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.

everywhere

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Where are you going in such a hurry?

What was that?  What did you say?

You’re yelling so loud I can’t understand you…

Yet, I do understand you.  I do.  I do.

Oh, you beautiful river.  You speed by, shouting your truths of the world, to remind us to slow down and actually enjoy the world, for there is beauty in even the most tumultuous waters.  There is peace beneath the rolling thunder.  And, as always, there is adventure everywhere.

rio mortal

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The water is cold, born from melting snow, and swift as it churns down the canyon.  It seems to invite you over as it calls from across the campground, “Come on over, come on in, it’s so hot out today, just chill your feet in my cool waters for a bit and you won’t regret it.”

It only knows partial truths, though.  Yes, it is a hot day and, yes, the water would most definitely take the edge off that heat.  However, the rest of the truth that goes unsaid, is that one wrong step and the current would rip your legs away and then it would be a toss up what got you first: the rocks or the freezing water.

You know the full truth, yet you enter the water anyway, because the day is hot and because you’ve survived that same choice countless times before.  Mostly, though, it was the heat thing.  You always forget how hot it can get while camping away from the niceties of home, like ceiling fans and air conditioning.

a low water year

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If it had been a high water year, all you could see would be white foam and the flashing spray of thundering rapids.  If it had been a high water year, the rock I had stood on to take this picture would have been under the strength and fury of the river’s torrent.  If it had been a high water year, the rocks I’d hopped between to get out to the middle would have been washed further downstream.  If it had been a high water year, the road that hugs the precious space between the towering canyon walls and the cutting edge of the river would be visible.

But, the road was out of sight, the rocks remained and there were actually some small pools of relative calm among the larger storm of water, because it was a low water year.