Little Bubble . . . Big Bubble

“In my personal bubble, I’m doing fine. Pretty good, actually. But when I think outside of my space, when I think about the wider world out there, it gets really depressing. I can hardly go there.”

I’ve been hearing this sentiment a lot. And I’ve been feeling it myself.

In my world, my little personal reality bubble, life is good. As good as ever, really. I have my health (knock wood). I’m not struggling financially. I have my partner and my family for support and company. I have projects and outdoor activities and a sweet daily routine. I have nice neighbors and a solid house and food in the fridge and money in the bank and good books to read and Montana to play in. No complaints. More than that, plenty of reason to be grateful and content. In fact, I said as much to Marypat not long ago. “I think the word that best sums up my state of mind right now is contentment.”

And yet.

Widen the view, pan out, even just a little, and it goes to hell pretty quickly. Obituaries cite Covid-19 as the cause of death for someone local almost every day. Our regional climate is dry and warm and often slightly alarming. Elsewhere it is truly alarming, like, apocalypse alarming. Politics are so far beyond appalling that we have to create new terminology to account for the antics. A few years ago, who would have thought it could get this bad, this crude, this cynically mendacious, this untethered from anything approaching normal? Millions of our brethren are falling through cracks into desperation every day – financial, emotional, nutritional, psychological, physical. And they are left to flounder.

In this existential context, what normally would rise to the level of tragedy gets lost in the immediacy of general emergency. A friend in Bozeman dies suddenly, unexpectedly, too young, and it is quickly obscured by the shitshow in front of us. What might normally constitute a crisis – heart surgery, a cancer diagnosis, jobs lost, a failed marriage, cancelled careers – all of it, no doubt, as personally fraught as ever, is subsumed by the ongoing hurricane of horror.

So I am left with this split-screen duality. I head out for an afternoon ski on sparkling snow, with views of mountain peaks and lovely lodgepole forest glades to glide through. I come home to my partner. We share dinner together. We read books and talk, maybe watch a show. While all around me, as wide as the view can get, things fall apart, lives end every few seconds, politicians play with the survival of masses while they profit corruptly, and another storm/fire/flood hits another part of the world.

I suppose this is a universal tension. Everywhere and in every moment, while one person feels content another faces peril. It has always been so.

As Mary Oliver wrote:

“So many notions fill the day! I give them
gowns of words, sometimes I give them
little shoes that rhyme.

What an elite life!

While somewhere someone is kissing a face that is crying.
While somewhere women are walking out, at two in the morning –
many miles to find water.
While somewhere a bomb is getting ready to explode.”

Yes, only now, that conflict is so heightened, so crushing, so pervasive, that it feels as if those of us who have been spared, the elite, are really just hanging on to the driftwood after a shipwreck, hoping that some, as yet unidentified, rescue will arrive.

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The morning after Donald Trump got elected in 2016, I faced an 8 am college seminar class. Roughly half the class was giddy with the fact that their crazy candidate had somehow gotten himself elected. The other half of the students were saying, “What the hell just happened?”

I suspect they all knew how I felt, but what I said that morning was more or less this. “It doesn’t matter which side you come down on. What matters, going forward, is that you pay attention. That’s your responsibility as a citizen.”

I have no idea how many of those college kids followed my advice. But there is no doubt that I took it to heart. I have spent these past four years obsessively following the news. I didn’t know how bad it would get. I began by just selecting a news outlet and checking in several times a day. Before long, though, as events kept piling up and appalling bits of news emerged, I added talk shows, podcasts, and a medley of news outlets that I’d click through many times a day to see what was happening. The demoralizing thing, and the thing that kept me going, was that I was sadly gratified by my efforts because more and more unbelievable things kept happening almost daily. It was like watching a slow moving train wreck, absolute morbid fascination and horror.

The Trump presidency, and the descent of the country into a tribal, angry, fractious dissolution, has been a terrible, and also addicting, ride. By turns demoralizing, unbelievable, shocking, sickening and unfathomable. How can this be who we are? I found myself asking.

In 2020, when the election was finally called for Joe Biden, the national sense of relief was palpable. That a candidate who spoke complete sentences, had a plan beyond self-interest, cared about other people, spoke about unity and understanding as opposed to division and discord, and who operated within the bounds of norms we have come to expect, was like spring arriving after a brutal winter.

To hear an acceptance speech that was coherent, upbeat, predictable, understandable, even a bit mundane, was a dose of sunshine and laughter. What will come is daunting. It will be contentious. The forces Trump has unleashed are real and threatening. But maybe, at long last, I can let go of the daily need to dive into the ugly vortex of our country going down the drain. It will be a challenge, especially during the transition, but maybe I can return to the days before politics became a reality horror show.

Fingers crossed!

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Team SOAR! Team SOAR!

For 23 days we got more and more deeply into the groove of River Time. Starting on September 7th, seven of us paddling SOAR inflatable canoes launched on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, near its source at Boundary Creek. On September 29th, 5 of us completed the through journey, down the Middle Fork to the Main Salmon, and on down the river to its confluence with the Snake, where we took out at Heller Bar, just upstream of Lewiston, Idaho. All in all, more than three continuous weeks on the river, traveling some 330 miles, down one of the classic waterways in the West.

By the end, the core group of five paddlers had lost the clamor of the outside world, the political insanity, the daily stresses we all face, the distractions and confusions of the current state of the world. Instead we noticed fledgling great-horned owls on a sandbar as evening fell, we scouted and ran intimidating whitewater, we stayed put during rainstorms and held court under a rain fly, we watched a month of moons wax and wane, we watched a black bear on a slope above camp, we talked about our lives and passions, we played cribbage, we remembered times on the same river with our families. We lost the frenzy of life and instead, embedded ourselves in the flow of a great western river that runs free of dams, prone to floods, full of unexpected surprises, as it gathered itself over the miles into the formidable natural force it is.

It was surprisingly easy to pull off. Sure, we had to secure a permit for the Middle Fork a year ahead of time. We had to navigate the permit process virtually due to the virus, we had to figure out the vagaries of a complicated shuttle regime and some food resupply options. We had to figure out how to get rid of poop now and then. All of that went smoothly, aided by a few companions coming and going as we went down the sections of the river.

What stands out is the gathering filaments of water coursing under the hulls of our boats, from a bony shallow flow at the start, to a powerful force by the end. What stands out is the simple and profound satisfaction of running a river from top to bottom without a break. What stands out is the simple pleasure of sharing that sort of adventure with companions who are competent, spirited, flexible, humorous, careful, honest, upbeat, and true.

The most common refrain we heard from people we saw along the way was, “Wow, that’s epic! I’ve always wanted to do that.” Our response . . . well, then, get going. It’s not that hard. And it’s totally worth it.

As with all worthy river journeys, ideas for future major trips were hatched along the way, so stay tuned. At the take-out at Heller Bar, the 5 of us joined in a messy group hug. “It’s been a while since I got to the end of a really long trip and felt like it was still ending too soon,” I said.

The only down side was that Marypat and I picked up the first presidential debate on our way home. We lasted about 10 minutes before we had to turn off that abomination. And we very nearly turned the car around and headed back for more river time!

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Through the Fog

Everything feels hazy these days, like the smoke-filled skies of Montana lately. Whatever we do, going about our lives, is overhung with the pall of uncertainty, tainted by an air of anxiety. We all keep going, because what else are you going to do, but nothing feels clear, nothing feels unburdened. While we make decisions, take leaps of faith, think about the future, whatever is left of our democracy is chipped away, corruption of public figures goes on in plain sight, normal assumptions of behavior are turned upside down, and predicting the surprises that lurk down the road is a blindfolded crapshoot. One day I can easily imagine our country becoming as corrupt and morally bankrupt as any banana republic on earth. The next I see a glimmer of hope that we might turn the corner and re-establish some semblance of a country and culture we can flourish in and be proud of. Never has the cliche, anything could happen, seemed more apt.

But we keep going, count our blessings, assume that a future we can accept will emerge out of this fog of disheartening circumstance. For Marypat and me the single most profound change is that we have actually pulled the trigger on our long-threatened move out of Bozeman. We had been working toward that decision for the past year – working with a realtor, sprucing up the house, filling up a storage unit, getting ready. Then Covid came along. Given circumstances, we put things on hold for a couple of months. I began thinking that we might want to put things off until fall. Then I talked to our friend Jake about it. He shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he said. “If it were me, I’d be pretty leery of what’s coming down the road this fall with the election, the economy, the virus. If things look good now, I think I’d go for it.”

It had the ring of truth. Who knows what things will look like in the fall? We pushed forward with our plans. Anyone who makes light of moving from a home after 30 years of making it ours, raising our kids, building a community of friends and neighbors, either doesn’t have a clue or isn’t doing the work. It is an excruciating, laborious, disheartening, anxious process. In our case, after months of incrementally preparing for the big leap, it all happened in a rush.

Suddenly the house was ready. Our realtor scheduled a photo shoot of the property, put it on the market the next day, and told us to leave town. “Come back at the end of the weekend and we’ll look at offers,” she said. “Yeah right,” I thought.

Well, she was right. Within 24 hours we had 5 offers. 3 days later we were under contract. A month later we were homeless. For the past year or more we’ve been weighing different places to move next. We also considered being vagabonds for a while. We looked at NE Oregon, various towns in Montana.

Over July 4th weekend a realtor in Butte, Montana sent us a listing in town that we’d looked at previously, liked, and that had unexpectedly come back on the market. The next morning we drove over, pulling our trailer behind us. We put in an offer and went camping for the weekend. That strategy of making a move and then leaving town seems to do the trick. By the end of the weekend we were under contract. Suddenly we were hitched to another community, more house projects, and the other laborious half of making a move – the moving in part. In early August we made it official, moved to our new home town, and started getting settled.

It’s an emotional roller-coaster, filled with moments of doubt, but every day feels better as we meet people, explore new trails and terrain, become familiar with the contours and quirks of our new house and the neighborhood that surrounds it. The other day I was driving down W. Platinum, our new street, with the window down and sneezed. “Bless You!” someone yelled from their front yard. This town’s alright, I thought.

More to come on our transition. As for the future, who the hell knows!? Anything could happen . . . right?

And stay tuned for my September on the Salmon report. We will be paddling top-to-bottom from the Middle Fork to the Snake during the entire month!!! Maybe that will clear the fog.

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The 3 Rivers Tradition in these Viral Times

It’s tempting to just give in. These times are so strange and fraught that it’s easy to just put things off, cancel, wait for the next shoe to drop. I wasn’t sure how to handle this year’s Memorial Day, 3 Rivers challenge, the sixth. I had a slate of rivers I’d picked out months ago, a loose plan, because loose plans are always best, for how to pull it off. But then . . . this all happened and I was teetering on hitting the pause button, putting it off for a year, picking up again when whatever passes for normal down the road becomes clear. About then Scott Gill weighed in with a suggestion.

“What about just doing three day trips from town and not camping?” he asked.

What about it? And why didn’t I think of that?

It isn’t as if we don’t have a handful of river sections close to home that make good candidates. I started thinking that through, put out an email to gauge interest. Another person in the group suggested that we pick rivers with bicycle shuttles so we wouldn’t have to share the confinement of shuttle vehicles together. That seemed reasonable. That limited the choices.

Eventually I came up with some likely suspects, including my old favorite, the East Gallatin, because most of the group had never done it and the sweetness of sharing that river with friends was irresistible. Still, the usual balancing act ensued, juggling water levels, weather conditions, difficulty, the right blend to make it challenging enough, different enough, engaging enough.

What shuffled together in the end was a trio of floats within a two hour drive from town – the Boulder River of the Jefferson drainage, my favorite section of the East Gallatin, and the seasonal stretch of the main Gallatin from the Yellowstone Park boundary to Red Cliff campground. The first morning it snowed in Bozeman, but the Boulder looked like it would be better weather. The conditions made everyone question the bike shuttle wrinkle, and folks figured out how to combine with family or friends they had already been in contact with. Based on that ingenuity, for the remainder of the weekend, bikes shuttles were scuttled.

The Boulder had that hidden gem, off-the-radar quality. Hardly anyone floats it. The paddling window is a few weeks long. The section we paddled leaves the road and descends through a pretty valley with tight corners, occasional snags, a low bridge to portage, a dramatic diversion dam to line. The weather cooperated – cool and gray but dry. Everyone stayed upright and entertained. Because we’ve all been distanced and cooped up lately, the best part of the time was a shore lunch full of catch-up conversations. We ended up with a few miles on the Jefferson, running at a good clip, to the take out.

The East Gallatin was next, and I’ve written more than enough about the qualities of that watershed, so I won’t go there. Suffice it to say that I ushered a group of locals into the select company of the East Gallatin Fan Club. The day turned beautiful. We lounged through another lengthy lunch full of good conversation, and there was plenty of dodgy challenge on the tight corners, narrow passages, snaggy deadfall to keep us on our toes. Part way along someone said, “I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve lived here as long as I have and had no idea this was here!” And again, everyone stayed dry and happy.

On Monday we tackled the upper Gallatin River, from the shallows coasting past the Yellowstone Park boundary sign, to the miles of constant rock-garden rapids below, again past familiar landmarks and country, but with people who hadn’t ever probed this far up. And you guessed it, good company, boisterous fun, constant maneuvering, and a distanced gathering in the campground at the end to savor the interlude of community.

So, some things continue, slightly tweaked to adapt, but continue nonetheless. The tradition lives – six years and eighteen stretches of water in the books, and no intention of stopping there.

In fact, since the water is up, the energy keeps fueling more outings. Just yesterday a group of us took on lower 16-Mile Creek, another watershed hardly anyone goes down. A watershed that is such an unbelievable gem of limestone canyon, brilliant green spring color, a black bear watching us coast past, a few interesting moments in the water, all shared with good friends, family, and the blessing of this spring landscape rising up in defiance of the insanity we’re living through.

The take home lesson? Don’t give in, adapt, and persevere. Keep those paddles in the water and eyes on the next bend.

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Mother’s Day

It is familiar, these local outings on the East Gallatin River. Every spring for 35 years I’ve done all or some of this small stream that runs fresh and boisterous for a month or two each year. We’ve already done the first link a few weeks earlier, a sketchy two-hour run on the outskirts of town, full of surprises. We had to hop out of the boats and pull around obstacles six or seven times in a few miles.

This day, Mother’s Day, in the midst of the uncertainties of life in the time of Covid, we talk Eli into joining us in a solo canoe. The river is up. The day is cool but pleasant. Everything in the valley is greening, budding, birthing, bursting with the season, while in the distance, the mountain ranges are still coated with white, cloaked in clouds.

It is as familiar as a local dog walk, but every year it is different. Around the first corner, a channel that opened up last spring is closed again. We sweep wide around a bend, dodge past a side channel blocked with a beaver dam. The eddies are deceptively strong, boils bloom up on the surface, pushy and treacherous. Eli switches to a kayak paddle for more stability. Marypat and I keep our paddles in the water, ready to brace, paddle hard to avoid sweepers and overhanging shrubbery. Just a few bends down a bull moose looks up at us from the bank, antlers just budding out, grazing in a stand of willows.

We settle in. The view switches from farm fields to golf course greens to mountain ridges. Geese flap away, drawing us from their nests. Sandhill cranes, belted kingfisher, killdeer, pelicans, red-tailed hawks. It is challenging, fast, tricky, really fun. We dive through a small diversion dam, pick our way past snags, edge around corners, ready for surprise, ram through a narrow gap in a log jam. About halfway, we stop on a gravel bar for snacks and a hot cup of tea. It is sweet to share this day with Eli, and it makes Marypat’s day.

Almost done, within sight of our car, a tree blocks the entire river. We pull in above, ready to drag around, but realize that a short haul to the road avoids the whole mess, so we go to Plan B. Same old changeable but constant river, strange new human world, a reminder of what’s going on all around us, and despite us.

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April – Homecoming

April, this final month in a yearly round that has stretched from just south of the Arctic Circle to the Mexican border, from deep wilderness to manicured flows, from nearly a month in length to only a few days, from solo outings to shared adventure . . . this month felt like a home coming. It also feels deeply satisfying, in a time where so little is certain or predictable or normal. Just to get one in feels like an accomplishment.

It was a home coming because it was close to home, the put-in only a two hour drive away. Sawyer drove us down to Twin Bridges, helped us unload, and did our shuttle. It was home coming because I shared it with my partner in life, my partner in boats, Marypat. It was a kind of home coming in that we took in an entire watershed, the Jefferson River, from source to mouth, and ended up 30 miles from our driveway at the confluence of the three great rivers that make up the Missouri. It felt like a return in other ways, too, a return to the way we started out boating together – in open, loaded tandem canoes. We added Beans, our three-legged, eighteen-year-old dog into the mix.

We took our time. The trip is just under 100 miles, but this time of year, the flow is clipping along at 6-7 miles an hour. We took it in five days, surrounded by the pelicans and sandhill cranes, the black-necked stilts and avocets, the soaring eagles and osprey, accompanied by the ceaseless spring clamor of Canada geese. It is a route that flirts with ranch roads, diversion dams, borders highways, goes under the interstate. It is a mark of ‘river time’ that all of that civilized clutter went away, evaporated. If we’d gotten in trouble, no one would have saved us. The people in houses overlooking the river had no connection to our camps in the willows, with flocks of pelicans coasting in to an eddy and urgently herding fish, or with the night sky with a crescent moon and bright planet, with the schussing river gliding past, rolling downhill.

For five days we escaped the surreal world of insane politics, fear of death, economic woes, and no firm sense of the future. We rode the timeless currents, shared the boat together as we have for almost 40 years and thousands of miles now. We pampered our old dog, carried him around camp, let him sleep with us in the tent. We let the sun rise, shared coffee, played cribbage, read books, watched birds. The river bore us along, heeding gravity in its endless, seamless way, allowing us to ride its back.

Homecoming. Cycles. Seasons. A shared life full of current and canoe hulls and campfires, silence and companionship, support and challenge, comfort. This year is through, but it doesn’t feel like closure.

Rivers are rising everywhere, beckoning. The boat waits. What’s so sacred about a year anyway? Maybe we should make it two . . .

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March . . . Solace

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!

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A Place to Escape the World

For 12 days we disappeared. Poof. No news, no people, no air traffic, no light pollution, no distraction. Big Bend, Texas is big, empty, mysterious, evocative country. The Lower Canyons, downstream of the National Park boundary, are all of that on steroids. Four of us gathered in Terlingua the night before, arriving from long drives, and reshuffled for launch. Our shuttle driver dropped us off below the bridge a La Linda and drove away. We entered the quiet.

Three paddling friends from Montana and Arizona – Doug, Jeff, Lee – joined me on this leg of my year-long string of river trips. We had first planned on paddling the border of the park and gliding through the three major canyons and the open lands between (known locally as the Great Unknown), but the water was too low. Lower down, springs bolster the current and the river is almost always runnable. We shifted plans accordingly, and gave ourselves an ocean of time to do it in (Marypat and I paddled the same section in 5 days a few years back).

The result was a relaxed pace. Some days we went nowhere, but instead, explored canyons, climbed ridges, walked trails, chilled in camp. Other days we eased down six or seven or eight miles, found an enticing spot, and stopped. We played quite a lot of cribbage. We got some rain, some wind, some cool temps, some heat. We ran rapids, lined rough spots, portaged once, passed dead cattle, live cattle, audads (exotic game animals gone wild), bighorn sheep, javalina, turtles, birdlife.

The relaxed pace reinforced the sense of living there rather than passing through driven by a schedule. Just taking what came our way, responding to it, waiting things out or relishing them. There were signs of immigrant crossings – a handline stretched across the river, inner tubes with ropes tied to them, piles of clothing, old camps. That people had made their way to that remote crossing, through inhospitable desert, with the intention of crossing the border and facing yet more miles of inhospitable, unknown, treacherous landscape on the US side, gave the lie to the claim that they are frivolously storming the border to take advantage of Americans. What desperation must fuel such attempts – ill prepared, carrying children, through a landscape harsh beyond words.

Even more than places like the Grand Canyon, where another dimension certainly takes over, but where other people pass by, where bureaucracy nags with its whims, where the hype of the place jockeys against its undeniable awe, the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande truly are a portal into another reality. There, the human-dominated world fades completely and what takes over is the ripple of current, the rise of full moon over a limestone canyon, the call of a red-tailed hawk or canyon wren, the austere, heart-swelling view of oceanic desert from a high point and the timeless, patient turn of planet, carrying our sorry, insignificant asses along for the ride.

Good company, easy pace, no downside. I just wish I’d won more at cribbage!

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Making Our Way

Heading south on the two-lane between Needles, California and Quartzite, Arizona, pulling my little camper trailer and listening to a fading radio station, I see a figure. Someone walking along the edge of the road. Not hitchhiking, carrying nothing, wearing a hoodie. Where the heck are they going, I think. Where did they come from? What’s the backstory? I am miles and miles from anything remotely town-like. Haven’t seen a side road or any sign of a house in a long time. Dry, forbidding desert to the rim of vision – creosote, ocotillo, distant barren mountains. I pass by, glance in the rear view. A man walking, head down, on his way somewhere.

It puts me in mind of the coyote I saw along the upper end of Topock Gorge of the Colorado River the day before. I was paddling the river in a solo canoe, had it to myself. It is a section of water that can be crammed with fishing boats, jet skis, weekend warriors, but not this day. Just me and the faint current and the tortured, jutting, volcanic rock. And there alongside, a coyote quietly padding along shore, paying me no mind, on its way somewhere. Or the beaver I saw earlier, rippling the water near shore under an elevated gas pipeline, doing whatever it is beavers do of a morning. Or the osprey perched on the high span of a highway bridge, studying the slow opaque river far below.

I am no different, beetling along under the winter sun, on my way to the next bit of water that beckons to my canoe hull, angling for places to park for the night. No different, except that I am buffered by my vehicle from the exposure to weather and whims of nature, by a jug of water and cooler full of food and phone close at hand. By the credit card in my back pocket, a piece of plastic loaded with way more information than I care to know, with the power to access fuel and shelter and food and whatever else I might desire. And beyond that, trailing along invisibly like another thing I tow, by money in bank accounts, a safety net of family and friends I can call in a bind, by the blind fortune of my place and time and station of birth.

A couple of days earlier I stopped in the old mining town, now tourist trap, of Oatman, Arizona, along storied Rt. 66, the ‘Mother Road’ as bikers call it. There among the daily drama of main street shoot-outs, rock shops, curio stands crammed with t-shirts and belts and jewelry and worthless trinkets, wild burros roam. They have their way on the streets, wander in and out of stores, get handouts of food, put their heads brazenly into car windows. They reminded me of the homeless stationed at a Wal-Mart, flying their signs – Anything Helps, God Bless. Every night the burros wander back into the desert, wild again, finding their shelter, their water holes, their arid pastures, like the homeless packing up and heading for the highway underpass.

On my way back up Topock Gorge the previous day, paddling to the boat ramp I launched from in the morning, I looked for a likely beach to stop and enjoy a final snack and a cup of tea from my thermos. I headed for a strip of sand, but noticed something dark and out of place. Plastic bag? Pile of garbage? Then it moved, straightened a leg. A man lying there, out of nowhere. I paddled closer. He lifted his head, looked down the length of his outstretched body at me. We studied each other, said nothing. I paddled by, looking for another spot. He put his head back down.

Today I am headed south, toward the border, where the fortunes of birth and circumstance come into sharp, fraught focus, where making ones way through the complicated thicket of life on one side is punctuated by conflict and threat and fear and overwhelming unknowns. Or, on the other, by days sheltered in RV parks, backed by credit and the near certainty that tomorrow will be much like today. All of it determined by an arbitrary line drawn on a political map.

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