water rushing over the rocks.
The kids went swimming beyond the extended rock platform, in the pool in front of the falls. Then they climbed up above the falls and went swimming in a pool above there. While they were gone I just sat there, with my legs in the creek, the water rushing over them, resting, and enjoying the restorative movement of the water around my legs. A kind of natural baptism. And healing. And an end to mandatory watching and wishing, or waiting at home. I now have a new choice.
It’s unlikely after the drive out, the hike in, and that steep descent I could have taken another step. But I didn’t need to. I had hiked that trail to get here, during my usual nap time, to sit with the creek and to feel its life swirling around me, through me, in me. It was perfect to sit there. My joy was complete.