This is the last stop on the Colorado River, after eight days canoe camping on the Green River in the canyonland wilderness of Utah. The worst day was gotten over on the first day with miserable cold and rain and too many miles. The last day, was a lazy one on a long sandy beach. We arrived in the early afternoon before the coolness of the day was blown away by hot afternoon winds.
Why is this beach so white when everything visible for hundreds of square miles is red rock?
We staked our claim to this beach by spreading out and luxuriating in the soft, wide, open space after a week on hardpack and gravel and almost impossible climbs to find enough dry, flat ground for a tent. We had seen four other people, not counting a Canyonlands National Park Ranger who stopped his jetboat to say hello. On our beach it is just the four of us.
The last day, we are taking our time.
The tent can go almost anywhere we choose.
Our gear is all over the place, drying after washing off the loose sand and mud.
The canoes are rinsed out and draining, two bright red, hard edged curves laying on their sides, the bottoms turned against the light wind. Later, as the wind picks up, we move them into the shelter of a ledge and weigh them down because the wind is strong enough to flip them back into the river. Canoes are like fish, they struggle on land and take the wind as an opportunity to fly back into the river. I’ve seen that more than once; 80 pound canoes flying.
It’s too hot to hike and there’s very little shade so we sit in the water to cool off; wet rags on our heads and shoulders, laughing at the shock of cold water on our skin, every time. Quiet talk, joking, telling stories, knowing this is the last day. Carefully untying the threads that have bound the four of us together for the trip. Placing memories in each other’s minds to take home.
The river was solid with silt. We could not see beyond its surface.
Every night there had been distant thunder storms and occasionally the sky behind an abutment would light up, but no rain fell after that first day and night. The desert monsoon storms are small but violent – loud with thunder and rain drops the size of pennies. But the storms are so localized that we would be dry. Because each side canyon is cut into rock of a different color, the flash floods that poured into the main channel of the Green River shifted it’s color daily, even hourly, from brown to gray, to gray green, to pinkish beige.
On the last day the water was greenish, wide and quiet. From downstream, where we will not go, we could hear the first of the Cataract Canyon rapids roaring like a distant freeway or a huge waterfall.
I always feel that sound as a pull at my chest that is slightly fear and slightly the desire to throw myself into it bodily. This desire to be in the river is not to drown but to lose myself in the rough tumble of water and rock, to let go and be part of the river, to flow in a way that is bigger than my body. I’ve had unpleasant swims in rivers and I know that throwing myself into a rapid would be painful. I would helplessly bang into rocks and get sucked under water and inhale water and cough and cough and cough. No, I don’t want to do that, again. This desire to be in the river is bigger than my body and beautiful.
There was still some faint light from the sunset when we climbed into the tent and our sleeping bags. I fell asleep almost immediately. In the few moments before I dropped off I heard, I could almost feel, a subsonic thump of a wave slamming against itself in the rapid downstream, a refrigerator door’s muffled slamming.
I woke after a few hours. I had to pee. It was strangely light out but the full moon hadn’t cleared the canyon walls. I put on my glasses and unzipped the door and stumbled around putting on my sandals. Then I looked up.
I am struck by light. The Milky Way is solid with starlight, so much so that I don’t need my flashlight to walk across the beach which glows. The canyon walls and the river are black. I feel myself standing in a small canyon on the rough surface of the Earth with a star-cut bowl curving overhead. A billion stars spreading across blackness like a toss of glitter. I feel scared and safe at the same time, the edge of our Galaxy is so big and I am infinitely small and unimportant. I can be squished like a bug and it won’t make an iota of difference. I am terrifyingly inconsequential. At the same time I am so small that I won’t be noticed. Whatever happens to me is pure accident. The Universe is so full of busyness bigness, it has no time to think about me, to target me.
Statistically I am safe.
That’s the lie I feel in that moment under the starry sky.
To the East the whole expanse of sandstone cliffs was suddenly backlit by lightening. All night there is a light show of flashes beyond our canyon walls and in the morning the flash floods from upstream turned the river bright red.