SALT CREEK FALLS — Ten minutes was all it took.
A week ago Thursday, my wife and I made a brief stop at Salt Creek Falls in the Willamette National Forest about an hour before nightfall. After taking pictures and gushing over the beauty, we strolled back to the parking lot on the loop trail that takes visitors to the top of Salt Creek Falls and back. There’s also a trail to the bottom, but we’d had a long day and just wanted to stretch our legs.
As the paved path led us back to the parking lot, I saw a woman by a yellow customized car, and she seemed to notice us, too. I just knew from the concerned way she looked at us she was going to say something. I just didn’t know what.
“Is that your car?” she asked, gesturing toward our Toyota RAV, and I turned toward it to see the driver’s window — and our moods — shattered.
This was only my third visit here, and my wife’s first. At 286 feet, Salt Creek Falls is the second -tallest waterfall of the single-drop variety in Oregon, and it’s right in our backyard, located less than 6 miles west of Odell Lake and Willamette Pass Ski Area on state Highway 58.
We’d gone here intending a quick visit, partly to stretch our legs, partly because I wanted to write a short item about the waterfall. Taking a breather in the fresh mountain air seemed appealing after an emotional day in Eugene, where we’d just dropped the third and last of our daughters off at University of Oregon for her freshman year — a logistical quagmire wherein thousands of families sat in an hourslong traffic jam caused when all of us fetched dorm room keys at the same time, then tried to find parking.
Point being, we were spent, but the observation deck at the top of Salt Creek Falls, according to the U.S. Forest Service, is just 50 yards from the parking lot — far enough for a nice walk, and far enough there’s no way to hear shattering glass above the waterfall’s hydraulic forces.
As the nice woman drew our attention to our car, I went from puzzlement to shock in a nanosecond. The window’s remains resembled a gaping, jagged maw, an impressionistic rendering of the violence that occurred here in the last few minutes. Catherine’s purse was gone, along with the two portable batteries and two iPhone lightning cables.
The next few minutes were strewn with chaos. F bombs were dropped. I got mad; Catherine got sad. Over our nearly 25 years of marriage, I’d warned her often about not leaving valuables in sight at trailheads — “Most crimes are crimes of opportunity” was almost my mantra — including here, at the start of our Salt Creek Falls visit.
She’d been driving, and I noticed she left her purse on the driver’s side floor. I chided her — again, with others possibly within earshot — and tried to roll the cloth purse into more of a ball and tuck it under the seat, which didn’t have a lot of room under it. For all I know, it was my not-subtle behavior, and not the purse partially in sight, that resulted in it being stolen.
Yellow -car woman gave Catherine a hug after her face broke into tears, but a beat or two later my good-in-a-crisis wife was back to business and dialing 911. Yellow -car woman and two other folks who were parked a bit farther down the lot began telling me about an orange Ford Fusion, or possibly a Focus, that had sped by each of them as they’d entered the lot themselves.
Speaking of focus, I tried to call our credit card company to deal with the first of the hassles we faced. God bless them for their many arcane security measures, but I wanted to speak to a human, not a robot voice telling me to enter this number and that with one bar on my phone.
I got so frustrated I threw my phone toward the trees, at which point yellow -car woman said, yep, “Want a hug?” (I declined.) Meanwhile, the 911 operator informed my wife they’d email her a complaint form. “So no police are coming? OK.” As I retrieved my phone, I heard more breaking glass — Catherine was knocking out remaining shards, and starting the engine.
I half-thought she intended to pursue a fleeing orange Ford, but no, we were going home. On top of it all, she wasn’t sure if the keyring in her purse contained our front door key.
It was not a pleasant drive, nor a happy way to start our empty nest days, but at least once we arrived home we confirmed her key had not been in the purse. And we canceled our credit cards before ne’er-do-wells spent our money.
To help others avoid such a stressful event, I reached out to Jean Nelson-Dean, public affairs officer for the Deschutes National Forest, about trailhead theft.
“We do not have a widespread problem on the Deschutes National Forest of people breaking into cars, but it does happen,” she said via email. She also shared these Forest Service recommendations to deter smash-and-grab theft:
• Don’t leave anything in your car and make it obvious to people looking in. For example, empty your glove compartment and leave it open. Do not pile jackets on top of things, which indicates you might be hiding something valuable.
• If you have to hide things, put them in a trunk or in a locked compartment on the roof.
• Park in visible areas, close to other vehicles.
• Ask someone to drop you off and pick you up if possible.
• Know your emergency contacts in case something does happen.
Trust me, that’s advice you’ll want to take to heart. We escape into nature to avoid the trappings of modern life, and returning to a vehicle with smashed windows ensnares you all too quickly.