The desert can strip any one of us bare. I needed to test it.
I drove a few more miles then turned southeast onto the state highway. The road looked practically broom swept compared to the blacktop. I rolled down the windows. Everything smelled sweet and woody. The river at this junction flowed more southerly but curved westward. I was driving into the country of my childhood.
I think about stories that come out of deserts. The Bible is full of men who went into the desert. Moses went into the desert and found God. John the Baptist thrived in the desert. It was easy to want to imitate John the Baptist when I was a kid. To me, John the Baptist was Jerimiah Johnson of the Canaanland. I remember those felt boards and felt characters that Sunday School teachers used to teach us Bible stories. John the Baptist wore camel hair and ate wild honey and locusts. He had a big beard and looked scruffy compared to the other felt people, certainly compared to Jesus. All us Sunday School kids could recognize right away that Jesus was the better version of John, but gosh, I wanted to be like John. I wanted to live in the desert and wear animal skins and eat bugs and honey and not take a bath. I think about those characters and who they might have been in an everyday life. Did John, for instance, ever say in Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek: “Today is going to be a real scorcher”? Or what about Moses? Did Moses ever wake up and say to himself: “I just don’t want to do it today. I’m sick of manna”? Then I think about what happened to them. Moses never got to see the Promised Land. Poor John, poor skin wearing John had his head lopped off because a king was conned by a pretty girl and her mother.
Growing up in this country, we heard stories about people getting caught out in the desert. They typically didn’t carry enough water or have enough sense to find shade. There were stories about people dying within sight of town. Stories about people who fell off cliffs. Those stories sounded almost foreign to us. We asked ourselves—how did people not bring enough water? How could anyone manage to see town and still die? How could anyone fall off a cliff? But eventually, someone we knew or someone we went to school with didn’t bring enough water or did fall off a cliff. We figured people who let such things happen to them were stupid. None of us could ever be so stupid. I guess that was the vanity of youth. The desert could have stripped any one of us bare, but some of us needed to test it. I needed to test it.
Dad had a seven year phase of returning to scenes from his childhood. This took place during the early 2000’s when he lived on the Gulf Coast. I went to visit him, and he insisted that we drive around the town where he had grown up. We might go, for example, to the ballpark where he hit back-to-back homeruns. The first homerun didn’t count because his shirt was untucked. Then Dad, 15 years old, walked back to the batter’s box and hit another homerun. I don’t know if he had a prouder moment in his youth. We cruised past the homes of former girlfriends. Dad made speculations about the “what if’s” of life and volunteered tales of his once budding sexuality. He drove to the house where he accidentally set fire to a garage. The garage is no longer there, but the house is. Dad said there was no way in hell he told anyone about that. At the time, he was 9 years old.
“Did you believe they’d take you to jail?”
“No. I was too young.”
“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
“I didn’t want to get in trouble. Would you?”
“No, I guess I not.”
“Most of us don’t make a habit of confessing our sins.”
“I’m not sure. Isn’t that how criminals get caught? They brag.”
“Not very smart criminals maybe.”
“So you were a smart criminal as a child?”
“I was smart enough not to get caught.”
“Your daddy didn’t find out?”
“I guess that would have been bad?”
“That would have been bad.”
I don’t know what Dad was looking for by wandering back to scenes from his childhood. I don’t know what I am looking for either. It could be what I was reflecting upon earlier. To feel again. To know that I can feel. We forget what it is to experience more vulnerable emotions. Our edges dull. Or maybe some of them do. I cannot count the number of men over 40 who have told me that finding a new love brings with it all the sting they felt as a teenage boy. I knew a man in his early 70’s who was in love with a new girlfriend. She was younger, of course. And one night I watched this man swoon throughout his kitchen with his eyes half-closed and a glass of red wine in his hand. He sang along with the Sarah McLachlan song, “Angel.” I watched this—this white haired old man, wearing pressed khaki trousers, a freshly laundered blue shirt, the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, and a dark brown belt buckled around his waist, a waist he wanted to show off. This old man danced, holding no one in his arms but some dream of his new girlfriend who was on her way there for a visit. I heard later she called it off, not that night but later. I have never forgotten that story. I know damn well that man was crushed.
Driving through the red rock country, I remembered the time we rescued a bum stranded in the river corridor. A bum and his dog. The “we” on this trip was my then friend and mentor Jerry and his friend from Montana, Laura Mae, who, now thirty years on, I call Laura. She explained to me on no particular occasion that no one ever called her Laura Mae except for Jerry. Jerry, Laura, and I had planned a one-day river trip—a put-in and take-out. Looking now in the direction of the river, I can almost see the copse of trees where we took out that day.
Jerry and I camped at the put-in the night before the trip. Laura met us the next morning. People could have said nearly anything about Jerry—good, bad, or ugly—and whatever they said could have been true. The one fact about Jerry that people were sure of, regardless of what he had done to them, is that they would never meet a better boatman. He rowed a 16’ Avon raft. The frame, the deck, the oarlocks, the oars had all either been built by Jerry or fabricated, cut, sawed, fitted, or welded to Jerry’s specifications. There was not a component on the raft Jerry couldn’t manipulate or repair. For overnight trips, he carried three sleeping bags and two pillows. I asked him why. Three sleeping bags and two pillows was a lot of extra gear. Jerry’s notion was that the majority of people who went on river trips did so for an experience, for an adventure, but for himself, he lived on the river. Living on the river meant taking all the comforts he desired. His shelter was a rain fly originally used to cover a 1970’s Eureka A-frame tent. He set up the fly with two poles and a few yards of climbing cord. As part of his camp kit, he carried a mallet, steel stakes, and assorted climbing gear to lock down the fly whenever and wherever he needed. He was prepared for any weather, any terrain, and you knew his shelter was more durable than yours. You knew, too, he was more comfortable in his nest of three sleeping bags, two pillows, and an ammo can filled with whatever vice he needed. He boated at night. He boated solo. He boated drunk. He boated stoned. He had boated all the hardest rivers. When I knew him, he had spent a couple of decades living between his truck, a USDA Forest Service garage, and whatever room he could rent when he needed a room. He loved animals. He loved women. He listened to classical music and 70’s rock with equal enthusiasm. He drank beer, wine, and bourbon but not scotch. He loved a good story. He told good stories. Nature, birds and rivers amazed him to the end of his words. He could also be cruel.
We rigged our rafts that morning without hurry. Morning into morning I am drawn into the quiet of those river days when I was a young man, the sound of ropes being pulled tight against dry bags, someone washing themselves, a sip of hot liquid. Most mornings along the river begin in a fusion of lavender and calm. That is how I picture Laura and Jerry beside the river—in the enchanted light of a river morning, rigging their gear, sipping coffee, if you are Jerry, and sipping tea, if you are Laura. Between sips they set their cups on top of their dry bags. Both of them pause to look over the river, to see what is there, to see what might surprise them, what birds claim the sky, and perhaps to see themselves, as I did then, inside of this world.
We drifted until midday. We stopped at a beach where we sometimes made camp. To the west of the beach, a creek emptied into the river. A wide band of willows and Russian olives grew at the river’s edge. A small bunch of cottonwoods thrived at the base of the slot canyon that drained the creek. It was a good place to camp. The shade was good. The beach was wide enough to accommodate a few but not too many rafts. Below the beach, the canyon narrows. Deep in the narrows the river churns itself into rapids. We stopped to rest and to secure our gear before running the rapids. We rehydrated and shared snacks. We visited. I don’t believe any of us got off our rafts. To live on your raft was partly a matter of pride. Yes, you are drifting, which is what you are there to do, but you also carrying what you need to live, and what you need to live isn’t very much. With the right gas stove, you can cook on a raft. You can set up a tarp for weather. You can shit in a can or piss in the river. You can nest.
We heard the motor before we saw the boat.
“I wonder who that is.”
“I don’t know,” Jerry said. He stood up and looked up river. “Maybe it’s Alvin.”
And it was Alvin. He had fixed a motor to his government raft and was motoring downriver. Alvin was the river ranger for this particular section of river. He maneuvered his raft into the beach area where we waited for him. He wore a ball cap too big for his head. His sunglasses were too big for his face. The main feature of Alvin’s face was a thick, black handlebar moustache. He maybe wore his facial hair in the muttonchop style, except I cannot picture the muttonchops because the moustache gets in the way. He smiled as he approached. I could tell he smiled because the crow’s feet along his eyes crinkled together. I did not know Alvin well, but I knew him well enough to appreciate that he was a decent river ranger. Laura and Jerry knew him better than I did, and they liked him.
“We got a stray,” Alvin said.
“Oh yeah.” Jerry nodded. “Where is he? Or I guess it’s a he.”
“He’s a he. He’s down past Femur. A couple of guys found him yesterday afternoon.”
“They didn’t help him?” Laura asked.
“Their boats were too full, at least that’s what they said. They said they gave him a sleeping bag, plus some food and water. Anyway. They called us last night. I guess he’s okay. He’s got a dog with him.”
“What kind of dog?”
“I don’t know. Just a dog. Y’all want to go get him with me? I got this motor and we can latch up after Femur, and I’ll motor us to take-out.”
We suggested that he didn’t need to motor us to take-out, but Alvin assured us it wasn’t a problem. He said it would probably be late by the time we got the guy and headed downriver. We might be glad for his motor, he said. We were.
I do not remember the name of the man we rescued, if I ever knew his name. But I am going to call him Chance. We found Chance about a quarter mile below Femur Rapid. He had established a camp on a ledge above the river. His boat was deflated and probably punctured. From the looks of it, he might have purchased the raft from a toy store. He had tied up what was left of the boat between two pinion trees and set heavy rocks around the edges of it for a shelter, making a crude lean-to. He waved when he saw us. I couldn’t read if he expected us or not. He didn’t seem anxious for a rescue. His dog may have been anxious. The dog was a brown and white feist looking creature, like an East Texas squirrel dog. The dog pranced up and down along the ledge but didn’t bark. It looked at us then looked back at Chance and wagged its tail and pranced some more.
The ledge wasn’t the easiest place to navigate a raft. The current was strong. Jerry guided his raft parallel to the ledge, pumping his left oar and tucking the right oar. This way he could slide his raft next to the ledge and hold it for a few seconds in the current. He shouted for the man to jump. The man grabbed his rucksack and one-footed it into the boat. He then turned around and called the dog. The dog ran over, jumped aboard, and stood next to Jerry on his seat. Jerry ceased pumping the left oar, and the current immediately swept his raft downriver. Alvin was ahead us for safety. Laura and I were running sweep. I noticed the man didn’t carry anything from his camp but his rucksack. His blue jeans and popper shirt had faded into the same color. He stroked his beard and stared back at his camp. He felt whether his bandana was still tied to his head. It was a faded blue, too, matching the color of his shirt and jeans.
We pulled up to Alvin’s raft then strapped our boats together. After the rafts were secured, we relaxed. Chance petted his dog. He seemed to enjoy the river and country. Jerry and Alvin passed a bottle of Maker’s Mark back and forth and talked ranger talk. Laura checked her gear and made another mug of tea. I laid back against my dry bags with my feet propped over the gunnels. We motored to take-out.
Turns out Chance did not have much of a story. He felt like going downriver. That is what he told us. He had been staying in a town 90 miles north of where we found him. He said he saw the river on the edge of town and decided to float it. He had saved enough money to purchase the raft at Wal-Mart. He thought the raft might have held up better than it did, but the boat collapsed after the first sizeable rapid. Then he was marooned, he said. He said he wasn’t worried about being marooned, despite the heat, but he worried about his dog. Luckily another crew came along. They gave him fresh water and a packet of bacon and tortillas and a few bananas. Now all he wanted was a ride to town. “Not back to where I’m coming from,” he said, “but downriver.” Glancing downriver and then back at us, he said, “I wish I could have made it farther on the river though. It’s pretty country out here.”
And it was true, too, what he said. The country was pretty. It was beautiful. It was the best country. Swallows swooped overhead and dove in and out of their mud homes along the cliffs. The sky had softened into a near vermillion, and the evening cool had begun to spread throughout the river corridor. You could smell the water again. The rocks and cliffs took more form and shadows spread along the ridges. I dipped my hand into the river and felt its coolness and believed for a moment that I was living some other life.
Take-out brought the expected chaos. We unlatched the rafts and rowed onto the beach, bumping our boats into each other as we did. Without a word, we secured our own rafts and started de-rigging. Water, mud, and sand covered the rafts. Ropes, straps, dry bags, coolers were piled on shore. We helped each other scrub and fold each other’s raft. Then we loaded them into our trucks. Alvin had a government trailer for his raft, so we hauled it onto the trailer and he secured it. After we finished, there were shots of bourbon, sips of beer and water, and afterwards everyone refilled their water bottles. Everything had been loaded, everything fastened. Then the question was asked: who would drive Chance to town?
“The kid can take him.” Those were Jerry’s words.
I am trying to remember what emotion hit me. Was I nervous? Was I anxious about Chance? He was a man who wanted to go downriver. He was on the other side of 50 years old. He didn’t smell good and needed a wash, but I spent time with plenty of people who needed a wash, including myself. But also, I didn’t want to seem like the reluctant one or possibly a coward. All my friends had hauled strangers. Now it was my turn. After hugs and promises to see meet later, we said our goodbyes. One by one the trucks and friends pulled away.
Chance set his dog in the back of my truck. He rubbed the dog’s head and bunched up a towel in the corner of the truck bed where it could lay down. I noticed Chance was clinging to his rucksack. I didn’t feel good about that. My truck in those days was a Ford Courier, which barely held two people. I told Chance he ought to leave his pack in the back. “It will give us a little more room up front. It’s a small truck after all, and we’ll be more comfortable.” That’s what I told him. When actually I didn’t care a rat’s ass about Chance’s comfort. I just saw he was clinging to his rucksack. “Naw,” he said, “I can’t risk it blowing out. I keep this pack with me everywhere I go.” That was that. And I knew it too.
We were ten miles down the road, about twenty miles from town, when Chance pulled the pistol from his pack.
“Looky what I got here, Bud.” He held the pistol up nice and big for me.
“I’m guessing that’s a .22,” I said.
That’s what I said. What I was thinking was how to crash the truck and kill Chance and not myself. There are no heroics in this situation. You are driving and another man has a weapon turned on you. You are not going to grab the weapon. I own firearms, and I owned them then. They don’t make me nervous, but a man pointing a pistol at me does. I felt like the space I consumed had been reduced to breaths. I needed to make the conversation about the weapon, not about the man holding it nor about my fear.
“That’s right,” he said. “It’s a .22 long barrel. They’re not real powerful.”
“No, but they’ll get the job done.”
“They will.” ‘
“My great grandmother had one that looked about like that.”
“Did she really?”
“She did. She slept with it under her pillow. She would have been the wrong old woman to surprise at night.”
Chance laughed. “I guess so.”
“Yeah. Not the old woman to surprise.”
“I keep this one mostly for rabbits. You can take a rabbit pretty cleanly with this one.”
“You hunt rabbits?”
“I do, but not this time of year.”
“No, not this time of year.”
“Around here we wait until after the first hard freeze or snow to hunt rabbits.”
“Yeah. They say the freeze will kill the sick ones.”
“That makes sense.”
He stuffed the pistol back into his rucksack. Maybe I felt relieved for a few seconds. Maybe I felt something else. I don’t know. The gun going back into the rucksack didn’t necessarily save me. Maybe it helped my odds though.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you, Bud. I wanted you to see I had it with me. The thing is, if someone doesn’t try to hurt me, then I don’t try to hurt them. I figure a pistol lets a man know the terms.”
“Yes sir. The terms.”
“What are the terms then?”
“What I said. Don’t hurt me, and I won’t hurt you.”
“That seems fair.”
“You’re alright, Bud.”
Chance asked me to drop him off at the edge of town. Town was busy. A straight line of cars ran both ways. He wanted to get out at the welcome sign. I pulled over and Chance got out and slipped the rucksack over his shoulders. He then untied the dog and lifted the dog out of the back. I stayed behind the wheel.
“Sure you don’t want me to drop you closer to town?”
“I’m alright. Thanks for offering though.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I hope your friends made it home alright.”
“I imagine they’re fine.”
“Or wherever they were going.”
That was all. He shut the truck door. He and the dog walked in the direction of town. I turned the truck around and drove back towards the river where it intersected with the highway. I wanted to sit beside the river. I wanted to think for a while.
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Damon Falke is the author of, among other works, The Scent of a Thousand Rains, Now at the Uncertain Hour, By Way of Passing, and Koppmoll (film). He lives in northern Norway.