Glen Onoko Falls in Jim Thorpe, PA. Photo by Kellie Dietrich.
Hikers have been seriously injured and killed as a result of accidental falls from the trail and gorge overlooks.
I’ve never been afraid when I read this sign before today; before a boy two years younger than me, just 18 years old, fell 50 feet to his death.
I’ve hiked at Glen Onoko in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania almost every summer since I was ten years old with my Aunt, cousin, and sister. Besides some spray painted circles on tree trunks, there wasn’t much to guide hikers along the so-called path. If you didn’t know it, you would miss it.
My aunt knew the way and we hardly ever ran into anyone. It was our secret, peaceful place. Birds chirped and the sound of the river and waterfalls cleared our minds as we raced to the falls and splashed in the water.
I was a child, invincible, and with my Aunt, protected.
But seeing the sign today hits too close to home. Rahman Mustafa Hassan—I only know his name from reading news articles online—died one week and three days ago. He had a picnic with a group of friends at the second and tallest waterfall that hikers reach. On the top of the falls, there is a wide flat surface of dry stone that water travels around. Rahman and his friend Fadi Abboud dangled their legs over the falls’ ledge.
The police reported that a water bottle was dropped and both teens reached for it.
Fadi slipped. Rahman offered a hand. They both fell to the base of the falls.
Rahman was killed on impact. However, he died trying to save his friend. Because he grabbed Fadi’s hand, it slowed his fall and he was sent to the hospital in critical condition.
I never found out if he made it and I’d rather not know. It’s silly to die over a water bottle, so I’d like to think Rahman did save his friend’s life. Because even though I never knew him, he was similar to me. He was a college student with plans and hopes and dreams. He wanted to hike with his friends and have fun. It wasn’t too much to ask for, was it? But a spark changes to an all-consuming fire in milliseconds.
I think about all this while I head up the steep path. It’s a cloudy and wet spring day. There are more warning signs as we head to the first fall. I wonder if these signs were just added or if they were here before the accident. The signs warn visitors to wear proper hiking shoes and to turn back if you are wearing anything else.
I’m wearing sneakers and I’ve always worn sneakers here. I’ll be fine, I tell myself.
I slip on some rocks and it makes me nervous even though I’m not close to a ledge. At one point, my aunt has to pull me up because the rocks are slick and smooth. The temperature drops as we move closer to the falls. Gnarled, damp tree roots stick out of the ground and serve as handholds as we climb higher. We see less and less mountain laurels, my Aunt’s favorite flower, and the rushing water of the falls drowns out any birds or other signs of life.
When we reach the top of the second waterfall, we see ropes, my guess just added after the accident, to stop hikers from getting onto the flat rock or close to the ledge. The ropes don’t seem to have stopped anyone though. A couple has set up a hammock between the trees and a few other hikers admire the view, which is the best overlook of Glen Onoko. Mountains, leaves, and trees—green, green, green—as far as the eye can see.
I stay behind the ropes. I’ve been out farther before, but it doesn’t feel right today.
A Penn State baseball cap, soon to blow away with the wind, sits on a skinny tree trunk, about three feet high, to honor Rahman’s memory. A red “R.I.P” graffiti on a rock is already fading away.
I give a moment of silence to Rahman and Fadi as I listen. The water hits the rocks below with a thunderous roar, and I’m not sure why the sound overcomes me with peace.
Beautiful and deadly, nature is quite the hypocrite.