The Other Side of the River

Date June 30, 2005 at 10:00 PM

Categories Outdoors & Recreation


What happens when you take someone who’s used to spending the bulk of every waking hour in a tiny, fluorescent-lit office cubicle, hulked in front of her computer screen, breathing dead, re-re-circulated air, and you toss her onto a wily rubber raft floating precariously down river? That person–me–whose everyday experience continues to be one of being a giant head carried around the world on stilts, is in for an adrenaline rush.

Or at least, so I thought when I told my friend Ed I’d go with him and a group of his friends on a rafting trip. It sounded like such an idyllic adventure: driving up through Arizona and across Monument Valley (at night!) in mid-July, just as summer’s hitting her full, self-assured stride, to spend a whole week on the San Juan River. I’d never been rafting before and I loved the idea of long lazy floats punctuated by sudden bursts of look-out-look-out! tempestuous rapids flinging us around like a toy and whoa-which-way-is-up?

So I almost feel like I’m cheating when I say I’ve been rafting because we encountered none, zero, zip x-treme water the entire eight days out–not only no rapids but not even any water that was sort of easing-into-a-shuffle. It was flat, smooth and clear the whole time (except during a rainstorm). And at first I was disappointed, but what I soon discovered is the absolutely breathtaking beauty that exists in the act of purely floating.

As with all radical changes though, you can’t just automatically go from your full-speed-ahead lifestyle to assuming the relaxation pose. Sometimes what happens on a raft can be the smallest, subtlest shift in your consciousness that makes a night and day difference in your way of being in the world. That first morning, we started out the trip in high gear: lifting, carrying, stowing all our supplies, tying everything down, hyper-vigilantly applying sunscreen and constantly checking our watches to make sure we were still on track. The problem? In spite of our collective excitement, our unbridled enthusiasm, our absolute physical need to untangle the frenetic pace we’d been strapped to, we hadn’t yet let go, hadn’t gotten our feet wet.

Once we launched the rafts, though, the river almost immediately began having her way with us. As slowly we began to slow down, to be human beings instead of human doings, the river gently rocked our rafts until, little by little, we stopped thinking so much and began to operate from our senses. Sounds that had been there all along but that we’d automatically relegated to elevator music status slowly emerged: the rustle of ravens’ wings as they flew by us overhead, the lap of the water all around us and the creak of the raft as it sensuously moved in time to the beat.

Like lizards soaking up the heat we lounged, lazily studying the hard azure blue-blue sky far above us, finding comical, insightful picture-shapes in the red rock walls of the canyon on either side of us, trailing hands and feet, motionless at last, into the water’s silvery embrace. Time happily becomes superfluous at that point. As the sun slanted across the walls and then was gone, leaving us in their long chill shadows, the sky a distant memory, I was so relaxed I felt rubber-boned. Time to pull the group ashore and set up camp.

Each day was better than the last. We woke early, basking in the utter silence, then savored cups of cowboy coffee over breakfast, explored wherever we’d camped the night before, often hiking far off into wild places where we saw no one–and taking advantage of the utter privacy by taking off our clothes to hike in the nude. What a luxury! Your skin picking up all kinds of information from the air, your feet beginning to pulse along with the Earth’s heartbeat. We found waterfalls, small caves, endless trails.

Sometimes we’d stop for a leisurely lunch, returning late in the afternoon to spend another night at the same camping spot; other days, we’d pack up early and spend most of the day floating again. When it got too hot, we’d plunge off the side of the raft into water so snowmelt-freezing, it would take the top of your head right off. That was just initially; after we’d gotten used to it, the water felt delicious, familiar in that way our amniotic fluid must have felt to us in the long-ago womb.

And no wonder. She rocked us daily, our river, sang to us and gave herself utterly over. One day, someone lost hold of a paddle and none of us even thought to lecture him or make too big of a fuss over it–we just watched it sink further and further down into the depths till the river claimed it as her own, a momento of us from us, to her.

As the days wound by, our senses became more attuned, more acute. Once, we got to witness the far-away, languorous and, as it got closer, majestically aromatic approach of a classic summer storm in all its glory. First, a distant rumbling of every-once-in-awhile thunderclaps, a startling outburst of birds calling warnings back and forth, then suddenly, as if on signal, silence. Then a picking up of the wind-turning-to-fierce-gale, the pelt of the first few drops, shocking, cold, hard as arrowheads, followed by a downpour accompanied by a curtain of hailstones the size of peas which hammered and worried the roiled surface of the water upon landing and then they, too, floated.

We had nights full of shooting stars at the beginning of the week, streaking through the obsidian sky as if launched from rubber bands. By trip’s end, the moon was just one small corner bite away from being full and we spent most of that last night lying on the ground outside, our heads in our arms, just breathing in the holy world set out all around us–boulders, bushes, stunted trees–everything in it appearing as if lit from within by the moon’s soft glow.

It’s hard to come back after a trip like that. The last day, as we floated slowly back to the busy busy world of Lake Powell with its motorboats, its jet skis, its shriekers and its whiners, we made a very conscious effort to stop just before the serene river empties out into the madness of the lake, to thank it, our hostess, our tour guide, for holding us afloat so we could remember and give ourselves back the lost but not entirely forgotten gift of our most sensual natures. She heard us, I know. She remembers us still.