November in the Books

When I started this river-trip-a-month theme last May, I assumed that many of my sojourns would be solo ones. Marypat is still working, many of my friends have obligations that tie them down. I just didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to have company. Now, seven months in, I’ve only managed one solo jaunt, my September agate fest on the lower Yellowstone River, and it looks like I may only have one more on the horizon.

Months ago I vaguely lined my sights on the San Juan River in southern Utah as a November candidate. I knew it could as easily feel like winter as fall, by that time, but I knew people ran the river almost year round and that I’d be able to at least get down it, even if it had potential to be uncomfortable. I thought of my friend, Grant.

In a whimsical text I asked if he’d have any interest in joining me. He said sure, but he couldn’t commit due to some life issues he had to take care of. We left it at that. Then, late in October, after our Green River week, I nudged him again. “I’m in,” he said.

I’ve known Grant for 40 years. We worked together in the Outdoor Ed. Dept. at Northland College. He was my best man. In our time together in Wisconsin, we did a lot of paddling together, in all manner of craft – traditional canoe, Montreal canoe, C-2 . . . We had our noble, memorable moments, and some ignoble ones, but we were a paddling team with rhythm and history together. To share a boat hull again would be a profound benefit of his company.

In early November he flew into Bozeman. We spent a long day in the car driving to the put-in at Sand Island near Bluff, Utah. On November 11th, after taking care of the shuttle details and reorganizing gear, we launched in a cool, clear blue sky day. No one around.

For the next week we meandered down the bends of this storied tributary of the Colorado, through canyons 2,500′ deep, navigating rapids and portages, dealing with low water and frosty nights, seeing only one other person. We had a remarkably stable week of weather – 60 degree days and nights around freezing, very little wind. We had low water that challenged our route-finding abilities, especially at the end, where Lake Powell has backed up sediment miles into the river channel and the flow braids through shallow sand bars that are really hard to read.

Long nights, a rest day with a hike up Honaker Trail, a portage of Government Rapid, where the low river made the rock garden rapid unrunnable, many sweet runs through minor rapids that rekindled our paddling partnership and stand out, for me, as the highlight of the journey. And our last night, camped at the mouth of Steer Gulch, just 5 miles from the end, the one and only song of the canyon wren. Again, at dawn, as we were packing for our final morning, that blessing of descending desert song – joyful and robust.

A week with a friend, on an outstanding piece of river, away from the hubbub and politicking that distracts, embedded deep in silence, and once again making a boat sing through miles of green current.

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Retirement Theme

Ah, the reluctant blogger returns. It has been a while, and things have been happening, so that partly explains my absence.

Last May I gave notice that I wouldn’t be returning to teach at Montana State University. It felt like a big step, first to edge into retirement (at least partial) and second to lose teaching, which has been a fulfilling role. I knew when I pulled the plug that I’d miss that. But you have to make the leap at some point, and I’d rather do it when I’m healthy enough to make something of it. So the leap has been made, with some measure of trepidation.

At some point this past summer it occurred to me that I’d planned river trips every month from May through August. It just happened that way, but I started wondering about making a monthly river journey the theme for this first year of semi-retirement. So far I’m making good (6 months in), and it’s already quite a memorable medley. Here’s the lineup so far, and some hints for what’s ahead.

May: My annual stitching together of the entire East Gallatin River, from source to confluence – a tradition that goes back some 35 years now. In addition, the continuation of the 3 Rivers tradition over Memorial Day, during which a gaggle of friends take on three rivers over three days. This year’s highlight was the lower section of Grasshopper Creek, from Bannack State Park to the Beaverhead River, a true leap into the unknown, and quite memorable for that.

June: On the way to a family reunion in Pt. Townsend, Washington, we floated the Grande Ronde River in NE Oregon with friends. I’d done the river before, but Marypat never had, and we had a sweet week all the way to the Snake, punctuated with flashes of Bullock’s oriole along the way.

July: A friend got lucky and scored a permit on the Main Salmon in Idaho. It’s the kind of invitation you don’t turn down, so we joined onto a group of 9 to run the rapid-filled stretch of high desert river for a week in mid month.

August: Finally, we returned to the far north on an expedition down the Mountain River, a degree or two south of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories. A spectacular 3 weeks through massive wilderness, stunning canyons, myriad wildlife, fun whitewater and a quadrant of northern water wilderness we’d never explored before. All the better for the fact that we were joined by Ruby, Sawyer and their friends.

September: I set off on a solo jaunt to the lower Yellowstone River in Montana to make good on my long-stated goal of drifting down sections of the river with the sole purpose of collecting pretty rocks (agates and petrified wood). It was also an opportunity to dive into the vagabond life, living and camping out of our trailer. Returned with a box of rocks it will take a year to tumble!

October: A glorious fall week spent floating the Desolation and Gray Canyon section of the Green River in Utah with a group of six good friends. Brilliant cottonwoods, pleasant weather, and a series of life stories shared around evening fires.

So there, six months in the books and six more to come. Here’s what I’m thinking:

November: A week on the San Juan River in southern Utah with my good friend and best man, Grant Herman. Will we get another dose of fall beauty or a taste of winter??

December: I’m meeting my brother, Craig, for a week on the water in northern Florida, probably paddling the Suwannee River.

January: Still a bit uncertain, but I’m leaning toward time spent dabbling in the waters of the lower Colorado in southern Nevada/Arizona.

February: 10 days on the Rio Grande in Big Bend, Texas with friends, concentrating on the three main canyons between Lajitas and Rio Grande Village.

March: A little unclear, but I’m looking hard at the upper Gila River in New Mexico, with hopes that Marypat can join up for that one.

April: Hard to say, from here, but by then, water is opening up again, and rising . . . lots of options.

And that makes a year of river trips. Who knows, maybe I’ll just keep the string going.

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Sanctuary

Over the winter months we rise in the dim dawn and sit together in the living room. No lights, across from each other, coffee in hand. Often we don’t talk. We each greet the day in our fashion, let the gray light creep into the sky. Feel the house around us, seventy years old, a stolid little block of a structure which, over the decades, we have transformed, bit by bit, to our liking. Where all three of our kids were born and grew into who they have become. Surrounded by our pictures and art, our books and maps, our precious rocks and artifacts, the urns with ashes of our parents. Sometimes we discuss the day, or our concerns and discoveries, more often we let the early silence be.

In the summer, once the snow melts and the grass greens and the flowers burst out with color. When the lilacs send their fragrance into the air. When western tanager and lazuli bunting visit, we are drawn outside in the early brightness. We sit in our chosen spots – a chair at the top of the back steps under the lilac branches, or a seat by the fire ring under the old green ash, or on a decrepit old metal lawn chair set hidden in the aspen grove we planted nearly 30 years ago. There, back near the bowling alley parking lot, two blocks from the cacophony of Main Street, we are surrounded and buffered. The leaves rustle in the first breezes of the day. The walkway we made from scavenged railroad plates, now covered by a soft carpet of creeping thyme, the bird bath Sawyer made in a ceramics class, the stone arch adorned with agates and petrified wood. Where chickadees hop in the branches, bight and attentive.

There, with the hum of a highway in the distance, an airplane heading for the airport overhead, the thunder of a passing train half a mile away, with the press of growth and money and greed and distraction more insistent every season; we sit, coffee in hand, and let the peace of this rectangle of space embrace us – its history, its hard work, its stubborn will to flourish, its memories.

We talk, often, of how to move on, whether to stay, bemoan the changes happening inexorably around us. More and more it feels like a defensive space, a place to retreat to from what our town is becoming. And yet, every morning, winter and summer, greeting each day, it is sanctuary and peace and the satisfaction of our lives here, year on year, all that has happened. Our place.

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Grasshopper Creek

Five years now this tradition of Memorial Day paddling has gone on. Every year, we pick three rivers, many of them only floatable for a brief interlude each summer, and a group of us go paddle them, camping between. Fifteen stretches of water now, from Belt Creek to Silverbow Creek. Years of sunshine and rain, logjam and rapid, low water and high, surprises and revelations. Most of all a tradition that highlights good companionship, aging boaters, and the celebration of spring – all of it without anyone micro-managing any of it. Show up, be prepared, take part in whatever suits you, and have fun.

The most memorable segments of water have tended to be the ones we know least about – places like the St. Regis River, over by the Idaho border, which we knew from what you can glimpse from the interstate highway at 70 mph, or Silverbow Creek, which we had heard had been done, but which offered nothing in the way of specifics.

This year it was Grassbopper Creek that had marquee billing in the hit parade of unknown flows. My brother-in-law, Andrew, who lives in nearby Dillon, Montana, mentioned the stream once this winter when we were visiting for a ski day. “What about Grasshopper Creek?” he asked, innocently. What about it? Later, in early April, I drove over to do a little scouting. I pulled into Bannack State Park to have a look. Sweet, purling stream, winding down between greening banks, with enough water to float a boat, a canyon looming downstream. I talked to a maintenance guy at the park about it. He shrugged. “Could be pretty,” he said. “There’s a nice canyon or two. Nope, never heard of anyone floating it.”

I went down to the take-out, a fishing access site just upstream of the Grasshopper’s confluence with the Beaverhead River. There was a private road leading to the actual Grasshopper Creek, but it was blocked off and looked ominously private, not to mention clogged by a thorny thicket of brush to whack through even if you could take out. Still, the creek was there, flowing into the larger river with enough water for a boat. I could peer upstream into green valleys, see a bend or two. Looked promising, at the start and finish. Problem was, absolutely no information about what lay between. No doubt there would be a crux or two, some obstacles, fences, ranch bridges, maybe a drop or bouldery constriction, even a falls. Hard to say. Still, intriguing, the unknown of it, and it looked pretty. More than anything, the lure of that frontier, a bit of Montana country no one seemed to know anything about, that we might float through and see firsthand.

Then it was Sunday morning, May 26, about 10 a.m. The gaggle of us lined up on the bank of the creek next to the campground with our blue flotilla of inflatable canoes. Cool weather, with thunderstorms predicted. My orientation briefing was brief indeed, and pretty much amounted to “we have no idea what the fuck we’re getting into.” We knew the beginning and the end. We knew we would have to slog a couple hundred yards up the Beaverhead from the confluence. We knew there were a couple of narrow canyons. We knew that, as the crow flies, the section was 11 miles long. We knew that there were a great many bends making it longer than that. And we knew there was no time like the present.

A few onlookers watched us slide through the park, under a couple of foot bridges, curious, probably thinking we knew what we were doing. In fact, we had no more clue of what was coming than John Wesley Powell did around every corner of the Grand Canyon. Then the park was in the rearview and the first canyon rose above the tight coil of river. Within the first 30 minutes we were in and out of the boats at boulder gardens, avoiding overhanging brush, and not avoiding it. There were traffic jams of boats clogging at impasses, bow and stern conversations at high volume, and a fair amount of giggling from the younger set. Past the first couple of miles of tight valley, the river flattened out, became serpentine. At every corner boats had to resist the brushy outside bends. Some were better at this than others. Even in slow current, there was no down time to lie back and relax. You could barely clean your glasses without getting in trouble.

I don’t remember the sequence, but there was a dead cow tangled in fencing and an impalement on a rusty nail, a couple of funky low bridges at ranch roads we had to portage around, a barbed wire fence or two, a couple of wobbly moose calves with moms getting across the flow. There were thunderstorms, some hard, with close stabs of lightning. Some sunny interludes which allowed for a lunch stop and general regrouping. There was one capsize in a thicket of vegetation, some shredded clothing, three or four lost hats, at least one cauliflower ear.

After lunch, the second canyon stretch, this one with looming cliffs and beautiful corners of rock, followed by another hairball bit of riffly water with more rocks than water and corners that we had to take on faith. Than another doldrum section of winding, slow, but nonetheless challenging corners. As someone said, “this river has Class I – II whitewater, but Class IV – V vegetation!” Just as we were wondering how long the slow bends would continue, the river canted downhill again, entered a narrows of willows, log jams, boulders. Everyone woke up, every boat for itself, navigating logs, riffles, willows, fast corners, and the uncertainty of what was coming. By now it was maybe 6 pm. We knew we had a ways to go. We were tired and whipped. And we knew that the worst could still be ahead.

When we finally pulled under the private bridge to the Beaverhead, the evening light was slanting across the valley. We’d been 9 1/2 hours on the water, the eleven miles had morphed into better than 22, and we still had the upriver slog to get to the cars.

Finally, at the take-out, an explosion of stories from the day, the relief of being done, having survived. Some tokes of rum. Hugs and handshakes. Laughter. And the new knowledge of this little quadrant of Montana, a square of map with a squiggle through it, that hardly anyone knows, but that we all now share indelible memories steeped in hilarity, scramble, near-miss, exhilaration. This secret spot, like so many other backwater bits of landscape in a place like Montana, where water flows, where moose browse, where what’s around the corner has the magic and heat of mystery and danger.

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Takin’ A Walk

Less than a block from my front door I run into a neighbor, clumping down the sidewalk in one of those surgical boots. He tells me he’s had three foot surgeries in the past year, and that now his entire foot below the ankle has been fused.”Might have made my last tele turn,” he says.

Two blocks further along, I stop in to see a friend who recently slipped on some slickrock on a side hike from the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. He fell about ten feet into a shallow pool, landing hard on his heels and ripping both of his quadriceps tendons off of his patellas. He was evacuated and is now gimping around straight-legged with the aid of a walker, fighting off depression, and looking at a prolonged recovery.

I walk on, roaming the streets and trails around town for a couple of hours. Recent snow coats the greening grass. Creeks are coming up, still clear and cold. Willow branches glow with an almost shocking neon yellow-green of the season. Chickadees sing their two-note song. Red-winged blackbirds breee in the wetlands. A nuthatch sounds that nasal honk. The winds gust from the east, strong and bitter, despite the sunny morning. Frayed cattails nod in the breeze. Everything has an air of pent expectancy.

No phone. No earbuds. Just in my head, meditating to the cadence of my steps, thoughts roaming and fitful and spontaneous. More than anything, grateful that all I have to complain of is being blind in one eye, deaf in one ear, with some fitful back pain and knobby feet.

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Rain

What is it about a rainstorm that draws me out the front door onto the porch to watch it wash down? It pelts the road like buckshot, gathering, rivering, heeding gravity into streams and pools. Everything glistens and moves and shakes under the life-giving assault. It pours off of the roof, down gutters and spouts, cascading through chains, into barrels, into the newly breathing spring earth where roots wait and stir. The yard goes from brown to green in two days. The bowling alley roof, flat and pitched to drain at one corner, pours a small Niagra spout – relentless, prodigious, wasteful – splattering onto oily, gritty pavement. Criminy, what you could do with a cistern there!

All night it pours and drizzles and mists. We leave the window open to the dripping, the soft splash, the porous, waiting earth receiving. Simply receiving.

This morning, Easter, that most pagan day, that most pagan of passages, we sit together outside by a fire of sage and prunings from our yard. It is still dripping. The mountains are clothed in mist. Yellow flames, candles, bread, colored eggs. The chickadees we think are nesting in the crab-apple tree out front call. A robin, pedestrian and robust as ever. The resident mallard waddles toward the birdfeeder where it picks through scattered seeds. We sit together in the quiet drizzle and talk of cycles, rhythms – the moon, the water, the tides, the seasons, birth and death and every breath, in and out. Around us, the rain continues, the earth opens to it, accepting, drinking, coming alive.

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Spring Break Retirement Tour

Marypat and I were trying to figure how many times we’d gone to Utah over spring break. Has to be 15-20 since the early 80s. Canyonlands, Grand Gulch, Dark Canyon, Green River, Colorado River, San Juan River, Dirty Devil River, Natural Bridges, Ruby and Horsethief Canyons of the Colorado, and I’m forgetting some. Sort of a tradition, you’d say, and a testament to our motivation to escape the tyranny of the snow shovel by mid-March in Montana (especially this year when we had big dumps and super cold temps in late Feb and early Mar).

This time was different. First off, we went right through Utah to Nevada, Arizona and California. Second, we took on really different adventures. And unexpectedly, it turned into a survey of various approaches to retirement adopted by friends and family.

As for the adventures, the Black Canyon of the Colorado was our main destination. I’m chagrined to admit that I’ve always sort of assumed (from a paddler’s perspective) that the Colorado River might as well end at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. After that it runs the gauntlet of endless reservoirs, petering out as it goes, until, by the time it crosses into Mexico, it barely registers as a river, and never reaches the sea. That tragic depletion and truncated flow has never held any attraction . . . until our friends Jeff and Molly suggested a couple of days on the river below Hoover Dam, outside of Las Vegas. We couldn’t think of a good reason not to go, and the pull of the warm desert was, as always, irresistible, so off we went.

Which is where the retirement tour began. We rolled up to Jeff’s campsite near Lake Mead and found them relaxing beneath some desert shrubs outside their travel van. Over the next couple of days, including our time together on the river (which was surprisingly pleasant and entertaining), we got a dose of Jeff and Molly’s equation for life at/near retirement. Their pop-top van carries a kayak and bikes, and is outfitted with everything a couple needs to live on the road – bed, shower rig, kitchen, frig, heat . . .Jeff isn’t a huge fan of northern winter, while Molly is, so Jeff spends a good portion of every cold season knocking around the southwest. He has an innate curiosity, so he’s always chatting people up, finding out about local scenery, good camps, bits of interesting history, bike trails, whatever. Because he is self-contained, he can park at a nice spot, explore various trails, put his boat into whatever water is available, and generally explore.

“I usually get out and do some activity for 3-4 hours,” he says. “Then I read, maybe I write, generally follow my nose to whatever seems interesting. Not a bad way to spend time.”

Indeed.

Over the years, Jeff has developed an informal, mental-map web of sweet camps, bike trails, water to paddle and historical points of curiosity from west Texas to Oregon. Some of the time he joins up with friends and family to do things, as he did with us. His penciled-in calendar is pretty robust. Other times he’s on his own. Some times Molly comes down to join him, or he’ll head north to visit Montana. The result is a rich tapestry of geography that he has managed to make personal, from redwood groves to creosote desert flats, from the headlands of Oregon to the canyons of the Rio Grande. He doesn’t spend much money, travel is variable and absolutely prone to the seduction of a whim (doing a Christmas Bird Count?? Sure, I’m in!), and he embraces a pace that encourages reflection, demands exploration, and nudges him toward easy interactions.

After our time on the river (which was full of hot springs, waterfowl, full moon nights and easy paddling) we spontaneously met my cousin, Jim, from L.A., and his partner, Patti, to revel in this spring’s stupendous flower bloom in California. We found each other in Joshua Tree Park, and in addition to walking through unbelievable fields of poppies, flowering ocotillo and acres of multi-hued bloom, we were introduced to their newly built-out van, a used, Sprinter-type vehicle that someone in their neighborhood customized for them to vagabond out of. They are new to the gig, but we got a dose of van life and their hopes to wander new country, explore off-the-radar tracts of public lands, and find their own equation of entertainment, social outlet, personal time and stimulation.

From flower intoxication, our route headed back to southern Utah, where we spent a day with our friends Doug and Sunny, who had spent the winter renting a house outside of St. George. Not only did they spend the winter months there, the experience has totally seduced them. They were looking to buy a place of their own, so they could split the year between Montana summers and southwestern winters. They reveled in the many bike and hike trails in the country down by Zion National Park, the Virgin River and Snow Canyon. Doug was probably putting in 20 hours a week on the pickle-ball courts, and Sunny was loving the yoga classes. The morning hike we took with them to an overview at the top of Snow Canyon revealed the horizon-spanning potential of landscape to explore all around them.

By the time we rolled back into our still-snowy driveway, 10 days and a couple of thousand miles on, we were both mentally busy with the potential future of travel and lifestyle, using our little T@B trailer, that presents the next frontier of life. Knock on wood . . . right? Stay tuned.

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Mary Oliver

We’ve lost Mary Oliver; her pure and rampant voice comprised of simple observation, curiosity, and a kind of rapture based on wonderment. Not surprisingly, she said it best.

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn:
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

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Must Be Winter in Montana

This past Friday I decided to go paddling. We hadn’t seen snow in a couple of weeks, the temps were topping out in the high 30s and low 40s.Skiing around town was crusty and thin. I invited a friend I’d long wanted to paddle with. We’ve known each other for years through various tangents. He’s a kindred spirit of northern paddling adventures. We have mutual friends. And, because he works for Yellowstone National Park, he’s out of work due to the tragic, pathetic government shutdown that is daily harming millions of Americans because of a non-existent crisis.

We met in my driveway after breakfast. I’d been out pouring boiling water over the bow and stern lines of the canoe to get them unfrozen from the ground. We wore winter boots, paddling mitts, long underwear. It was sunny and cold. On the way to our put-in on a stretch of the East Gallatin River that is fed by spring creeks and tends to stay ice free with enough water to paddle all winter, we drove under the sharp gaze of a majestic golden eagle, its tawny head glistening in the winter sun. A good omen.

By mid-morning we were afloat, getting used to each other’s paddling styles, feeling that play of boat hull and swinging current and paddle stroke like the dance it always is. Because we’d never paddled together before, and had only talked sporadically over the years, we chatted most of the time. Not about the shutdown which was hurting his family and disrupting his work, with ripple effects that ranged from completing wildlife studies to whether he would have to draw from his retirement savings to pay bills. No. We talked about northern rivers, about mutual friends, about books we loved, and the local geography that kept revealing new perspectives on the Bridger Range, the Hyalites, the Tobacco Roots, as we swung around corner after corner.

The river did its magic, the way it accelerated around an oxbow curve, or funneled into a deep slick over a shallows. Rough-legged hawks coasted overhead, ducks jumped from the water ahead of us, white-tail flashed through the willows, the sky bathed us in winter light. “I’m a big advocate of putting your head in the sand once in a while,” he said. “You disappear from society, dive into an adventure and forget the bullshit.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about Montana paddling in January,” he laughed, “but this is sweet.”

“Yeah, and there’s the next stretch downstream to think about if the weather stays warm,” I said when we shook hands at the end.

Then, the very next day, early Saturday morning, I met friends to go ski in Yellowstone Park, along the upper reaches of the Gallatin River.

At the Bighorn trailhead, where we snapped into ski bindings, it was -4 degrees. The day was dazzling, almost blinding. The kind of day you could sunburn the bottom of your nose from the reflected glare. The carpet of snow sparkled with diamonds of crystalline light. We struck up the broad, open valley. The river carved its slow way down from its source below Bighorn Pass. The trail had been broken some five miles in. We warmed up, shed layers, the sun warmed the day, the snow settled around us, snowshoe hare tracks bounded here and there, open patches of river gurgled through the vise of winter. Where the broken trail petered out, where deep, sugary snow stopped us, there were bison trails and beds, deep tunnels of heroic effort and brute survival.

Back at the cars, with the sun going behind the ridge and the temperature plummeting, we hugged, chatted about another nearby trail we might ski later in the week.

“Maybe,” I said, “but I could be paddling that day. Let’s see how it goes.”

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Voyages

What do you say when a relative announces that he has an apartment available in Hawaii whenever you want to come visit?

In our case, we said we’ll be there in December, before the Christmas rush. We drove to Seattle – Marypat, Eli and I – and flew on over, landing in Kona, greeted with leis in the tropical evening air by my cousin Al (easy name to remember!). For more than a week, we enjoyed snorkeling with an amazing array of colorful fish, hanging out with sea turtles, being bashed around by surf on boogie-boards, witnessing the amazing wet/dry phenomenon where within a couple of miles you cross from what feels like Arizona to what passes for jungle, eating Hawaiian cuisine (Spam and eggs), hiking to black beaches and surf-beaten headlands, walking across fresh lava flows, visiting farmer’s markets and botanical gardens and 200-foot waterfalls.

Best of all, at this point in my life, was the chance to deepen relationships with relatives who we’ve only recently begun to know, hearing their back story during evening conversations, finding out what makes them tick, how their lives came together, why they live where they do. That is the take-home piece for me, the thing that outshines the usual tourist highlights, this deepened bond with another branch of family.

What also stays with me is the remarkable geography of this outlier state, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and the inescapable background knowledge of that location, surrounded by horizon after horizon of open ocean. First, the rampant isolation of it. But also, the solidity of these islands, rising as much as 13,000′ above the sea in volcanic mounts that are still building themselves, eruption after eruption, lava river after lava river, towering above the deep, sheer skirts of rock rising out of the seafloor far below.

Partway through the visit, we listened to a ranger talk at one of the island parks. She spoke of the first settlers of the islands, some 1,500 years earlier, and the circumstances under which we now surmise they made their way to these islands. They were South Pacific sailors, from Tahiti or one of the other Polynesian Islands roughly 2,500 miles away. They girded themselves for voyages north, assuming from evidence like bird migrations that land existed somewhere out there, and set off in ocean-going vessels that were little more than large canoes with outriggers and sails.

They had nothing besides their abiding knowledge of the ocean – its vast eddies and winds and storms. They had their navigational wisdom based on observations of the stars and sun, currents and trade winds. They carried the most basic foods and supplies. For more than a month they lived and navigated and survived on the ocean, sailing northward. Eventually, they came to what we now call Hawaii, where they landed, they settled, they built culture and organized politics and developed ceremonies. They were among the avalanche of exotic species who have come to these mid-ocean lumps of lava and found ways to live – plants, animals, insects, birds, people – all arriving by some circumstantial quirk to take up residence and wreak various havoc and flourish and compete.

What an unbelievable leap of faith. It begs the question of what desperation, or curiosity, or adventurous urge, led to that launching of boats. It begs the question of how many voyages set out and never returned, never found land, and perished in the quest. It stirs the imagination, these unbelievably daunting voyages and the intrepid confidence or desperate circumstances that fueled them.

It beggars current expedition lore, robust and ambitious as it sometimes is, to consider these oceanic odysseys. It certainly beggars our own voyage, by plane and car, with a waiting apartment and the local knowledge of relatives at the other end with fragrant wreaths of flowers to put around our necks.

What a thing!

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