We heard about the sweet water in the mountain long before either of us ever tasted it, a rumor, an Indian legend, a tall tale my mother told, Dave got in his head one day to find out more about.
No strangers to the mountain, we often drove our bicycles there, even walked, mostly always taking the same route, passed the same icons of our lives, up Crooks from our homes near Lakeview and Vernon, across Trenton and passed the sweet shop near Curry and over the tracks to the less familiar landscape near Getty Avenue – hotdog grill and pizza parlor, gas station and diner, and then on farther passed the lines of houses that served as home for kids we would not meet until we attended junior high to Hazel Road, and the house my school mate from St. Brendan’s lived in with the American Legion Post sign on its lawn and the World War I cannon aimed straight down Crooks Ave.
We knew this route so well, we could have navigated it in a blizzard, as we did one Christmas Eve when my grandfather lay dying, and Dave’s father was drunk again at home.
We mostly went to the mountain in the summer when we had time, when we did not need to be home in time for bed so we could get up early for school, this journey one of distance and endurance, even for Dave whose long legs could take his bicycle places mine struggled to go.
As well as we knew the route, we did not know the landscape, the people who populated it, the school for nuns, the hotdog stand we stopped at for soda half way to Grove Street where the funeral home that had helped bury by grandfather sat like a grave stone marker pointing the way up towards the mountain peak we could clearly see by that time, and the castle on its side, and the tower at its top, grand visions that had long attracted us even when we’d seen them more remotely from the top floor of my house, a real castle, brought stone by stone to Paterson from Scotland, but a silk baron who wanted his workers to look up from the mills and admire him the way surfs admired their lords long ago.
Most other times, we turn up Grove and head for the main gate, to lay siege on the castle where the old man had lived until the 1913 mill strikes broke his heart and left him a recluse to live looking down on a city he used to own, still rich, but not happy, growing gray and sad inside a kingdom that had shrunk to no bigger than the walls he’d brought from Scotland.
We took turns being Richard or Henry or even Robin Hood, until the county people who took control of the castle after the old man’s death chased us away, telling us to play up near the tower at the top of the mountain where the old man in the height of his wealth and power sometimes went to survey all he owned, most of which the county eventually turned into a park, not long climb, but steep, especially with bicycles, passed the stone outhouse the county had installed along with water fountains where the asphalt path stopped and the stairs started, and then the stairs ceased at the start of a long, dirt twisted path with a wooden rail along where the land fell away and the park rangers feared kids like us might fall.
This path ended at the stone wall beyond which the tall tower stood atop pieces of volcanic rock, stone stuck to stone with round window like cannon spouts looking out at intervals where the winding stairs inside rose to the top, stairs we climbed until the county locked gate at the bottom, and after a fire had gutted the wooden frame below where the concession stand sold us soda and candy.
And though I thought Dave would steer us there again, he bypassed the main gate, yelling back at me that we would take the long hill up, the back road up from Valley Road that snaked its way along the side of the park, a road so steep even cars had to creep up it, and us, on bicycles, churned as our legs turned to butter and we did all we could to keep from falling back – Dave alone with his long legs able to advance, yelling for us to keep up when we could not.
Trees rose with the rising mountain to our right, while to the left where the land fell, we rose above the tips of these trees, seeing the expansion of the valley below, and the peaked roofs of houses that seemed like sharp edges of stone as they spread out towards the horizon and the haze of a city skyline we could just barely make out, Dave striding ahead with me behind, and still farther behind with his even shorter legs, Dave’s brother, Dennis, yelling for both of us to wait up, something Dave only did when the road leveled at the top, and the trees to the right parted making way for the entrance to the park and a park road leading to parts of the park behind and slightly below the tower.
We had come this way before, of course, scouring ever inch of the many acres that made up the place, from woodland to swamp, from cliff to valley, in search of new things we might find, a crevice no one else had seen before, a place we might call our own, knowing that we continued to follow in the footsteps of generations before us, Dave’s father had played here, as had my uncles, and my mother had brought me here often on what she called picnics, though she really only wanted to find any place where she didn’t hear her voices.
“In here,” Dave said, pointing into the park, passed the large one-way sign, do not enter, as we steered the wrong way down a paved but ulcerated road only the most hearty of cars might take, and those we saw, coming at us from down below and around a long, sloping curve and the lake beyond, and the gravel lot where hikers and fishermen and picnickers parked, the smoke from the grills filling the air with the flavor of sizzled meat.
We could see the south end of the lake through the trees, green scum spread across the dead water where only turtles and frogs thrived, a stench as odious as a cesspool, reaching us even where we paused. We all knew where people said the sweet water was, but this wasn’t it, and I told Dave as much, and he told me he already knew, but still turned the wrong way, north not south, towards the soggy path along the lake’s eastern shore, passed one of the two gazebos that stood as sentinels near the mouth of the path, sad, decaying, gazebos with leaky roofs and loose stone walls, in which we sometimes took refuge from rain, coming out nearly as soaked as if we hadn’t.
“If you know, why are you going to wrong way?” I asked, pointing back south, towards the flat roofed stone building that had held the toilets and concession stand, built when the gazebos were, of the same rough stone but with better roofs and square windows that glinted a little in the sunlight.
Somewhere beyond it, up one of the dirt paths we had frequently taken in one of our fantastic adventures as Daniel Boone or Davy Crocket, a small grotto stood, into which, people said, sweet water ran.
“Because,” was all Dave said, and then with a swift kick on his bike pedals launched down the path north, passed the place where the gravel ceased and the rutted muddy path began, hoof prints and dropping of horses we never saw, made immortal in the dried mud over which our bicycles ran, shaking so hard I had to hold on with both hands, not merely a road less traveled, but one trekked at our own risk, Dave ahead of me, Dennis behind, a caravan on a pilgrimage I still did not understand.
Much later – though not by way of anything Dave said – I realized Dave went this way not to delay our finding the spring out of which the sweet water sprang, but to stir up a greater thirst so that when we did finally reach it, the water would taste that much sweeter.
We could have reached the spring straight from the gazebos, passed the concession stand and up the dusty path that rose again from the depression in which the lake sat, climbing into the rocky ridges of the park’s south eastern corner, following the trail of tears the city women took, carrying buckets and plastic milk jugs to fill and bring home, sipping sweet water from cupped palms.
But Dave wanted us to earn it first, leading us along a path that circled the lake, first through the muddy track and gullies the rain water took draining down from the heights where the tower stood, then over a decaying wooden bridge to more solid ground, rough with points of stone, and then smoother yet riddled with tree roots, and finally, near the north west corner, wide open grass land where the geese fed and a thin sheet of water washed up onto the shore.
We rolled across another wooden foot bridge, newer, boards still bright, rumbling under our wheels and then we dipped into yet more bog, soggy soil thick with reeds and fire weed, rising up around us and under us, so that we shoved the branches away with one hand while keeping the wheels straight with the other, muck sucking at the spokes as our wheels sank, a wilderness rising up around the western most portion of the lake, trees so thick we could not see the water beyond, only the wet that washed up around the tree trunks and through the low laying branches of the brush, Daniel Boone would have struggled to navigate; few kids did; dark things stirred in its depths, turtles and frogs, skunks and raccoons, opossums and foxes, and worse, things that stared out from the close branches at we passed, not rabbits or chipmunks, not squirrels or owls, though they occupied this space as well, larger things, rumored things, inappropriate beasts that had come here and stayed here, such as the alligator Dave said people had seen floating in the water not far in, a creature someone had collected as a pet when very small, brought north and then abandoned when the bowl, sink and finally tub could no longer contain it, abandoned here to live in the ooze. I saw toads, turtles, even an egret once, but never the alligator, though I remained on constant watch each time we came. Dave, convinced the story was true, would pause to look now or ever, pumping his legs as hard as he could to make his wheels work better in the thick track of mud, until we rose out of it again, coming to a part of the trail where it turned the last corner of the lake and started up onto large, flat pieces of stone, chunks of mountain soil could not cover, on which cormorants sometimes dried their wings along with the ducks, where seasoned fishermen spread out nets near the edge of the water, collecting boots and bottles along with bait for bigger fish.
The stone rose and grew into large cliffs along the western side, notched at intervals, where birds built nests, and we climbed along the track to one side of it, eventually coming to the top where Dave finally paused, looking less like the Green Hornet or Man from Uncle, we both pretended to be back in the city, but the Lone Ranger, his long limbs straddling his bicycle as he sat the peak staring out across the lake, at the layers of trees on the far side, and beyond, up the rising hills to the top of the mountain where the old tower stood, he, now, looking like the old Silk Baron on a pinnacle of stone looking over an unspoiled world, seeing and being seen, majestic and yet also humble, as common as any of the mill workers that had occupied Paterson in the days of its greatness, raised from that same stock with the poorest of roots, searching for something in the world pure and unspoiled, when nothing in the life he knew at home was.
He stared out, yet not high enough to see any of the city that lay beyond the lip of mountain on which the tower stood (one reason he loved this place more than he loved the castle or tower), we standing in a fold of land that made all that invisible, stripping from us the troubles of our lives, allowing us to see the world as the Native Americans might have, streams running down the sides of hill, deer darting between trunks of trees, men carrying fish rods on their way to or from the lakeside, we, going back in time, before the time of smog and dirty rivers, before the black smoke spewing from the stacks of factories, and Dave, who almost never smiles, looked back at me and did, and bolstered by thirst that was more than just thirst, he peddled down the stone again to the path, heading finally towards the south end of the lake, beyond which the grotto and the spring waited, passed the gazebos and the snack stand, and up the stony path on which the pilgrims struggled towards the glen which people said pure water spouted.
Now he went fast, with me and Dennis struggling to keep up with how well his long legs worked those wheels, his bike kicking up dust we had to eat, bounding over stone and root, the speed bumps nature threw across our path, reckless, desperate, the scent of spoiled water around us from a part of the lake long surrendered to the green scum, we riding over gravel, then on the grass where the geese fed, they fluttering up at the threat of our hurried wheels, to resettled in our wake and feed again as if we never existed, just as the patrons at the snack bar did when we roared through the open air building, then up the rutted dusty path passed pilgrims carrying buckets and plastic milk jugs strung along the side, poor people from the foot of the mountain who made the climb to this place and would climb back down again once they accomplished their mission, a dusty mass of sad faces as humble as the land they lived in, related, but not too closely to us and our, all having come out of the same basic stock, despite my uncles’ denials, and Dave’s mother’s outrage, and her desperate need to feel superior. His mother never came here, but mine had, making the same long trek these people made, up from where the bus left her at the mountain’s foot, coming the way so many other mothers had on the rumor of faith, a poor person’s trip of Lourdes and hope that the sweet water they found here might cure some ailment each felt in their lives.
Dave’s mother had no such belief; so Dave lacked it as well, coming here not out of faith or hope, but desperation, seeking one place where he might feel welcomed when he felt unwelcome everywhere else.
And even though my mother believed she might find a blessing here, I did not, coming only because Dave came or perhaps because it was some place to go when we had been everywhere else and found nothing.
Dave skidded to a stop where the paths converged, our path rising from the lake meeting with another from the road, and still another from the deep woods to the west, dry dirt
Rising up and around Dave like smoke, dry earth from a dry season with large chunks of granite poking up between the arms of each path like walls built by nature to define the boundaries of the dry grotto – and yet, we heard the soft trickle of water we might not have heard without the silence, a few trees with exposed roots clinging to the stone, delving into the dry soil to catch the sweet water where it returned underground.
We left the bikes against the side of stone and eased down into a crack in the earth to where the trickle sounded loudest.
Soil gave way to stone, a crevice slick, with a whisper of water running out from a tiny pipe someone had hammered into the stone, long, long before, water pooling into a worn basin, then over its lip at the other side to sink back into the earth from which it had sprung.
A plump Spanish woman kneeled beside the spring, her white paints and blue flowered shirt moist from the effort of filling up three plastic milk jugs, now lined up on the rock beside her. She did not move or drink, just stared down at where the water tricked out of the tiny pipe, looking the way my mother looked at times at church, hearing and seeing things I could not hear or see, feeling something I could not feel.
She did not seem to notice us; this agitated Dave, who wanted to get down and taste the sweet water before the others with their bottles and buckets came; we could hear the stir of their feet on the trail behind us, and see the dust rising in the air ahead of them, an army of pilgrim just like this one, who came to collect and take home the sweet water we merely came here to taste.
With his face contorted with anxiety, Dave shifted his large feet, disturbing dust and sending small pebbles down into the grotto where the woman kneeled, plopping into the pool beside her. But she would not move or notice us, and the more Dave shifted, the less she seemed to see, staring down into the bubbling pool near where the water fell, clear water, decorated with bright sunlight. We could see the slick stone beneath, worn from the years of movement across it, the dribble of time, the flow of water we believed would to on until it wore through the stone itself and the water sank back into the depths of the mountain too quickly for anyone to catch.
Behind us, the other pilgrims appeared, lining up at Dave’s back to wait their turn, sad, dusty faces, mostly Latino, some black, but a few like us, all lost souls from other parts of Paterson who had heard tale of the sweet water and had come here to get their share.
When the woman finally moved, she moved the way a turtle might, slow limbs lifting her as if she had a heavy shell on her back, taking up her bottles, and then in a Herculean effort, staggered up out of the ravine to where we waited, looking nowhere, at no one or perhaps at the after image of some vision she had seen below, the way she might have had she stared into a bright light for too long.
Dave rushed passed her before she had fully risen and somehow, with his long limbs spread this way and that, thrust his face into the chilly pool of water.
He stayed prone for so long I thought he’d drowned – except for the sound of his drinking, not gulping the way a man struggling to an oasis might out of a desert, but softly, slowly; with reverence more like a kiss than a sip.
And he stayed like that long enough to make the women behind us grumble, his arms embracing that place, as if to make it his alone.
I nudged him; he told me to go away.
I told him the other waited.
He said he didn’t care.
I said I was leaving, and this, after yet another long moment caused a stir, his limbs stiffening to life him away from the surface of the water.
When he finally stood, the scars of the water showed on his face and chest; dirt covered his knees and elbows.
Yet some deeper scar showed in his eyes. He looked different, changed, older, the way the old
had looked a moment earlier.
He climbed out of the grotto.
I said we should go.
“Don’t you want to taste the sweet water?” he asked.
I shook my head.
His gaze narrowed as he studied my face.
The women behind me scrambled into the gully with their buckets and bottles.
We went back to our bikes, then back down the path to the concession stand, then skirted the lake to the road, riding it the right way until we reached the crossroads and the steep decline we gook down without once using our brakes.
Dave’s seriousness faded as our speed increased; by the time we reached the bottom he became his old self again; I’d never seen him so serious again.
We went back to the spring again many times; I drank for the basin, too, but never felt the way Dave did, perhaps, I never will.