A motley collection of cars sit in the parking lot, one blasting metal so hard it makes my teeth hurt from 20 feet away, so we hurry past the big direction sign and avoid all eye contact. I think for a minute back to our sweet little campsite a ways down the road, the tent tucked under a tree so we stay cool, and I surprise myself with the ferocity that I hope that none of those people desecrate our place by looking at it. When we get to it, the trail is made of that particular kind of dust that coats your skin on contact, so fine you can barely feel it but not so fine that you don’t notice it. Little trickles of sweat carve out paths down my arms, legs, face, feet—everywhere, pale little lines appear in the dust I’ve accumulated throughout the day. 6 p.m. and still blazing hot, especially here in the canyon, especially after the day we’ve had. We climbed all day on Monkey Face, you know, and even with the sprinklers, we’re sweaty, tired messes making our way to the Falls. Will this even be worth it, is what I want to know. The lure of a dark, cool plunge into oblivion—that feeling when you first submerge into deep water—is too tempting to not try though, so we go. A half mile in, a half mile out, how bad could it be? So here we are, barely stopping at that sweet campsite after we get back from the park. I mostly watch my feet walking in, trudging along behind Darren who keeps pulling ahead. Around us the canyon walls are bathed in the hot, the tan of the rock burnished by the sun, all piled together in millions of years of sun and water, moving earth. Trees decorate the sides of the path, providing welcome respite, but only in patches as it steadily curves down along the river. Soon we get close enough—too long though, I think—to hear the sound of the falls.
The noise is the thing I like best about waterfalls. There’s something about that dull roar that’s a kind of music, it’s the sound of power, but a gently nuanced one. And each has a different tone, a different song to sing to the rock and to the moss surrounding it. My feet gain a new lightness as we move towards this one, and then we’re there, breaking out onto a plateau amid groups of lounging teenagers, too young to look as old as they do. Darren immediately jumps off the rocks into where the river tumbles below, the water dropping unexpectedly 30 or 40 feet before resuming its leisurely pace down between the walls. I take a different route, scrambling down a narrow chute in the rock, a break in the cliffband. There I can slip gently into the water, no boulders lurking just below the surface to break me, as I’m sure there are every time I look down into water every time I think about jumping in. No, I take a small jump, just enough to get into the water, gasping a little as I break the surface. It is a kind of oblivion, an abrupt break between worlds of water and air, enough to feel as though a slate somewhere inside has been wiped clean, and when we emerge, face first and hair pulled back by the strength of a thousand droplets, we may be someone brand new.
That’s how I feel, but maybe only because three days of dirt are starting to drift off my tired skin. I swim for a minute, taking in the falls from the front now, where I can actually see the water gather, gracefully drop over layers of steps into the water below. Is this real life, I ask Darren, swimming back over to where he’s sitting on the rock I came out on. There’s a spot for me to grip my toes into, the rock goes down to the river bottom, farther than my toes can reach. I don’t think so, he says absentmindedly, watching the water too, his feet in the water. This is pretty amazing. We stay like that for awhile, dazed in our good luck, this little haven of green in the desert a gift after so much dry. Well, here we are, I say. Here we are.
Eventually we get out and sit in the sun, drying off, and then get up while we’re still damp. Darren has been collecting a little pile of garbage while we’ve been here, things that floated down the river or people left behind. If we don’t do this, who will, he says, picking up cans of Arizona teas and bad beer. I get up to help him—to my surprise, the last group of straggling kids offer to help and let us use a plastic bag to put everything in. It makes me so mad, to see people be so careless in a place like this, he tells me as we leave. Maybe they just don’t know better, I say. No one told them. I guess so, he says.
It should be intuitive though, I say, looking around again. You wouldn’t litter in a church.
Later, we eat frito pie on a blanket outside our tent and watch the stars appear on the horizon as the night fades into pinks and blues, then a purple black. A man comes screeching down the dirt road in a little red car, stopping abruptly in front of us—hey! No shit you can’t build a fire here? Anywhere around here? Darren says, sorry man, nope. I tell him you can’t ever build fires out here. Never. Well fuck, he says. At least it’s free, Darren offers, and he laughs. They end up camping just out of sight of us, which I’m grateful for, so all we hear in all that dark velvet is the sound in the tree spreading its limbs above us, and the night all around us.