CHAPTER 5: SEPTEMBER – ALL ABOUT AGATES
When I drive out of town on September 18th, pulling our little trailer, solo canoe strapped to the roof rack, a bicycle hanging off the back of the rig, I am wearing bedroom slippers. I merge onto the interstate, head east, aiming for a put-in on the lower Yellowstone River, four hours across the state. It is my first solo jaunt.
Less than a week after our return from the Mountain River, I checked into an orthopedic surgery center and got both of my feet operated on. It was long overdue. For more than 35 years, ever since I was about 30 years old, I have suffered from periodic attacks of gouty arthritis. I was shocked at the diagnosis, way back then. I thought gout was a disease fat French kings got from drinking too much red wine. But no, I too was a lucky winner. When I first went to the doctor trying to explain the out-of-the-blue excruciating episodes of pain and inflammation, it took him about 15 seconds to pronounce me a gout victim. What I’d been rationalizing away as a rock I must have stepped on during one of my runs, or an ankle I’d turned on a hike, was, in fact, that disease of fat French kings who drank too much red wine.
Ever since I’ve variously tried to ignore it, medicate it, try ‘miracle’ cures like drinking cherry juice, and live with it. The only treatment that I’ve found consistently pretty effective has been acupuncture, but while it usually relieves symptoms it doesn’t take away the cause, which is an elevated level of uric acid in my blood. I don’t like lifelong regimens of drugs. And I wasn’t that interested in changing my diet, especially when it came to alcohol.
In a telling chapter of my life, when I quit drinking and also dabbled in a more vegan diet, my gout pretty much went away. I should have paid more attention to that, as it turns out. Western medicine generally says that gout is hereditary and no dietary restrictions really do much. Their solution? Take a pill, for the duration.
For me, the upshot of this scatter-shot approach and years of denial landed me with impressive bunion-like growths at the base of both of my big toes. Large ones. “Wow, those are some Pauls!” friends would say when I revealed my bare togs. They bulged out of the sides of my feet like egg-sized rocks. For the most part they didn’t limit me, and most of the time they didn’t hurt, but eventually it got to the point that I could hardly get my shoes on. I had to buy footwear a size too big and still wrangle my feet into them. I wore out hiking shoes in a matter of months. I was a regular at second hand sports stores buying cheap shoes.
“Shoes are cheaper than surgery,” I kept saying.
But then I finally achieved one of the few benefits of age (along with my national park senior pass) – Medicare! What a concept. I could actually go in and get these monstrous conversation pieces taken care of and not go bankrupt. And, since I’d quit drinking a few months earlier, I hadn’t had an attack.
I met with a foot doc. She was impressed, but confident she could dramatically improve the situation. She suggested doing one foot at a time, but agreed that I could do both at once if I wanted to. I wanted to. We scheduled the surgery with the Mountain River in mind.
Late in August, still fresh from the North, I lay in the recovery room, feet bandaged and mind groggy. I noticed how everyone from the surgical team was so impressed by my specimens. “Never seen anything like it,” they kept saying. “Took a lot longer than we thought. We had to chisel some of that stuff out of there. Wow, those were something!”
When I told my friend, Scott, who is a PA at an orthopedic urgent care in town, about that reaction, his response was, “Yeah, bummer. You really don’t want to be that guy.”
For several days I was pretty home bound, clumping around in Frankenstein-like surgical boots, using a walker. But before long I was getting around pretty well. Not well enough to hit the dance floor at Quinn’s wedding, unfortunately, but still, able to function. The stiches came out of the four-inch incisions after two weeks. For the first time I got to see the damage. The scars are impressive, the bumps largely gone. My big toes angle inward more than I’d like. The joints are still larger than normal due to residual arthritis. I should probably have acted earlier. But there you have it.
By the time I left for the Yellowstone River, I had graduated from the clod-hopper surgery boots into my comfortable slippers. Still hadn’t tried real shoes, but this trip would be the test.
The Yellowstone is my home river, 25 miles away, just over the pass from Bozeman. More than 600 miles long, beginning in the high country of the Washakie Wilderness in northern Wyoming and coursing all the way across southern and eastern Montana on its way to join the Missouri River just over the North Dakota border. My contention is that I have spent more days and nights floating and camping on that river than anyone in history. I have no idea whether that’s right, but I think it’s likely. Sure, there are fly-fishing guides who have floated the river many more days than I have, and William Clark spent weeks going downstream in 1806, but the fact is that very few people camp along the Yellowstone. People go out for the day to run whitewater or flail the current with monofilament, but damn few set up camp and stay. A state of affairs I like just fine.
Marypat and I floated the entire navigable river, some 550 miles, the year after Eli, our oldest, was born. We were in that, children-won’t-change-our-lives period of delusion. Our family and friends questioned our sanity. We were stubborn, and that summer, with 9-month-old Eli barely starting to walk, teething like mad, and chubby as the Michelin-tire-man, we put the boat in below Yellowstone National Park and went downstream for nearly a month.
Half an hour into my drive, I cross the Yellowstone River near Livingston. Here the flow turns east, parallel to the highway, and swings along the southern belly of the state for several hundred miles. By the time it gets here, it has already pooled in Yellowstone Lake, cascaded through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and coursed through the dramatic, mountain-bordered Paradise Valley.
I keep reminding myself that I am pulling a trailer. It’s a necessary mindset, especially being new to this. Every truck I pass, every parking lot I pull into, every turn I make, I am remembering that I have nearly twenty feet dangling behind me.
Seeing the cantering current below the bridge, I return to that summer with infant Eli on board. We may have boasted that life wouldn’t change just because we had a kid in tow, but of course it changed. Whichever one of us was in the bow of the boat was literally tethered to our baby. More often than not, given the demands of a nursing kid, that was Marypat. It meant that, for the most part, I was soloing the canoe, unless I needed help in a rapid. We were determined to use cloth diapers rather than plastic disposables. That meant that diapers that were just wet got repeatedly rinsed and hung to dry on the boat. Those that were soiled we emptied into a ‘cat hole’ just as we deposited our own poop, and collected the dirty diapers in a plastic bag in hopes of finding a riverside Laundromat in a town along the way.
Eli did what infants do. He wanted to nurse urgently and frequently. He slept much of the day. He held himself up by the gunwale, bouncing up and down on his bandy legs, and watched the world full of glinting current and honking geese go past. He gummed dried bananas in a frenzy of teething drool. At night he slept between us, fitfully as any infant. He wanted to put everything he touched in his mouth, from goose poop to sticks. In addition to nursing, he ate the food we ate, ground up in a hand-crank food mill. We soon found that a canoe has a second valuable purpose in camp as a 17’ playpen. The tent, too, lined with sleeping bags, was a handy place for him to play and stay safe. We protected him from camp fires and falls and sharp objects just as we would protect him at home from stairs and table corners and toxic cleansers. If anything, life on the river was less stressful and objectively dangerous than life at home.
Eli also opened our eyes. His experience of moving water, of sand, of smooth rocks or the raucous calls of ravens triggered that first-time wonder in us. We watched him let warm sand trickle between his fingers, or reach his arm through the curtain of a small waterfall, or bounce in time with the waves slapping beneath the canoe. I could think of no better introduction to the world than one filled with current and sky and wind and bird call. We spend a lot of time in our culture getting kids to do math or read their first books. What about feeling a river beneath them? What about lying under a star-stuffed night sky? What about the magic of a cook fire? What about waiting out a hailstorm under a tarp and feeling the icy balls left on the ground in the aftermath? He brought all of that back to us.
So of course it was different to have an infant on board. Harder, slower, more anxious, more labor intensive. Also, full of the bounty and newfound joy that comes with sharing the world with your child. Our world, that one with water running through it.
What we didn’t know until near the end of our month with Eli is that son number two was also along for the ride. We’d been told not to expect success in future pregnancies. We’d endured such a struggle to get pregnant, and Marypat was nursing on top of that. Don’t even think about it, doctors said. But by the end of our time on the Yellowstone, Marypat was feeling uncharacteristically exhausted and she’d missed her period. For a while she didn’t focus on it, and she waited before she said anything, but by the time we got home, she suspected that the docs had been wrong and that she might be pregnant; that the fetal bud inside of her had shared remotely in the river journey, just as Eli had during our pregnant summer in the Far North before his birth.
My slippered drive across Montana parallels the Yellowstone most of the way. I keep glimpsing familiar bends, rapids we’ve played in, sandbars we’ve camped on, tributaries I’ve paddled past, current I remember through the hull of boats. The good news in this theme of monthly journeys is that I get to decide the ground rules for what constitutes a river trip. In August it was a strenuous northern expedition, while September is an easy saunter for a gimp with an eye to rock-hounding, during which I might not paddle 30 miles. A theme like this is full of unknowns like foot surgery and travel snafus. Flexibility is required.
I have long threatened to take a trip on the lower Yellowstone totally devoted to hunting for pretty rocks. I come from a family of fossil collectors, lapidary equipment, rocks on display in gardens and on bookcases. During our month floating with Eli I had plenty of time to stroll the gravel bars in that prayerful posture, picking up agates and petrified wood. We returned from that float quite a lot heavier than we left, thanks to sacks of ‘keepers’. Once back I revved up the industrial-sized rock tumbler and started churning out shiny specimens of moss agate, petrified wood, and ‘agatized’ wood. Friends started calling me Agate Al.
I recruited the kids into the search as they grew up and we continued to take family canoe trips on stretches of the Yellowstone. They developed keen eyes for the translucent sheen of agates and the grain of petrified wood. By the time they were teenagers I hardly had to look anymore. I’d just wait for them to come back, tee-shirts sagging with rocks. The Yellowstone is very satisfying rock hounding territory. This isn’t one of those hunts that requires days and days of patient scouring to unearth a specimen. Downstream of the Bighorn River, along the Yellowstone, the gravel is pocked with agates and wood. It’s rare to get skunked. Our challenge was to cull the more common varieties and only hang on to the really special specimens. Otherwise, we’d sink.
My other quest in life is to find an agate the size of my head. That is still unfulfilled, although we’ve unearthed a couple that come close.
Agates are made of chalcedony, a microscopic-grained form of quartz similar to chert or jasper. They form in pockets of bedrock, most frequently in ancient lava flows and volcanic deposits, where water infiltrates the country rock and leaves behind the chalcedony crystals to fill the empty spaces. The pocket slowly fills, often in visible layers or bands, and in the case of moss agates, the rock is ‘contaminated’ with dark mineral which shows up in feathery, moss-like patterns. The nuggets and nodes of agate eventually are exposed through erosion, freed of their bedrock prison, and they begin to migrate downhill, moved by gravity and water. Once in the flow of the Yellowstone, agates bump along the channel, wash downstream in floods, and wind up on gravel bars where my sharp-eyed children find them. Traveling by canoe, with frequent opportunities to stop and look, is a pretty successful strategy.
My thought, this time, is to make rock hounding the trip’s purpose, rather than a side show to the business of getting downstream. Given the state of my tender feet, this is a perfect opportunity to make good on my promise. It is also a chance to try out the used camper trailer we bought the previous fall with an eye toward a vagabond era of retirement life.
Late afternoon, I pull into the riverside camping area next to the Yellowstone, on the outskirts of Forsyth. My ‘geezer’ Golden Age park pass gets me a campsite for a few bucks. The campground is nearly empty, so no one gets to witness my trailer backing technique. The river slides past 50 yards away, going over a diversion dam with a dull roar. I walk over to the boat ramp. A couple sits on a picnic bench looking over the flow. An aluminum powerboat comes upstream, full of young men and bristling with fishing poles. They angle in to the eddy, slide against the concrete ramp, hop out. The river is low. Gravel bars are exposed. I could start hunting agates immediately, but I want to scout the next day’s outing.
The next fishing access is a dozen or more miles downstream, near the tiny town of Rosebud. Leaving the trailer in camp, I drive the frontage road next to the interstate to look it over. Bike shuttles are an ideal way to paddle solo. They incorporate aerobic exercise into the outing and make for an uncomplicated, inexpensive alternative to hiring a shuttle driver. Problem is, in a place like Montana, finding the right kind of biking roads can be iffy. This one works out. The frontage road is paved and quiet, winding along between interstate and river, dipping into a few drainages like Rosebud Creek, and only turning to dirt for the final half mile leading to the boat access ramp. I note the fact that there is another campsite near the fishing access, also unoccupied, and free.
I detour through the main drag of Rosebud. It doesn’t take long – a public school, a block-long downtown with a post office, bar, and some boarded up buildings. A few blocks of back streets with scattered houses, one or two people out doing yard work or talking. A backwater town abandoned by the highway and railroad and steamboats, a place with a faint pulse and a pace of life both sane and crazy-making, I imagine.
I may own an RV trailer, but I remain a minimalist. Partly it’s due to my incompetence as a handyman. When things go wrong, I’m generally out of luck, so I prefer to keep it simple. Rather than use the water pump and sink, I set a water jug on the counter. Rather than fire up the refrigerator, I pull in the cooler from the vehicle and set it next to the bed. When I stop for gas I fill up a plastic jug with ice at the drink machine and keep the food cold. Rather than deplete the battery running the lights, I set solar lanterns out to charge during the day and hang them from Velcro tabs on the fabric ceiling when it gets dark. The only camper technology I rely on is the propane cook stove, on which I heat a can of soup. That and a salad kit constitute my meal. I rinse dishes outside, set them on the counter to dry, and switch on the solar lamp to write in my trip journal, study river maps and read a short story before I transform the table into a bed and crawl in for the night.
Through the bright full-moon hours I listen to a stereo contrast out the open windows of the trailer. Stereo left, the crescendo of river cascading through the rock diversion dam. Stereo right, the distant hum of traffic going past on the interstate and the occasional moan of train whistle passing through town with a load of coal or new cars or airplane bodies. Nature and civilization, the balancing act I’ve performed most of my life, one that sustains, the other that demands. Not quite that simple, but lying there, listening to both, I know very well which channel resonates and soothes, and which burdens me with challenges and details.
By 8:30 the next morning, fueled up with scrambled eggs and hash browns and a cup of coffee, having left the canoe and paddle gear with the trailer, I’m at the take-out boat ramp ready to saddle up and ride. For the first time in three weeks I ease loose-fitting running shoes on and tentatively walk around. My feet are still tender, but the shoes slide on better than they have in a decade. Satisfied, I leave the rig and start the ride back.
In the hour it takes to return, only a few cars pass me, and they are polite about it. Only one dog gives chase from a ranch yard, but I’m on a downhill stretch and outpedal my attacker. My feet feel pretty good. A second cup of coffee seems in order, once back in camp. I set out a solar shower to warm in the sun, lay the solar light on the picnic table, and drag the 14’ solo canoe through the cottonwoods to the boat ramp, where a man and his two young boys are busy skipping rocks.
Then I am in the canoe, pushing into the current, letting the river take hold down a side channel and on into the main flow. Damn it feels good, like coming home. I let the boat drift. Some geese rise off of the bank and fly overhead. A slight breeze rustles through the cottonwoods. The panorama of eastern Montana spreads in an undulating tawny quilt under fall sky. The river dazzles with shards of light. Town recedes. Everything recedes. The cadence of river takes over. Never mind that I can still see trucks passing on the highway. They exist through the looking glass.
I remember why I am here. The tip of a gravel bar island offers good landing. I turn the bow of the canoe upstream, angle in against shore, carefully climb out, haul the canoe well up, and start my search, head down, finding the cleanest line of river- and rain-washed rock. I lose myself in that slow, meditative cadence, hunting methodically for the dull gleam of agate or the swirling grain of wood turned to rock. I bend down to pick some up, study them, put them in a pocket or drop them back on the ground. Slowly my pockets start to bulge. My thoughts freewheel.
This river brims with memories, familiar as a relative. So many days and nights spent riding its currents and sleeping on its beaches. October weekends when the cottonwoods flared yellow and frost rimmed the water bucket at dawn. May vacations with the kids who swam in the waves, wallowed in mud, built forts out of driftwood. Summer journeys with my aging parents, overnights with friends. Hailstorms and thunder bursts, windstorms and stunning heat, flocks of geese, snow squalls, wild rides through waves, scary moments crossing eddy lines, train whistles through the nights, tranquil dawns by the fire with Ruby coming back with a load of agates to sort for ‘keepers’.
I remember our second descent of the entire river, in honor of Sawyer’s coming of age as a thirteen-year-old. His ‘birth’ river. We coupled another float from Gardiner, Montana to the confluence with the Missouri with a weeklong hike to reach the headwaters of the river in the wilderness of northern Wyoming. On that family hike we backpacked up the South Fork of the Shoshone River, turned uphill to Marston Pass, and climbed the steep flanks of Younts Peak, where the two forks of the Yellowstone make a necklace around that dramatic summit. Just below the peak, we all lay on our bellies to drink from the dripping snowfield that is the literal source of the river. Each of us physically incorporated the frigid, unfiltered water molecules of the new river. The same river we had floated and swam and camped along to its confluence with the Missouri. At the end of the Yellowstone, just across the line into North Dakota, Sawyer had stood up in the bow of the canoe, stripped out of his clothes, and jumped into the final currents. All of us followed his example. All five of us, naked and trip-worn, bobbing in the last flow of the Yellowstone next to our boats as it merged with the storied Missouri.
My day continues like this. Drifting along the familiar bends of river, stopping frequently on gravel bars, along cobble banks, on islands, to amble through the beds of rock deposited by floods, washed by rains, heated by summer sun, covered by ice, laying there season after season for me to discover. I set up a camp chair and enjoy lunch under the pale sun. I have the river to myself. Bald eagles perch in snags, the wind pushes me along, rustling through the cottonwood leaves. The season turns, the narrow sliver of my boat cleaves the clay-colored river. My rock collection builds up in the bow of the canoe. Memories flood in, unbidden, welcome, a celebration.
The same sauntering pace infuses my time on the road and in the trailer. After another night in Forsyth, I bump down to Rosebud and camp at the Far West campground I’d noticed when I scouted my first shuttle ride. It is named after one of the wood-fired steamboats that plied the lower Yellowstone River in the 1800s, delivering goods as far upstream as Billings. This is not backcountry camping. I am insulated from the weather, provided with the luxury of warmth and light and cookstove. Yet I feel an early morning thunderstorm rock the trailer, listen to the wind outside and the geese winging upriver while I lie snug and protected in my bed.
For the better part of a day I paddle both upstream and down nearby, exploring more gravel, finding more rock, probably paddling a total of four miles. In the afternoon I follow a paved road up Rosebud Creek through ranch country notable for its military history from the Indian Wars. Here in this sparsely settled prairie with a small ribbon of creek running through it, Custer and the 7th Cavalry had made their way toward their fateful demise at the Little Bighorn. Plaques and highway dioramas mark the grave of an unidentified soldier with a bouquet of plastic flowers maintained by the local 7th Regiment Society. Markers discuss the strategic decisions made by Custer and the uncertainty within his regiment over just how many Indians they would be facing. Apparently, Custer wasn’t listening to their concerns. Many of the towns along the lower reach of the Yellowstone are named for the military men of that era – Miles City, Sidney, Terry, Forsyth, Custer. In this country it’s either the Indian Wars or Lewis and Clark that get top billing.
It rains for a solid day. I spend it probing the river for access sites and likely rock-hounding country. In Miles City I settle into the public library for a couple of hours to catch up on emails and indulge my addiction to political news. Libraries are sanctuaries for the vagabond set, the somewhat homeless. Quiet, bathrooms available, internet connection, no end of reading material, and free from the hubbub and piped in music of coffee shops. In the continuing dreary weather I locate the KOA campground near the confluence of the Tongue and Yellowstone Rivers. The camp host sports a bright yellow company shirt with a nametag telling me he is from Georgia. He can’t find me in his contacts.
“Off the grid, eh?” he observes.
“Not any more,” I say.
Campground life provides an interesting study. I park my small, cute teardrop in its lane, plug in for electricity, sign onto the wifi, brew up some tea, spread my maps out on the table to study. Around me loom house-sized RVs with generators and ‘bump out’ bedrooms and satellite dishes, into which people disappear. I view them with some disdain. Out the window I observe a couple in their sleeping pod of a trailer. It has a cunning design with a galley hatch for stove, kitchen gear and so on, but they have to stand around in the drizzle, wearing wool hats and rain gear, to cook and eat. I’m pretty smug about my digs by comparison.
When the weather clears the next morning, I head east for Glendive and another camp. Makoshika State Park sits on the edge of town, featuring badland terrain, fossil beds, colorful coulees and prairie plateaus. For $7 a night I score a sweet campsite with minimal infrastructure. It is a relief not to have internet. I’ve come to covet the lack of contact with news and politics when I’m on river trips. With internet, I fall prey, listen to news, binge on Netflix. Without it I spend my time reading, writing, being still, looking around me.
For the next couple of days, while I base at the park, I search gravel bars up and down river. Near the tiny ranch community of Fallon, I back down the boat ramp, unload, and paddle upstream, underneath the interstate bridge, river pushing through massive pilings, and on up to a likely-looking stretch of rocky bank.
There is an art to picking agates. It takes some scouting to find the right layer of rock that has been washed clean by rain. Once on a likely terrace I take a slow sauntering line, up and down the river bank, scanning left and right for the gleam of translucent agate, or the swirl of wood grain. I’m not as sharp as I used to be, when I had two good eyes, but I take my time, don’t miss much. The rocks run the gamut from nearly clear to almost black with impurities. Some are banded, highlighted with red and black. Of course, it’s often the impurities that make the most interesting specimens. I flick them over with my foot, stoop to pick one up, hold it up to the sun to see if it has the characteristic look of chalcedony. Some I have to wash in the river before I can assess. There are tiny gems the size of an earring, pieces the size of my fist. Some of the wood can be as big as logs, which, in fact, they are, or once were.
I mosey up and down, my boat resting patiently downriver, scanning, gathering, discarding, until my pockets are so full they threaten to de-pants me. An hour later, I drift back downstream, past the boat ramp to a teardrop island I remember from Sawyer’s trip. I’m sure we had lunch here and that the kids made a good haul of rock during the break. I am not mistaken. I load up my pants again to a dangerous sag, dump the treasure in the bow of the canoe, go back for more. The canoe only travels a couple of miles, but I spend the day on the river, in slow meditation, listening to the ripple of water sliding past, feeling the fall sun on my shoulders, letting my thoughts roam and stall while I amass my loot.
In the evenings the campground fills with a few more late-season rigs. A pair of young women sleeping in their van, a retired couple with a tent, another couple from Canada with an RV. I savor the last hours of sun, sit outside in a lawn chair next to a juniper tree, nursing a non-alcohol beer, nibbling snacks. In these camps conversations are predictable. People talk about their rigs, their road adventures, their bike racks, their dogs (almost everyone has a dog), the time the hitch broke, and where they are heading next. It’s a fine line between being neighborly, meeting interesting folks, making connections and being a pest.
“We’re heading back for Ontario,” the Canadian couple tells me when I stop to chat on my way to the bathroom. “After October 1st most of the campgrounds close, unless you go pretty far south.” I tell them what I’ve been up to, give them a smooth piece of petrified wood as a gesture of neighborliness.
Before dark I spread out my growing rock collection on the picnic table. I think about the journeys they have made, the epochs they have weathered, and their new destiny, heading for my tumbler in the garage back home, and from there, ornamenting the garden, filling bowls, making house gifts, sitting on the car dashboard, massaged by hands, comforting as rosary beads, glimmering with smooth, warm, luminous beauty.
By the final day, hopping downstream between Glendive and Sidney, my appetite for rock hounding has waned. I have more than enough rock to keep my tumbler rolling for months. Each batch of rock takes four weeks. Every week the grit gets changed out, finer each time, until the final polish grit is as powdery as talcum. Then the rocks emerge, poured out onto a towel on the kitchen table to be admired for a day or two before they get dispersed around the house and yard, sent off to friends, given to neighbors. There are always surprises – the rocks I was sure would be spectacular, but which end up disappointing, counter-balanced against the drab-looking knobs that polish up to astonishing beauty and color.
I put the canoe on the water here and there, paddle over to islands, wander through the fields of river cobble, only stooping for the most promising gems. The back roads leading to access ramps wind through austere farm country. A man and his teenage daughter standing next to a tractor tire taller than they are, looking at the turned up furrows. Something about their postures makes me sure they are family. And later, a ramshackle collection of buildings decaying along a lonely stretch of dirt, rusting cars, a dilapidated camper, a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag flying.
“Not knocking on that door,” I think, driving past.
At the final stop, gravel spreads away as far as I can see, acre after acre of it. “Jesus, you could walk for weeks and never repeat,” I say out loud.
Out of habit, I wander through the beds of rocks for a while but don’t really hunt. I have enough. “Another time,” I think. “This would be the place to come.”
For a while I linger, smacked by the sweep of it, before I head back, climb the steep bank under the cottonwoods tinged with fall color. I turn and stand above the water-worked deposits. There, dwarfed at this time of year by the sheets of rock it has brought down in floods, the distant glint of ebbing river, out of earshot, quietly urging its way to the sea.