Breakneck Falls

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2010 at 9:32 pm

Summer now seems long expired. But in memory of warmer days, here is an essay from August 2010. Photograph of the Breakneck Falls ravine, McConnells Mills.

The climb to Breakneck Falls is treacherous. We take slow steps, from rock to rock. We cling to the worn hillside, lowering ourselves down ladders of tree-roots. The vertical slopes drop into a dark ravine, whose depths are obscured by evergreens. Far below, boulders lie at odd angles. None of us are expert climbers, but step by step, we descend the cliff, slide down a muddy escarpment and approach the waterfall.

None of us expected to be here on a Sunday afternoon. But Kylan, my longtime girlfriend, decided to go on a whim.

“Let’s go to McConnell’s Mill,” she said a couple days ago. “I want to go camping.”

The proposal surprised me. Kylan grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs, and before we met, she had never pitched a tent in the woods. She’d never seriously paddled a canoe or strapped on snowshoes. To be fair, I had never really dusted or scrubbed a bathtub, and we have since traded these skills. But this was a new one: In five years, Kylan has never been the first to volunteer a camping trip.

“Really?” I asked.

“Yeah. I’ve been working all summer. I just want a vacation. Even if it’s only for a couple days.”

Kylan isn’t the only one who’s needed some fresh air. Her co-workers, Johanna and Jen, spent most of July in a research lab at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. Kylan has toiled for months on her doctoral research in the same cramped office. There have been no road-trips, no roller-coasters, no beaches or boats. And now summer wanes. Next stop, autumn. No time to waste. Jen conscripted her boyfriend Pete and both their dogs. We packed our cars, made a reservation at the state park, and bombed down the highway for McConnell’s Mill State Park.

We made camp in a sunlit knoll, and by 2 p.m. we were hiking along frothy Slippery Rock Creek. Pennsylvania is known for its dull foothills, its bland expanse of forests, but McConnell’s Mill is truly scenic. The rapids rush over rocks, sizzling dramatically in the humid air, and the trails rise and fall along the riverbank. The hiking is relaxed, and so are the hours we spent on the pebbled inlets. It’s against the rules to swim, but Pete and I waded out anyway, subsuming ourselves in cool stream-water.

This would all have been nice – a nice outing, a nice sit around the fire, a nice night wrapped in sleeping bags. But as our party ascended the long road back to camp, Kylan spotted the path to Breakneck Falls. Such a climb was more than nice; this was real adventure.

“You want to go?” Kylan said.

Again, I was delighted to see her leading the way. “Let’s do it.”

Johanna, Jen and Pete have never before descended the ravine, and as they slide down the muddy slope, taking care to find firm handholds, I feel a surge of pride. I’ve visited Breakneck a dozen times. I’ve guided Kylan past the overhangs, across primeval boulders and into silty pools. And now Kylan is guiding her friends, a new generation of explorers. We take pictures in front of the falls, which splash like a heavy rain over the smooth stone. Then we climb the rock face and slip into the cave beneath the falls. The space is like a murky shelf, and climbers can spend hours sitting on a ledge, gazing at the misty canyon.

“This is exactly what I needed,” Kylan says.

With a view like this, who needs roller-coasters?


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