September 21st, 8 pm -ish
Today is my birthday. Yay me! Alive! Today I decided to escape from the world to hide in the forest and seek out a waterfall to frolic in. Considering I live in Los Angeles, finding a waterfall seemed like no short order. But I really wanted to reflect on the past year and be mindful of how I enter into this new one. So I peeled myself out of bed at an unreasonably early hour and put on my fancy exercise tights that read “Love” in big bold letters across my bum. Sending messages of positivity to myself was a great way to start the day. Not wanting to seem too obsessed with my outfit for a hike, I threw on the nearest tee-shirt which said, “Respect In The Cage” with a screen-printed image of two balled fists punching at the viewer. This could be interpreted as any number of things from chicken prison cred, to a Nicholas Cage meme. But in this instance, I think it meant, have respect when you’re in a cage match because your opponent might tear your ears off.”
Why I own a shirt with such a mantra would be baffling, except that I happened to inherit this from a clothing swap. What’s that you say? It’s like sharing hand-me-downs with your friends or estranged acquaintances. It fit well and so I laid claim to it in the swap. I never really thought much about the fact I looked like an unusually smiley MMA fighter when wearing it. Until today. But fuck it. Today’s my birthday, so I’m going to wear this shirt like a boss.
I packed up my special water tube-infused backpack I’d last used when marching for human rights in February when most of the country came together to protest the insanity of the election. It kept me hydrated while sandwiched in between two-hundred thousand other people, so I figured it would do right by me on a five-mile hike. Other items I packed in my tiny bag for survival in the woods included, Big League Chewing Gum because you never know when you’re going to need to blow a bubble to save your life, some high-calorie protein bar that I’m pretty sure was made out of nails and sandpaper, my asthma inhaler, in case the air was entirely too clean and set off an asthma attack, and of course, Sunblock with SPF 70. Those UV rays needed to respect the cage too.
After Googling, Where To Find Waterfalls In Los Angeles, I found several in the Angeles National Forest. Who knew we had our own forest? Before leaving home, I allowed myself five solid minutes on social media to get the ego boost of seeing numerous folks wish me a happy birthday on FaceBook. Let me take a moment to say thank you to the algorithm which reminds everyone to wish me a happy birthday. You make a girl feel super special. Today I am popular! People are reminded to congratulate me!
But it’s totally fine. I’ll take the compliments even if they are heavily encouraged compliments.
Did you ever see the movie, Soapdish? Sally Field plays a soap opera star who feels unloved. One day her assistant takes her to the mall to pep her up by yelling out her name in public so she’ll be recognized. She is then mobbed by throngs of housewives on an escalator. I feel like Facebook, on our birthdays, treats us all like unloved soap opera actors, digitally hollering to everyone on the internet to notice us and remind us how fabulous we are. Again, it’s a cheap way to get love, but who doesn’t love a good sale? Now, if we can get Facebook to stop using search terminology like, “How To Burn Jews”, we’ll really have something to thank Facebook for.
After my five minutes of feeling super popular and loved, I jump into my car, which for some unexplained reason smells like an old man who’s been juggling cats. I needed to start this day smelling like lilies, not the old-cat guy, so I spritz down my car with lady perfume. And now, my world is flowery! I’m off to conquer the woods.
I go to turn off my phone ringer to focus on my drive and officially unplug. But before I get to the button my phone dings and a text message appears:
“We just want you to know we were thinking of you and wanted to wish you a very happy birthday on this special day. All the best, your dermatologist.”
Now, if you read my story last week, you will remember I just visited a dermatologist whose name was Dr. Thanyanjugptigoralman. And I miiiiiight have developed a little crush on him. But this was not Dr. Thanyanjugptigoralman. This was Dr. Lisa Boyle. Yes, her name was Dr. Boyle. This is either an unfortunate or very fortunate last name for her. But that’s not for me to judge. Regardless, she is not my doctor. However, she was, like seven years ago. (Listen, I’ve been a pale, freckle-faced gal for a long while and I have needs.) But what I will say is, however long I’ve been in this doctor’s system, props to her for her follow-up game. I mean, she clearly knows, she’s a doctor who gets more visitors as they age. So high five to her.
That said, this was not the first birthday message I wanted to see this morning. Hey you! Your skin is going to get gross, and we wanted to remind you of that at the beginning of your birthday! And we love you! You’re great! Here’s to being one year older!
I decided not to read any more messages in case I got another surprise birthday greeting from some other secret admirer, like say, the IRS.
Anyway, I’m jamming on the freeway whizzing down an empty road. Getting my happy on, I decided to blast my newest song called, “Take It All The Way”, a pop-y jam about living life to the fullest and getting off your ass to make it happen. It’s super catchy and I’m over the moon excited about it. However, I noticed something while singing along to the chorus:
It’s not like, we live forever
For this situation to change
Better get our shit together
And take it all the way*
I am once again, reminded of my mortality. I don’t recall on other birthdays feeling like I’m being chased by a hooded figure wielding a sickle.
Ok, that’s a lie.
I am often grouchy and a bit of a birthday dodger. On more than one occasion, I have refused to get out from under my fort/covers, insisting that is my best option for celebration. But today I had a change of heart and decided I would be especially optimistic and grateful. And yet, the reminders keep coming at me like a punch to the face in this goddamned cage. I ask you, where’s my respect?
Still, I bob my head to the groove as I drive down the freeway. The first rain of fall has begun and I get to use my windshield wipers for something other than smearing bugs away. Also, I haven’t washed my car in maybe a month or seven, so here’s to getting an unexpected car wash! I see my turn off and get increasingly more excited for my adventure. Winding around the mountains of Altadena I’m taken by the lush green hills and the oak and cedar trees covered in giant floppy leaves turning gold and orange in the mist.
The fog is creeping in from the mountain tops and as I ascend upwards the visibility becomes less clear. The British lady in my phone hollers at me where to turn, and then I notice this backcountry is starting to resemble a Sherlock Holmes episode. One lone-hooded hiker walks along the narrow roadway, clouded in fog under the canopied trees.
As I pull into a small parking lot with only a few cars, I think I will either have a transcendental experience today or get murdered by a bear or serial killer and turned into a skin coat.
I reach into my backpack to check my phone and see there is no cell service. But I’ve got my bag of bubble gum, which of course, makes me feel safer. A tiny woman and a wet dog emerge from the misty forest and I tell myself this is definitely a good sign. Before I can overthink the situation, I breeze past the national forest sign of a giant bear paw, captioned, “Bear Country!” I looked for any kind of instruction on what to do if you spot a bear, but they fail to mention any actual instructions. Maybe they just want us to celebrate them. Hence the exclamation mark.
The trail is covered with stones and fallen leaves and a running stream snakes alongside me as I begin to climb. The mossy trees fill the air with a sweet smell that I can’t initially place. (Later I realize it’s the faint scent of pickles. In case you’ve never visited the woods, now you know, that’s the smell of nature.) This place feels almost mystical, as random raindrops tap my forehead, falling from the treetops above me.
So, of course, it’s only natural then, I break into song. Specifically, into a version of a Sunday school tune about the Lord and the great flood and elephants and kangaroosies marching onto the arc in twosies. I keep trying to get reflective but instead, I start to hand-jive in between jumping rocks.
Then out of nowhere come the signs. The sign maker for this particular stretch of forest was either trying to get the hikers to be more mindful or worry them into completely giving up on life. After the bear celebration sign, came a handwritten sign in ballpoint pen, warning hikers of dangerous wasps in the vicinity. There was no arrow as to which direction they were swarming, so I was left to wonder where the wasps were hiding out, waiting to kill my face off. And these geniuses who had scotch tape and notebook paper handy in their satchels didn’t seem to find it important to let us know when this happened. For all I know, that note could have been written when Bush was president and “wasp” could have been referring to a type of hiker to avoid.
Unsure what precautions to take, I just tugged on my hoodie and kept my head down, telling myself to prepare for either type of encounter.
Then a few kilometers later came another sign warning me to be courteous. “Respect the land you’re walking on. One day you’ll be part of it.” Again with the reminders of the fact that I’m going to end up in the dirt. Respect the earth’s cage!
But I kept feeling compelled to sing songs about sunshine and floods and then somehow a Robert Palmer song about women being simply irresistible got into my mental playlist. I was finding bliss in every step I took between lines of “she’s so fine, there’s no telling where the money went”. Before I knew it, I heard the white buzzing noise of the waterfall.
Climbing over embedded rocks and broken tree trunks, the path opened up into a rock-walled amphitheater shooting a hundred feet up. High above, suspended from a mossy rock crag, poured a five-fingered waterfall. It’s digits sprawled over the ridges of the cliff beneath it, spilling into a shallow pool the color of autumn. Or dirty money. Copper leaves mixed into turquoise water made for delicious nature soup. I squealed out loud, “I found it! I found it!” and danced around like I’d just scored the 1$ position on the giant wheel on The Price Is Right. Dumping my backpack, I had to sweep my hands across the cool pool of water flowing at my feet. I squished my hands into the muddy floor and felt the tiny pebbles move beneath my fingers.
The world was officially drowned out by the wall of water and for a moment I stopped thinking altogether and just sat in the space of it all. Right now I am here and this is good. Still splashing in the water I thought to myself, Ok now I’m going to be still, get serious and unravel my woes and figure out my future like an adult. But moments later a couple in their sixties with two girls probably 6 and 8 came clanging up to the falls. Ok scratch that, I’ll meditate later, just try to not look like a lonely person about to drown themselves.
The two girls rushed up to the water’s edge and squealed in glee. What I heard them say first was, “It’s here! We found it! We found it!” Then I watched the littlest one squat down and drag her fingers through the water, digging in deep to touch the soft earth below.
This was as redeeming a feeling as I could have possibly imagined. With all the reminders of my mortality poking me in the eye on repeat, this simple reminder of what else I am connected to, felt good and like a little light bulb had gone off in my head. And not in a migraine type of way. Moments later the same little girl came up to me and offered me some of her snacks.
“Would you like some?” she opened her baggie full of nuts and raisins to me.
“That is so sweet of you. Thank you!” I said. “You know what? Today is my birthday!” I blurted out. I suddenly remembered the feeling of being eight years old and how spectacular it feels to have a birthday.
“Happy Birthday!” Both girls hollered in bright tones above the din of the water.
“What is your name?” The older one asked.
“I’m Nina! What are your names?”
They hollered out their names, which I thought was hard to understand because of the noise from the whooshing water, but it turns out, they were Lithuanian.
“I’m Gabija, which means goddess of fire!”
“I’m Luidvika, which is a famous warrior! And we speak Lithuanian!”
These were bad ass little girls. I was in good company.
They then broke into song and sang happy birthday to me, dancing around, splashing water. We skipped stones, shared more raisins and drew pictures of bears in the dirt. Afterwards, as they were packing up to leave, Ludivika said to me, “Nina, you fill up my bucket!”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“You know, you are filled to the top of your head with good”, she said as she patted the top of her head.
“Well, you fill up my bucket too!” I told her.
Just before leaving the falls, they wished me a happy day and I thanked the girls again for their song. Before walking off, the grandfather warned me to keep an eye out for bears. I asked him, “What do I do if I actually see one?”
“Pray to the Lord and don’t move. Unless it comes after you. Then you run.”
I did not feel the least bit more educated on how to behave in the wilderness.
“But don’t worry!” He added. “The bears won’t eat you today, it’s your birthday!”
And with that, I was left alone at the waterfall inspired, reveling in all the possibilities.
* Take It All The Way– written by Nina Storey and Mark McKee. Released under our new project, Astral Queen this year! Get ready to dance like you’re in Devo.