Nothing But the Water

I’m very picky about the temperature. I’m grumpy through the sizzling months of summer, require at least three layers before going sledding, and am a frequent complainer about overly air-conditioned offices no matter what the season. So it catches me entirely by surprise when the air outside is completely and utterly perfect, without any characteristic that could elicit a grumble from me. Today was one of those days where you’d be wonderfully comfortable if you wore shorts or jeans, if you were sitting on a park bench or jogging on the W&OD trail, parked at a red light with your windows down or happily speeding along with the breeze in your hair.

Thus, it was also one of those days where you can’t bear to be inside. I awoke with plans to make lemon-buttermilk cookies before picnicking, but standing by the oven today would’ve been a chore. So I ditched the kitchen for Great Falls National Park. Sixteen miles from home, this trip was a no-brainer: low-effort, low-cost, and high-reward.

Listening to the deafening crash of the park’s namesake waterfall is like meditation. The roar of the water makes you forget the errands you need to run, the work that awaits you on Monday morning, and any personal drama that might be occupying your thoughts. On the overlook, you’re simply present, gaping at the natural wonder nestled beside D.C.’s built-up urban center. At that moment, there’s nothing else but the water.

That said, let’s face it: Great Falls is the outdoor mall of local national parks, especially on the first perfect weekend of the year. There were a few people wearing hiking boots, but more were decked out in oxfords or colorful V-neck blouses. The trails we found were primarily flat and meandering, uninhibited by inconvenient smatterings of rocks. But you know what? We did nothing but smile as we passed families walking their dogs, St. Bernards and cocker spaniels alike. There’s no reason to be snobbish about your wilderness when the air is filled with the scent of grilling, and near the visitor’s center, little kids in football helmets dissolve into giggles as they try to throw spirals.

At Great Falls, I was reminded of the primary colors of early spring: gray and brown, with a hint of bright young green. Most of the trees were still stick figures, nary a bud to be seen, but the rocky, muddy landscape was dotted with little patches of grass and plants poking out of the soil. It reminded me that although winter and spring are distinct entities, the changing of seasons is a gradual process, happening bit by bit. A life cycle of the most patient kind, happening on its own sweet time.

And toward the end of the jaunt, this scene: ropes knotted around sturdy trees, leading over the cliff into the gorge that houses the rushing Potomac, each tied to a tiny human rock-climber hanging on below. Were they out of their minds? Possibly. But I understood that they couldn’t be contained to indoor climbing walls on this beautiful day, and if that meant finding themselves on rock face above the river…well, I can’t say I would’ve made a different decision.

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