The Lesson of the Waterfall

            It was a few years ago that I acquired a renewed fascination with waterfalls.  Sure, they are beautiful and powerful and gravid with the promise of spring and hope, born of the pure white snows on the sides of mountains high above. But, this was different. It was as if they had a message, a story, a warning, an insight to tell. I’d stare at them that spring:  Bridalveil, Yosemite Falls, Vernal, and Nevada. What were they trying to tell me? I was amazed that contented roiling creeks and rivers swollen to the top of their banks with smooth waves over boulders with just a hint of froth, could find themselves unsuspectedly flung over a cliff, blown to bits of mist with no recognition of their previous selves and, only by some miracle, be recollected into the creek below to ramble on as before, only more aerated. The 318 foot vertical column of mist between the lip of Vernal Falls and the pool below where it gathers itself together, has no resemblance to the river above from whence it came. The mist, taunting like a benevolent ghost with an eerie message, rose and swirled and swayed with the breeze and baptized us on the granite path below with its own body. Standing drenched in the misty downpour, I’d stare up at the column of white and wonder: What are you trying to tell me?

Then I heard it. I was guiding a group of New Jersey high school kids with their teacher, my fellow guide, Diego and another guide Banning. We’d met in Yosemite Valley a few days before, bussed up to Glacier Point, and started our trek along Illilouette Creek to camp upstream. We needed to cross the creek the next morning. It was early June and the creek was running high. I never ever wanted to lose a client, especially a kid, in a stream crossing and have suffered numb feet and legs as I escorted many a client on an icy stream wade. We managed to get everyone safely across on some big downed logs bridging the two sides of the creek and headed to Little Yosemite Valley. The kids were enthralled with nature and their teacher posed thought-provoking philosophical questions to be answered and explored around the flickering light of the evening campfire. I found myself in wonder, wishing I’d had a teacher like this. The kids were sharp and insightful, way beyond my maturity at their age.

Banning and Diego scouting our log and rock crossing over Illilouette Creek.

             The next day we packed up and strode to the entrance of Little Yosemite Valley where the Merced River tumbles through a chute under a wooden bridge and spews itself over the ledge. We dropped our packs and went to the fenced in viewing area where we could look down and watch the mist fall 594 feet to the creek below. Again I asked, what are you trying to tell me?

The bridge over the Nevada Falls chute.
Nevada Fall

               At the lip of Vernal Falls, sitting in the sun, we have lunch. I note the height of the creek in relation to the metal fence discouraging people from straying unprotected into the swift current. The water has crept beyond the fence. The water is intruding into the demarked safe zone. I’ve been known to sit on a rock upstream from the fall and soak my feet there.

               In the fall when the river is low, I’ve seen people hop the fence and walk the slick granite lip barefoot, stepping over the channels of water flowing over the edge. Knowing the risk, I turn my head or take pictures to document the possible catastrophe. Every now and then people will wade upstream from the falls and get swept over to their death. The last time I know of this happening, a woman and two young men, all in their twenties, were posing on a boulder in the creek for a picture. One slipped in. The other two tried to save her and all three were swept over the fall. To the horror of powerless onlookers, the last two were seen going over the lip holding onto each other. Such a tragedy to be swallowed whole by such terrible beauty.

               After lunch we are happily rejuvenated and with great pride and satisfaction of nearing the completion of a successful foray into the Yosemite backcountry, we saunter down the steps and trough the drenching mist, delighted with vivid rainbows at our feet.  Past the mist we gather, all smiles. I look back up at the waterfall and I clearly hear her message. Why couldn’t I hear it before?  I look at these bright and sometimes awkward teens, some abandoned by their wealthy parents to a well-appointed private boarding school. I know the incidence of teen suicide. I know I have to convey the message. With the roar of the fall in the background, I yell to my drenched students, “Look at this waterfall. It rambles along as a contented, unsuspecting river above. It laughs and burbles. It’s going somewhere safe within its banks. And suddenly, it is flung over a cliff, broken to bits, turned upside down and every which way. It doesn’t even recognize itself. By some absolute miracle it is gathered back together to continues its journey. So when you have difficult times in your lives, and you will, remember the lesson of the waterfall and how even when torn apart on a molecular level, it somehow returns peacefully to its original form, a river on its journey home to the sea.” By now some kids have flung their wet bodies onto me in deep hugs and some are crying. Somehow, I’ve unwittingly become the messenger of the waterfall and spoken with words her message where it needed to be heard.

Vernal Fall

At the end of that backpack season REI did not renew their contract with my guiding company and, devastated that my soul’s work was pulled out from under me, I knew that the message was meant for me, as well. I gathered my own broken bits back into its river and embraced long-distance backpacking, something I could never do while running a company with sixteen guides who ran twenty-eight trips a summer. Hiking locally with good friends in the winter and exploring new areas off-trail deep in the Sierra during the summer became my new rambling river safe within its banks.

Then my cancer diagnosis last January threw me over the cliff again and tore my sense of normalcy to bits. With the journey’s rapids, cascades, and wide smooth stretches, I’ve been doing nothing but trying to find a safe eddy I can count on – even if it’s being able to anticipate the good days and bad days so as not to be flung over the cliff daily.

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I was tossed over a cliff again by my own mind. I ended up 5150’d and spent two nights in a mental hospital. The quiet and wonderful care I received set me gently back in a calm spot in my river and with more help, I am floating softly downstream to my source. More about that in the next post.

copyright: Karen Najarian Dec. 20, 2020

9 thoughts on “The Lesson of the Waterfall

  1. Oh, Karen, you have taught such valuable lessons to so many–not only the students you talked about, but the many, many adults you have guided. The lesson of the waterfalls is a wonderful analogy. I am so saddened to hear about the 5150 call, but amazed and heartened by the fact that you say the staff at the facility was compassionate and helpful. I hope you are at peace at the moment–so many of us care about you and don’t want you suffering.

  2. Karen – no words. What a battle you have been fighting; that waterfall pounding on you, and yet here you still are. What a wonderful gift you have given us all by putting your experience and feelings into words. You are amazing in your battle an no wonder it beat you down. I do hope, at least for now, you are feeling some calm and peace. I think of you as I ride my bike in your neighborhood!

  3. The waterfall gave you inspiration, you passed it on and perhaps saved lives in the process, and now you take that teaching into yourself. The waterfall comes full circle into you, out of you and now returns into you. I am glad that you have found a few safe eddies in which to collect yourself in order to continue on downstream. Thank you for sharing your struggles. You inspire me.

  4. So beautiful Butterscotch. I’ll never look at a waterfall again without feeling the depth of your connection to it, and my own. What a powerful message for us all, now in this time of Covid, and crazy politics, when our nation is so torn apart; to believe that the torrent will again, eventually find its own calm spot, an eddy in the storms of time. And such a powerful message of your own journey through illness right now. I so miss you on our regular climbs up Diablo, another worthy metaphor. You are a terrific writer, and your blog posts are such a gift to us all. Thanks, dear friend. We love you, and miss ya, and I’m so sorry for all you’re going through right now, but your openness is a gift to us all. Shroomer

  5. Thank you. Living this journey, we are those molecules and they are us, as we open and gather ourselves and all about us.

  6. I love waterfalls. I can sit and look at them for hours. Their beauty is captivating. Thank you for this writing. Next time I look at a waterfall to enjoy its beauty I will understand its message as well.

  7. Dear Karen: The willingness to open ourselves up to the world, to be vulnerable, I think is at the heart of the personal essay, going all the way back to Seneca. Michel Montaigne, the “modern” father of the form, showed me what it was to put it out there, to drop my guard and to speak from the heart. You have this gift to let yourself be seen in a lyrical way. My hunch is that you have “saved” by your actions and words many more of us than you will ever know. It is a privilege to be part of your reading audience. I am grateful to know you. Love, Will
    P.S. Your grand prose is matched with incredible story-telling photographs. What an adventurous life you’ve led!

  8. Dear Karen:   I finally posted a comment to this breathtakingly beautiful personal essay.  What a gift you have to do this work.  What courage to get it out in the universe.  I hope you are putting together a book to preserve in one place these precious writings!   Thank you for keeping me in your reading audience.   Love,   Will P.S. If you ever want to talk, my number is (925) 708-1353.

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