Fatima, Portugal – April 24, 2017
There used to be a trail, I think, built by prospectors scowering the middle fork with their shallow pans and hoping to see flecks of gold in the water. I think that’s how Pete found the place, a line on some old map hinting at a trail that no longer existed.
We parked his old white pickup along a dirt road and disappeared down the forgotten path. Little hints were there. A but of a contour along a slope for a path, long taken over with trees and poison oak. A few old pieces if mining equipment rusted into oblivion.
We scrambled, fell, and pushed our way down. Slow, hard work in the summer. Sweat stuck to clothes and skin. Dirt and leaves stuck to sweat. We could hear the river below somewhere, cool and close but far in the heat of the baking sun.
“Just a little more,” Pete said.
“It’s not too far,” Pete said.
“Almost there,” Pete said.
We pressed on. Damn the heat, damn the clawing branches. I wanted to get to that water, to that river glowing like liquid sapphires in the sunlight. Closer and closer, it came until we reached the banks and both collapsed into the water. The fresh, numbing cold fought off the sun’s heat and poured life back into us.
We kept on up the stream as a roar filled the air. It grew with each step, each corner, each inch forward we managed until we stood looking up at twin waterfalls crashing down from above.
We lay out on the sun-warmed rocks and stared. In Yosemite, the waterfalls would have a name, a boardwalk trail, a thousand tourists a day walking around them. They’d fill parking lots, people would jostle around for selfies, and photographs of the spot would hang on living room walls.
But the twin falls are not in Yosemite. There is no trail. Almost no one alive has seen them.
There’s a small ledge to sleep on right between the two falls. It’s just big enough for one person to squeeze into.
“I want you to take it,” Pete said.
That night I watched the stars curve across the black sky. The twin falls fell to either side in the darkness, their white foam glowing in the moonlight, their roar constant.
I’d hiked the Appalachian Trail. I thought I knew what it was to walk in the woods, but I’d never thought to leave a trail, to seek out lost paths, to look at a map and go. I’ve never received a finer gift.
I thought of Pete on the Savanna Portage, hip deep in mud, dragging my kayak over the twentieth beaver dam of that swamp. I thought of him in Norway when I wandered across the tundra, map in one hand, a distant mountain guiding me in the distance. I think of him every time I look at a map and wonder what if.
We got back to Pete’s truck the next morning. He turned to me as we settled into the cab.
“Hey,” he said. “Don’t tell just anyone where this is.”
I nodded. I never have. It’s the kind of place you have to earn. Find someone who knows and convince them to take you. Find a map and figure it out. Just wander the woods. Even if you never find Pete’s spot, you’ll find something.
Pete grinned at me with his huge smile. He fired up the old truck’s engine and we bounced down the dirt road back toward civilization.
I haven’t seen Pete in years. I think the last time I saw him was right before I hiked the Continental Divide Trail. I was getting rid of everything I owned and needed to unload a whitewater kayak I’d foolishly bought thinking I would learn to use it. I gave it to Pete and he ended up giving it to a young guy who couldn’t afford to pay anything for it. Pete could have sold it for a few hundred dollars somewhere, but the kid really loved the river and needed a boat.
“I ended up with poison ivy all over my legs,” I say. “But those waterfalls Pete took me to were worth it.”
Pete’s sister Laura laughs. She knows. She’s been on a few adventures with her brother too. I see a bit of Pete in her face. Maybe it’s her eyes, maybe her hair or nose. Whatever it is, they have the same bright smile.
We only get to meet up for an hour or so. She took a bus up from Lisbon and has to get back before travelling for work. She decided to move to Portugal after a two day trip last year.
“It just felt right,” she says.
I smile. I think of Pete and his maps and the way his eyes light up talking about the secret spots he finds. They look like Laura’s talking about Lisbon. What courage to pick up your life and move across an ocean on a whim. She really does remind me of her brother.