I didn’t want to drive on the beltway outside of DC, which is how I ended up driving past Deep Creek Lake on my way to northern Virginia.
I was using a GPS, which meant I didn’t actually have to know how to get there, I only had to listen to the directions calmly stated from my iPhone. Which of course kills any sense of navigation, but also creates incredible surprises.
Because when I passed a familiar barn and silo and finally popped out onto Deep Creek Lake, I felt completely overcome with emotion.
My family has been traveling to Deep Creek Lake every autumn for as long as I can remember. My grandparents rent a cabin, and all of the aunts and uncles and grandkids pile in for a weekend of reconnection. On Friday night, we make wedding soup—a dish easy to serve all evening as everyone arrives at different times. My aunt makes an apple cake for the following morning. My grandma pulls out a puzzle and starts it on the coffee table and we all pick at it until Sunday, when we inevitably realize several pieces are missing. There are kayaks on the lake out back, great hiking nearby, and hot cups of cider to pass around all weekend.
But this year was different. This year we made the wedding soup, and the apple cake, and pulled out the puzzle, and passed around the cider—but there was a heavy weight on all of us. Barely a month earlier, we learned that my grandpa had pancreatic cancer, and that this would be his last year at Deep Creek.
Which is why, when I drove past, I choked up a little. Because when I found out in March that I was moving to Boulder, and my grandpa passed away in May, I thought I might not see Deep Creek Lake again for a long time.
On my way home from Virginia, I took the same route and stopped to hike at Swallow Falls, one of our favorite state parks near the lake.
It felt odd to step onto the trail alone. It felt odd to walk through the woods and not have my mom or an aunt telling us to stop and smile for a picture.
As I came onto the first set of steps leading down to the lower falls, an older woman waved at me from a bench.
“Are you all alone?” she asked, seemingly having read my mind.
“I am,” I responded.
“Well how about you sit down with me for a minute while I wait for my sister?” So I sat with her on the bench and listened to her tell stories about the cabin her family used to own in Deep Creek, how they had just sold it and the family was all in town to say goodbye. When her sister came around, she gave me a hug and said “I’m 85, you know. And still going strong!”
I walked down to the falls and saw, to my astonishment, that people were swimming below in the fast moving water. I hiked down to the water’s edge and on a whim, took off my tank top and waded into the water. An older man motioned for me to come under the falls. I carefully stepped over the smooth rocks until I met him.
“My wife won’t get in,” he said, pointing at the shore where a woman with gray hair stood. “She’s missing out on all the fun.” Just then a little boy and a little girl came swimming up to us and the man splashed them with water.
“Are those your grandkids?” I asked.
“They sure are,” he said.
“Take good care of them,” I said. “They’ll always remember it.”
“Oh I will.” The man swam off after them and I sat under the falls, water pounding on my shoulders. I thought of my grandpa and wondered if he was there with me, in the old woman and the old man, falling with the water, reminding me that no one ever really dies.