Back in December 2016, I went hiking with two of my best friends to Seven Falls, a natural area located just north of my home town of Tucson, Arizona. At first blush, such a thing would hardly seem blog-worthy, but for me it was highly cathartic. Before I reached my 50th birthday, which would happen two months later, I was making it a point to reconcile myself with a few things that had happened to me in the previous decades. This had been an ongoing process, started in earnest after I had left Arizona for Oregon in 2010. My reasons for leaving my home state were varied and complicated and I won’t bother addressing them here. But suffice to say that I left behind some unfinished business. In the author’s vernacular, these were incomplete stories, needing just a few more sentences before I could put them away for good.
Thus the hike to Seven Falls.
The falls are a popular destination for college students who enjoy swimming in the shallow, rain-filled pools or sunbathing on the rocky terraces. They can be beautiful, tranquil… and at times deadly. Seven Falls became notorious in 2007 when a flash flood killed two and stranded many more on the rocky ledges of Bear Canyon; but plenty more die from the heat, from dehydration or from injuries sustained on the rugged terrain. The challenges of Seven Falls are often exacerbated by people themselves. Too many, unfamiliar with desert conditions and flush with the effects of alcohol or the fearlessness of youth, take unnecessary risks.
Having been raised in southern Arizona, desert survival skills had been drummed into me starting in grade school. So when I hiked to Seven Falls for the first time in the summer of 1986, I came with everything from sunscreen to sturdy hiking shoes to plenty of water. My companions for the day, both of whom were art students I’d met the previous school year at the University of Arizona, thought I was ridiculous. One of them was from southern California and the other from Connecticut. Neither had been in Tucson for more than a year nor particularly interested in what the place was about, beyond the parent-free environment they were clearly enjoying. I was thankful for these new friendships. Many of the kids I’d grown up with had either not gone onto higher education or had moved away altogether. After enjoying a tight-knit social circle and a certain degree of popularity in high school, I was feeling very isolated and finding a couple of guys with similar interests and career goals was comforting.
As we started up Bear Canyon trail to the falls, I was already been teased about my “paranoia.” I was the only one refusing to drink beer and when we rested, I invariably sat in the shade rather than sunning myself on a rock. I didn’t mind the teasing though, as I can give as good as I get — and did so. By the time the three of us had traversed the rigorous 2 mile trail and reached the base of the falls, California and Connecticut had discovered that their young constitutions were still susceptible to dehydration and overheating. We spent a couple hours near the pools at the base of the cascades, me sitting in the shade sipping water, them sunbathing and “refueling” with Corona Extra and greasy hoagies. By the time we headed out, California and Connecticut were clearly ill and we made the last leg of the journey via the courtesy shuttle which ran up adjoining Sabino Canyon.
The conversation (and the teasing) had dwindled to nil on the return. Clearly I was being ignored. When they spoke, it was only with each other and when we reached the city they cancelled our post-hike plans because they "needed to rest." It wasn’t until weeks later that I realized everything had been cancelled.
As a result, what had started out as a happy summer break ended on a depressing note. In true high school fashion (because at 18 and 19, let’s face it, you’re still really a high school kid), there was no explanation for why I had been ostracized. My attempts to reach out and clear the air were rebuffed with silence, and in that void I tried to find understanding. When I teased them back, did I go too far, I wondered? Were they offended that I didn’t drink their beer? Were they humiliated when they became sick in front of me?
Whatever was the case, the following school year was particularly awkward because the three of us had arranged to be in multiple classes together. On the first day of the Fall semester, they strode past me and sat on the other side of the room. Three more years would go by with these dudes pretending I wasn’t there. By senior year, Connecticut was finally able to make eye-contact with me and smile, but we never really spoke again.
In the final months of my final year at the university, I discovered what had happened at Seven Falls. California confessed that he and Connecticut had “held a meeting” (his words) and decided I just didn’t fit with them socially. Apparently the crux of it had to do with my unwillingness to drink beer on the hike. California didn’t tell me this out of a lingering sense of guilt however, but because Connecticut had recently spurned him too and he wanted to commiserate. I had no empathy. The wound was still fresh and learning the ridiculous reason for my rejection did nothing to soften my indignation.
After graduation, I never saw California or Connecticut again, but the memory of them became one of those unfinished stories, an allegory for my lonely, miserable college career.
However, going back in 2016 changed everything, mostly because I chose my hiking companions more carefully. Instead of new acquaintances, I went with my lifelong friends, Donald and Phill. They’d taken very different life paths from me after high school, yet we remained close over the intervening years. Both knew why I had asked them to go, and both understood the importance of finishing the unfinished. As we hiked, I found that the landscape had changed little since 1986. The cliffs were still sheer and impressive. The vegetation was still painful. The water of the creek was still freezing cold. But because this visit to Seven Falls was about celebrating friendship rather than losing it, everything seemed different. The story I’d started writing there thirty years earlier finally had a conclusion… and it was a happy one.