by Paul W. Rea
Flowing with the Green
I was trying to concentrate all my strength on my ardent
desire to break through the crust of the mind and penetrate
to the dark and dangerous channel down which each
human drop is carried to mingle with the ocean.
—Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
[p.81]After rains throughout the Rockies, the snow pack is melting fast. Here in Utah the Green River is rolling at eleven thousand cubic feet per second, perfect for an expansive float on the runoff. Barbara and I follow dancing flashlight beams toward the park ranger’s show. His slides look like home movies, but he spins yarns like a mountain man. In the nineteenth century, he tells us, the hardy voyageurs who trapped beaver over a vast area often met here in Green River, Utah. Then, donning a beaver hat, he lets out a [p.82] whoop that scares the kids.
This guy’s a good showman, but he doesn’t mention that trapping was destructive to ecosystems over a vast area. Much as gold would later draw prospectors westward, furs lured trappers to Wyoming and Utah as early as 1815, only a decade after Lewis and Clark first explored Western rivers. By the 1820s beaver barons such as Jim Bridger and General William Ashley had already trapped out whole watersheds. The rage for beaver hats peaked during the 1820s and 1830s, but beavers faced trap and gun long after the fashions changed. By 1900 these remarkable rodents survived only in isolated pockets of the West. However, beavers have made a comeback, and they’ve even become a pest in some cities where they drop ornamental trees.
At sunrise Barbara and I inspect the river while we inflate our rafts, an eleven-foot Sevlor that we’ll paddle together. Cottonwood puffballs fleck the brown water where large flannel-mouthed suckers, their peach-colored mouths against the current, seine the surface for insects.
As we shove off, the willows on the bank glide by like a slow-motion shot in a film. Her tresses uplifted, Barbara sits like a mermaid at the bow. A pair of stately Canada geese, their goslings’ yellow heads blending into their greenish down, paddle along the bank and honk softly at us. As campground noises fade into the past, we peak our paddles to drip, drip, drip while tiny waves thunk on the bow and rock our boat. The girders of the Denver and Rio
Grande trestle, first built in the 1880s, clank as they expand in the sun. Just below this bridge, in 1889, Robert B. Stanton’s railroad survey team set off looking for rail routes to California.
Allowing four days to float sixty-eight miles, we’ll be spending six or so hours a day in the flow. Though it drops [p.83] only about a foot or two each mile, the river rolls along at three miles an hour, swirling and eddying, its riffles now roused into chop by strong gusts that almost blow us into the banks. Breaths synchronized to strokes, I paddle myself into a meditative state, beyond time and place. When my eyes open, it seems strange to be on the river.
Not far above water level the yellow and orange rocks reassemble those of Yellowstone. On his famous first expedition in 1869, Major John Wesley Powell described these as “deposited by mineral springs that at one time must have existed here, but which are no longer flowing.” Sheltered beneath the mineral-stained rocks, we manage to convince each other that we’d better rest here before facing that headwind again.
Nor is this the most scenic stretch of river. Beyond sand dunes and a large butte, the San Rafael River enters on the right, overgrown with tamarisk. Major Powell, who showed a keen interest in archaeology, found this spot intriguing as “a frequent resort for Indians…. Flint ships are strewn over the ground in great profusion, and the trails are will worn.” This tributary drains the San Raphael Swell, a magnificent sky island sculpted from the sandstones of the Colorado Plateau.
Decades later, at this very spot, the steam launch Major Powell sheered its propeller on a boulder. According to river historian Roy Webb, this tour boat scheme was concocted by B. S. Ross and his wealthy backers. When the Major Powell floundered on its maiden voyage (with its backers aboard, no less), the embarrassed Ross commandeered rowboats and continued the trip to the confluence of the Colorado and the Green, where he proposed building a tourist hotel. Like Stanton’s expedition, these entrepreneurs underestimated the resistance of these river canyons to industrial development.
[p.84]A sputtering tractor heralds Ruby Ranch, where the Green begins its long and final cut through the red rock. Gradually the mud-and-gravel banks rise into rounded sandstone mounds that resemble Navajo hogans. Salts encrust the rock and leave it brick red where rainwater has washed them away. For a better look we beach at Bull Bottom, where brown-speckled eggs litter the tawny sand and nests dot a guano-streaked overhang. The cliff swallows alight and fan their tail feathers, prompting a chorus of cheeps. Other swallows swoop, veering away at the last instant, then flash their rust-colored rumps. Magpies jaw and jabber. Then all falls silent except for the whispers from the great stream: so much mass in motion, so little sound.
Now over five hundred feet wide, the river slides beneath our raft. Reflections animate the shaded smoothness, where bands of brown, green, orange, and blue fuse together. Upwelling currents become boils of liquid amber, then eddies dimple the whirlpools of molten mud. For miles we float languorously, entranced by the dreamy light and solitude, the silence broken only by muffled splashes from the boils and the trills of distant songbirds.
Leaving a V-shaped wake as it carries a branch in its mouth, a huge beaver slaps us from our reveries. In times past wildlife abounded on the Green River. Even after several decades of trapping, Powell’s boatman Jack Sumner reported that “the whole river … seemed to be swarming with beaver. We shot several with our pistols as they bobbed up near our boats. I had the good fortune to get two otter out of a bunch of five as they swam past puffing and spitting like a whole nest of tom cats.” That these explorers so shamelessly touted their killings suggests the habit of random violence in the Wild West.
[p.85]How markedly these frontiersmen’s attitudes differed from those held by the Western Indians they replaced. Mrs. Medicine Bull, for instance, recounts a Cheyenne legend:
There’s a great pole somewhere, a mighty trunk similar to the sacred sun dance pole …. The Great White Grandfather Beaver of the North is gnawing at that pole. He has been gnawing at the bottom of it for ages and ages. More than half of the pole has already been gnawed through. When the Great White Beaver of the North gets angry, he gnaws faster and more furiously. Once he has gnawed through, the pole will topple, and the earth will crash into a bottomless nothing. That will be the end of the people, of everything …. So we are careful not to make the Beaver angry.
This reverence for life, anchored in a belief that all of creation carries a spiritual dimension, helped native people to survive for thousands of years on very limited resources. Only in recent years has the public started to comprehend the magnitude of what Euro-Americans lost when they killed Indians—rather than learning from their long experience on this continent.
In the distance Boy Scouts yell and listen to their echoes. Perhaps for lack of anything else to do, they have amassed driftwood for a blazing bonfire. Even though they’re baking in the sun, they heave more wood on their already towering inferno. Far from the controlled conditions of home, suddenly confronted with raw rock and primeval river, they may hope to assert some masculine control to keep the wilderness at bay. It’s difficult to imagine the Girl Scouts building such a bonfire.
With daylight waning, we scan the banks for a campsite. Bursts of paddling twice fail to propel us across the current in [p.86] time to beach at likely spots. Beneath its placid surface the river runs with great power. Finally we grab a willow and scramble up a stony bank, nearly starting a small avalanche. Famished, we tear into our grub and chase down every last grain of rice. Our stove roars like a blowtorch; when it quits, I wonder how noise can make silence seem strange, unnatural, and how much we become inured to noise in our daily lives. City noises—from screaming sirens to thundering speakers—all seem to dull us. But if industrial civilization requires desensitization, silence refreshes and relaxes.
Tonight, on Midsummer’s Eve, the late day light is particularly spellbinding. It retreats up the canyon walls, highlighting rocks and trees that in other lights I would have missed. Atop the walls wind-rounded junipers stand silhouetted against the orange-and-violet sunset. As dusk falls softly, it pools beneath the scrub oak and slowly fuzzes outlines even where cliff meets sky. Along the river the twilight air turns damp and musty, full of funky patchouli. As the chirping of birds fades into the rustling of rodents, clock time becomes meaningless, replaced by the rhythms of day and night, of the restless river and the flowing mind. We twitch when a ground squirrel drops down on our tarp.
Between curving canyon walls that channel a starry stream, the Milky Way now illumines a sluice of sky. The distant heavens appear just beyond reach and society seems far away. Of course this is a double delusion. The Milky Way is so vast that we see one hundred billion stars blended into a faint cloud of light. Rivers, on the other hand, carry so many more people every year that they can seem like highways.
However close society encroaches, though, a night full of stars can expand the mind. Imprisoned but coming more fully alive, Albert Camus’s character in The Stranger gazes into the [p.87] swath of sky that’s visible from his cell. For him simply watching the heavens makes life worthwhile. Just before he’s executed, he begins to embrace “the benign indifference of the universe.”
Because distant stars hold no apparent human significance, however, “benign indifference” has not met psychological needs for connection and meaning. Seeking relatedness, the ancient Chinese called the Milky Way “the little sister of the rainbow.” For similar reasons the Greeks created constellations to represent gods, heroes, and animals. Extending traditional sun-as-male/moon-as-female mythologies, St. Francis personalized the cosmos as “brother sun, sister moon.” In recent decades countercultural tides have turned to astrology’s depiction of the sky in familiar terms. Projecting human qualities on nature makes us feel less insignificant or alone.
Feeling lost in a meaningless universe, people may continue to search for a creator’s signature, an assurance that “somebody up there designed all this.” But the experience of seekers, astronauts, shamans, and mystics, many of them in non-Western cultures, would seem to suggest that spiritual connections are possible without having to discover the creator. Although painting a human face on the spiritual presence may heighten our sense of relatedness to the divine, such personified gods may also distort the sacred mysteries of the universe.
In the morning the air is damp along the bank. Chilled, I shift from sandal to sandal, keeping my knees together. As sunlight creeps down the wall, though, the reflected warmth toasts my legs. Then the sun hits. In only a few minutes we go from hunching, coffee cupped in hands, to basking in our swimsuits. Once launched, we enter a swirling eddy where a [p.88] huge catfish, white belly up, bobs in the flotsam, fodder for ravens, vultures, eagles, or other fish. Much of the canyon lingers in shadow. The liquid trill of a solitary canyon wren cascades down the sheer streaked walls. In this stark country you can hear a single bird or see a single plant across great distances. Rain forests are biological treasures, but they’re so densely packed that it’s tough to focus on an individual plant or animal.
When the sun surmounts the rim, we take turns floating. My eyes peer far downstream, vigilant for snags, while Barbara sighs in delight when a cool upsurge boils up, glassing the river’s surface. Lips at water level, she seems oblivious to the yellowish tamarisk pollen and pulverized wood. When my turn comes, though, at first I find myself repulsed by the river scum. But total body stimulation sweeps me out of my mind, toward oneness with the flow.
Around a great bend we hug the bank to spot Trim Alcove, a confluence of three canyons. As thickets of feathery tamarisk and scrub oak glide by, seeming to flow upstream, voices drift from a small lagoon. The Boy Scouts gawk as our raft appears, mirage-like, revealing only a mermaid in a bikini. “That bearded guy with her must have drowned or hiked out,” they probably fantasize. Behind the raft, unseen, I imagine their faces when they see me emerge from the river, muddy as a hippo. As I fumble to untie my swimsuit from the moving raft, Barbara keeps right on paddling. OK, the scouts be damned. I toddle out of the water wearing just a smile.
In the winding glen trumpet-like scarlet, gilia blaze against the buff sand. Long runners from giant tufted cane shoot over the cracked mud, sending down spikes every foot or so. Moments later a rock panel rivets my gaze. Highlighted by the noonday sun, conchoidal fracture lines radiate out like [p.89] shock waves from where a huge hunk of sandstone broke away. On this fresh blond surface, water streaks range from muted cinnamon to nutmeg to chestnut-a full spectrum of delicious browns. These streaks often fun or fade out, altering their shading where the grain shifts direction. Like much of the red rock in the Southwest, this Navajo sandstone is sweepingly cross-bedded, laid down as dunes and later cemented with lime beneath a shallow sea.
In this acoustic amphitheater clicks seem to come from all directions. Camera in hand, another river runner waits until the sun highlights more grain in the stone. Poised to photograph, will she observe the rock more carefully? Possibly. Or will she frame her vision with 3 x 5 rectangles and preoccupy her mind with what settings to use? Photography is a great medium, a wonderful intersection of art and science. When most of us carry a camera, however, we miss more than we capture. Yet I also have my pad of paper handy and sometimes miss what transpires while I scribble notes.
Exploring a second canyon, we hike up the main wash. After two hundred yards, sweat stings my eyes as the cliffs writhe in the heat. We settle for a drip beneath an overhang to fill our canteens, drop by drop. With our shirts soaked we can face a blast of light that glares off quartz grains to bleach the sandstone. I hug the shady side and splash through puddles, hat lifted to keep a cool head.
Sheer, smooth walls tower several hundred feet above the canyon’s floor. Here, where the sun seldom penetrates, the air suddenly turns cool and moist. As I wade into this inner sanctuary, I can even see my breath. Each drip resounds in our ears. The canyon ends with a dark twenty-foot hanging garden draped with stalactites and matted with moss. My arm sinks into the wet tapestry. Then a whir fills the cool grotto as [p.90] a hummingbird hovers, twists its body for a look around, and shoots straight up, leaving shrill squeaks behind. Barbara and I look at each other as if we’d seen an eagle.
About eight feet up, a brown hellebore orchid embellishes the mat of moss. To see it better I begin to wedge myself against the sides of the slippery chute until Barbara intervenes: “Are you trying to break a bone?” She’s right; this is no place to break a leg. I jump down with a hollow crunch on the gravel.
Back at the river a scrap of paper hangs on our cooler: “Have one on the troop.” Tucked inside, chilling on fresh ice, gleam two cans of beer that we swig in the shade. As I try to push off the bank, my feet stick in the muck deposited in this backwater. Meanwhile the current begins to catch the raft, dragging me forward into the churned water. At last I’m able to flounder over the tube, smeared with clay. No one takes the helm. For miles the red rock, blue sky, and puffy clouds spin by as the relaxed river buoys us along, aided by a boost from the beer.
Our second campsite is buggy. A sound like a stiff brush rasping a screen makes me shiver; the deep buzz of this June bug is unsettling. Red ants find our tent and small flies cloud our faces, relenting only when Barbara lights a fire. As if our skins were not already abused enough from sun, wind, water, and silt, now we add bug bites, heat, and smoke. Barbara hikes upcanyon, returning with some fossil crinoids and brachiopods she’s found. Though they’re often mistaken for plants, crinoids were actually the stems of sea lilies, the ancient relatives of sea urchins. The equally common brachiopods were bivalves resembling clams.
The first stars wink through the clicking leaves of the cottonwood. When Einstein asked, “Is the universe [p.91] friendly?” he indulged fond hopes, but right now it seems to whisper, “Yes.” On balmy summer evenings like this I feel beyond time, free of worries about change, loss, or death. Blessed and blissed.
The following morning I awake early, feeling clammy under just a grungy sheet. Propping myself up on one elbow, I note a fuzzy jet contrail streaking the sky. Humidity. The steam droplets rise fully two feet above our coffee mugs, looking granular in the hazy sunshine.
Where there are bugs, there are birds. Bullock’s orioles, their flights looping like telephone wires, flash their yellow and orange plumage. A Western kingbird, its gray throat blended into a lemon-yellow breast, perches high on a dead branch to watch for flies. A rufous-sided towhee with a brick-red breast rummages in the dead leaves. Such diversions make it pleasant to scrub oatmeal from a pan or to swab mud from a raft. Under the right working conditions, even dirty jobs can be a delight.
After our launch we watch for a drainage. The mouth of Ten Mile Canyon appears, as side drainages so often do, like a pond behind a muddy sandbar. The muck sucks on our paddles as we push into a backwater enclosed by tamarisks and willows. Dragonflies bank and circle. Jointed walls of Wingate sandstone, one of the great cliff formers in this country, tower tar above. Well-watered and protected from grazing, here the feathery-gray sage grows five feet high. Where this stagnant creek narrows, tufted cane, coyote willows, grotesque hackberries, and droopy box elders fashion a jungle in the desert.
As my paddle strikes bottom again, I slip over the side to propel us paddle-wheeler style, though I don’t enjoy the muck and scum. Kicking the boat from behind offers a [p.92] duck’s-eye view of banks inscribed with animal prints. A splash startles me; the raft rocks. A beaver chute of smooth mud leads to a hole in the bank just a few feet from my face. When this drainage ends, will I have a tooth-to-tooth encounter with this fellow? Beavers run up to seventy-five pounds and flash bigger buckies than we river rats do. As I stagger forward, freckled with duckweed, the bottom bubbles and I drop into quicksand. Calm as usual, Barbara tosses me a paddle. I flail for a moment before finally extricating myself, minus my thongs. Shaken by the experience, I review what I know about quicksand. It requires fine, saturated sand with enough water seeping through it to lift the grains into suspension. All this science and reason, however, doesn’t entirely quiet nerves on full adrenaline alert.
Once the rope is looped around a willow clump, we walk on firm, furrowed sand whose cracked, shiny surface reveals that water has flowed here recently. Since then, downcanyon gusts have left the coarse sugary sand at the top and deposited the finer, darker grains at the bottom of each rill. Windblown milkvetch with bulging pink pods etches crescents on the smoother sand. A pastel-green leafhopper and two chartreuse grasshoppers cling to a red-striped tumbleweed.
On even more desolate gravel nearby, strange bottle plants are already brown. Discovered by explorer John Fremont in 1844, these members of the buckwheat family exhibit a classic adaptation for storing scarce water. The Paiutes showed pioneers how to use these botanical curiosities to quench thirst and provide food. After shooting out a rosette of leaves at ground level, the plant’s several stems elongate into “bottles.” From these, spindly branches lead on to smaller “bottle stoppers,” then on to tiny yellow flowers [p.93] that last but a short time. Deserts speak of both extreme endurance and extreme transience.
While thunder rumbles in the distance, hot sand scorches our bare feet. We spot a spreading cottonwood and trot for relief in the shade. Above us, amid the large leaves perforated by small holes, the cotton pods burst to release filaments that blur the line between fuzzy tree and hazy sky. Large scarabs with black legs like grappling hooks clasp the leaves. These amber-winged goldsmith beetles, the gold bugs in Edgar Allan Poe’s celebrated story, hang on twigs in copulating pairs. Others buzz slowly around the branches. It is now clear what is perforating the cottonwood leaves. In fact, hungry goldsmith beetles can strip a tree entirely of its foliage. Because desert plants are so infrequent, they often get hit hard by bugs.
Nevertheless, life flourishes amid this heat, rock, and sand. Squat plants engender star-shaped flowers only one-sixteenth inch across. These tiny blooms range from yellow-green to creamy tan, depending on how long they’ve been open. Beside these, bleached sepals remain fully open in rigor mortis, dried before they could wilt. In reality, the desert is no harsher an environment than any other for species that are adapted to it, but because of its dryness the relics of life remain, decaying very slowly. The desert keeps death visible, reminding us to seize the moment.
We hear distant thunder. Above the mesa, black thunderheads loom like jellyfish with tentacles bowing beneath them. Windblown curtains of rain, these verga billow but don’t reach the ground—at least we hope they don’t. A downcanyon draft rattles the cottonwood, dislodging puffs from its branches, and then brings a brief whiff of ozone. Rain. The rumbles were miles away but as we set out for the raft, scum [p.94] laps at our heels.
We glance at each other, neither of us willing to utter “flash flood.” Down the drainage races liquid mud. Dried leaves, pinyon nuts, and shriveled juniper berries ride the scummy crest as tumbleweeds and broken branches snag on willows. We watch the depth of the slurry, looking back for the proverbial wall of water. Our feet catch on roots, sticks, stones, and even clumps of grasses that are now skidding along. Rain craters our bare bodies, leaving rings of sand. Without saying anything, we both wonder what is happening to the raft. It could be inconvenient to float the river with nothing but air-filled canteens for life preservers. The thunder claps again. Clouds are bursting somewhere. We keep running.
Our raft is tugging at its tether. Oblivious to thorny brush, we drag it to higher ground, dig out our raincoats, and glance at the skies. The torrent of pink froth abates with no real flash at all, leaving a brick-red sludge. The creek now pours over the sandbar, marbling the beige water of the Green. Far above, steaming red cliffs jut angrily against scowling skies ready to strike with lightning bolts. Pink torrents spout from hanging chutes, splatter into bowls, then plummet farther down to raise more spray. Light on the retreating mists paints a rainbow that arches from rim to rim. Its almost neon colors pulsate while we shiver, rapt at the spectacle.
The Green seems aptly named, not because of its own color but because its silts grow such lush greenery. Compared to those of its sister stream, the Colorado, its banks are indeed greener. When the two great rivers reach their confluence, the Green has come much farther, allowing it to pick up more sediment. Additionally, the Green cuts through the limestones, siltstones, and shales of Desolation and Gray canyons which erode into clay and mud, while the Colorado [p.95] courses through sandstones for most of the two hundred miles above its confluence with the Green. Both rivers carry silt loads that, gallon for gallon, far exceed those of the muddy Mississippi.
Soon the sun reappears and the runoff subsides. We hope to explore Bowknot Bend, the great gooseneck of Labyrinth Canyon where the river has carved a hairpin isthmus and a nearly circular “island” miles in diameter. In this deeply entrenched meander the Green flows about nine miles while progressing less than one mile downstream.
Watchful for the isthmus, we spot a historic “billboard” where “Launch Margarite 1909” is painted on the cliff. During the early 1900s this stern-wheeled steamer plied the waterways between the towns of Green River and Moab, heading upstream on the Colorado. Astounded by the geology, intoxicated by the heat, and distracted by the billboard, we somehow sail right by the saddle between the goosenecks. Because the river arcs so gently, it’s difficult to tell that we’re completing a grand circle.
Below Bowknot Bend, the current slows slightly where Labyrinth Canyon gives way to Stillwater. Major Powell, who named both, described these rocks eloquently:
We glide along through a strange, weird, grand region.
The landscape everywhere … is of rock-ten thousand
strangely carved forms; rocks everywhere, and no vegetation,
no soil, no sand. In long gentle curves the river winds about
these rocks … all highly colored-buff, gray, red, brown,
and chocolate, never lichened, never moss-covered, but bare
and often polished.
The rocks here are more varied in color, less rounded, and more broken in their layering than the Navajo sandstones [p.96] upstream. These tiered walls rise over a thousand feet, separated by a quarter mile of pristine air. Whereas the Navajo sandstones form slickrock domes, here the reddish-brown Wingate sandstones and the purplish-red Kayenta formation fracture into spires and sheer cliffs.
Contrary to Powell’s description, though, this area is hardly devoid of vegetation. Willows and cane wall the banks along with tamarisks, which admittedly were not here in Powell’s time. Behind this barrier of greenery grows an occasional cottonwood. Higher up, yuccas, cactus, pinyons, and junipers dot the slickrock. No doubt Powell’s eye compared the Southwest to the more verdant areas he was familiar with back east. Perhaps his inability to perceive the flora suggests that in the absence of what he was used to, he saw “less” as “none.” Or perhaps his experience provides a parable of over compensation, much like the tendency to see pink after removing green sunglasses. Whatever the psychology, it often does take newcomers some time to adjust to the more spotty greenery of the canyon country.
Greenish-gray Chinle shale now surfaces along the river. Another characteristic formation of the Southwest, the Chinle is famous for three things: spectacular colors that peak in the Painted Desert of Arizona, petrified trees found at nearby Petrified Forest and elsewhere, and uranium ore. In ancient stream environments, decaying plants often accumulated at the bend in a river where, over time, uranium oxide gradually replaced the minerals in the plant matter. As a result prospectors have located whole petrified logs of uranium ore. Whether or not humanity needs any more uranium today, during the 1950s the price rose high enough to encourage exploration even in such remote areas as this.
Emerging from the seven-mile meander around the [p.97] Bowknot, we float under a memento of this era: a rusty mining bucket hanging, doors open, from a cable that stretches across the river. This apparatus would have ferried uranium ore to the rough road that still incises the east bank. Prospectors’ tracks not only scarred the canyons of southeast Utah, they opened the area to both responsible four-wheeling and to off-road vehicle abuse.
Our river mileage logged for the day, we beach on a sand spit. Since there’s nothing we can tie to, Barbara uses a trench shovel to bury a log around which I’ve wound our line. Duty done, we recline on the sandbank, protected from the wind. What’s a little sand in the scalp when you’ve got it everywhere else? Soon, too soon, a flotilla of canoes appears, their paddle flashes visible a mile upstream. To our dismay, all six canoes land on the spit. Trying to puff up like swans defending turf, we stand as tall as we can. We contend that there are other good campsites. The canoeists counter that their children are tired and can’t paddle any farther. We trudge back, deflated after our failed puffery.
As the intruders set up, grainy gusts flap their tents. When the sand stings our legs, we reluctantly push off and ‘sail away.” A mile downriver we spot another site but together the wind and the current skid us sideways. “Pull, pull, pull,” I shout as we synch our strokes. But the current veers toward midstream. “Pull, goddammit, we’re going to miss this one!” I snap. With the rope in one hand I stretch, hip on the tube, to grab the rock. Legs splayed so as not to get pulled out of the boat, I gradually work us out of the current. We tie up in the eddy. Although the wind doesn’t relent, at least we’re not facing the sandstorm that still peppers those other folks.
The next morning we set out early, before the heat hits. [p.98] Soon we arrive at the mouth of Hell Roaring Canyon, a place of Sonoran/Mojave desert flora. Sage and four-wing saltbush, its leaves bleached almost colorless by the sunlight, inhabit the alluvial fan. Shadscale and greasewood dominate the talus slopes of broken Chinle shale. The now-rare Isely milkvetch once grew on these gray clays, but during the 1950s it didn’t take prospectors long to realize that the selenium-laced soils favored by these legumes often also contained uranium. Many plants were lost in the scramble. As the sun pounds palpably, we hike up a wash rutted by trail bikes. Will the Isely milkvetch survive the mining onslaught of the 1950s only to perish beneath the aggressive treads of the 1990s?
But these signs of man are not the ones we’re seeking. A couple hundred yards up, “D. Julien 1836 3 Mai” appears alongside what looks like a sailboat. Regarded as the first European to navigate the Green, Denis Julien landed here thirty-three years before Powell. At first this date seems odd, since another inscription left by this French trapper twenty miles upriver reads “16 Mai.” We rafters move with the current, but trappers in long canoes had to paddle upstream, loaded with furs, no less. Today we often underestimate the sheer physical exertions endured by early explorers, trappers, and settlers.
On the way back we tread over the deeply-cracked river mud, a perfect habitat for toads and miniature tamarisk seedlings. After pushing off again, Barbara basks in the boat while I bob in the river. A giant tumbleweed spins by, glistening like a water wheel. By now a faceful of dead gnats and froth seems normal. My inhibitions dissolve as I roll over and spout river at the sky. Leading with my feet, I let the flow whirl me as it will. My flesh sings to celebrate this triumph over an aversion that had limited my relationship with the natural world.
[p.99]A car’s horn suddenly pierces the quiet. Looking toward shore, we see what seems like a desert junkyard below the slash that criss-crosses the bluff. Sunlight glints off windshields at the parking lot. This is only our fourth day out, and vehicles already seem like spaceships from another planet. We’ve been away long enough to feel some reentry shock.
From the stern I frog kick the raft burst by burst toward the well-tramped bank. Swigging a tepid beer under a great cottonwood we gaze into the mosaic of brown water, orange rock, green foliage, and blue sky, its tiles dancing in fluid, flickering shapes. Ordinarily separate entities—the me and the not-me, the heart, the mind, the body—all dissolve into one. As naturalist John Muir rhapsodized, “the rivers flow not past but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell.”
Floating is a good way to go. Exciting as it is, running rapids often turns rivers and rocks into antagonists. Besides, whitewater rafting has become so popular that to find solitude it’s best to do a flat-water stretch where two people can float for miles, fully immersed in the flow.
The Lemon that Almost Exploded
After setting up our tent I try to light our Coleman Peak I, the one that purred so nicely in the store. Being unfamiliar with this stove, I follow directions slavishly. Despite this special handling, the small stove spits and sputters, flickers orange, and goes out. Streaks of gasoline trickle below the burner. Reluctantly I pump it again, as directed, but this time there’s [p.100] no hiss at all. Only more trickles.
Caution warns that I should quit, but hunger prevails: our meals depend on this stove. Taking precautions, I light it and jump back. First it flares, then it goes poof. A flame jets out like a blowtorch. Will the blessed thing blow up, frying me? Is it going to start a brush fire? Barbara dumps a bucket of water on the stove, which refuses to go out. Then, crouched like a demolitions expert, she creeps up and heaves on handfuls of sand. This knocks down the flame but doesn’t extinguish the incorrigible, inflammable Peak I.
Next Barbara gets another idea—knock the thing over and bury it. “Get back that thing’s a bomb!” I yell. Undaunted, she kicks the stove over and snuffs it out like a cigarette. We stare at each other in shock—and relief.
True, the damn thing didn’t explode, but now we have no way to cook food or even boil water. Sure, somebody’s got to get the lemons, but now what? We’re six miles into the backcountry without a stove and it’s getting dark. We’ve got three choices: start a small fire, breaking park rules; eat fruit tonight, collecting water from a seep and hiking out tomorrow; or borrow a stove.
A couple from Yakama, Washington, is just finishing their supper. They lend us their Peak I—of all stoves. When they turn it way down and hand it to me, all lit and ready to go, I carry it at arm’s length, head turned away. We go to the wilderness to leave humanity behind, but when things go wrong, helpers are handy to have around.