On the trail we walked in a line. I was last. We had our puffy jackets on but it wasn’t too cold. Mine was brown and lighter brown, Alex’s was red and blue and my dad’s was all blue, bigger and less puffy. I told myself brown was better than red and blue. The sun was low and shot shafts of gold at an angle through the trees. From far away I could see insects and atmosphere dancing, but when I walked through the light it was warm and the insects were gone. The ground was dry. No one was around. It was just us walking.
Our first stop was supposed to be a bunch of caves. My dad pointed up off the trail and we walked up an incline. After a bit, as we walked up the hill, I could see some people standing in front of the caves. When we got closer, I saw that they were a man and a woman in their 30s, wearing shorts and hiking boots and backpacks. The man had light curly hair like mine but his was down to his ears, and the woman had long straight brown hair. Her legs were thin like a horse’s, and on her knee there was a purple brown scab.
“How’s it going?” my dad said.
“Not bad,” the man said. “Some candles here.” We walked up closer, and saw that there was a large circle of white candles in the dirt. The circle was large enough for a person to lie in the middle. “There’s another one in there,” the man said and pointed up toward the cave. My father said nothing, but he took Alex’s hand.
Not long before, I had gone to see The Little Mermaid with my mom and Alex at the Old Mill Theater. Seeing movies was one of our traditions. In the middle of the movie I got up and went to the bathroom. On the way back I looked into another theater, and saw a few minutes of a movie called The First Power. Lou Diamond Phillips was in it. I loved him as Chavez in Young Guns so I watched. I knew that it was about the devil and I wasn’t supposed to watch. The killer had tied up a woman and put her in the middle of a circle of candles. She was gagged and scared. The killer told her to relax and said he was going to say his prayers backwards: “Heaven, in art which father our are father which art in Heaven.” I left and went back to The Little Mermaid but I couldn’t forget what I had seen.
My father didn’t let us look at the candles in the cave, so we kept walking. He held Alex’s hand and I walked a little behind them. My father and brother both had straight brown hair. The sun was above us and it was hotter. My dad took off his jacket and I took off mine. Alex took his off and we stopped to wait for him to tie it around his waist, but he couldn’t do it so my dad carried it for him. The next stop was El Capitan,. It was a tall boxy mountain that shot straight up out of the ground. In my mind I always thought of it as yellow-orange because I thought of all the mountains in colors: Half Dome was white and grey; Mt. Lyell was green; Mt. Dana was pink; Matterhorn Peak was blue; but up close El Capitan wasn’t yellow-orange, it was just dirty-white and chalky.
“Look at that tree,” my dad said finally. It was a tree with reddish bark. High up some of the branches had been ripped away and in places the bark was skinned off revealing the pale insides. “That’s fresh. It’s from rocks falling off the mountain.” There was a little stream going almost next to the base of the mountain. My dad gave us time to explore on our own. I told him I didn’t want any rocks to fall on me and he promised that they wouldn’t. I had nothing to do so I found a place with some sun and I sat with my back against the mountain. I took my shoes off and let my feet feel the air. The water was very close and it trickled and sparkled. From somewhere close I could hear my brother’s voice, high and demanding and my father’s voice, deep and calming.
Sitting in the sun I felt empty. I was a black center in the middle of all the nature. I was nothing but I could do anything. I could fill myself with anything. I said a prayer. I asked God that I would never be like my father. I told God that I didn’t want to have sons. I said that if I died I would like to have done something good before that happened. I prayed that my brother would die, and then I took it back.
Later, on a large flat oval rock we had our lunch. The hotel had packed us sandwiches and Cokes. I had turkey on wheat with sprouts and cranberries. It was the best sandwich I’d ever eaten. The Coke washed it down and the sugar stuck to my teeth.
To get to Yosemite Falls we walked through a very green and wet part of the park. The ground was full of mud and damp needles. All the rocks were wet and had a blue gloss. Soon the noise of the falls started growing, and after a while the sound was all around us. A steady rush of horror saying, “you are small and insignificant,” and getting so loud that you just wanted to see to get it over with and get out of there. Some people were walking back from the falls towards us. A couple with dark hair and dark clothes. They said nothing as they passed.
The three of us, we three Petersons, walked in a line toward the noise, my father in the center. We had our puffy jackets back on and there was a mist around us. The mist wet our faces as we continued toward the center of the roar. It felt like something was pushing us back but my father kept pulling us forward. The trees were green and black over us, like the arched ceiling of a church.
When we came out from under the trees, there was a huge rock face and in the center, a cataract, white and gushing, implacable and steady in its furious rush over the side. It was a violent slice of movement in the stolid graphite-colored rock front, and the scene was all glazed over by the shifting atmosphere of mist. The waterfall was farther than I imagined, but the sound roared in a chorus that echoed and reechoed without end. It felt like there were speakers just below us projecting the rushing noise, so loud and close when the waterfall was so far.
We stood for a minute and then made our way up the damp path to a wooden bridge that spanned the river. At the base of the bridge, the waterfall smashed itself on the rocks. It was even louder here, as if we were in a cave of sound. Water and rock and river and time and noise. You could take a photo of the waterfall, but the particular water captured in the picture would never flow over again.
An old man walked over the bridge. He had on a translucent blue raincoat with the hood up and pulled tight around his face so that only his eyes and nose were showing through the opening. We asked him to take a picture of us, and he did, with our backs to the railing of the bridge and the waterfall behind us. Alex was in my father’s arms.
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