There is a famous scene in David Lean's masterpiece, "Lawrence of Arabia," in which T.E. Lawrence and a boy come out of a fierce desert sandstorm to behold a boat sailing across the dry expanse. As they come closer, the apparent mirage explains itself. They've come to the Suez Canal — a thin line of blue water across the waste.
Few movie scenes capture the paradox of life on Earth more clearly than that juxtaposition of the desert's timeless immutability and the ceaseless flux of water running through it.
Every time I look at a waterfall, I feel something like what I felt when I first saw that scene — life as a dependable continuum and also as a heady rush into the unknown.
I have my favorite waterfalls in Southern Oregon. Toketee Falls along the North Umpqua River east of Roseburg plunges suddenly out of lush forest into a wide, mysterious pool below, while at Mill Creek Falls near Prospect I am at the same height as the rim across the creek, seeing the cataract begin its roll over the cliff. As I watch, I feel weightlessness and the fear of falling in the same breath.
But my favorite waterfall within a day's drive of the Rogue Valley is Burney Falls south of the California border.
Located northeast of Redding at McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park off Highway 89 near Burney, it is named for pioneer Samuel Burney, who visited the area in the 1860s. These falls plunge 129 feet into a basin with an intensity that on a hot summer day douses hikers at the bottom with reviving sheets of mist.
The falls aren't the highest or largest in California, but they have something many other torrents lack — a mesmerizing combination of two roaring cataracts dropping over black basalt ridges, while on the edges of the falls evocative trickles of water seep from the cliff walls at a slower pace.
At every waterfall of sufficient height, you can play with the idea of time by concentrating either on the totality of the plunging, transparent spume, or on bits of froth that seem to defy gravity as they hang briefly over the precipice.
At Burney this seeming contradiction becomes even more fascinating as you notice those slow trickles at the edge of the main torrents, which seem like undercurrents to the other two phenomena. It's as if you are experiencing water as a complex network of infinite variations — the life-giving circuitry of the planet.
You can drive right to the falls, climb out of your car and just gaze at them from above, but the best way to get their full effect is by hiking. Here are three of the best, all of them labeled by the park as moderate in difficulty:
Falls Trail Loop: If you only take one hike during your visit, this is the one to do. Only 1.2 miles round trip, it begins at the Falls Overlook and descends to the base of the falls. You walk downstream, cross Burney Creek to the west side of Rainbow Footbridge, then turn downstream, eventually coming back up to the Falls Overlook. This hike gives you a sweeping look at the falls from below and a more intimate view near where the water begins its descent.
Burney Creek Trail to Lake Britton: This 3.2-mile round-trip route will give you a sense of the riparian corridor from the falls to nearby Britton Lake. You will see the falls, Burney Creek and the surrounding forest, as well as a view the lake, which has a picnic area and swimming area. You can fish along the creek and in the lake, which includes a marina for boaters. You begin at the Falls Overlook, descend to the bottom, then hike downstream along Burney Creek to the lake and back.
Headwaters Loop: This 1.7-mile round-trip walk takes you through a mixed hardwood and conifer forest to the major local source of Burney Creek's water. You begin at the parking lot near the entrance station, go briefly on the Clark Creek Road spur trail and Pacific Crest Trail to reach the Headwaters Trail and then return to the parking area.
If you want to linger at the park a few days, there are camping spaces and a few cabins, along with a general store and gift shop. It's wise to make reservations well in advance, since the park is a popular destination for weekenders during the summer. For reservations or fee information, call 1-800-444-7275, or go online at www.parks.ca.gov.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 776-4498 or email@example.com