Thinking back, years since his last trip, it was the river that he had loved the most. He’d told people at various times that it was the smell on the way in or the tall trees or the way the canyon captured the light in the mornings and evenings or watching his kids eyes go wide with wonder the first time they saw the campground or the lazy afternoons reading a book in a hammock or the way the stars winked and whispered through the long nights. And, while those were things he loved, it was the river that he had loved most of all. It was the river that made all the stress and headaches of their yearly camping trips worthwhile.
It came crashing down the canyon, ice cold, ferocious and wild. There were misty waterfalls and hidden fishing holes. There were wide open stretches for swimming and dangerous rapids. There were countless memories tucked away along the stretches he knew best, and even more memories held dear from the stories handed down from his elders. The river. The river. The river.
Now he was the elder and he missed it. He missed it something fierce and his mind was made up to go.
The packing list came together quickly enough. It took a couple extra trips into the attic to find all his gear. It was tiring work getting some of the heavier stuff safely down the ladder. But, worth it as he checked things off and moved closer to going. Food was bought. The car was packed. It all happened slower than it would have in his youth but time was funny and it seemed fast to him. His days weren’t as full as they used to be. Wife passed on. Kids moved out with families of their own. His days could stretch to unseemly lengths and often did. So, he did not mind the time it took to get ready. He didn’t really notice it at all.
His mind was buzzing with the prospect of adventure. His hands shook with excitement. Well, they shook most of the time anyway but now they shook more. Some of the times he had to stop weren’t to rest so much as they were to force himself to calm down. He was going. He was going to see the river, to walk its banks, to hear its roar.
The drive went smoothly. He had to make an extra stop on the way in. One more in and out of the car than he used to. Old age had done a number on his bladder. But, other than that, he stopped for lunch in the same place the family had always eaten before, surprised to find how little the restaurant had changed over the years. The little train that went in circles in the rafters was still there chugging along. The menu seemed the same too. The food didn’t taste the same but that was true of most things, wasn’t it? It’s rare for food to taste the same from year to year. It was good enough, though, and didn’t really matter. The food wasn’t the reason for the trip. Then he’d made the unscheduled stop. Then he’d stopped to fill up the tank before the final climb into the mountains. It was all so familiar. He was happy about that.
Then the smell had hit him as he wound his way up the mountain. That smell. It was no wonder he’d often told people he loved that smell. It meant he was nearly there. He wasn’t just on his way. He was on the doorstep.
Then the trees changed as he rose from the valley floor. They grew greener and taller and thicker and then he was among the giants. They truly were giants, some of the largest trees in the world. The road carved through the forest as it went up and up and up. It was no wonder he’d often said he loved the trees. They were so unlike anything he had in his day to day. He’d never lived near a forest like this. It was special, enchanting. The sun filtering through the pine needles held a certain magic he could not define.
Then the road crested and slipped down into the canyon that held his beloved river. For a moment he had a glimpse of the sheer magnitude and magnificence of it all. The steep canyon walls. The cascading waterfalls. The untamed wild where the only blemish was the narrow road that took him down to his hearts home. His hands had started shaking again and he’d used a pull out to rest for a minute. It wouldn’t do at all to lose control on this road. It was too narrow. The canyon too steep. The river at the bottom too fierce. That particular ending to his story wasn’t one he was interested in at all.
Then he was driving again and his hands fell into the familiar rhythm of turns, like they’d done this drive a thousand times before. Maybe they hadn’t done it that many times. But they’d done it enough to know it. To really know it. He easily handled the sharp turns. He quickly and confidently fell back into the pattern of smoothing out the corners. The worst of them, the nearly 180 degree left hand hairpin that had often made his tires sing when he was younger, came and went. And then he was to the sharp right hand turn, where the mountain seemed to lean into the road and he had always wondered how the larger vehicles had managed to get by it without crashing.
One final drop and he was level with the river. It rolled and splashed to his left. It was beautiful. It was everything he’d remembered. He lowered his window so he could hear it and the sound filled his car. A high water year, the rapids were raging, the water swift, the sound deafening. He’d known it would be, of course. When he’d made up his mind to come, he had looked to see what the snowpack had been like over winter.
He had considered stopping as he crossed over the familiar bridge, one in a dozen landmarks he’d pass with a widening smile, but he continued on. The campground was only twenty minutes ahead and his old bladder was telling him to make haste. He listened to it as he’d learned to over the years. He left the window down and enjoyed the feel of the air as he wound the final few miles to his camp.
Today he would set up for the week. He’d pitch his tent, gather wood, string up a hammock, set up the kitchen, and acclimate as best he could. Tomorrow he’d put his old fishing pole together and find a likely enough spot to toss a line and be on the river. He didn’t care if he caught anything. Being on the river had never been about catching things. Fishing was just an excuse to be on it. He couldn’t wait.
He smiled and nodded.
Tomorrow. The river. The river. The river.