December 9, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The great Great Falls mystery

By |2023-10-09T16:01:02+02:00September 28th, 2023|Area 51|
Rene Magritte's Le Plagiat.

am not Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or Philip K. Dick, writers who contemplated the imagined as a matter of course. Nor am I Magritte, the ruthlessly precise surrealist who contemplated improbable dimensions to provoke his audiences to, at the very least, consider the ways in which human perspective might be altered or warped.

No, it is the mystic Tiresias that I am closer to being, the man made both blind and gender-fluid — what an odd construction — to amuse or assuage capricious gods. His blindness came attached with wisdom, or so the mythologically inclined insist. If to be blind was to suffer (never mind the flip-flopping of gender), it nevertheless gave him an uncanny awareness of the unseen world around him.

The problem with linking myself to this ancient blind creation is that the story I am about to tell is true, untouched by meddlesome deities, and at the time of its occurrence I could see with a hawk’s clarity.

“Hey you,” he said. “You know, this is a private day.”

To listen to me, and I promise the distraction will be brief, you must first strap yourself into a time machine and then diligently follow Coleridge’s advice in connection with the reading of poetry. You should suspend disbelief, which is to say set aside prejudices about how things should be or how you wish or suppose them to be.

Few will succeed in taking this advice — poetry would be wildly popular if they did — so I am left to preach to a glass half-empty.

For those stubborn few who remain behind, here is what happened.

In 1976, on a visit to Washington, D.C., at a time when I lived in Rome, I decided one pretty September Sunday to visit Great Falls, Virginia, a picturesque rush of rapids along the Potomac River some twenty kilometers from the city. I went there alone in my green rental Dodge and parked in the full parking lot on the edge of the path that divided into several other trails leading closer to the river and a view of the falls.

As I got out of my car, I saw a man and a woman, each one wearing a top hat, as if players in a costume party, or perhaps players at a birthday celebration. They spoke not a word and entered their car, closer in size to a van, and drove off. Odd.

In my walk leading toward the river — I sought and found an isolated spot — I saw other unusual Sunday guests, including a sullen clown I took to be part of the same imaginary birthday festivities. He brushed past me only to cry out to me after he’d walked on. “Hey you,” he said. “You know, this is a private day.”

I had no idea what he meant since the park was public, and by the time I asked him he had disappeared up the path to the lot.

I finally found a deserted clump of space where I could sit and think about my life and times, and what lay ahead, for it was that kind of day, when a cluster of children — maybe six, maybe ten — came running toward me laughing. “The water is falling! The water is falling!” announced one of the boys, and I smiled at this joy. But then, stopping by me, he said “No, it’s scary!” And then the children left.

Finally, on a bluff overlooking the falls and the churning water I saw swifts in flight, billowing into cones over the river. I had grown up in the city. I had never seen swifts over these waters, let alone flocks of them, the kind that synchronize into whirling siphons, their wings sufficient in number to make a whooshing sound supernatural in its way since the birds themselves made no sound.

Odder still.

Far out in the river, atop two outsized rocks, sat two fully clothed bathers — but, no, wait, they could not have been bathers since they appeared entirely dry and, like the two in the parking lot, wore top hats. I was by then convinced the park had somehow been hired out for a party and that I was interloping. But if so, how had I been let in? And why were there no park rangers?

I took out my spiral notepad (later to vanish) and jotted down these observations. As I did this, the scene grew even more abstract (as if it were designed for Poe’s entertainment). Dolphins or porpoises, not one but three, shot briefly from the water and whistled while aloft. Now I stood up, startled. They plunged back in and swam away.

What I had just witnessed, I knew, was impossible. My eyes had failed me, or perhaps I had entered some previously unknown wardrobe of the mind that was causing me, entirely sober, to imagine things.

In the distance I heard carousel sounds, knowing full well the park contained no merry-go-round. And yet I heard it, including the circus clang that comes from children wiggling the bells attached to their bobbing horses.

Enough had by then become enough. I was unsettled and walked at a brisk pace back to the lot and my car, a lot that now was strangely empty. I drove off onto Virginia roads heading back to Chain Bridge and Washington. I did not dwell on the inexplicable. Perhaps I was residually jet-lagged.

But then, all at once, I realized I had left my precious little notebook behind, and how could I tell, let alone write, the events of the day without all I had written down. So I turned the car around and drove the few miles back to the park.

As I arrived at the entrance I saw that its gates were closed, something I had never before seen. A ranger stood on each side of the asphalt road leading in. One approached my driver’s-side window.

“Sorry, sir, no entry today. Park’s being cleaned up after Wednesday’s storm.” I had arrived on Friday and knew nothing of the storm. “Lots of trees down and some flooding in the overlook. Try next weekend, even tomorrow.”

I told him what I knew to be true, or thought to be true.

“Officer, I was just in there for an hour and left my notebook behind, so . . . ”

He interrupted.

“Today? In there? No way. We’ve been here all day. Turned a few folks away, but you wasn’t one of them. Sorry, no one’s been in or out. Not today.”

Had they not seen the two with the top hats? Had they not seen the assembly of swifts? All I wanted was to retrieve my reporter’s notebook.

Now he scowled.

“Jay,” he groused, calling over the other ranger. “Tell this gent we’ve been closed all night and all day.”

Jay nodded.

“Check your car,” he suggested, referring to my notebook.

I had more to say but sensed I was wearing out my welcome, all the more so when a dump truck appeared at the gate laden with tree limbs and foliage.

“Sir,” the first officer said, “we’ll need you to leave now, seeing as there are more like that one coming out.” He motioned toward the truck.

Defeated, I backed up and drove less than steadily back in the direction of Chain Bridge. The incident had left me shaken in ways foreign to my brain’s schematics. Where had I been? Who had I seen? Could experiences such as these have been imagined wholesale?

Perhaps so, because when I returned to the home of my Washington friends they told me about the storm and the very public closing of the park, which they had read about and seen on television.

I chose not to say any more about my day but to instead leave my “hallucination” in peace. Its swifts as well.

Until evening, when over dinner one of my hosts talked about watching Great Falls’ clean-up efforts immediately after the storm.

One thing had struck her as strange. Weird even.

“You know, they were bringing all this debris out and there’s a truck with . . .”


“Sorry, sir, no entry today. Park’s being cleaned up after Wednesday’s storm.”

“Well, the whole mess had bunches of what seemed like top hats. As if a 1920s-era dandy had been cavorting in the storm.”

Maybe he’d been doing just that, with his dolphins.

I left well enough alone and buried the untold story alive, knowing better but opting for the rational.

Which held, at least for a time. I was back in Rome and hard at work on mundane journalistic tasks when one day a month or so later I received a letter from my friend, she who had spied the top hats.

“You should know that we found a notebook here, yours. Should we send it?”

I begged her to please do so, special delivery, and she diligently complied.

It never arrived, and all my efforts to determine its whereabouts in a pre–tracking era went nowhere.

Or perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe the notebook was misaddressed to Magritte, who, though dead almost a decade by then, received it with relish and set about scheming.

I never returned to Great Falls.

About the Author:

Christopher P. Winner is a veteran American journalist and essayist who was born in Paris in 1953 and has lived in Europe for more than 30 years.