Running Water

by Judith Shadford

My response to running water is instinctive, right up there with my response to Wagner, Rachmaninoff, Charles Villiers Stanford, Harry Potter, David Tennant. You get the idea.  But since water is one of the four elements, I’m thinking about water.  Water and time.

A couple years ago during a road trip to Santa Barbara, I detoured off the I-5, up into the mountains to see Crater Lake for the first time.  I was encased in a gorgeous cloudless day as I twisted up through the foothills, through little towns with a couple garages, a café, maybe, one stop light.  Not much traffic.  Farther into the forests, I found a little turnoff and ate my lunch on the bank of the Umpqua River.

What a broad immensity of running melt water.  It seemed like the river itself broke the law of seeking its own level.  No white water.  Pale celadon green, more than its banks could contain, arching midstream without flooding.

The Umpqua is eventually controlled by dams and dwindles off to the northeast, its companionship to the road replaced by the Clearwater.  Visible mountains now at the 8,000 foot level.  Instead of June, time had turned back to early April.  Snow everywhere.  Then Route 138 stopped winding and arrowed due east across an uninterrupted snow-bordered landscape.  I zoomed past the road into the park and added another 10 miles before I gave into knowing I’d gone too far.  U-turn.  And the reason for my seeming inattentiveness was clear.  The North Entrance to Crater Lake was an expanse of unplowed snow.  Tantalizingly close and utterly inaccessible.

The alternative was to angle off toward the South Entrance, full of what-ifs and thrust back into the first week in June.  Looping down and up again, winding into the park I arrived at the parking lot next to the Lodge (open) and the iconic lake.  I nosed into a dirty ten-foot snowdrift with melt water desultorily running across the macadam, seeking something lower, maybe something warmer.

People milled around, many carrying little plastic bags with toys from the gift shop, wondering if this was the Crater Lake Experience.  I scrambled up a snow bank and looked at The Lake.  Just like all the pictures, as if there should be a rectangular frame around the view.  Then clouds turned the sky gray, and I needed to get to the hotel down the road.

Which was disappointing, because the hotel was certain it was Upscale, though ignorant that a guest bumping luggage up two flights of steps to a tiny room didn’t quite fit their image.  The dining room was laden with sentimental (pink) tchkotchkes and the food was highly mediocre.  But there was a moment the next morning.

The lady behind the desk handed me a much-duplicated, hand-drawn local map.  She said I had to “Follow Mill Creek Road south to a little parking lot on the left.  Walk down a quarter-mile trail to the Rogue River.”

On the basis of Why Not?, I did.

Softly padded down the mossy trail.  The fragrance of pines, of the earth itself permitted my trespass.  Shadows and brilliant sunlight filtered through the forest.  Tiny white flowers clustered under huge ferns.  A massive horizontal ancient pine supported a row of foot-high balsam seedlings.  Over and through all was the sound of water pouring relentlessly over rocks and downed trees.  The taste of the mist-laden air turned the earth back to creation—fresh, new.

Here was the true destination of my trip to Crater Lake.  Off to the side, without signs, without souvenir shops.

There’s a wonderful Robert Frost poem—“West Running Brook”—that describes the unchanging flow of mountain water.  The water dances and rushes, pours over rocks in great foam pillows until it hits a rock just so and leaps into the air, catches the light, and then it’s all wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey because, like our lives, the linear progress of “what comes next” has been broken.

Frost says:

Our life runs down in sending up the clock

The brook runs down in sending up our life.

The sun runs down in sending up the brook

And there is something sending up the sun.

It is this backward motion toward the source,

Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,

The tribute of the current to the source.

It is from this in nature we are from.

It is most us.

Where we are from.  The Question of the Millennia.  Because we know we are from Somewhere Else.

Flowing water surely expresses linear motion, doesn’t it?  Source to sea.  Seeking its own level.  Yet we know that’s not true because its downward rush to the sea is interrupted by the bouncing backward, glancing to its source.

Do we think that life flows falling over the edge of a cliff, pounding, relentless, ruthless, sweeping us toward some inevitable relentless, ruthless destination?  Unknowing, uncaring?

Because that’s not enough.  And it’s not true.  As much as we consciously monitor our lives—last week, ten years ago; as much as we monitor time, nanoseconds, light years, we still haven’t hit the mark.  The ticking gets us to work on time, yes.  Marks occasions, certainly.  But you don’t have to be a Whovian to know that time travel happens, well, all the time.

I sit at my computer, typing, while my imagination takes me back to that rush of water from 2011.  And a tiny portion of my mind—neither looking straight ahead or back to the source, is pondering whether or not I want a vodka tonic at Happy Hour.

Frost is right.  Life is much more like our backward motion against the stream.  Our lives aren’t even a wiggly line.  We never get entirely comfortable in the here and now, because we dwell inside the great sphere of our past that also contains our future because, when we get there, we recognize it—it’s familiar.

And over our shoulder, even as we dash ourselves against rocks, we glance back to the Source, take fresh compass readings, and hurtle ourselves toward the familiarly new.

for Clarissa

Judith Shadford has lived in Spokane since 2008, after a career in marketing in New York City and Santa Barbara, California.  She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the Rainier Writing Workshop of Pacific Lutheran University of Tacoma, Washington in August 2009.  She has had short stories published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Shark Reef Journal, Spok-Write, Armchair Aesthete and several now-defunct literary magazines.

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