July 02, 2010

Twice Fallen, Twice Shy

I trip often, but I rarely fall.

I have other friends who fall all the time - out of their cars, in the middle of intersections, down stairs, off curbs and into doors, walls, and poles.

But as much as I slip on ice, catch my foot on rocks, slide along gravel and hydroplane in flip flops, I hardly ever fall.

I fell twice today.

I'd made it all the way to the piece de resistance of Eaton Canyon, the waterfall, today without incident - scrambling up cliffs, tiptoeing on boulders across a stream, and trudging along a desert, sandy wash. When I got to the peak, practically to the edge of the pool of water created by the falls, the hours since breakfast and the last hour's sun exposure hit me. I wearily stumbled towards the water, caught my foot on one of the smooth, eroded, sand-covered rocks below, and went flying backwards, the fleshy part of my left thigh landing squarely on one of those rocks, and the rest of me collapsing onto my back, thankfully cushioned by the plastic liter of Arrowhead water I had packed in there.

With the holiday weekend approaching, and the sun burning bright, there was a huge crowd at the waterfall, and two young guys holding cans of beer came to my rescue, asking me if I was OK.

"I don't know..." I said, more shaken up than probably anything, thigh throbbing, brain rattled. I was worried that I'd cracked my new cell phone or, worse yet, my camera.

They tried to help me up, but I said, "Let me just sit here..." So I just sunk into the sandy earth below, my legs slung over the same rocks that had tripped me up. Kids were running into the water fully-clothed, socks and sneakers still on, splashing up a storm. Young, pale women were stripping down to their bikinis. Packs of brown-skinned boys threw each other into the water and climbed up the rocks behind the falls, dipping their heads and faces in to feel the force of the water coming down on them.

It's an impressive waterfall by Southern California standards, still running strong in the San Gabriel mountains after a rainy spring and a not-yet-scorching summer, so of course it's popular. But I've already lived my share of waterfalls out east, and given my disdain for so many people, I only stood and watched for a few moments, and then headed back.

Of course my footing was unsure. Of course I tried to be more careful. But sometimes in hiking, the more careful you are, the more you slip - you just have to keep calm and carry on, leap without looking, and not obsess about every step. Usually, the key to walking a fine line is to just go.

So it's not surprising that the more ginger I got, the more I lost my footing.

I'd stayed almost completely dry-footed on the way up to the water fall, hopping across rocks in a criss-crossing pattern back and forth across the increasingly wet stream. But on my way back, feeling jumbled and unsure, I took a wrong step midway across the stream and slipped on a rock again and fell again, this time sitting straight down in the water and somehow skinning (and badly bruising/swelling) my right knee.

My hike was becoming a train wreck, and I was no longer surrounded by helpful (albeit tipsy) dudes offering me a hand. Sure, there were influxes of families, school groups, and teenagers passing by, but at that moment, like many other moments out hiking, I was alone. And I started imagining all the other horrible things that could have happened to me out there alone over the last year.

Picking myself up quickly - mostly for fear of getting my electronics wet - I decided it's much better to get my feet wet than it is to fall on slippery rocks. So nearly every time I had to cross back over the stream, I picked the shallowest, flattest, least rocky spot, and just walked through the water on the stream bed. Even if there were flat rocks that could have sustained my weight, my sneakers were so soaked by this point that I didn't even bother with the boulder strategy. I limped through my watery path until it dried up, and my pants and shoelaces left a drizzly trail behind me in the loose, dry dirt below.

With three swollen toes revealed when I peeled off my wet socks at the car, I decided I should take a day or two off from hiking. But I don't really know how to be out here alone, especially over a holiday weekend, without structuring my day around a hike. And what's the point of being out here, and paying for the car rental, if I'm just going to take it easy and lay low? There's a whole world out there to see, feel, experience, and fall down on.

And there isn't always a bridge to cross dangerous ground.

"I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!" - Percy Bysshe Shelley, "Ode to the West Wind"

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