Friday, July 24, 2009

Stillwater runs deep

I am returning to update the blog. Apologies for the radio silence. It's certainly not for lack of news to post, but time to post it. That's coming. In the meantime, I promised pictures of the desert.

Backstory: about a month ago, I traveled to Utah to meet up with family and friends. We met up in Salt Lake City, then traveled down to Moab, driving out over the high plateaus of Canyonlands National Park and down a steep switchback to a mosquito-infested put-in spot called Mineral Bottom. Here we embarked on a 3-day journey through Stillwater Canyon, which runs through Canyonlands, pushing out past the buggy tamarisks and onto the river, which was running at about 30,000 cubic feet per second. Here's the crew on the first day:

Stillwater is a flatwater canyon -- no rapids, beautiful scenery -- so 30,000 cfs was not a threat to us here. However, Stillwater Canyon feeds into Cataract Canyon, one of the most technically challenging canyons in the Northeast, and one of its most dangerous, especially at high water (to give some context, my dad and my best friend's dad floated this canyon back when they were our age in inflatable rubber kayaks, at around 6,000 cfs).

My best friend and I had plans to take a jet boat out after the first big rapid -- we both had to get back to work, an ironic circumstance I will remark upon in a future post -- but my dad, my brother, my brother's best friend and my brother's girlfriend were going down into "Cat" along with the rest of the crew.

The rest of the crew included several professional river guides, many of whom had taken paying passengers through this very canyon at high water. Many other boaters I know refused to take this trip with us -- these were people who spent the colder months of the year building their own boats in preparation for spring, and they were things of beauty, dories made of polished wood and precise corners and painstakingly applied paint. They didn't want to see the work of a winter disappear into the roiling waves in an instant. And I, for my part, didn't want to see my loved ones do the same.

However, this is how we choose to take our "vacations" -- and considering our ancestry, can you blame us? One hundred and fifty years ago, our Mormon pioneer ancestors set out against incredible odds, weighing the possibilities of death against the drudgery of daily life wherever it was that they lived, whether it was in the slums of 19th-century New York or London (where many converts were won) or the intolerant villages surrounding Nauvoo, where many of the Latter-Day Saints began their journey West. One of my great-great grandfathers helped to guide Brigham Young's exploration party into the Salt Lake Valley on horseback; another froze to death sailing his boat across the Great Salt Lake in winter.

Our family is far from Mormon these days (notice the proliferation of beer cans in our photos), but this desire to test the limits, to test oneself against nature, and to find that She has granted you yet another chance to live and stand in awe of her power -- it's in our blood.

However, that doesn't mean it was easy, standing there making quinoa with toasted pepitas for fifteen people over a blowtorch flame in our makeshift river "kitchen," sipping a dirty martini from my Camelbak canteen, and considering what my life would be like without my family. I like to think that my life here in Boston is about as good as it gets -- I have a wonderful group of friends, I have work that I love, I have a roof over my head and in general I have far too much fun. But without my family, it would all become meaningless. We've gone through some tough times, my family and I, but we love each other fiercely.

This is me, my dad and my brother on the first day on Stillwater, sitting inside a kiva that itself sits high on a peak overlooking the river:

(Note: the title of this post is indeed a play on both the name of the canyon and the Rolling Stone cover in Almost Famous -- which is a family favorite.)


I realized the importance of friendship, too, on our last river trip. That one was a spring 2008 trip down the Yampa, which was then also showing record high water levels. The camp near the put-in was half-submerged in rainwater, and the water in the river was cold.

On the first day, my best friend's boat flipped. End over end it went, into a rapid that was not on the map. It was soundless. I remember looking upstream, cupping my hands over my eyes, seeing two specks of orange bobbing up and down in the rippling waves: Karen, my best friend, and Bug, the owner of the raft and a woman said to be one of the best boaters out there.

Scott, the longtime river guide and former Outward Bound instructor rowing my boat, sprang into action, shouting directions, coiling rope. The rubber raft my best friend had been on came careening down the river upside-down, a thousand-pound juggernaut, with paddles flailing, gear still attached underneath, and lines dragging dangerously behind it. Somehow, fueled by adrenaline and ducking fallen trees hanging over the water as we went, Scott and I subdued the bucking boat.

Meanwhile, I kept my eye on the orange specks. They floated for what seemed like an eternity in the freezing water before they were finally pulled into another boat, given new dry clothing, and brought to shore. We all met up on a sandy beach, where many of us lit cigarettes, some of us made sandwiches and ate as we'd never eaten before, and Scott stretched out on the soft edge of his rubber raft and, improbably, took a nap.

This is Karen and I after her flip:

Badass that she is, she's just grinning, happy to be alive, telling me about how she simply focused on her breathing -- and hoped that I wouldn't be worried.

But of course I was worried. I was deeply aware of how close I had come to continuing on for the rest of my years without the person who has been my best friend since I was born; who knows me better than almost anyone else; who has shaped my psyche and my life choices with her own; who can make my day better with just a few kind words or touch me deeply with her incisive observations of my character.

You can't see my face, but I can tell you that it reflected a mix of emotions one doesn't readily choose to experience over the course of one's daily life. Except, of course, for love.

But that, I think, is the point.

On our yearly trips down the river, I experience many emotions I don't choose to readily feel. On the one hand, I often feel at home as I never feel at home, as though I am being held in the warm embrace of the rocks that rise tall all around me, rocked to sleep in my boat, swaddled in dry heat and the calls of the canyon wren.

But I also often feel alien as I never feel alien: I am keenly aware that despite my pioneer heritage and growing collection of outdoor performance clothing, I spend most of my days as a confirmed city slicker who Twitters and texts and reads the New York Times on the train, and wears heels more often than she does hiking boots (though I often long for a better balance between the two).

On the river, I feel deeply connected to the people in my life, especially since the spectre of danger forces me to contemplate how fragile these connections are, how easily they could be severed -- but I also often feel isolated, alone with my thoughts and the stars as I am rarely alone.

Making a yearly pilgrimage to accept this, my full measure of pleasure, profundity, and pain, has become integral to my well-being as a human truly awake in the world.


And so we left the river this summer with heavy hearts, carrying our bags up the beach to meet the jet boat that would drive us upstream along the Colorado River and back to Moab. Behind us, the rest of our crew was preparing for what lay ahead in Cataract Canyon. Even the bravest of them had no appetite for breakfast that morning, and neither did we. It would be almost a week until we heard from them again.

In fact, Nature was kind to us this year: our crew had a "clean run." No one flipped, no one fell out of the boat, and no one was seriously injured. But it was a long week, waiting to hear this news from the source. In the meantime, we returned to Moab, where we spent a perfectly delightful night in a condo outside the tiny town, having dinner with friends and drinking beers on the patio.

After a ride and a hike through Arches National Park the next day, my best friend and I shared a beautiful drive from there to her new home in Denver, where she recently took a job working for National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL), a think-tank for the Department of Energy. I explored the city on my own for a day, then we met up with friends in the evening and had a wonderful meal.

But throughout our time off the river, I was struggling to keep my emotions in check. Even as I looked forward to returning to Boston and my dear friends and comfortable intellectual pursuits, I felt as if I had been tested somehow against the spectre of death in Cataract Canyon, and had been found wanting. Like I had taken the easy way out. Or, more metaphorically, like I had taken the blue pill.

One thing that helped me through this existential separation anxiety was reading "The Place No One Knew," an infamous Sierra Club publication about the lost Glen Canyon (now buried under the reservoir of Lake Powell). My best friend has purchased a first edition of this vintage book for two important people in her life, and I had the privilege of flipping through it with her as we cruised up the switchback road that leads to Arches National Park, on the day after we left the river.

The book contains many beautiful quotations from naturalists like Charles Darwin and Loren Eisley, as well as ardent literary nature lovers like Edward "Cactus Ed" Abbey. The one I liked best, and I cannot remember who said it, was one that said that the beauty of a place like Glen Canyon (or the Yampa, or Stillwater) can "stir you up as you were meant to be stirred up."

By the time we arrived at the trailhead for our hike, I was not just stirred up -- I was nearly in tears. Having read so many beautiful words that echoed my own feelings about this sacred place, I felt as if I had been reading the Bible or Rumi or the Bhaghavad Gita -- as if this book were part of a body of sacred texts that spoke to my personal religion of understanding life through the lens of shared experiences in wild places. And having spent the ride up contemplating the demise of a canyon I would never get to see, I was reeling with a deep sense of sadness and loss, for myself and for our culture.

In this picture, taken just after I put down the book and pulled on my flip-flops for a stroll through Devil's Garden, I am struggling to smile, a splotch of stark black emotion across an otherwise placid pastel canvas:

The desert is an incredible place, home to many animals, plants and microorganisms on whose existence we depend. This much is certain. But it is valuable as an idea, too, and this book is dedicated to the latter concept as much as to the former. I am so grateful for the lessons this place has taught me over the years -- even the painful, difficult, scary ones.

"The Place No One Knew" tells the story of our species' need for places like this, where we can return year after year as children, to learn what we need to learn. The pioneers who rode here on horseback, even the ones who died here under the stars of a strange sky, must have known in their hearts that they, too, needed to leave their comfortable (or not so comfortable) lives back home and strike out into the unknown if they were to truly consider those lives well-lived. They must have known that they needed to evolve beyond the circumstances of their birth, to be stirred up as they were meant to be stirred up. They must have known that the risk was worth it. That the answers were out there. And that if they proved themselves worthy of the journey, they might eventually find what they were looking for.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home