Monday, May 27, 2013

sacred rivers.

San Juan River, Utah
Honaker Camp
May 22

When I'm standing in front of a body of water, I can brush my teeth forever.

The air is perfectly warm against my bare shoulders, alive with the chirping of crickets, the gurgle of river and a rustle of wind. I'm not getting paid much to be here, running a gear raft down the San Juan River with a school group, but the idea that I'm getting paid at all to be on a trip I otherwise would have paid for still astonishes me. It astonishes me that I walked into a pub and got this job; that I've managed to see so much of the world this way. It astonishes me that three weeks ago I was in a New Zealand rainforest. How is it possible to move so quickly from one world to another, from green rainforest to ocher desert just like that? Sometimes science fiction seems more plausible than reality -- Dune, for example, where the desert-world exists on another planet entirely. Here, it's mind-blowing that this is one world, one month in a lifetime of months.

Bats swoop overhead. On a muddy, serpentine river cut through towering sandstone cliffs, the sky becomes small, a misshapen canvas of moonlight outlined by the silhouettes of cliffs. The full moon traverses across this oblong patch of sky, and stars come to life in its wake. As with everywhere else I've been, this world is defined by water -- the lack of it, and the power one ribbon of water has to cut through eons of rock.

May 23
Camp three

Days on the river, long and hot, sun beating between canyon walls, onto the brims of our hats, into water thick and muddy. Our boats are small spots of blue against vertical cliffs of red. The sand blows hot, scouring everything. In the afternoon, when I'm tired from rowing, the sun drops behind a wall and brings shade, cool and beautiful, the colors of dusk painting the canyon walls in the middle of afternoon heat, the burnt red striations in the rock becoming hazy and soft. Fighting off a dehydration headache, drinking as much water as possible, I row the heavy gear boat in the back. I challenge myself, thinking about lines and form and technique. I mess up and get myself out of my messes with no one around to see. I try to learn. I get frustrated, landing on the rocks I want to avoid, and repeat to myself like a mantra: don't look at where you don't want to go. Focus on one line. Nervous before a big rapid, I nail it and surge with confidence, only to get stuck on a teeny submerged rock later on. There's so much time to think, but I think about little except the river.

From Siddhartha: "I am only a ferryman, and it is my task to ferry people across the river. I have transported many, thousands; and to all of them, my river has been nothing but an obstacle on their travels. They travelled to seek money and business, and for weddings, and on pilgrimages, and the river was obstructing their path, and the ferryman's job was to get them quickly across that obstacle. But for some among thousands, a few, four or five, the river has stopped being an obstacle, they have heard its voice, they have listened to it, and the river has become sacred to them, as it has become sacred to me."

Now, at night, the moon rises from within a canyon and illuminates the cliffs like a spotlight.  The moon-shadows of mesas on the cliff look like a city skyline. From deep within the canyon, desert frogs scream like pterodactyls.

May 24
Grand Gulch camp

Another magical day in the desert. The last four miles or so of river today were stupefyingly dull except for getting beached on the occasional sandbar, and I was prepared for a lackluster final camp. But Grand Gulch is grand indeed -- breathtaking, surreal. Spillover pools of clear, still water surrounded by oases of green, climbing in tiers higher and higher up a side canyon, each layer revealing a new world. There's more life and diversity in this desolate landscape than in the moisture-laden city where I grew up. I spend the final evening wandering around snapping photos and learning new flowers and cacti, birds and insects and lizards.

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