The doom and gloom park ranger and the kindness of strangers

We were all walking toward a destination that day and some of us weren't sure toward what but we kept walking, sure it would be worth the long, hot, sweaty and bug infested journey.

"It's not very far," my husband had said, excited for me to see the site he and my son had visited a month earlier,

After 20 minutes of walking I asked him for his personal definition of "not very far."

Lisa R. Howeler Copyright 2017

Rising up beside us were hillsides of trees and bare shale. Between them was a type of desert of rock with a small swath of water traveling through as if Bob Ross had painted it there, "right there with just a little bit of brown and green just like this."

The path was shadowed by a high canopy of trees that made it look like we were walking down a long majestic corridor in a castle only the high ceilings and walls were tree branches instead of marbled stone and columns.

The youngest decided she was too good for walking and used her dad as her personal serf, head on his shoulder as he carried her almost every step of the way.

At the beginning of the trail, where my son noticed later that everyone was still happy and perky and full of anticipation instead of exhaustion, a man took a photo of his family with a series of smaller waterfalls as the backdrop.

I felt he needed to be in the photo, to show he was there for future generations, and with a surge of courage I usually lack I walked over and asked if he would like to get in the photo with his family. He and his family seemed pleasantly surprised and he took the offer and handed me the phone, asking if I knew how to use it, which I did since it was exactly like mine only the version that is practically as big as an infants' head. The photographer and former small town reporter in me kicked in and I found myself counting "one-two-three" like I often do during sessions with families or how I used to do when photographing large groups made up of small children who need their attention grabbed.

As I turned to leave the man asked if we would like a family photo as well. I took the offer and felt maybe what he had felt a few moments before, a deep appreciation for the kindness of strangers that sometimes we imagine doesn't exist anymore, if we based or views on media coverage and what people type when protected by a thousand miles and technology.

After becoming disenchanted and depressed about the state of the human race, based at least on recent behaviors on Facebook, it felt good to do something nice for strangers, not motivated by their point of view or political stance. I didn't know anything about them and they didn't know anything about me and I liked that because we didn't need to. All we knew was we saw someone in need, even if it was in need of a simple family photo, and we helped.

When we finally reached our destination the sun came out bright and scalding on our heads and I ended up feeling dizzy and lightheaded. The observation deck to look up at the 100 foot waterfall was maybe a hundred foot walk in the blazing heat and all of us were thirsty, tired and dripping with sweat by the time we stood at the barriers and listened to a park ranger shout at an adventurous photographer to come back from the forbidden area on the other side of the barrier.

Lisa R. Howeler copyright 2017

 

She came back, obviously angry at the public scolding but most of us were too hot to focus on her infraction, nor did we blame her seeking a closer look. Once back on to the wooden observation area the park ranger regaled is with heartwarming tales of how a woman had died in that same spot eight years ago when rocks fell on her and crushed her. The rocks are loosened when it's hot out because there is no mud or dirt to hold them in place, he said, and then pointed down toward the narrow stream along the wide rock bed that signs said was once a sea and told us a woman had died there just last Wednesday.

Lisa R. Howeler Ithaca NY 2017

Emboldened, you might say, by the stories, most of us walked briskly back toward the trail, and the shade, looking above us for falling rocks, or falling people since there is also a trail high up along the fragile edge of this cavernous site and some of us weren't sure if the ranger also had a story of rocks giving way under anyone on that trail and them plunging to their doom. Lesson learned? Don't cross barriers at New York State parks because the rangers are obviously under orders to tell you disturbing stories about hikes that started as a nice family day but endedin certain death.

We headed back, leaving the dirt and gravel trail for the rock bed and the water, letting the children walk in it and slide across the mossy surfaces.

Lisa R Howeler Ithaca NY 2017
Lisa R. Howeler Ithaca NY
Lisa R. Howeler Taughannock Park Ithaca NY
Lisa Howeler Taughannock Falls, Ithaca NY

Encouraged by my previous encounter I offered to take another photograph for a hiker, this time a mom with a rambunctious and squirmy three or four year old who didn't want to pose for a selfie with her. I asked him where their dog was, standing with a friend of theirs behind me, and that stopped his protests long enough for him to point the dog out and look toward the camera while his very pregnant mom held him.

Along the rock bed were piles of rocks made of various sizes. Not too long ago I had read what these piles meant but now I couldn't remember. I asked the pregnant mom and we both agreed we had read something on Facebook but now we'd both forgot. We both obviously had minds like steel traps and I was a bit disappointed to admit I had the same memory capability as a nine month pregnant woman.

I finally remembered the technology in my hand and used the limited cell service to google it. What came up was the term "cairn" and an article by a very annoyed and uptight person in Smithsonian Magazine who said they are usually built as memorials but when placed along trails they create confusion for hikers and can lead to peril. I imagined the article was written by the park ranger we had encountered.

Cairns, by definition, the article, and other, less frustrated sources say, are a "mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark." The word is based in middle Gaelic, the article said, which surprised me since I didn't know there were different levels of Gaelic.

Lisa R. Howeler Taughannock Falls  NY
Lisa R. Howeler Taughannock Falls NY

 

Native Americans also use the stone formation to mark the graves of their dead. My son and I, still thinking about the ranger's story hoped that wasn't the case here.

Once out of the water and back on the trail, my son said "do you know how I know we are close to the end?"

"How?" I asked.

"Everyone still looks happy." He said

But we were still happy, even after the long walk up and back. My daughter even pointed out "mama still happy."

And I was. Mainly because no one had had to call an ambulance to retrieve me but also because we'd had a family day and no one had fallen off a ledge or even scraped their leg or been bit by a wild animal.

There is always another day and another adventure for that.

lisa r. howeler taughannonck falls, NY

Lisa Robinson-Howeler

Lisa Howeler Photographer, Athens, PA

I'm a wife, mom, writer and photographer from Northeastern Pennsylvania. I'm a former journalist, which is what my degree is in, and enjoy the freedom of being able to create as a mainly self-taught photographer.