by Paul W. Rea
Walden West: A Cowboy Cabin
What sweet and tender, the most innocent and divinely
encouraging society there is in every natural object…
There can be no really black melancholy to him who lives
in the midst of nature, and has still his senses.
—Henry David Thoreau, Journal, July 14, 1845,
just after arriving at Walden Pond
[p.63]At its head, nearly fifty meandering miles from its mouth, Dark Canyon cuts into the west shoulder of the Abajo (or Blue) Mountains that rise from the desert of southeast Utah. Described by Mormon pioneer Platte D. Lyman as “rough and worthless,” Dark Canyon was one of the last areas claimed for grazing in the late nineteenth century. As Rod Greeno contends in Wilderness at the Edge, it remains “arguably the wildest canyon in southern Utah.”
Barbara and I stride down Kigalia Canyon, packs squeak-[p.64]ing in cadence. Soon we enter Peavine Canyon where bare, sculpted sandstones line the sunny side and well-spaced conifers creep up the shady cliff. Their long, slender needles glistening, giant ponderosa pines border the sage flats. As the canyon walls rise, their bands of beige and rust parallel the orange-and-black trunks that in turn pick up the tans of the long needles underfoot. A black and beige flicker swoops down to an anthill, feathers flashing salmon pink. Everything intermingles.
Thanks to old roads, this is easy hiking. Elk Ridge, really a plateau, became accessible when early settlers established a rough track from Blanding on the east Bears Ears, two distinctive mounds, on the west side. A rugged road later crossed the narrow Notch and extended down the plateau rim to Natural Bridges National Monument. We pass an old corral, its boards warped and bleached by years of weather. While yesterday’s ranching seems quaint, today’s grazing degrades the wilderness. Hooves pit the mud along the creek, and the critters themselves become impossible to ignore. Their splats, bellows, and thundering hooves contrast with the pristine trees, cliffs, and skies. Rather than waiting for us to pass, these dogies low and thunder along just ahead of us. Barbara sputters about “sacred cows at the public trough.” I ruminate on the issue of breeding the wildness out of animals, only to lose touch with our own.
At the confluence of Peavine and Dark canyons, we locate a spring. Below here, despite the old road, Dark Canyon becomes more remote and pristine. Peregrine falcons dive from cliffs, crystalline waters drop into deep pools, and Anasazi ruins see few visitors. Before long noisy pinyon jays descend to see what we’re eating. As year-round residents, these jays survive the winter and even breed before the snows [p.65] are gone. Like nutcrackers, they can remember most of the places they’ve hidden nuts in the fall. In addition, like most other Western jays, they maraud the nests of other birds to feast on their eggs.
The mooning subsides, but the cattle are loitering, heads turned toward us in a backcountry stare down. If we’re not going to eat their dust, we’ve got to slip around them. To “head the herd,” as the cowpunchers say, I’ll need to sneak out of sight—otherwise I’ll get outsmarted. Like a buckaroo in an old movie, I pull down my hat, scramble up the rocky slope, and pick my way to avoid either spooking them or gouging my flesh. Then as the bovine beasts swing their tails, I charge down the slope, dislodging rocks, waving my hat, and mustering my best rodeo holler: “Heeee-Hawwhh!”
Unimpressed, the cows just chew their cud. Then I quit the “Git-slong-little-doggies” imitations and just bellow from down deep. This time the herd turns tail and lopes off in a cloud of dust. Not only have I tapped into my primal energy, I feel as though I’ve done something mythically American. Western movies, cowboy comics, theme parks, and rodeos all perpetuate a complex mythology that brands many minds. Many of us love cowboy lore but don’t love cows.
To my surprise, upper Dark Canyon differs from Peavine. Its larger stream cuts a salmon slash through blue-gray flats where scarlet paintbrush flicker inside the blue-gray sage. The rutted road leads upcanyon toward a broad chute. Here the stream splits into mini-cascades where plunge pools and sculpted ledges offer ideal cooling and sunning.
As Barbara huddles behind a curtain of falling water, I vault up to the ledge above and dam the flow with my body. She yells “Hey, you!” in mock protest. As the sunlight penetrates her cool hiding place, I lift my torso to release a [p.66] tidal whoosh. No longer in a mood to frolic, she gives me a “grow up” look. Really, though, isn’t nature a fine place to let the child out to play?
As we munch apples, skies darken overhead and thunder rumbles across the mesas. Before long the stream flows from the pools where, only moments ago, we played in the sun. Big raindrops splatter in the sand, inscribing dark eyes with lashes. Despite the deluge, red dust shoots from under Barbara’s boots. Moments later, shafts of rain link earth with sky. Screened by the stringy curtain hung by the downpour, the canyon walls look ghostly, slick, and silvery. Lightning strikes a ridge. While the stark flash lasts, my eyes scan the cliffs for waterspouts. When we skid into a gully, hands dug into the wet sand, the torrent is running higher and redder. Sticks snag around our ankles, making it difficult to plod on.
As the raindrops explode into spray, graying the sage flats, we can’t see far enough to find an overhang. Hail stings my hands and pounds my raincoat like snapping fingernails. What pain animals must endure during hailstorms. Plastered to our legs, our jeans are smeared with red mud. This could be a cold, soggy trip.
About a mile upstream, beyond towering sandstone monoliths left by ancient meanders, we glimpse more melon-colored spray. A spillway floods another sandstone ledge, then thunders into a swollen pool about thirty feet below. Cold and lonely, I stare into the turbulence. To reduce this isolation I imagine the rain drenching millions of excited root hairs across the desert. As the moisture reaches the roots, every cell rejoices.
Finally the downpour lets up. Through the mist we see a corrugated roof that shines like a mirage. Someplace dry. [p.67] Suddenly our boots churn like bulldozer treads, struggling up the sandbank. Since the door’s unlocked, we walk right in. Our boots clunk across sole-sanded floorboards, leaving blobs of red mud. Barbara opens a cupboard stocked with moldy flour. Mice have jumped several feet up to gnaw on anything available; apparently they scurried in here only to face winter starvation.
In no time I’m immerced in the past. A yellowed program from a horse show languishes in the dust and mouse droppings. An ancient cast iron stove with polished plates that read “Wrought Iron Range, Home Comfort, Patented” dominates the cabin. Alongside sits a freight box of firewood. Our everyday high-tech lifestyles—not to mention our wet clothing—ready us to delight in something simple like making a fire. Flames soon lick the burner holes while juniper smoke curls through the cracks in the iron. As the stove crackles and roars, my ears resonate with the pitter-patter on the rusty roof. Basking in a bygone era sure feels cozy, even if it’s historically misleading.
While the Wild West promised settlers freedom, plus an opportunity to reinvent themselves, isolation and natural obstacles often forged new shackles. Only since the 1970s have historians seriously documented the disappointments—the broken axles, broken bodies, broken hearts. Was it because most settlers believed religiously in Manifest Destiny, in a national calling to spread civilization, that they could endure the hardships? Or were these tough-as-rawhide descendants of the puritan just much tougher than we are?
Today we forget that ranching pitted humans against bears, wolves, and mountain lions that prowled these canyons and killed not only livestock but cowboy’s horses. Out of anger and fear the farmers, ranchers, and miners hunted or [p.68] trapped these predators for bounties. These guys were not only tough; they were also mean. Their almost evangelical conviction against “varmints” reveals a hostility to other species that nature lovers deplore. But unlike urban environmentalists, these ranchers lived close to the land.
In 1879, while the Mormons’ Hole-in-the-Rock expedition struggled to reach Bluff, south of here, Spud Hudson brought the first two thousand cattle into these mountains. Stories of big profits led to the establishment of ranch kings and cattle barons. Among the Blue Mountain grazers were the Carlisles, an allegedly aristocratic British family that bought out Hudson and forced smaller operators to run their stock in even more remote locations. In a move that foreshadowed the history of Western ranching, the Carlisles enclosed a large area of public land in Wyoming. By the mid-1880s the Scottish Carlisle Cattle Company, now one of the largest outfits in the country, drove nearly eleven thousand heads to market.
Since the British fronted the capital needed to build Western railroads, British cattle barons soon dominated vast areas of the American West. This led to the establishment of British stock such as the Hereford that are poorly adapted to arid terrain. By 1887 Texans began to encroach. One observer described a “great brawling herd a mile long straggling down the river through Bluff” on their way up here to Elk Ridge. Before long local cowboys were roping “Texas renegades” that got lost in the canyons. In winter hired hands from different operations mounted drives to rid this enclave of wild longhorns.
According to the Forest Service pamphlet in my hand, this is Scorup Cabin. John Scorup settled here in the 1880s, summering his huge herds here. A card tacked up nearby [p.69] reads: “Left Dark Canyon Camp this morning: headed for sweet ass hills. Be back sometime next spring. —John Scorup Oct. 18, 1904.” The flip side reads: “Clyde Argyle, Utah Dept. of Agriculture, Car Radio 35 ALPHA 2.” It’s a good idea to turn over a government man’s card.
When the Forest Service established the Monticello Reserve in 1907, it did not include Dark and Woodenshoe canyons. As a result, Dark Canyon became an open back door to the Elk Ridge plateau, the prime summer range where the Forest Service was attempting to collect minimal fees. Evasions aggravated the overgrazing problem here and reflected the ongoing uncooperative posture of ranchers.
While Barbara toasts her socks on sticks, I peel apart the damp pages of Walden: “In the midst of a gentle rain…I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness.” Thoreau’s storm must have been less fierce than ours. Still, gazing out at the glistening scene, I resonate with his feelings. My face presses against the dirty window where my breath compasses a circle on the cold glass. As I gaze at the soft-focus scene, I hear Henry David whisper his enticements to the wilds outside. It’s rime, he urges, “to suck all the marrow out of life.” For guys like us, that means getting outdoors.
The delicious aromas of moist sage and juniper greet me at the door. The hail has bruised the foliage, releasing their herbal essences. Our noses, so often clogged by soot and bludgeoned with industrial pollutants, can reopen to full sensation. Tendrils of vapor are curling like ghosts up the canyon walls, much as they did on the hills above Walden Pond. At my feet the deer prints are so fresh that their centers [p.70] are still dry.
Once the fog has risen, I mosey around the spread. At the foot of streaked slickrock cliffs, glistening ponderosas tower a hundred feet high in spacious groves, their shade neither too dense nor too thin. Tucked beneath their long branches, box elders add puffs of bright green. In the foreground a firecracker penstemon waves its scarlet bugles against the greenery.
Suddenly a hummingbird buzzes—its ruby and emerald throat looking sequined—and stabs its beak into the penstemon’s bugles. Beating about seventy-five times a minute, its wings blur almost invisibly. Hummingbirds maintain this high-energy output with the largest heart relative to body size of any animal on earth. With a whir the ruby-throat shoots right up to my face, brazenly looking me over, before darting toward a bare juniper branch. Despite their need to visit hundreds of flowers each day to maintain their metabolism, hummers seldom pass up a chance to indulge their curiosity.
This tiny bird now roosts in a dead tree that also hums with life. Lichens cling to its skeletal boughs, ants burrow into its trunk, and a hard-to-see horned toad is feasting on the ants. Dead trees house life; they’re not just waste to remove for firewood.
In the palpable twilight everything is lush, soft, pastel. A haze lingers just above the sage flats to render them still more gray. Like Thoreau arriving at the pond, I feel a “slight insanity” of mood, a sense that, yes, “every little pine needle expanded and swelled with sympathy.” Large droplets bead hairy leaves. The creek once more runs clear. Along its banks tall grasses are waterswept, flattened like the quills of a porcupine. Irish air and dreamy light are bathing arid southern Utah. This whole canyon, miles of it untrammeled and unspoiled, becomes ours for an evening. We experience a sense [p.71] of freedom that was probably not as available to our more utilitarian predecessors.
Where a spring spouts from a grassy bank, crystalline waters soon tinkle into my canteen, the pitch changing as it fills. Reaching for some watercress, I come eye to yellow eye with a shiny frog that imbibes the moisture through every pore. I twitch but the frog stays put. We stare at each other for some time, the frog’s grainy throat quivering steadily while my pulse calms down.
Even breathing disturbs the silence. One can hear so much from so far. Swallows—or are they mountain bluebirds?—twitter way across the sea of big sage. A chorus of distant songbirds continues the concert until dusk. This is a complex assemblage of singers, a more nearly intact ecosystem. How is it that any combination of birds, unlike just any combination of human voices, always sounds harmonious? If Henry David knew, he didn’t let on.
Soon the starry sky arches like a floating vault, serene and seamless, so near and yet so far. In the distance an owl hoots softly, its sound almost palpable, as our eyes close and we simply listen to the night. This scent-drenched air evokes Thoreau’s moonlight walks, which are rich with fragrances. Of all the senses, smell triggers the most precise associations. For me, the scent of linden trees in bloom always recalls a tunnel of trees on a country lane in Tuscany. Unfortunately, though, most of us can identify only a few dozen among the thousands of the scents our noses bring in.
At dawn a red-shafted flicker drums on the cabin. Since flickers defend territory about a half-mile square, drumming tells any intruders that they’re entering a territory. These woodpeckers hybridize easily: the red- and yellow-shafted subspecies have engendered an orange version that lives east [p.72] of the Rockies. Why are there so many eastern and western species of birds? I’ve wondered. Canadian biologist E. C. Pielou explains that during the Ice Age a cold, windswept desert covered the center of the continent. This barrier, she suggests, separated and isolated the ancestors of present-day birds, and over time the differences that characterize them evolved.
Where the morning sun strikes the rocks and foliage, vivid reds and greens become richer. Almost obscured by mist, deer browse in Horse Pasture Canyon, a grand enclosure that extends almost two miles from the main Dark Canyon. Such parks are generally less appealing to deer, which graze only certain grasses, than to the horses and cows that once found fodder here.
But today, without the heavy grazing, marsh grasses and rushes and sedges flourish in this high country swamp. Among them grow thickets of bushy alders, willows with yellow “pussies,” and chokecherries whose heavy aroma fills the humid air. To attract bees and flies for optimal cross pollination, chokecherry flowers exude both sweet and rank smells. A couple of boggy ponds with marsh mallows in golden bloom gurgle into the creek. With their seeds well disseminated by waterfowl, many such wetland plants exhibit a remarkably broad distribution.
Moisture also determines what trees grow where. In the marsh spreading box elders prevail. On its edges, graceful firs and quaking aspen dominate the wetter slopes, while arched scrub oaks and towering ponderosas rule the drier ones. As a crack in a green-draped table rising above the desert, Dark Canyon presents ecological paradoxes. Mountain and desert species flourish side by side. Black bears tread the same paths as ringtails, mule deer browse near desert bighorns, and [p.73] mountain bluebirds and horned toads stalk the same bugs.
Why can’t we make this place our Walden, taming birds like Henry David did at his shack? There’s a cozy cabin, a waterfall, a spring, wildlife, plus beauty every hour of day and night. Granted, there’s no Concord two miles away when food runs out, but so what? Perhaps if we learned more about edible plants, we could survive. There are chokecherries, cattail roots, watercress, pinyon nuts, and acorns from scrub oaks. Perhaps the pioneers could have softened their hardships if they’d gathered more native plants and depended less on wagons and trains for foodstuffs like coffee, flour, and lard. Somehow the cowboy ethic of self-reliance didn’t apply to food.
Nor are such yearnings for renewed natural connections unique to Anglos. Lakota medicine man Pete Catches expresses this same longing: “I want to withdraw further away from everything, to live like the ancient ones…to become part of the woods. There the spirit has something for us to discover.” Here Native American wisdom and modern therapy coalesce. In American culture we are just coming to understand the healing potential of nature. Its mysteries fascinate not merely because they dispel boredom with its deadening, dispiriting consequences, but because they allow us to live spontaneously without needing to force our attention. This alone could help to dispel the “dark melancholy” that Thoreau sought to transcend.
Before we leave the cabin, I visit the doorless outhouse. On the wall a toker—not a roper—has scrawled some classic lore: “Weed is the laxative of the mind. —A. Head ’69.” Dried rat pellets virtually cobble the floor. To insure maximum protection for their nests, pack rats have stuffed the facilities with sticks and leaves, barely leaving room at the top [p.74] for new deposits. It feels good to drop a contribution on their abodes, I’m ashamed to confess.
Our way out seems simple enough: follow the drainage to the head of the canyon, then bushwhack up to the road at the Notch and follow it to Barbara’s car, six miles distant. According to the map this requires a climb of thirteen hundred feet to the plateau. This isn’t too bad, at least on paper. There are few trails and no footprints here in upper Dark Canyon. The area is remarkably pristine, the way things were when the earth was young and the West was still “a virgin land,” at least compared to the ravished places the explorers left behind.
Grasses soft with dew tickle our calves along the trail. Zigzagging between the sharp branches of the giant sage bushes, I navigate with outstretched hands. My eyes scan the streaked slickrock and Barbara’s hard, strong legs. Little do we know how much she’ll need them today. After a couple more miles the gully tightens into the head of the drainage. A Western tanager, her pale yellow perfectly blended with gray, looks us over. Under the cover of protective coloration, female tanagers do not flush easily, especially when sitting on their nests. Still, how refreshing it is to be a curiosity, not a threat, where humans are not a regular presence.
Their leaves already turning brilliant scarlet, wild geraniums blush pink among smooth aspen trunks. This area must glow in the fall, when aspens glitter gold and orange against red rocks, when these rabbit brush flare into golden bloom. On these brilliant fall afternoons, flying grasshoppers will crackle their last, oblivious to impending snows.
Hunched under our packs, we lumber toward open slickrock. Already panting, I suggest stopping for a drink, a likely pretext to get a load off my back. Soon we’re loaded up again. Exploring back and forth on the slick hogbacks, we hope to [p.75] spot a route to the next level. Finally Barbara scrambles up a cleft, reaching for the next platform. Her fingernails dig in hard, but skid. Then I try. No traction. She wedges a log for me to stand on. No go. If only we had a rope to loop around that juniper trunk.
“Let’s check that map again,” she puffs. Just as before, the topographic map shows a route to the head of Dark Canyon. But there the canyon diverges into several drainages where we’ve probably taken the wrong finger. Even though the map clearly doesn’t fit the territory, I find myself fighting the decision to turn back.
Although I’d rather not reveal it to a new companion, I still carry a stubborn streak of “Yankee efficiency” that Thoreau would have deplored. Whether on the trail or elsewhere in life, I hate to backtrack. This compulsion toward maximum output and minimal time costs me more than I realize. Ironically, I often invest more energy avoiding duplicated effort than it would take to do the haul again. Efficiency is a workplace value; it doesn’t belong in nature. This mentality of efficiency no doubt greased the gears of the Industrial Revolution, but it’s not a value I want to live by. Strange stuff can surface in the wilds, as Thoreau discovered when the raw wilderness of Maine nearly shook him out of his britches.
When we reach a fork, we probe one more drainage. This one ends at a chute, but nearby stands a silver fir, a very symmetrical, grayish-green true fir that grows where it finds ample moisture. A branch extends over a dip in the wall; it might provide a way up there. A self-confessed tree hugger, I don’t hesitate to climb it even if its sap sticks my fingers together. But this branch is another dead end, for it won’t hold me. As clouds and cold air move in, the fingers of Dark Canyon seem to claw desperately at the saddle we seek, above [p.76] and beyond.
Relieved to follow familiar footsteps, we decide to double back to Horse Pasture Canyon where the map shows another way out. As I breathe deeply under my load, my mind exhales the frustration caused by my attachment to goals. If I want to experience and grow, I won’t seek the easy, familiar cow path that we followed in.
As we devour cheese and saltine packets, ravenously licking the containers, an odd grinding comes from a small cottonwood. Saying nothing, we tiptoe away from the tree, then point simultaneously to a young porcupine near the end of a branch. Its small black eyes are shy and unexcited. Oblivious to us, the porky chews one twig after another. Protected as they are, porcupines don’t spend much time worrying about predators.
After another look at our soggy map, we trudge past the cabin. This time it’s the old shed that promises new bygones. Mouse-chewed feed bags and saddle pads hang on rain-stained boards for riders who won’t return. Rusty horseshoes rest on their rack, ready to go. A hitching post still swings from the rafters, awaiting the horse and cobbler. On our way out we amble along the bleached fence, passing beneath the simple log entry to the ranch. In addition to its better-known charms, southern Utah remains rich in historic cowboy sites: corrals, caves, shacks, even stone cabins built right into overhangs. It’s sometimes difficult, however, to reconcile my interest in historic cowboys with my revulsion against the overgrazing they initiated.
Broad-rooted ponderosas, their long needles streaming and whirring with the breeze, grace Horse Pasture Canyon. “Of all the pines,” John Muir remarked, “this one gives the finest music to the winds.” The most common pine in the [p.77] West, these glorious trees take their name from their heavy, “ponderous” wood. Ponderosas also sustain tassel-eared gray squirrels that feast on their seeds, buds, and vanilla-scented inner bark. Few mammals feed so exclusively on a single plant species. These squirrels avoid trees with more resin, which can be toxic. This avoidance may contribute to natural selection, for those ponderosas with the most resin thus become more likely to reproduce.
Soon sedges bend and squeak as the bog squashes beneath our feet. If we don’t have better luck finding this trail out, we’ll have to head out the way we came in, which would mean another encounter with those cows.
Eureka! A scar marks a trail. After a scramble up its grade, we grab for roots to make headway on loose sand, then ignore our senses and gut it out, blinded by sweat. I stumble into a box elder that clicks and buzzes: quarter-inch leafhoppers jump in all directions, especially toward my scalp. This tree definitely isn’t a climber.
When we finally reach the road, we dump our packs into the dust. Free at last, we feel light enough to soar. The plateau drops off on both sides at the Notch, the narrow swayback that separates the many-fingered head of Dark Canyon from that of Arch Canyon which drains toward the San Juan River. At the Notch we stop to look for the trail we couldn’t find. There, directly below us, stands a trail marker but no trail. Hundreds of trails disappear each year because National Forest priorities foster lumbering, grazing, and mining over hiking.
Silhouetted on a rise, coyotes yip at the wind as it ruffles their fur. The howls flush wild turkeys from a thicket where they’re feasting on acorns. The turkeys gobble in distress, their legs becoming a blur. I wonder how many coyotes will survive the winter when government gunners mount an [p.78] offensive, often from airplanes, at the behest of public lands ranchers.
During our next rest, the bushes rustle. A black hulk lumbers, cracking twigs. We think bear. A large head appears, but it’s not a bear’s. Instead a monstrous bull stares at us, then lowers his head. We slip our packs over one shoulder and backpedal, glad that both packs are blue, not red. We make a quick detour, keeping one eye on the bull, the other on large trunks we could hide behind in case he gets ornery.
When at last we find our car, we’re a couple of hurtin’, hobblin’ buckaroos. Our packs have extracted penance for our urban sloth. If we’d dragged crosses, our flesh couldn’t feel any more mortified. My old obsession with backtracking now seems silly. After all, many paths in life lead nowhere, and dead ends occasion new discoveries. Why, if we hadn’t had to turn around, we would have missed that bull.
This was a great trek, a fine mixture of history and natural history. My only regret is that, with all the signs of human activity around, I clung to a civilized consciousness. I want to become more animal out there, freeing not just the child inside but the beast as well. That will require more than two days. Just as the center line can linger in our eye long after we park, we carry cultural baggage with us. Next time, for starters, I’ll leave Walden behind.
A Rejuvenating Plunge
Tired of hiker chitchat, I head for the water’s edge. Never mind that this is a mountain lake; a distracted mind and [p.79] sweaty body scream for relief Enough talk, too much heat. My clothes pile up on the grass. Achy, puffy feet dodge alpine thistles as they tiptoe toward the shore.
Once I wade in, the chill hits. A cloud eclipses the sun. While the other hikers jabber, I look first at my own reflection, then for a pebble to skip. When a gust blasts my clammy back, my arms clutch my bare chest. I toe the bottom, stalling as minnows nibble my goosefleshed calves, then I wade on tiptoes, wobbling on slippery stones as waves slap my thighs.
I dive in, and my torso stings hot. Surfacing, I blowout frustration and synch my breaths to my strokes, slapping and kicking for warmth. The shock wanes. Froth sloshes in my ears to drown out the chatter from shore. My fingers send bubbles streaming along my arms, past my belly, then down my legs. My torso pitches and rolls like a schooner. Bands of sunlight fun out like a corolla to energize my shadow as it crawls the bottom. Seduced by the ever-deepening blue, I sail over the snags and relish the warmer surface water. Stroke after stroke, I drum a cadence for my lungs.
But a wave floods my mouth just as I inhale. I choke, breaking the rhythm. More waves slap my face. I try to catch a breath. Fear creeps in like the cold as my feet stab down, only to find no bottom. My chest tightens, my arms tense up. I take short gasps. Spit water. No air. I run on raw survival instinct. OK, I’ve swum too far from shore. Keep lungs filled—more buoyancy. Which way back? Eyes scan the blurry shore. Nothing but trees. Oh, there’s somebody staring into the shallows. Too far to hear a yell for help.
Christ! Am I about to drown? Got to get moving. The cold will finish me here. One good breath, two, three. Got to keep within my breaths. Hands and feet slap the water like beaver tails, this time in terror. My arms weaken and my legs [p.80] take over.
There’s still no bottom in sight, though the water begins to warm. Only another fifty yards. Those waves are gone. Gusts still drive spray into my eyes. Only a few dozen more strokes—assuming I don’t stray off course. Gotta gut it out.
Finally a gravel bar. I could put my feet down here but I won’t. Better to finish strong. My rubbery arms can still dog paddle into the bath water that, only minutes ago, felt so frigid. My nails claw the cobbles. This time I let these rocks tickle my screaming thighs. Fingerling brookies flash silver, darting for cover. Only six inches below my dazed eyes, blurred stones glide by like dots in an impressionist painting. Golds, oranges, and chocolate browns waver in the crystalline light.
For a moment I linger, elbows on the rocks, chest heaving, legs tingling, spent, shamed, but ecstatic to be alive. I savor the black muck that squirts between my fingers, mindful of my kinship with this ooze. Then I crawl out, exposed, very pink yet now beyond embarrassment. Shivering enough to rattle teeth, I grab handfuls of grass to pat myself dry.
It was pretty foolish—all right, reckless—to let myself be lured into deep water. New eyes behold the greenness of thistles that I almost didn’t see again. New ears full of water pulse to drown out human voices.