It’s winter, and we’re hiking across snow to the falls. Boots tramp over a trail hardpacked by daily visits. Bare limbs reveal the hillside, bereft of the cover leaves afford the trail in summer. There’s something about the barrenness of winter that strips our souls. In a way, it’s a time to use this vulnerability to heal. We are open.
I shuffle my snowboots in single file with a group of chatting and giggling women. I smile because we were supposed to walk mindfully. But that does not mean silently, right? We’re here to heal at the Ripley Falls. In this glorious mindful moment, my world is white, the snow muffling my steps and sharpening my sense of connection.
Clear waters gurgle over billion-year old bedrock. At the falls I let go. Down, down, down, I drop, falling over backward, this moment captured in a snowglobe somebody has bought and shelved on a mantle in a universe far away — look, you shake up the globe, and the women at the falls fall over.
We fuss over falling. We don’t even want to trip. It smudges our knees, tarnishes our shoes. Falling means we failed. Falling means we didn’t do it right. Falling carries such societal shame that many people spend a lifetime making certain they don’t ever fall. Lose weight, take a pill, regrow lost hair, make more money, and whatever you do don’t fall from grace.
Falling is not as hard as we think it will be.
I let go, fall backward and the snow catches me. I’ve fallen, so what do I do? I laugh, feel the cold against the back of my wool coat, ignoring the sting of snow that creeps into my mittens, and I fling both arms wide. I make a snow angel. And all around me, I hear the water churn gently over rocks and the sound of other women falling.
No, falling isn’t as hard as they tell us it will be. It’s the getting back up that’s a bear. The struggling, slipping, falling again. A hand followed by another reach down and with help, I regain my feet. Alone, I might have floundered. Falling, if it has a core lesson, teaches us that it’s easy to do, and hard to recover from unless we have help.
That winter hike to Ripley Falls will etch itself in my memory box. It was the conclusion of a retreat at the Ripley House of Healing owned by my friend Cynthia May Drake. She helps veterans, their families, women in transition, and anyone coping with grief and loss. The women who gathered that day I now also count as friends. We’ve seen each other many time since and I always recognize their hands.
I’ve attended several workshops and many Magnificent Mondays with Cynthia. She honors my literary art and welcomes me to share it during these gatherings. That day, after the winter retreat, I asked if I could use her beautiful home to host a writing workshop. She agreed, and we’ve been dancing around a date. Last Tuesday, I met with her on her porch, surrounded by all her rocks and books and peace, we shared coffee and dreams.
As I always do when I leave the Ripley House of Healing, I make a vow to go tent camping. Cynthia sleeps in her tent outside in her backyard near her sauna. Most people up here in Copper Country follow the Finnish tradition and have a sauna. Ours is downstairs in the basement. But Cynthia is the only person I know who sleeps with heated corn sacks to stay warm in her tent. Because she and her dog Monty even sleep outside in the snow.
But, hey, it’s summer (or that moment-savoring time of winter’s coming).
On Saturday, June 16, I comforted Jasper, our thunder-stressed dog because the city of Houghton celebrated Bridge Fest with full artillery. As the final fireworks blasted, I promised Jasper it was over. He might not understand why a community celebrates a bridge, but to us it’s connection.
The Houghton Bridge is the only one that connects the Keweenaw Peninsula to the Upper Peninsula. It crosses Portage Canal which is a waterway that bisects land, connecting one side of Lake Superior to the other. People have mined copper on the Keweenaw for over 10,000 years. Industrial mining came to the area in the late 1830s. Later, the mines created chutes from the top of the mountain to the Portage Canal below to stamp and deliver copper by way of boats.
Ghost towns and abandoned mines scattered across the Copper Country. Cynthia’s Ripley Falls was once an engineered chute, part of the mining. Her house was built 112 years ago, and since that time, Ripley Falls has followed the course laid out for it. A ski resort now spans across Mont Ripley, to the west of her place. Humans have tinkered with the environment heavily in this region, but nature quickly reclaims what was let go.
Nature also follows her own course.
After Jasper calmed down on Saturday night, I heard thunder off in the distance. I groaned as I walked up the stairs, knowing it would be a long night for the dog. I had no idea it would be a night of terror for my community. Several times thunder woke me up, and several times I fell back asleep. Morning dawned, and nothing seemed amiss. Until I saw the social media posts from Cynthia.
All that rubble you see was part of the ski slope above the falls. In a few hours, the thunderstorm stalled over the lower Keweenaw and dumped 7 inches of rain. Cynthia, who usually sleeps where a mountain slammed into her house, slept inside that night. She and her daughter woke up when her refrigerator tumbled over. Water filled her stairwell to the bedrooms on the second floor and pushed against their doors in a torrent, preventing escape.
“Drive to be alive: I am alive because I was saved by my 15 year old from certain death in my beloved tent on a night that produced 7” of rain in two hours and a mudslide from an unstable ski hill which slammed against my home burying my yard in 5-6 feet of rubble and muck.
I am alive because a first responder and my dear neighbors called for help to rescue my Samantha, my wee pup and I from a home where the flood waters were coming up the stairs from the first floor and keeping the doors shut from the inside.
I am alive because a community of neighbors, friends and strangers have poured by the 100’s to my homeplace, to dig through rubble and muck, to lift out treasured photos and sweet memories, to hose down, to kneel and pull out wet insulation from walls, to rip up 112 year old mint condition but wet hard wood floors, to hand pick and haul out sharp rocks from a ski hill burying cars and saunas and garages.
I am alive because blessed members if our Ojibwe people came to honor the waters who flow and give us life when we respect the earth and her ways and death and destruction when we forget and are greedy.
I am alive with the love of all whom I have witnessed the past days of endless work and give themselves selflesssly to it. And I mean all of you, with thoughts, prayers, financial help, phone calls, ideas, hard labor, food, well wishes. All if this is what we live for. Our purpose in life is to serve one another and create a community of bonds so tight that nothing can divide us because we are bonded in love.
One scene I will remember forever was last night on the cusp of Solstice as our days here have daylight until well past 10, I was standing by my beloved and broken sauna, waiting for my girlfriend SD to find the correct drill bit for a bit of sweet salvage, I looked over the scene around me. This is what I saw: beloved neighbors talking with selfless helpers and eating something finally as they gazed over tge work of some long days, people still digging and puzzling in the waterway, laughter ringing, dogs barking, a moon rising… and I was so pleased, so happy, so fulfilled. This is life, this is who we are capable of being. This is who we are. It was such a beautiful scene. It is our new reality. Blessed be.”
Not all is lost when we fall.
Those hands reach down to shovel muck with us, to pull us into a hug, push us to rip out our own walls because it’s necessary for survival. Hands join our hands, and together we move all the rubble bucket by bucket from our fallen environment. Hands do their part — some pack, some organize, some bless, and some write. Not all is lost when a community joins hands to lift the fallen.
I’ve witnessed amazing acts of perseverance in this community. The Red Cross and government officials lagged behind our local efforts to help friends and neighbors. Our efforts are slowing down because we’ve ripped out all the water-logged walls, salvaged 112-year-old trim, firehosed a basement after cleaning it out by hand, and treated interior framework with sprays to prevent mold.
If you are moved to help Cynthia, we do not yet know if her house can be saved, but we’ve set up a fund for her: GoFundMe.
We. Because falling takes others to rise. Just as we are a community of writers, we are the ones to extend the hands up.
June 21, 2018, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about “not all is lost.” It can include recovery from disaster, an unexpected insight after a fall, or however the phrase moves you. Go where the prompt leads.
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Not All is Lost by Charli Mills
Annabel retreated from the mourners. Thirty miners, four boys, and her beloved mine captain dead. Fire erupted at level 27 and none evacuated. Men continued to drill, eager to chase the new copper load, believing the updraft would smoother the flames. Greed overcomes common sense, Annabel thought. Ripley was ambitious, a hard-worker and a smart man. He cared about the land and community, but even good men succumb to copper fever. They dug their own deaths. She left the mass funeral and wandered to the falls. Ripley was gone, but his babe grew in the swell of her belly.