"The Path to Halfway Falls" by Lynn Levin
The mountain trail was steep, and the tansy scent of bear clover wafted through the April air. Higby, Chuck, and Dean set out at first light intending to head to a lookout over a valley. About an hour and a half into their trek, the three friends met a wide-eyed man and a dark-eyed woman descending the trail. The man, his voice breathy with excitement, told the three friends that he and the woman had seen an extraordinary sight: a slender waterfall not in the guidebooks or maps. This was Halfway Falls, a secret passed from hiker to hiker. Fed by snowmelt and spring rains, Halfway Falls sent off veils of mist that looked like flying angels, and the stream of water was so thin that it evaporated before it reached the ground. That was why they called it Halfway Falls.
“You can always go to the lookout,” said the man, who seemed to know where the men were headed and was, for some reason, addressing Dean in particular, “but you can only see Halfway Falls now.”
“See it before it disappears,” urged the woman, also eyeing Dean.
A secret place. Flying angels. A sight you could only see now. Dean could sense that the couple was exceptionally, almost preternaturally eager, and their enthusiasm inspired in him an overwhelming desire to see the awe-inspiring Halfway Falls.
Over the past year, twenty-eight-year-old Dean, a wallpaper hanger, had known much of duty and little of freedom and joy. He lived with his mother, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, and he was her main caregiver.
Higby and Chuck watched Dean’s face. Dean’s thin moustache moved like a subtitle from which they could almost read his inner debates.
“How long a hike?” asked Dean. His sister had grudgingly agreed to check in on their mother while Dean went to Yosemite. She also commanded that he be back home in Fresno by four-thirty. If he were late, there would be all sorts of consequences. It meant that the friends would have to leave the park by two o’clock.
The strangers assured him that Halfway Falls was not much farther than the lookout, only in a different direction. As they were speaking, a raven landed before them, strutted over, and cocked its head skeptically at the man and woman.
“We should do this, guys!” exclaimed Dean. “Seize the day.” Dean’s face glimmered. He was a slightly pudgy man with hazel eyes and rosy cheeks.
“Nothing ventured,” said Higby, drawing his hand through the blue-green streak in his hair. He was a barista at a Starbucks.
“How did you hear about the falls?” Chuck asked. He shifted a glance at the two strangers as if to spy some in-cahoots look between them.
“From other people on the trail,” said the woman.
“It takes three hours to get to the look-out,” said Chuck with a keen edge in his voice. “Did you guys start hiking at four o’clock in the morning, in the darkness? And what about those others? Did they start out at midnight?”
“I don’t understand what you mean,” replied the man with a blank expression.
Dean took the directions from the couple. They were to follow the present path up to a rock that looked like the famous comedian Bob Hope, turn left, and hike off-trail through the forest; they weren’t sure how far, maybe half a mile. Then they were to listen carefully for the sound of falling water. Owing to the slender stream of the falls, the sound was faint. Nearby was a rock outcropping that looked like a mountain lion with its mouth open. To see the falls, all you had to do was climb on top of the mountain lion rock and hang over on your stomach.
“Gotta see it to believe it,” said the man.
“It’s almost mystic,” said the woman. The couple waved as they sauntered down the path.
Dean glanced at his watch; it was just past eight o’clock. One who liked to be prepared, Dean wore a khaki vest with twenty or so pockets in which he slotted maps, a compass, binoculars, his wallet, car and house keys, hand sanitizer, pens and a small spiral notebook, cell phone, and charger, a bear horn, a whistle, a box cutter, hard candies, a bandana, a Swiss Army knife, some nylon rope, the phone numbers of his mother’s doctors, and, in the biggest square pocket, a ham sandwich, a PB&J, some cookies, and trail mix. Slung over his shoulder was a blue canteen. He took a swig of his water.
Dean looking pleadingly to Chuck, who served as their trail boss. The manager of a health club, Chuck was the most experienced hiker in the group and the fittest. He was in the habit of frequently checking his cell phone, and he wore touch-screen gloves that allowed him to text in the early morning chill. Dean and Higby knew that Chuck was involved with a woman who was not his wife, and on the long ride from Fresno to Yosemite, Chuck and the woman had constantly texted each other.
“I’m doing this for you, Dean,” said Chuck. “Nothing better go wrong.”
Dean thanked his friend. He felt his heart grow wings. Filled with anticipation, liberated, excited to be on his way to something marvelous, Dean at first found it easy to keep up. Chuck had picked up the pace to make sure they’d be back in time.
“Gentlemen,” said Chuck. “I have to tell you this Halfway Falls thing is pretty high on my hooey meter. And that off-trail stuff sounds shady.”
“It means going deeper into the wild,” said Higby. “Of course, we came here for the wild.” He tried to sound self-assured. “But they didn’t tell us how far it was to the Bob Hope rock.” Higby marched second in their single-file line. In his knapsack, he carried an excellent supply of canned drinks, along with a gourmet lunch prepared by his chef wife. The men had been friends since middle school, and Dean was the only one who did not have a woman in his life. His job, hanging wallpaper by himself all day in empty rooms, made him even lonelier.
Chuck turned around. “And they didn’t tell us if the Bob Hope rock was big like a boulder or little like a regular head.”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” said Dean with perfect faith.
“You’d better,” said Chuck. His comment made Dean feel sheepish and burdensome, but then Dean wondered if he had misread Chuck’s tone.
“This will be cool for everyone,” said Dean. He thought of his mother home alone. He hated the injustice of her condition, and he didn’t fully trust his sister to attend to their mother’s needs. A Steller’s Jay winged by. All three turned to admire the bird’s cyan-blue plumes and black-crested head.
Ponderosa pines and a few black oaks fringed the trail along with the bear clover and some manzanita bushes. Although all three wore hiking boots, each slipped every so often on crumbly path. Bird song rang out in the morning air. They kept an ear out for a growl or a rustle in the forest that might indicate a mountain lion or a bear.
Chuck glanced at his phone. “I can’t get a signal up here,” he groused. “No bars.”
“Better not see any bars,” joked Higby.
“I brought a bear horn,” said Dean. “Why don’t you put your phone away and enjoy nature.”
“Because Feather is nature. Besides, the old ball and chain doesn’t like it when I text Feather in front of her.” A smirky smile turned his face askew.
“I wonder why,” said Dean.
“Feather? Her name is Feather?” said Higby.
“That’s her gym name. She’s a yoga instructor.” He elevated his eyebrows suggestively.
Dean disapproved of Chuck’s cheating. Chuck’s wife was a nice woman, not a hot yoga instructor, but still. Besides, it wasn’t fair that Chuck should have two women while Dean didn’t even have one. His last girlfriend had moved to Chicago a year ago, and his new attempts at relationships seldom got past the second date. The mom duty didn’t help matters any. If only he could see those flying angels at Halfway Falls. The sight would be a vision to bolster his spirit, an inner touchstone he could turn to when shadowed by tedium and disappointment. But Dean was not as fit as Chuck or Higby, and he found himself panting and lagging behind.
Chuck halted before a rock formation that he said looked like a face. Although Dean was thankful for a chance to catch his breath, he said the rock was nothing special, just some random fractured granite. Then Higby found something that might have been a face, but Dean opined that it looked like a squirrel, not Bob Hope. Dean looked off in the distance and saw a smooth rounded rock that looked like the comedian’s profile, but he shuddered to think that unapproachable stone was the marker they sought, so he said nothing about his observation.
If only that couple had given them some idea of distances. It was now just before ten, and Higby proposed that they break for their meal. They found a flat rock and laid out their spreads. Chuck, now gloveless, produced a liter of green Gatorade, a big bag of organic soy chips, and a giant meatloaf sandwich with ketchup. He chomped into the sandwich with his very white teeth. They contrasted with his perpetual tan. Dean started on his ham sandwich first. It was a little salty, so he alternated bites with swigs of water from his blue canteen. Higby, they agreed, had the best lunch of all, although it was a rather delicate affair. His chef wife had packed him pâté de campagne on French bread with a container of cornichons. Then there was an assortment of cheeses, a strawberry tart, and lots of little cookies. Higby drank his Starbucks canned coffees and complained about his wife’s business hours. She had no time for him at all, working sixty hours a week, and even when she was off duty on Mondays, she was on call for menu planning, food ordering, and various staff crises.
Dean stuck up for Higby’s wife. It wasn’t her fault, he said. It was the job’s fault.
“Maybe you should try a side dish,” suggested Chuck with a leer. He set his half-eaten sandwich down to chug some Gatorade. Just then a raven, which might have been the raven they met earlier, landed. It glared at Chuck. Then with its huge iron beak, it snapped up what was left of the meatloaf sandwich.
“Fuck you, raven! Fuck you!” yelled Chuck as he shook his meaty fist at the big black bird. It flapped away in triumph.
Dean and Higby laughed, but they also made sure they held onto their food. Dean offered Chuck half his PB&J.
Higby said, “Sometimes my wife will call me at four or five and say, ‘Hey, I’m getting out of work early. Want to see a movie?’ And I know I should feel grateful and wanted, but then I get pissed that I’m at her beck and call.”
“Think of that food she packed for you,” said Chuck. “My wife can’t cook for shit.”
“You guys don’t know how good you have it,” said Dean. “I have to cook for my mom and help her in the bathroom.”
“Sorry, man,” said Chuck.
“That’s a tough break,” said Higby.
“I love my mom. But I’m trapped. Or loyal. I don’t know.” Dean looked up at the clear blue sky.
The men carefully collected their trash and placed it in their knapsacks. Dean tucked his food wrappers into the sandwich pocket of his vest. Odd that no one else was on the trail. They were like explorers in the New World. The air was fresh, sweet, and clear. The day was warming up.
Chuck once again remarked that there was something about the couple that didn’t add up. Higby allowed that might be so, but here they were in the wilderness in the midst of the wonders of nature. As far as he was concerned, the journey was the thing. The Sierra Nevadas were spectacular. They hardly needed to get to the lookout or Halfway Falls, for that matter. Three hawks wheeled overhead. Dean viewed them through his binoculars and offered his friends a look.
Soon they came to a bean-shaped rock that was much larger than a human head. From the center, protruded a thin shard with a dip in it.
“This must be the Bob Hope rock,” said Dean. “See the big forehead, the ski-jump nose, the prominent chin?”
“Nah, that just looks like a sideways pumpkin. Nothing funny about that rock at all,” said Higby. Pointing out the features, Dean again made his case that this was the Bob Hope rock.
“More like Chris Rock,” quipped Chuck. They all laughed. “No way is that Bob Hope. Let’s keep going. Dean, you’re just seeing things because want to get to that bogus falls.”
“It is not a bogus falls. Just hard to find. I’m sure that this is the landmark,” Dean said, wishing he were as certain as he tried to sound. At that moment, a raven, certainly the one that had been following them, landed on the rock in question.
“Bad omen,” said Higby.
“Fuck you, raven! Fuck you!” shouted Chuck, who tossed a pebble at the big bird. “You stole my meatloaf.”
“Cut that out,” said Dean. “Maybe it’s a sign to us.” The raven nodded toward Dean. “Ravens are smart.” The raven nodded again.
“Well, if it’s smart, maybe it’s telling you to give up on the falls,” said Higby.
Dean didn’t appreciate Higby’s and Chuck’s negativism. He offered a few more reasons why this had to be the turning point. His voice grew vehement. The two other men looked startled by Dean’s passion, then gave in with a conciliatory shrug.
“Well, if it means that much to you,” said Higby.
As the strangers had directed, the three turned left at this rock and marched into the trackless forest. So that they wouldn’t get lost on the way back, Dean marked their path with triangles of stones and sticks. After half an hour of hearing no water and seeing no mountain lion rock, he began to doubt the truth of Halfway Falls. He thought of Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth and Coronado vainly seeking the Seven Cities of Cíbola. It was almost eleven, and they all knew that if the strangers had spoken with a speck of truth, they’d be at Halfway Falls by now.
The sound of a cracking branch interrupted their march. The friends froze, listening for the next sound. Again they heard the crack of wood. Then many cracks, heavier and nearer. The low grunt of a bear came from somewhere in the brush. The grunt squeezed their hearts with terror. Had the bear picked up the scent of their food? Had they entered the creature’s space?
They knew to stand their ground and gathered together to form a bigger presence. Through the trees about twenty-five yards away, they saw a sow emerging with her cub. Her huffing was clearer now, and she swatted the ground with her paws. Dean could not see her claws, but he recalled pictures of people mauled by bears. The men began yelling to scare the bear away. They yelled as loud as they could. The sow turned to them in what they hoped was a bluff charge. Dean frantically tore through one pocket after another in search of the bear horn: bandana, pocket knife, flashlight, hard candies, hand sanitizer. Stupid vest! God damn vest! Cell phone charger. Maps. At last, fingers trembling, Dean found the horn. He shot the sound in the direction of the huge brown sow. Dean shot the sound again and again. The sow sniffed the air, hesitated, and then retreated with her cub.
The men embraced each other. Relief washed over them like a waterfall.
“Atta boy, Mr. Pockets,” said Higby running his hand through his blue-green hair. Chuck shook his head in amazement and went in again to give Dean another hug.
Just for good measure, Dean shot off the bear horn again. He felt enormous.
The emotion wrung out of them, their thoughts, most likely, on things both near and far away, the friends silently headed back the way they came, carefully following the trail markers that Dean had laid down.
It was now past two o’clock, and Dean knew that he’d never make it back to Fresno by four-thirty. He wondered how often his sister checked in on their mom. He could see their mom in her chair, staring at the TV, her walker nearby. She could get around a little with the walker, but she needed help to rise from the chair to use the device. He hoped she hadn’t fallen or peed herself. His sister might abandon their mom at four-thirty sharp if Dean failed to return by then. His sister was harsh that way. All about herself.
“Guys, we have to make tracks,” Dean broke in. He thought of the ridiculous flying angels and the ridiculous evaporating waterfall. And how stupid he was to chase after the rapturous lie. “My mom, you know. My sister’s not all that reliable.”
“Heard,” said Higby. Dean thought it was very nice that none of the guys blamed him for blowing his own deadline. Or for coaxing them into the perilous wild. The three men picked up their pace. It was downhill, and the descent was not as taxing for Dean. As they strode, the raven came back to accompany them, part strutting, part hopping, sometimes flying low alongside them.
“We had a good adventure,” said Chuck, who was no longer inclined to cuss out the raven. “I don’t regret it at all. And you saved us from the bear. And blazed our trail.”
“Yeah,” said Higby. “This was way more fun than going to the lookout.”
That enormous feeling filled Dean again. What power did his sister have over him, he who had driven off the bear, who had laid the trail markers, who had prepared and provided with his many pockets?
“You guys. I love you guys.”
“Back at you,” said Chuck.
“Ditto,” said Higby.
When they were a quarter-mile from the parking area, Chuck, Higby, and Dean met up with another party of hikers. One man in the group wore a red hunting cap.
“Have you heard of a place called Halfway Falls?” asked the man in the red cap.
“Yeah,” said Dean. “We tried to find it. Never did. It’s just a tall tale.”
“Just because you didn’t find it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Where’s the logic in that?” challenged the man. “We heard all about it. We heard it was a magical sight.”
“Maybe you’ll find it,” said Dean, and he gave the man in the red hat the same directions he’d received from the awestruck couple.
“Who’s Bob Hope?” queried the man with a squint. One of the women in his party said she knew what the old comedian looked like. Stoked with this measure of confidence, the group turned toward the trail.
“You’ve got a raven with you,” said the man in the red hat looking back at them.
Chuck, Higby, Dean, and the big black bird continued to the car park. When they reached their vehicle, Dean opened one of his pockets and offered the raven a morsel of leftover sandwich. The creature snapped it up and fixed Dean with a dark and respectful gaze. Then it took off flapping its mighty cape. Dean watched the raven until he could not see it anymore. He felt as though he could rise above almost anything.
Lynn Levin’s short fiction has appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Cleaver, JewishFiction.net, The Evening Street Review, Amarillo Bay, and other places. Her most recent book is the poetry collection The Minor Virtues (Ragged Sky, 2020). She teaches at Drexel University, and lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Her website is lynnlevinpoet.com.