It wasn’t for lack of trying.
The logistics for these winter outings have been both fun and daunting. I left my rig and trailer with a cousin in San Diego back in January after my stint on the lower Colorado. I flew home for a few weeks and then back in early February, picked up the unit and drove three days to Texas and the Rio Grande. After the lower canyon interlude along the border, I had almost two weeks to saunter up to Albuquerque, NM. I spent more time in Big Bend country, meeting a friend, taking hikes, soaking up the desert. I drove back roads up to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and spent another couple of days hiking there. Then I moseyed into New Mexico, dawdled through the Bosque del Apache wildlife sanctuary in the company of snow geese, sandhill cranes and migrating ducks, and landed in the driveway of friends where I once again left the rig and flew home. The plan was to return in March with Marypat, join up with the same friends, along with Lee from Arizona, and paddle the Gila River, which had long been on my to-do list.
The day before leaving Albuquerque, on a walk with my friends, we met a couple they knew. I put out my hand, but they refused, offering their elbows instead. Pretty silly, we thought, as we walked on. I flew home not thinking much of the news coming out of China and Italy. In fact, Marypat and I stayed true to the plan until mid-March, a day before our scheduled flight back, when our daughter, Ruby, lobbied for us to avoid the airport and flight exposure. We listened to her. By then a great deal had changed. We took her advice, canceled our tickets, but went to Plan B . . . now we would drive to New Mexico, relax our schedule since no one had anywhere they had to be anymore, float the Gila and make our way back at a reasonable pace, teaming up with both rigs. Perfect, until Kris called from Albuquerque with the news that New Mexico had instigated a 14-day isolation policy for anyone arriving from out of state.
“Who knows how they would enforce that,” she added. “But it seems problematic, and we’re starting to take this social distancing stuff pretty seriously.”
Just like that, the trip hit pause. Then, to make it all moot, Marypat’s 93-year-old mom was taken to the hospital, gravely ill. If we had been driving toward New Mexico, we would have turned around in any case. So there we were. Marypat’s mom was discharged and taken to Marypat’s sister’s house, where she slowly faded, and finally, some six days later, slipped away.
In the face of all this, both globally and personally, my trip-a-month scheme pales in significance. And yet, the impulse to embrace time on the water in remote places remains. It is what sustains me, what refreshes me, what reorders my perspective. At times like these, that looms large.
Several days into the vigil embracing Marypat’s mom, the weather turned to spring. We needed a break. We left Pat in the care of her many other children and spent a day together on the water. We went to a section of the East Gallatin River that is fed by spring creeks and maintains a good flow through the winter months. We set the tandem canoe in the flow, Marypat in the stern, and found the first ‘V’ of current taking us downstream.
For the better part of the day we escaped the shitshow our world has become. We escaped the sad coming of death in the family. We were pulled into the heady grasp of familiar current, the clamor of spring bird noise, the wheeling flocks of ducks overhead, the unmistakable calls of sandhill cranes from the grain fields. We talked, shard impressions, reunited. More important, we let the river take us, felt the spring winds, took in the snowclad mountains that rim the valley, let the world outside of our human drama reassert itself, calm us, pull us along.
Twice more in the month of March I took advantage of warm days to get on the water. I went solo, rode my bike for the shuttles, kept my distance from humanity. I floated lower reaches of the Gallatin drainage, familiar bends of river, to the tune of chattering calls of kingfishers, mink slipping into the river, deer bounding away, hawks overhead, cottonwoods just starting to bud.
It has been, this month, more solace than expedition, these moments on the water, but no less necessary in the face of the uncertainty and fear rising around us in an interlude of disease and political shenanigans.
And then there’s April . . . Stay tuned!