River Touchstones – A story from the San Juan River
Heraclitus said, “You cannot step into the same river twice.” Today’s story takes this very literally.
One thing I do not realize the first time I head for the river is that the person who steps onto the raft will not be the same person who steps off. The water washes not only grains of sand from the belly of the rock; it washes from me my routine, takes me to a momentary place, a liminal space, where so many things cease to matter. The consequences of the step onto the river are as opaque as the red silt water. It is a time and space where, like the rock, I am carved… we are carved, yet added upon one grain at a time.
Stories are our lives in language. Welcome to the Love Your Story podcast. I’m Lori Lee, and I’m excited for our future together of telling stories, evaluating our own stories, and lifting ourselves and others to greater places because of our control over our stories. This podcast is about empowerment and giving you, the listener, ideas to work with in making your stories work for you. Power serves you best when you know how to use it.
Last week we shared stories of serendipity and miracles. This week I’ll share an award-winning story about how we collect the touchstones of meaning in our life travels, and why those lovely, meaningful stones matter.
A warm breeze hums through the screens along the top of the palapa-style hut. Grass walls swing like skirts as I stroll in, unintentionally late, my Chacos picking their way across the dirt floor scattered with peanut shells. My navy sarong wisps around my tan legs, natural air conditioning in the hot, dry desert air, and the pre-trip dinner fills with the chatter of strangers. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “What brings you to the San Juan?” “Have you been here before?” I see him then. But at the time it means nothing. He means nothing. Instead, I glance at the lady wearing the red and blue Hawaiian shirt with naked surfers on it, and the two older gals with funny sun hats and drooping skin at the first table. A pudgy rocket scientist from Colorado and a newspaper owner and his wife chatter as their verbal exchange disappears on the San Juan breeze. I am the journalist-on-the-job and I plop down by an artist from New York and him, the writer for the New York Times at the corner table. We introduce ourselves and make pointless chatter about the wonderful week ahead. We have no idea the difference seven days will make. In our mid-thirties, we claim the title of “youngest in the group”. It’s the night before we launch. The energies and gestures, some indifferent, some intense, have started to intermingle between everyone; the beginning of our metamorphosis from single to collective.
Tonight we will sleep in our B&B’s, our motels and lodges; tomorrow we will pile, one on top of another, into cargo vans, our torpedo-like gray dry-bags filled with too few clothes and a shortage of sunscreen. Tomorrow we will begin to share more than we ever intended–the river requires intimacy. You cannot live for seven days in the wild without in some part, meshing with those you bathe, barf, sweat and eat with. There are not many circumstances in which you find yourself peeing in public with recently acquired acquaintances, but river running is one of them.
It’s only been a few months since I took my children, divided nine years of belongings and left my husband to try and find the happiness I was certain I deserved. Loneliness is a multi-sided space. There is the loneliness when one simply wants companionship; there is the terrible loneliness one can have despite being with another person; and then there is the compound loneliness of being untouched, unappreciated, unconnected. This is the loneliness I carry on my back as I step onto the river.
At 6:00 a.m. we struggle to push the rafts from the shore, the sun filling the desert with color and warmth, the blue bulk of the rafts scraping the sand, the trailer, our legs and hands. The water laps at us, pulls us in, and we find our place in the sun. Eyes locked downstream, we scan the silt-laden waters of a prehistoric desert river that has held its course for a thousand lifetimes and watched 12,000 years of human use and occupation. When John Wesley Powell passed the mouth of the San Juan River in 1869, he barely acknowledged it. Powell and his crew of archaeologists and geologists spent the next decade exploring and mapping the last blank spot on the United States map –the Colorado Plateau. Like others before and after, Powell could see no practical use for the river, and so the San Juan stayed a terra incognita, difficult to access and even more difficult to harness. Our first days and nights on the river reveal snatches of history, give the tiniest peek, just enough for us to wonder at those brave and hardy pioneers who made their lives at its sandy flanks. It is along these sandy flanks that I begin to pick up stones.
Our first day we raft to Riverhouse. River House claims status as the most extensive Ancestral Puebloan dwelling on the San Juan between Bluff and Clay Hills Crossing. With 14 storage and living rooms, a kiva and petroglyphs along the upper reaches of the alcove, this dwelling has given up secrets and clues to an ancient people we will never know. The 1,500 dried corncobs, hundreds of potshards, a sandal and fragments of cloth and yucca date the site at 700 A.D. – 1300 A.D. Hiking west we climb Comb Ridge, a 700-foot wall over which the Mormon pioneers struggled to pull their wagons. The effort was so extensive oxen died in the yoke and stumbling horses left blood on the rocks. Our efforts require nothing more than sipping our Gatorade® and at the top we peer across the vast muddy swath washing through the desert; burnt rocks lined in millennia with chocolate browns, frosted oranges, burnt sienna and buff. James, the journalist with the New York Times, banters with me as we hike. He and his brother-in-law are out for their annual trek to a Utah river and I think little of his attention. It’s no more than I would have exchanged with anyone else…but quietly, in my own mind, I am enjoying his verbal sparring, his company.
As night falls we wrestle our tents, despite the wind, flapping and colorful onto the sands below River House. Here I learn that sand does not hold tent stakes, and only large stones–inside my tent–will keep me grounded. The cooks make the futile attempt at using their suntanned hands as sand shields over strips of sirloin sizzling and popping for fajitas, while the monochromatic browns surround us: the water, the sand, the cliffs in their patina and lichen clothing. Before I learn of stones, my tent lifts into the air, a green kite on the wind, my river mates catch and secure it for me. George and Nancy, my tent neighbors, go about my business while I sit unknowingly, by the coursings of the muddy river in my Therma-rest ground chair watching the river flow with a quiet, but startling power. These two have known me only hours, but my tent now sits staked—7-mm rope and river rocks. When I find out what they have done, how they saved my only shelter, I am touched. We have floated only one day together. I put this small touchstone, rubbed smooth by the river, in my pocket to remember their kindness.
The first night is the last night I sleep in my tent. Too much sun. Not enough water. Day two surrounds me like a gorgeous blister: chocolate desert water, the friction of my swimsuit clad body perched unprotected on the baby blue tube of the raft, forgetting the sun holds the power of gods. I spend my second night curled next to the coolness of the river my head a throbbing mass I’d like to tear off and send downstream. I don’t go to my tent, the stuffiness a prison, but more importantly, it is too far from the river and I need quick access as I repeatedly hurl into the sienna current as the night passes. I lie still, curled in fetal position on my sleeping pad. Late, dark, but desert warm with a solid black sky of screaming stars. I expect nothing from anyone. It’s my own fault I wasn’t more careful—I know better—and the flat desert night spins around my head, around my body. And it is here, in this scene that James comes, sits next to me, brings his sleeping pad out and lies by my side. He tethers me, keeps me from spinning away.
“I’m sorry,” I grumble. “You don’t have to stay here.” I’m embarrassed. I hardly know him. He keeps his hand on my back all night, does not leave me to the loneliness of being sick with no one by my side. I think I shall love him forever simply for that comforting hand. My first year at college I found myself kneeling on the floor over a cold apartment toilet, the first time I’d been sick without my mother to bring me water or soda and brush the hair from my face. I cried, not because of the wretchedness of being ill, but because of the realization of the solitary aspect of growing up–the pang so stark I remember it 13 years later. James becomes a touchstone. At critical times what seems small to the giver makes all the difference to the one who receives. That night something invisible happened. His hand on my back, his body sleeping by my side through the darkness and heat of the desert night, the kindness. It wasn’t a gift, it was a tie–invisible, unspoken, and from that night on I always knew where James sat, walked or swam, and I could feel him watching me in the same way.
Heat stroke sends me to the river’s edge, lays me out under the stars, shows me how it feels to sleep under a black sky of delirious, glowing orbs unfettered by human light, unblocked by tent mesh, but James showed me connection. Of all the stones I collected, these touchstone of the freedom of the dark desert night without filters; and the kindness of strangers, are always ones I return to.
In the morning when I groggily force my eyes open, I find we have slept beneath a towering red-rock structure that resembles a man’s face so completely no one has to point it out or describe it. It is simply there, across the river, looking down, a guardian. Guardians surrounded me. And so now does James.
In 1965, in Down the Colorado, Robert Brewster Stanton wrote, “The red is not in itself brilliant, but the effect of the morning and evening sun shining upon the cliffs through the peculiar atmosphere of that dry country, produces a most startling effect, till the whole side of the Canyon seems ablaze with scarlet flame.” Rafting the 83 mile stretch of meandering river from Sand Island to Clay Hills takeout, takes us through a history from which we lie so far removed it is hard to fathom the eons that have passed in forming the faces and layers revealed. Shortly after the initial launch, the river runs by Navajo sandstone walls lined with thick black streaks of desert varnish where minerals from the dirt atop the cliff have bled down the face year after year after year. The cliffs have the look and name of “Tiger Walls.” We pass through the Honaker Trail formation dated 290 million years old, we pass through the Triassic, Jurassic and Pennsylvanian eras. And yet the San Juan is famous for the Goosenecks, a tight twisting path the river has cut into the rock where it takes eight river miles to cover one mile of land. A prime example of an entrenched meander. When taking the path of least resistance the route is seldom direct. James and I become an entrenched meander. We talk on the back of the raft mile after mile. His vocabulary astounds me. I want to have him just for the words he knows. I’m kind of ashamed to call myself a writer next to him. Shit, I need a dictionary to keep up, but it’s gorgeous on the ears. The river cannot claim independence of the larger landscape surrounding it; it has evolved as a consequence of the land. We are the same.
The sun catches up with me despite wet draped towels across my shoulders and a wide brim hat. My skin screams in vibrant red and yet tomorrow is more sun that I can’t avoid. Nurse Lynn takes me to her tent and pulls out a bottle of soothing after-sun burn relief. I can’t remember the brand, but when she sent me out with the bottle in hand and told me I could keep it, again I was surprised at another personal kindness. The lotion smelled tropic and clean and I slathered it on, day after day, cooling my skin and blessing nurse Lynn. I picked up another stone, this one speckled, and added it to my pocket.
The river guides have two inflatable kayaks referred to as Duckies. Each day we choose to either ride the big blue rafts while a guide rows, or to row ourselves in these bright yellow banana boats. Near the beginning of the trip Joan and Jean, the two older women, carefully scoot their bodies into position in the Ducky. Joan, in back, her face lost in her lifejacket, becomes nothing but a hat, a life vest and two arms. Jean, in front, seems less secure with this idea, though the two have rowed together off and on over a forty-year friendship. Each day they choose the Ducky. They have discovered their place on this trip like I have discovered my place under the stars. Their second day we notice the Ducky rocking. Jay guides our boat toward them. “I was just trying to hang over the side to pee,” responds Joan matter-of-factly with a bit of a sheepish grin. “Courageous,” says Jay, “but your technique requires refinement.”
On the last day, when Duckies are being divvied, Joan adamantly stakes her claim. “We are going to die sooner than the rest of you,” she says, “so you will all have another time to row a Ducky. We are not getting out!” I thought of offering to wrestle her for it, but am afraid I might lose. They do their thing. We do ours.
The days and the nights pass and the older crowd says “the younger generation just likes to spend time together,” but I know this is how they let us save face, how they justify his attention to me when the sun glints off his wedding ring. Fun, gentle, intelligent and the tension between us is a tightly woven spring. It’s day five of seven and the guides paddle the bulging blue rafts toward a sandy beach take-out. As the rafts slide ashore, rubber grinding sand, everyone scatters like candy tossed at a parade, finding space from each other, putting up our tent city; but somehow James and I gravitate like magnets to a desert waterfall just south of camp. It is hot and wet and we rinse the grit from our hair and feet, the water splashing from us in joyous hops, reflecting in the sunlight. I languish in the pool beneath the falls, water splashing off my upturned face, and he slowly sits down next to me. “Are we going to do this?” he whispers, as he looks me straight in the eyes, water running down his cheek, the air alive with tension, with the unknown, with the hopes of the body. In one sentence James, with his words, transforms what is visceral, unspoken attraction into something concrete. Into a stone. I look back, into his blue eyes, needing him the way the desert needs this waterfall, and say, “No. I won’t do that to you…or your wife.” The words are a stone in my throat, I swallow hard. It has become real. It has become words. And I have let go of the tether I so badly wanted to hold on to.
At week’s end when the rafts slide into Clay Hills landing, one tan leg, then the other slides over the hard, bloated muscle of the raft. Our feet touch a concrete ground that leads us away from the river. Only then does leaving become real. Only then do we realize we will never step into the same river twice. Only then does the liminal space disappear and the reality of leaving him, the river – wide and fast, dark and powerful, hit me hard in the stomach and the panic rises.
Washing the red desert silt from our clothes cannot be done; washing it from the soul proves equally difficult. This is the way water carves. The way of creation. I have filled my pockets with worn river touchstones, and as I reluctantly step from the river to the cement launch pad, I dig my hand into my pocket to make sure I haven’t lost them. I want to turn around, get back on the river, but I know it is gone. The river we stepped into has swept past us.
This week’s challenge is to think about your touchstones – the moments in your life, the stories, that have been meaningful, rich with moments of learning or insight, people who have grounded and blessed you. I suggest you write them down. Start a touchstone story journal, because when you don’t write them down, sometimes you put your hand in your pocket to make sure you haven’t lost them…..and they are no longer there.
Until next week – have fun telling your stories. See you next Wednesday same time, same place, and pass on the link to this podcast to one of your friends!