Monday, March 23, 2009

On the Marked Trail

Twenty-five miles east of the city of Seattle, Washington cascades 270-foot high Snoqualmie Falls. The force of the water crashing onto the rock gorge and river below the falls sends up a fine mist of water that, when caught on a soft breeze, lingers over three hundred feet above the river.

Several years ago my husband and I took a day trip to the falls. Driving up and down the rolling hills of Snoqualmie city, flanked to the right by mountains of rich evergreen forest, I remembered why people decide to settle in Washington. Views like that make all the rain worth all the green.

When we reached the Snoqualmie Falls Park, it was a fickle jacket sort of day—sometimes you wanted your jacket and sometimes you didn’t. The signs from the parking lot pointed us to the observation deck, what we later learned was the upper observation deck. We were amazed at the spray that drifted so far up and at the height of the falls. Far below, we could see people tramping among the rocks next to the river below. We knew there must be some way to get down and see the fall from the bottom instead of the top. We followed several pathways and signs and found ourselves on a trail that promised to lead us to the lower observation deck in half a mile.

Just a few steps onto the trail brought us deep into a gorgeous forest. Everything was dense with green on many levels—from tall, majestic trees to bushy clumps of fern and stray, simple wildflowers on the edge of the trail. It was Saturday, and the park was slightly crowded. We saw so many families of all ages—couples with infants strapped to their fronts, young children holding a parent’s hand, several teenagers slouching after their over-enthusiastic parents, and grandparents slowly making the climb up and down at their own pace.

In addition to the beauty of nature and the interesting people we passed on the way, the signs and signals of the trail also riveted my attention during our hike. The trail that took us down to the river was steep and winding. In quite a few places, usually at a bend in the path, the park officials had bolted a large log in the way of a misleading clearing. The logs blocked the path of shortcuts that cut too close to dangerous cliffs and hillsides. The most dangerous off-shoots of the path were marked with fences and signs, but the milder ones were only blocked by logs that suggested the true trail. Compared to the number of people we saw on the trail, few took the discouraged routes, but I was surprised that not everyone chose to stay on the designated path.

At the bottom of the trail we found the river. To get to the lower observation deck, however, we had to follow a chicken-wire tunneled boardwalk that led us around the backside of the lower power plant. This way was narrow but relatively straight. After we passed the power plant, the wire tunnel ended. On the next part of the path, a large sign had been duplicated and reposted every dozen feet or so. The sign warned us not to leave the fenced boardwalk path because the hazardous river could rise suddenly at any time.

Two or three minutes further down the path brought us to the lower observation deck, but the observation deck itself was a disappointment. We were still much farther away from the waterfall than all the people we had seen rambling among the river rocks, and the observation deck was much too small to accommodate all the people that were there at the same time that we were. As we squished and jostled on the deck just to strain a view of the waterfall at all, I realized why the signs had been so adamant. There were swarms of people that had forgotten its warning; they meandered all along the river and much closer to the falls than the observation deck’s confines allowed. There was even a man fishing in the middle of the river, quite close to the falls. Part of me wanted to join in, to hop the carefully placed wooden fences and freely roam the river’s edge as close to the waterfall as I dared. But, instead, my husband and I grimaced at each other and squeezed ourselves back onto the boardwalk trail to return to upper level of the park.

On the way back, the tedious signs weren’t facing us anymore, and for many people that were coming towards us the signs were as good as backwards for what little they would heed them. I knew that it was very unlikely that the river on that certain Saturday would catastrophically rise and wash all the daring people that had broken the rules away, but the “what if” kept me from joining them.

The trail back to the upper part of the park felt steeper on the way up. I couldn’t believe one dad who was pushing a stroller, with a child inside nonetheless, up the steep grade. I shouldn’t have been surprised when even more people veered onto shortcut trails on the way back up than had on the way down. I figured that for many of them they had already broken rules once by playing along the river, so why not do it again? But I couldn’t. Again, what if there was a rock slide, or I got lost, or I destroyed an important natural habitat?

Maybe our day trip would have been more exciting if we had taken a short cut. Maybe we would have felt the rush of danger, the excitement of breaking the roles, but somehow, even though the story of the day doesn’t seem that exciting, I don’t regret staying on the marked path.

All my life I’ve stayed to the marked path. Sure, I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but nothing very daring. Sometimes I wonder if my life’s been boring because I’ve kept to well laid trails. Wouldn’t it have been more thrilling to take a short cut? But then I remember the trails at Snoqualmie Falls: Sure, by taking a short cut we might have had a thrilling, dangerous experience, but most likely we would have just gotten muddier. I’d rather save my nerve for the often rugged steepness of the safe road than squander my daring on the unneeded frivolous danger of a roguish thrill.

When I think back on the shortcuts at Snoqualmie Falls, I remember that I didn’t need the excitement of danger to improve the experience. The fantastic views of the falls from a safe location were enough for me. Unmarked trails aren’t don’t have a monopoly on significant memories and unforgettable journeys. Although it was the what-ifs that always seem to hold me back from unmarked trails, following the marked trail eliminates the haunting what-ifs, which also means no regrets.