From our vantage point above Dillon Falls, we watched the hypnotic flowing waters of the Deschutes River as they spilled over the top of the falls.
Mist rose above the turbulent water. A short distance upstream, golden aspen leaves shimmered in the breeze beneath a mostly sunny sky.
Here, long sections of the river's east bank are lined with aspens, wedged on a narrow hospitable strip between the river and a formidable pile of rock: the 7,000-year-old lava flow from Lava Butte.
My frequent hiking companion Map Guy observed, “This is why we live here. This is one small part of why we live here. And it's five miles away from town."
He was too embarrassed to repeat these words into the digital recorder I pulled from my shirt pocket, but he'd said what he meant and meant what he said.
Besides, who would argue with him? Not I. (However, considering we'd just walked nearly two miles on the Deschutes River Trail from Aspen Day Use Area, I made a mental note to check his distance computations later.)
“It's sappy," he whined.
“Sappy's good! Think of the average reader," I said.
Whatever I meant by that (I'm not sure myself), the fact is that fall is an un-average time of year to be outside. I'm not one for hype, but this moment right NOW offers a tasty feast for the senses, at least for those willing to journey five or, a bit more accurately, eight miles up the river.
Better hurry though. Fall is a fickle, fleeting season. It seems like mere days pass between when you mow your lawn for the last time and when you find yourself raking up a wet leafy mess in your yard. Did you ever really find those leaves a beautiful sight?
So in mid-October, Map Guy and I, along with Mark Quon, of Bend, seized the day, or at least a long morning, for a four-mile, round-trip hike to the meadow above Dillon Falls. We started at Aspen Day Use Area and hiked upstream along a stretch of the Deschutes River that I'd once paddled by canoe, but had never hiked before.
After a breakfast of ginormous burritos at Longboard Louie's in Bend, we headed up Century Drive to Forest Road 41 toward our intended destination. Like reliably broken clockwork, I had to first make an obligatory wrong turn at Lava Island Falls.
“Why don't we just go here?" asked Map Guy, but I declined, too determined to get us to the right spot.
“You know where all the fall color is?" Map Guy asked.
“Shevlin Park?" I guessed.
“Middle of town," replied Map Guy.
“Mt. Washington (Drive)," said Quon.
“I know," Map Guy said. “It's beautiful. We're having a great fall."
Soon enough we found the sign for Big Eddy and Aspen, and jostled along the unpaved road to the parking lot, where my Prius was surrounded by large vehicles with bike racks. We did the usual shedding and reapplying of layers as we weighed the morning chill against the predicted 72-degree high. I asked Map Guy if he'd brought along a GPS.
“Is that my job?" he said.
We set off down the large hill to the river. Map Guy gave me grief for not parking at the boat ramp, which the trail led us down to.
“It's good exercise," I said. “What, are you going to need knee-replacement surgery if you have to go up a hill?"
Quon would make the most insightful observation of the day: that Map Guy and I bicker like an old married couple. Which may be true, but doesn't make Map Guy right.
Map Guy, however, gets points for being the one person in our trio who could identify some of the plants we saw. We all knew when we were looking at aspens, willows and manzanita, but beyond that, the flora starts to blend and blur. Map Guy also pointed out buckbrush, bitterbrush, Indian paintbrush, rabbitbrush and other plant life along the trail and across the river. He may have even been right.
“Pine needle," Quon said, upon spying a pine needle.
“Pine cone," I added.
We launched into a brief, ill-informed discussion about pines versus firs that would bore the average person yet make any self-respecting plant biologist scream for mercy. It was miles better than our discussion about the presidential campaign.
Despite our hunch we'd encounter lots of mountain bikes, we had the trail largely to ourselves, other than a few hikers, a couple of plein air painters staked out at the Dillon Falls boat ramp and an older male runner who passed us twice. Map Guy admired his physique the first time he passed, then knocked his looks on the second pass.
Like nature, what Map Guy giveth, Map Guy taketh away.
Despite Map Guy's observational powers, we remained stumped by a plant with red leaves.
“There's got to be a plant app now, where you just scan," observed Quon.
Two hikers approached us just above Dillon Falls, so I asked one of them what these plants with red leaves were. “I think it's mountain laurel, but there's just a ton of them," one replied.
“I'm not a hundred percent," she added with a self-effacing laugh.
“That's all right! That's closer than we are," I said.
“That's probably right," Map Guy said.
Mountain laurel or not, they looked pretty.
Our hike turned out to be more of a stroll. All told it took us close to three hours with plenty of stopping, gawking and photo taking.
Quon emailed some of his photos a couple of hours after we'd driven back to town. Along with not being a plant biologist, I'm nobody's phlebotomist, but I think my blood pressure dropped about 10 percent when I looked at them.
I may have been sitting at my desk, but part of me was immediately back at Dillon Falls, and in that moment when we were watching the hypnotic flowing waters of the Deschutes River as they spilled over the top.