The River

This completes the series of posts I’m calling The River (The Old Man, The Ranger, The First Timer, and now this post). I guess the mountains, and one particular area, are calling to me again. And I’ll answer that call as soon as I can. In the meantime, I hope you have enjoyed these posts.

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It’s easier to sleep, to just let things be.  There’s too much going on otherwise.  Waterfalls that can make me feel disjointed.  Rapids that can make me angry for reasons I don’t fully understand.  The wide, windy stretches that try to lull me to sleep even when I want to be awake.  The narrows.  The pools.  The high lakes, cold from the snow melt feeding them.  The low lakes, warm from the valley sun.  it’s all just too much to feel at once.   So, it’s easier to sleep.

But, moments can rouse me from my long slumbers. 

There is nothing quite so majestic as a sow and her new cubs crossing in the spring.  The sow alert and protective, instructive and caring.  The cubs hesitant at first and then playful, knowing they are safe under the watchful eyes of their mother.  I never tire of moments like that.  Even after all my years.  I hope I never do tire of them.

Before moments like those, I’m usually awakened by the beginning of the spring thaw, when my waters begin to run deeper and faster and carry the yearly haul of fallen trees down, down, down.  Some winters are worse than others.  But, there is always some sort of log jam.  The forest around parts of me is very old and the winters are full of harsh snows and strong winds.  The trees fall.  They find their way to my banks.  And as I run stronger, they get lifted and carried as far as I can take them.  I enjoy these moments less than the bear moments. 

It can’t all be happy, though, can it?  Life isn’t about that.

Who am I to know about life, you ask?  Why, I’m the river.  The river.  The river.

I know more about it than most.  I’ve been here a long time and I’ll be here still for a long time.  It’s true, I sleep most of the time.  You would too if you measured time as I do.  But, I’ve been awake enough to watch, to learn. 

The old-timer visiting my banks is like me.  He’s been around long enough to have learned a thing or two.  He feels familiar, too, like some of my peaceful stretches that change less from year to year.  He’s likely visited me before many times. 

There are others like him, visitors like the sow and her cubs, whom I seem to recognize each summer when they return.  There are so many who return.  I call to them  The River.  The River.  The River.

The old-timer seems at peace.  His steps are measured and calm.  That’s good.  I’m a lot of things, and dangerous is part of my nature.  Calm is required around me.  One slip is all it would take.  It has happened before.  Even when sleeping I know when it does happen.

I move along and leave the old-timer to his business.  He knows what he’s doing.  Not that I could do anything to help even if he needed it.  As I said, I am a lot of things, and it is not in my nature to step in provide assistance.  There are miles and miles for me to travel, to watch, to observe, to remember, to carve, to dive, to stretch, to wash, to be the river. 

The river. 

The river. 

the first timer

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It had been a fun day.  Her first time camping.  She had her first night in a tent ahead of her.  And she was just about to enjoy her first ever officially cooked on a fire while camping s’more.  Not her first ever s’more, of course.  She’d had plenty of those, but never one while camping where the marshmallows were toasted in the coals of a fire.

The long drive to get here seemed a distant memory even though she’d been in the car longer that day than she’d actually been in the camp.  That time would even out and the swing the other way while she was sleeping that night.  The days ahead stretched with endless possibilities.

Her little legs kicked freely, dangling from her camp chair.  The fire warmed her legs.  It was surprising how quickly it was getting cold now that the sun had set.  It had been a warm day but it certainly seemed like it was going to be a cold night.  She wished she could get a little closer to the fire but it seemed like too much a production to get off the chair, scoot it closer, and then climb back in.  Besides, she would have her s’more soon and then it’s deliciousness would distract her from the cold.

The fire crackled, a pinecone she stuck in the coals earlier popped, the giant trees around rustled their millions of needles, and somewhere off in the darkness the river whispered its lulling song.  The river.  The river.  The river.

She had caught glimpses of it while they’d been driving into camp but hadn’t yet been down to it.  The day had been too full of setting up camp to explore it yet.  Tomorrow, though, she knew she’d get to feel its icy waters, see its roaring torrents, and play at its edge. 

Her s’more was handed to her, its marshmallows browned to perfection and the chocolate already beginning to melt beneath their warmth.   She was tempted to shove as much into her mouth as she could at once but decided to let it cool first.  Her eyes drifted across the fire to their neighbor’s camp.  He had a fire, too.  It was smaller than her fire and that was surprising.  His wood pile had been huge.

In the dancing shadows she could see him sitting in a chair by himself and this made her frown.  Didn’t seem right that he should be by himself.  And, it didn’t look like he was fixing s’mores either.  That very much did not seem right. 

An idea came to her and she carefully scooted forward in her chair, balancing her s’more in one hand while using the other to help guide her way, until her toes touched the dirt and she could stand up.  Her dad was by her side an instant later, asking, “Where you going, honey?”

“I’m going to ask our neighbor if he wants a s’more, too.”

“That’s very kind of you.  He might want to be left alone, though.”

She smiled her biggest smile and replied, “It doesn’t hurt to ask.”

And then, before her father could argue, she marched carefully away from her own fire, still cradling the s’more in one hand, and avoiding all the stumps and rocks she’d made note of while it was still light, through the dark stretches between the two camps until she was at the edge of light created by her neighbor’s fire.  She slowed then, not wanting to startle him, and suddenly a bit nervous, bu he must have heard her coming because he turned and greeted her with a large, warm, smile.

“Hello there, beautiful night isn’t it.”

He was older than he’d looked from the distance between the camps when she’d watched him earlier.  The light from his fire splashed across his face, his wrinkles casting shadows of their own.  The smile won her over before her nerves had a chance to really frighten her.

“Would you like a s’more?” she asked, holding her own out to him.

“Oh?  Why I haven’t had one of those longer than you’ve been alive.  I didn’t even bring the stuff to make them this trip.  I remember them being very tasty, though.  Are you sure you want to part with it?”

She had only just met him but could tell he was being silly.  It was something in his voice and something in the way his eyes sparkled.  She supposed that could have been the fire light but she doubted it.  She doubted it very much.

“We have a lot stuff to make more.  I’m planning on having at least two every night we’re here.  It’s not a real camping out campfire unless you have a s’more.”

“No?  No.  I supposed you’re right.  Well, then I’d be honored to have one, thank you.”

And with that he took the s’more from her with one of his large, weathered hands and immediately took a bite.  Marshmallow stuck to the corners of his lips and somehow a dob of chocolate wound up on his nose.  She couldn’t help but giggle.  He didn’t seem to mind the mess or the laughter.  If anything, his eyes grew even merrier.

“Oh, yes, just as I had remembered.  Very tasty, indeed.”

“You’re welcome to join us at our campfire, if you’d like,”  her mom said from right behind her.

Somehow her mom had crossed from their camp without her hearing and her sudden arrival made her jump ever so slightly but then when she’d realized it was just her mom she went back to grinning at her new friend.

“That is very kind of you,” he replied, still smiling with chocolate on his nose and marshmallow fluff smeared to his cheeks.  “I would love to join your fire tomorrow night, if you’ll have then.  Tonight I’m already settled into my chair.”

“Perfect!  We’ll have a chair for you and everything.  Just come on down after dinner and we’ll make s’mores again,” the little girl replied, her excitement causing the words to come out in a loud rush.  Then she skipped back to her own fire, heedless of the rocks and roots that might grab a foot if she wasn’t careful, knowing that her father had almost certainly made another s’more for her.  She was ready for it.

She’d made a new friend.  She was camping.  Tomorrow was going to be an adventure. 

And, in the distance, she could still hear the blurbling and bubbling sounds of the river.  It was like magic, that sound, just like she knew this whole trip was going to be.  Magic.

Perhaps the river was the source of it all.  Perhaps it was the magic.  Maybe she’d find out tomorrow.  She figured she’d dream about it that night.  She had before, having only seen it in pictures and heard stories from her parents.  In fact, she was certain it must be magic.

The river.  The river.  The river.

Making it safely back to her chair, having ignored her mom’s calls to slow down and be careful, she climbed in and started kicking her feet again.  A moment later her dad handed her another s’more and this time she didn’t’ wait.  She just crunched right in.  She felt the marshmallows smear onto her cheeks and nose and she giggled happily, contently, magically, while she ate.

the ranger

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She’d passed the old-timer on her way down river to check on a report of people swimming by the bridge.  He had somehow made it to a large boulder in the middle of the river and was casting lines towards the far bank.  Just from the split second she could see him, she saw his casts were smooth with practiced ease.  Then the sun glinted off the river spray, her eyes darted away and back to the road, which required attention at all times (because of rock falls and wildlife and tourists), and he was gone from view. 

“How in the world did he get out there?”

She made a mental note to check on him on her way back up. The report of people swimming in the more dangerous waters downstream took precedent.  Luckily, whoever it was had been smart enough to get out of the water and move on before she got there, for their sake and her own.  There were no cars matching the descriptions parked nearby and nobody in the water.  She tried her radio to call in an all-clear back to the station but received only static. 

The canyon walls played havoc with radio signals.  There were dead zones all up and down the river, and sometimes spots that worked one day wouldn’t the next.  Jumping back into her truck, she turned it around and headed back towards camp.  She’d make the report in person when she got there. 

As a Ranger, the safety of the visitors to her park was a huge priority.  It wasn’t her first priority as most guests seemed to assume, but it was a big part for sure.  Jumping into the river to save people getting swept through rapids wasn’t actually something she was tasked with.  She would be just as likely to get as injured or worse as the people she was trying to save, but she had some rope and a long pole (which was handy for all sorts of things around the park actually) and she’d do her best if called upon. 

So far, in her nearly ten summers of working the park, she’d never been called upon.  She was thankful for that.  The odds of her being able to save someone who legitimately needed saving were slim to none.  The water was too fast and too cold.  The rocks too slick and too unstable.

The old-timer hadn’t moved very far from where she’d seen him earlier and she pulled her truck into a pullout just beyond and walked back along the road to where he was fishing.  It wasn’t often she saw people of his age out on the river.  When she did, she didn’t often have to worry about them because they usually knew what they were doing.  Still, it didn’t hurt to be friendly and make sure.  Besides, they usually had good stories.  Old-timers almost always did.

She had to yell to be heard over the roaring water, “Catch anything?”

He either hadn’t heard or was ignoring her in the hope that she would go away.  Here she hesitated.  If she scrambled down the bank to river level and he wanted to be ignored she’d be bothering him and wasting her time.  Looking up river, she watched the water tumble and roll.  It growled as it crashed into rocks and screamed as it was sent skyward in beautiful arcs of spray.  The beauty was the problem.  How could something be so beautiful and so dangerous at the same time?

She hadn’t come up with an answer to that in her going on ten years.  She might need at least another ten to figure it out.

Turning back to the fisher, she called again, “Catch anything?”

His head moved just enough for him to glimpse her in his periphery and then shifted back to focusing on the tiny pool he was fishing.  She understood that it was his way of acknowledging her.  She carefully picked her way down to the water and, finding a likely enough rock, she sat and waited for him to finish.  Her guess from her half glimpse before had been correct.  He knew how to fish these waters and if it had been a little later in the day, closer to sunset, she likely would have seen him catch a trout.  As it was though, it was too early in the day for the fish to rise.  She knew he knew that just as surely as she knew he wouldn’t have been safe fishing in the semi-darkness later.  

He cast a few more times, hitting his spots each time, and then reeled in and carefully, slowly, made his way across the rocks back to the bank where she sat.  Each step seemed to take an eternity to her and she busied herself by seeming to be interested in something upstream.  She watched him all the way, though, tensed, ready to spring forward and lend a hand should he wobble too much.  He made it okay, though, and she stood to greet him.

Before she could speak, he was already talking, a broad smile on his face, and not waiting for her to answer any of his questions, which weren’t really questions at all.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?  Haven’t caught anything yet, not yet, but the day is still a bit young, right?  Seems a likely enough spot, though, maybe I’ll try my luck again here in a bit before the light gives out.  Certainly don’t want to be trapped down here in the dark.  But, while the light is still good, you just stop to chat or did you want to see my permit?  Lifetime fisherman, here, though it has been a few years, I’ll admit, since I’ve had the joy of fishing this here river.  Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

With that he turned away from her to gaze up stream as she had been doing moments before.  He seemed so content that she regretted interrupting his time on the river.  “It truly is a beautiful day.  I won’t keep you long just saw you down here by yourself and wanted to check on you.”

“Smart.  Very smart of you,” he replied, a chuckle in his voice.  “I’m not as young as I used to be.  Still, I thought I had at least one more trip in me and here I am, proving it true.”

He didn’t turn to look at her as he answered, his gaze stayed on the canyon walls, the towering pines and the river, the river, the river.

“Glad to hear it.  Have a fun and safe rest of your visit.” 

She turned, her eyes picking the route she would take back up to the road.

“Still, would do me good to rest.  There’s plenty of day left and my legs wouldn’t mind a break for a few minutes.  If you’d stick around, you could maybe help me back to my feet if I sit too long and my legs decide they don’t want to work anymore.”

With that he moved, slowly still, to the rock she’d been sitting and took it for his own.  She found one nearby and waited for him to get settled before asking, “So, you’re having a nice trip?  From the way you talk and the way you fish, I’m pretty sure this isn’t your first time here?”

He laughed.  Then he sighed, glanced at her briefly, and returned his gaze to the roaring waters.  Even then he didn’t answer for a long time, he just smiled. 

She nearly gave up on him replying and was getting ready to ask to another question to try and strike up a conversation when he said, “No, this isn’t my first time here.  My family has been fishing this river since the 40’s.  And, yes, I’m having a nice trip.  More than nice.  It’s exactly what I needed.”

She smiled in response, even though he wasn’t looking at her.  The stories would come now.  They always did.  The moments on the river he remembered best.  The times with his family.  The times by himself.  The beauty of it all.  The river.  The river.  The river.

She’d loved it for nearly ten summers now and she was sure she’d love it for at least ten more.

the old man

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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.

bright

IMG_4892

The coals drink deeply
A bed fueled by oxygen
Dancing with heat and color
And the night leans close
And the fire burns low

The coals sigh and squirm
Easing into their long sleep
With the patience of old age
And then close their eyes
And then dream their dreams

The coals are cold now
Wrapped up in a dirt blanket
Only the memory burns
And there it remains
And there flashes bright