Escalante, May 18–26

I’m skeptical that I have any business being on the water for a week, having only and rarely ever served as ballast. Sean, however, has more than a decade of experience both in guiding trips and in baiting me out of safe harbors. I’m not really listening to his detailed explanation of dam releases and flow rates because I get the gist: this is a rare opportunity, a river you can’t usually run. My catnip, my kryptonite, my achilles: the Chance That Will Not Come Again™.

Taking the bait, 2019 (above) and 2010 (below). “The Frog” is our (French-Canadian) former housemate. More on that later.

When I commit to going I envision that I’ll be unemployed, or at least seriously underemployed—not two weeks into/already underwater at my first new-new job-job in a decade. I haven’t had time to think about it, and the sight of all three of my travel companions in our Google Sheets packing list at 12:45 a.m. the morning of our flight suggests that none of them have, either.

The immediacy of the need to get ourselves and our gear to the airport overshadows the larger issue of the rapidly deteriorating forecast, which we dismiss as an incidental detail we can do nothing about. This age-old illogic may one day end the world in fire. (“But sir, are you sure you want to—” / “DO IT. I ALREADY BOUGHT THE TICKET.”)

1 a.m. and really starting to make progress.

Once confined to suitcases, this Gear Explosion is less enormous than you’d think—considering that it includes a literal boat—but still too enormous for the Lyft driver, who takes one look at me standing on the curb with my duffles and speeds away shaking his head. Plan B involves three bodies and six body-bags in a Gig car and looks like this:

There’s an app for that. Photo by Sean, driving this thing.

We make it to Salt Lake City, play another round of rental-car Tetris, and beeline south. Anticipating lean times ahead, we eat an extravagant last supper in an inexplicable, Alice Waters-esque outpost of “fanciful cuisine” called Hell’s Backbone Grill. It’s an ashram or art collective or organic goat farm or something and all the staff are beautiful in exactly the same way, as if generated by artificial intelligence trained on a dataset of Madewell catalogs. Our doll-waisted waitress coos and floats about like an exotic bird reciting unnecessary but mellifluous information about herbs. A few outstanding margaritas later I am calling her Jessica and cannot recall if this is actually her name.

You’re beautiful, it’s true.

The next morning there is a long and fractious procedure of packing, re-packing, and shuttling vehicles before we finally get our feet wet, at a nondescript put-in under a low bridge in a thicket of mesquite trees. Neither Ryan or I have seen our packraft outside of a living room before, but as it belongs to a bona fide National Geographic Explorer one hopes it’s imbued with some sort of residual competence. I am swimming (soon literally) in said Explorer’s trousers and splash jacket, while Ryan has borrowed his wetsuit from an ex-girlfriend, a stick-thin triathlete. We look insane.

It’s immediately apparent that the Forager is not for amateurs. Ten feet long and fully loaded with food and gear, it spins and ping-pongs off the banks on a capricious course of its own. This becomes less and less amusing as the weather deteriorates, from cheery spring sunshine when we set out to a steel-gray sky and spitting rain.

The temperature drops and the wind rises. The rain becomes a deluge, then hail, pellets of ice ricocheting off the nose of the boat like buckshot. Behind us there’s a deafening crash, something like a building collapse or a car wreck. When I turn to look, there’s a jet of water exploding over the cliff edge, a roaring cascade where seconds ago the red rock face was bare. It’s one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen. Nothing happens until it happens, I think, inanely, then, everything happens out of sight.

In the morning the river is running very high and very fast. It looks like a latte and sounds like an animal. Sean surveys the situation from the banks in silence. “Seems … different,” I offer. “Yeeeeeah,” he says. “We’ll talk about that.”

The crux isn’t rocks or rapids but Russian Olive. Yesterday it formed a graceful and pleasant canopy overhead, but on the swollen river today the dense, woody branches are now at eye level and very difficult to avoid. Behind me, Ryan can usually flatten himself into the boat deck, but as the hapless hood ornament in the bow I’m getting clotheslined over and over into the water. There’s very little I can do about this other than cover my face and pray I keep both arms in their sockets.

It sounds funny and certainly must look it, but after a few solid blows to the head I am not laughing. Apart from the fact of repeated bludgeoning by (very) invasive trees, I’m also now wet to the skin in a knife-edge wind: having packed for “just stand up”-deep water I’m not wearing a wetsuit, never mind a drysuit. I’m dealing with this the way I typically react to the cold, which is to make myself as small as possible and pretend I don’t exist. Thus semi-catatonic, I almost miss Sean on the riverbank ahead, shouting at us to eddy out.

Poached from the man with the plan and the camera. I took very few pictures, hence the several thousand words.

I haven’t noticed him in time to stop the Forager from careening past the beach. “Not going to make that,” I announce. “I’ll catch the next one.”

“NO. DO. IT. NOW.”

In many years of following him around the backcountry I have rarely heard Sean take this tone. Startled out of my stupor, I lunge at some branches and stab a paddle into the sand. I am half in and half out of the boat when I notice there are other people on the bank—the first we’ve seen in days. They look very concerned, which, given that they are being invaded by shivering lunatics, is probably justified.

I, however, am delighted to discover the reason for the urgent stop. These fine folks have a campsite in the shelter of a glorious overhang; they have hot water and a fire. (Note for due diligence that the latter is not allowed, endorsed, or undertaken on this river without a good reason, which I feel we had.) The angels of mercy are generously sharing all of these things and are also cool as hell. I am once again glad to exist.

Thawing ham. (I told you we looked insane.) Photo from Marisa, who was smart enough to bring a coat and kind enough to let me wear it.

River conditions improve somewhat over the days following. Sean makes a gracious sacrifice of his own, much more entertaining single-person boat in order to take over as pilot of the Forager, which significantly reduces the amount of time I spend in the water and fretting over trees.

That said, it’s still very cold, and I’m reminded of how a thing can be physically challenging without being physically difficult. Whenever the sun appears and disappears behind a cloud again I could weep. I used to resent the lack of secular language for awe. These days I borrow freely. The juxtaposition, sometimes—of our silly little boats in the water and the colossal arches overhead; of my hopelessly awkward, daunted body and every perfect bright flower blooming in the sand—all that is inarticulable otherwise. In every direction the landscape is indifferent, immeasurably variable, infinitely perfect. What is that but sublime?

I watch my footprints fill as we walk silent washes. I think of flash-floods sculpting the alcoves, picture hidden currents freezing and thawing in a million tiny fissures, the moment their exhalations over eons at last cleave the rock apart. I imagine the sound this would make, stone the size of a high-rise hitting the canyon floor. What runs through my head over and over again all week is,

on your knees before your God.

There is also a duck—logically several different ducks, but for all I can tell, one single, very blasé duck—who seems to bob in front of us most of the way down the river. Even when you’re ad-libbing rosaries and spinning in the infinite, you have to admit there’s something intrinsically casual about a mallard.

The sublime and the sublimely ridiculous

We have one day of blazing sunshine, which coincides with our re-entry into land-access territory on a holiday weekend. After miles of perfect solitude the canyons are suddenly overrun. The banks are denuded and tragic, every alcove strewn with camp chairs and sticky, staring children. It’s time to go.

The way out is up a a low-angle slab that morphs from negligible to oddly fraught as soon as I put my pack on. Same goes for the interminable sand dune that follows. As soon as we’ve hauled our gear and ourselves over the canyon rim it seems impossible that the thing exists.

From Sean—up the creek without a creek. If you’re wondering why I didn’t bring a wetsuit “just in case,” the answer is: I suck at backpacking and was desperately trying to save weight for this hike out.

For several hours the entertainment consists of Sean and Ryan yelling back at me that every oncoming hiker is our onetime housemate Philippe, who we’ve vaguely suggested meet us at the trailhead so we can swap shuttles. They’ve told a dozen versions of this joke already by the time it’s actually true—but when it is, our old friend’s buoyant, ambling stride is unmistakable even in distant silhouette, even after many years. It is the perfect thing to take the sting off the end of the journey, The Chance That Will Not Come Again.

Also infinite: my gratitude for these three.

1 thought on “Escalante, May 18–26”

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