MY GREEN CANYON
SCOTT K. MILLER
I pull the rented red Alfa Romeo onto the grass by the shore of Lough Derg. Across the road in a bright-green field beneath a low hill stands an ancient abbey, its crumbling walls supporting tufts of grass and wildflowers.
"This spot okay?" I ask.
"Come on, Pop. Where’s the peanut butter?"
"Why do you have to drive like that?!"
"Settle. Let’s take a hike. I’ll make sandwiches."
We had left Galway mid-morning and arrived at Dad’s next genealogical point of interest by early afternoon. I had been driving well and fast for the past two hours, hitting the apexes and missing the sheep while simultaneously explaining to my father why it was necessary to keep the engine at such a high r.p.m. and how this particular car was built to be driven that way.
"I don’t feel like doing anything with you," Dad says. "I’ll meet you back here in two hours. Take your jacket."
"Two and a half." I hurriedly load my backpack with two sandwiches, my raincoat, a quart of water, my inflatable camp chair, and first-aid stuff.
"Two hours," Dad says again.
"Two and a half. Bye." I smile and pat his head.
"Fine!" he calls after me. I turn around and wave.
My dad is a great guy. We get along well most of the time. In the past eight days we have seen Dublin, Belfast, and the entire northwest coast of Ireland. Dad has been pursuing his genealogy furiously—visiting churchyards and town offices, meeting with local historians. I am not nearly as excited about our roots as Dad is, though I do feel a strange enlightenment coming over me as Dad gathers evidence of our heritage.
I notice a small, paved road leading into the woods that’s marked by an official-looking sign declaring the surrounding land a conservation area. Perfect.
I cross the main road and enter the forest. A stream, about twenty feet across and a few feet deep, burbles and sploshes along beneath a dense thicket of overarching trees and vines.
Soon I reach a parking area. There is a footpath continuing along the stream, blocked by a low gate and a sign reading, "The trail to the waterfall is closed for two weeks." I disregard it and step around the gate. On one side is the logging operation–a grotesque clear-cut job, in no way infringing on the footpath. I keep my attention towards the stream. Clover covers the ground on either side of the path, as do moss, holly and vines.
The air is warm and I feel lucky to be here. I spot a pair of red ladies’ underwear lying in the clover. Then a small white sock. I look for more garments, but find none. A Monty Python song about cross-dressing loggers immediately comes to mind.
"Oh I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay, I sleep all night and I work all day, I cut down trees, I wear high heels, suspenders aaand a bra."
I soon reach the base of the waterfall. The beautiful little cascade thankfully douses Monty Python, sending the tune back to the dark place in my head where I store such unworthy memories. A recently built wooden stairway and hand rail lead to the top of the falls. I climb and look over. Water gushes over and around furry moss-green rocks and plunges into a small pool thirty feet below.
I rest for a moment, soaking in the soft sounds and colors and shapes; misty spray rolls up in cool waves. One, two, three—time to move. I turn around and hike up into the forest, leaving the stream and falls behind.
The path climbs up over smooth roots and around gnarled trees. A tumbled-down rock wall lines the edge of a hillside pasture. I can still hear water running on my left, a soft backdrop to birdcalls and critters rustling beneath low bushes. The trail has disappeared, but I keep the rock wall in sight and hike on through the forest.
Underfoot, thick moss has grown over many small, fallen trees, their shape visible beneath the soft, green carpet. The moss has an inner elastic quality that supports my weight where the crisscrossed trees leave small gaps. Miniature forests of clover abound. I observe plants and trees and flowers that I have never seen before, their colors vibrant hues of green, yellow, pink, purple.
In a tiny clearing, rising more than three feet above the ground, stands a single flowering plant, an exquisite specimen adorned with pink flowers and light green buds that spring symmetrically from a dark green stalk. I gaze for a minute in awe, then laugh out loud. Mother Nature has taken extra care with this creation. She seems so fond of Ireland, and the Irish seem to genuinely appreciate her hard work, living in relative harmony with her land, water, and wild creatures. Mother Nature, in return, blesses their green isle with a wealth of healthy plants and animals, fertile soil, and a bountiful ocean.
After thirty more minutes of climbing I reach the top of the forest. The trees end abruptly and the hill becomes a rocky, barren pasture. I hop the rusty barbed wire fence and climb to the nearest crest. From this height, I can see the majority of my forest, as well as other small forests set apart by pastures, several farms, the lake where our car is parked, and dark mountains beyond. I walk along the ridge through the pasture, avoiding nettles and cow pies in search of a good place to eat lunch.
I choose a rocky outcropping mostly free of dung and unfold my camp chair, happily sharing my picturesque lunch spot with cows and sheep who stay below and out of my way. I eat p.b. and j., read a few pages of Thoreau, and prepare to head back toward the forest to meet Dad. I find the headwaters of my stream – a marshy area just above the tree line, and decide to follow the trickle back instead of retracing my route.
Dense brush and trees impede my progress; but as the stream grows, I am able to follow along its muddy banks, hopping across when necessary. The banks, which are sloping up now, form the beginning of a lush, moss-lined canyon.
Tall trees rise high above the boulders and running water, their branches letting in just enough light for a variety of green mosses, algae, lichens and mushrooms of all shapes to grow in peace. The green canyon walls rise higher as water carves deeper into the earth, washing away soil, gently polishing boulders. Submerged rocks and branches receive a coating of slick algae, while rocks and trees and everything else above water are blanketed with moss. This garden seems carefully tended, a creation of delicate perfection. I intrude, though I feel welcome.
Traversing the canyon wall, I cling to roots, digging my well-lugged boots into thick moss in search of footing. I climb to the rim when the soft walls become sheer, and down again when they pitch less sharply into the stream, fifteen to twenty feet below. Fallen birches and hemlocks lying across the canyon make bridges for leprechauns and wood spirits. I take my time descending, making sure of my footing with each step, mind full of handholds, and studying landing areas when I must jump.
I could play in this soft, mossy canyon all day, bathing and splashing about in fresh tumbling water, and exploring, looking for nymphs and critters, but I told Dad I would be on time. The canyon walls have become sheer cliffs, forcing me up to the rim. Once I clamber to the top, I lose sight of the stream beyond the cliff-edge, but can tell by the roaring water and billowing spray that a series of virtually inaccessible waterfalls lie below.
How I would love to explore the secret rooms behind the falling water—and meet their occupants. They are mysteries that will remain mine to discover. There is magic in my green canyon. I can feel it.
Soon I reach the first waterfall where the trail ended and pick up speed, hustling along on a sunny spring afternoon, feeling whole and one with Ireland.
Reaching the main road, I spot my father sitting in the car reading. He looks up, puts his book down, and steps out of the passenger side.
"How was your hike, bud?" he asks, leaning on the roof.
"Fantastic. Truly fantastic." Dad nods and smiles and keeps nodding and smiling. "Find any ancestors?" I ask.
"Yes, indeed. Liam McMillen," Dad says triumphantly. "His birth certificate and tax records were in the town office. Another piece to the puzzle. I can now say for sure that we are part Irish."
"That’s not our last name," I remind him, unlacing my muddy boots.
"Oh, I’m pretty sure he’s related to us. Ninety-nine percent sure."
"Either way, Pop, you know what? I feel Irish. You should have seen this mossy canyon I found."
"Yeah. Really neat." I toss my pack and boots in the trunk and walk around to the driver’s side. "Can I drive?"
Dad gives me a look and raises an eyebrow. "Promise me you’ll drive slower?"
"Yeah. Sorry I made you nervous before." We get in.
"That’s okay, bud." Dad smiles and leans over to give me a quick half-hug. "Now, find me a nice B&B. I could sure use a cold Guinness."
"Now that’s what I’m talking about!" I start the engine, grinning at him.
"Keep it under sixty, Red Rider."
"Will do." I ease the Alfa back onto the road.