Great Falls Interlude

by dixie

I lived in DC for four years as a college student, which breaks down to three academic years and four summers. Students have a very different relationship to their settings than non-students do; undergrads experience their universities differently than postgrads do, and that’s different again from staff or faculty. Living as a student in college during the academic year was different from the summers when I lived in various suburbs and commuted to the lab every day, the last summer when I had a car was different from the years I’d spent without one, and so on. The experience of growing up in DC would have been different again, as well as that of living there as an adult. Because I didn’t live there as a “real person,” I missed a lot of stuff.

Every time I spent more than a few waking hours in DC during the month of flying (which was rare), I bored my hosts with stories of far-flung cities I’d visited and the most recent airport drama. I think after a few weeks of this the natives wanted to show off bits of DC that I hadn’t experienced yet, mostly because as a student one misses a lot. My hosts had an annual pass to Great Falls national park, so one weekend we packed up and headed out and spent a relaxed few hours strolling through the trees and seeing the giant rushing water of the Potomac fall line.

Great Falls Overlook

Does what it says on the tin.

My experience of the Potomac while I lived in DC was spending an inordinate amout of time crossing it in order to get to the Metro station closest to “swift Potomac’s lovely daughter” where I went to college. I did not know that just a few miles upriver the river drops 145 feet in a short space as the rock underneath goes from the solidness of the Piedmont to the squishy coastal land closer to the ocean. The calm, placid, and irritatingly wide river I’d gotten to know as a college student bore no resemblance to giant rapids I got to see on this visit. I stood on a bridge over the river and watched brave kayakers navigate the rapids while the sound of big water filled my ears. The last time I spent any time with or on or in rapids was rafting in Colorado almost a decade previous, and while taking pictures I remembered how much fun it is to navigate fierce waters.

There were totally kayakers navigating this.

There were totally kayakers navigating this.

Places get frozen in time when you leave them. Whether it’s the sunny holiday destination that lives on in your memory saturated with the freedom and warmth of time off, or the place you lived as a child but left when you “grew up,” or any of the places you pass through on the way to where you’re going. They’re big and slow to change, but they do change, just like people do. And like people, if you don’t turn up and say hello and stoke the fires of your relationship every now and then, your memory of the place will become increasingly out of sync with the reality of it. One way this manifests is the disconnect between the romantic American perception of Ireland, an image from the 19th century passed down unaltered by people who emigrated and raised families on stories of the Old Country. The country doesn’t exist anymore but the stories do.

Another, more universal manifestation is the “you can’t go home again” idea; where both you and the place have changed so much that you can’t repair the relationship.

I got to check in with both people and places while flying around in April. My relationship with DC remains a perfect reminder of how good this kind of checking in can be.