When we are on the water the rest of the world does not seem to exist: no normal worries, none of the usual stress. Freed from the background noise of airplanes and traffic, away from the linear grid of the city, we are unburdened by all the things with which civilization weighs us down. Even the good things fade to the background—the memory of a green and fertile garden, the soft whisper of wind through deciduous trees. What I mean to say is that the river is reductive, and in that, becomes expansive.
When your existence is reduced to what can be carried on a boat, where your only concerns are how much sun you’re getting and whether or not you’ll find a patch of land to pitch your tent tonight, your mind and body soften into something else. Something different, quieter, maybe better. At first I always feel tense, a little bored, by what we might be called monotony in comparison to the frenetic activity of life on land. But eventually, after the first few hours, I can feel myself settling down. Emptying out. I always think of time outside as generative, a place for new ideas to surface and other creative seeds to germinate. That is true I think when I’m hiking or hunting or even on a dog walk. But on the river I stop thinking about anything, and like everything around the river, I begin to soak the water in.
I don’t always think the advice “live in the moment” is useful. I understand it as a clumsy way of urging people to pay attention to the world, to show up, to be grateful. To not let the magic and wonder of daily life slide by. That’s a hard practice to keep up, and isn’t always practical. Life requires us to project forward, and remember back. Living in the moment, as a phrase and piece of advice, makes us irresponsible and probably a little dumb too. There’s a balance between the two, of holding tight to what we know while welcoming with open arms the unfamiliar. A way to appreciate the present while honoring what will come and what has been.
On the river this is amplified, both apparent in the land and as a way of being. Water moves forward, on to something larger than itself, while revealing the history of the landscape: layers of memory etched into rock and dirt, evidence of fires past, rocks tumbled and smoothed into sandy beaches. And our trips are laden with stories from past years on the water, remembering how these rapids were last year or where we camped, while we appreciate what is now: the osprey and eagles, the soft whistle of canyon birds, the light on the water. At night we sit in a circle and talk and talk, connected by our presence in this wonderful and singular place.
It is not always the easiest three days of the year, and sometimes not even my favorite (close to it!). But it is the trip I find peace like a river deep in my heart and mind, a respite from the madness of an otherwise busy life. It feels good to be unanchored, to shove off, and say good-bye to land.