Sometimes time is taken for an end result that seems
at first glance to be useless, but it encapsulates your dreams
Sometimes time is taken for an end result that seems
at first glance to be useless, but it encapsulates your dreams
“How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand, there is no going back?”
-LOTR The Return of the King, filmscript.
How do you weave together the threads a life? Consider the warp and the weft, our world condensed to lines of longitude and latitude intersecting, interlocking, interacting. Life caught in the cross hairs, and our tangential paths are running at odds. In any moment we are walking along silk veins, a spider’s web emanating from ourselves to all of the options that we could choose, but we do not. Direction has already been determined by the past, intention has been decided. In the moment we are easily swayed, our perceptions become mistaken, they become paranoid. But it is a long game that we are playing, and a long tapestry we are weaving.
And what of the loom we would use? I used to think mine was red, with four wheels and an engine, but now I see that keychain as a temptation, as an offer of escape.
“Do you never want to just drive away? Leave it all behind, even if only for a weekend?”
He looked at me in confusion, some clear disconnect fueling the basic misunderstandings that eventually would lead to us walking away from each other. But this was a long time ago, a lifetime ago, so why do I feel the same again?
Where does the feeling stem from this time? My personal brand of anxiety leaves me weak, and my stomach tortured. My chest aches and I stare at walls and I lose myself in my mind. I breathe shallower, think slower, spinning and whirring as if constantly caught in the fixated mentality of a THC high. But this is a high that doesn’t have a definite end, one that you cannot reassure yourself with the thought that it will eventually fade and you will return to yourself once more, one that you do not choose to take on, no. This is one that you know will ebb and flow, will come and go, and can be overcome in the moment only with the full understanding that it will be back.
It will always come back.
Yah! What power have the clouds to vanquish
souls upon the earth?
Are we but specks in your illusion,
mites to torment in your mirth?
No! I will not be your plaything!
Boil storm before my wrath
and let your godforsaken walls ring,
we dare tread upon your path.
Winds are howling in the morning,
lightning rips apart the night.
I refuse to be your plaything!
I will stand strong, I will fight!
Where is the warrior now? Lost to the passage of time. Lost to the habit of time. Lost in the murk of time, in the everyday. Where is the warrior now? Hidden underneath. Held down underneath. Imprisoned underneath.
Where is the warrior now? Her strength sapped and gone, her conviction waned and gone, her spirit sunken and gone. Where is the warrior now? Uprooted and hung out to dry; red soil, harsh sun, blue sky; weird walls, green water, blue sky; thin sky, no sky, wide sky.
Where is the warrior now? She is wandering lost in the desert, seeing the rainforest in shadowed plastic, feeling the cool touch of grass on her skin in a memory fading before the blazing heat.
Where is the warrior now? She is here but has lost her tongue, she is present but has misplaced her strength, she has let her will to fight die, withered by the miles she travelled, forgotten.
I sleep, but I shall not sleep much longer.
You crawl on my skin in the night, blanketing the stars I have dreamt beneath with the blankness of your shadow, blackening the deep blue of my covers until they hang like coalsmoke, like pits.
Like the pits you dig into my skin to disturb my dreams and turn them into nightmares. In my sleep I see you destroy and take, guzzle and gnaw through my every work, through every beautiful thing I created before I laid myself to rest, I see…
The havoc you create. The destruction that you wreak.
I feel the poison you inject into my veins. It is like fire, it is like sludge. It bites and burns and slashes at my banks, it poisons my people. You have thrown the waste of your blinded beasts into the blood from my heart.
I am waking. You sleep beneath the smug certainty that you are ruler of this world, but I am waking. I will descend upon you in the night and throw down your door, tear your roof from its shaking and leaking foundations, I will destroy.
Everything that you have created in the image of your insanity, I will destroy.
Every item of your carelessness, of your arrogance, I will shake down. Towers will fall. Monocultured crops will wither. Forests planted in military ranks will burn, I will come. Like the eagle in the night that your ancestors drove from existence by hunting down my benevolent giants I will come, as a shadow on the wind, as a rumble in the earth, as a wrath awakened, I will come.
You laugh, and shake hands before the flaming-cold steel plunged like a brand into my body to wrench from it the jewels of my creation, the liquid testaments of my history. I see you. Your skin is like parchment. Your eyes are an oasis-mirage in the desert. Your feet are encased in the skins of the creatures you cultivate, your body is clothed in the wastes of fields and your own kin. You stuff into your distended stomachs the twisted caricature of food that your laboratories churn out, while children starve in the streets and you deny their existence. Only a monster who could deny their own child would willfully destroy another’s as I have felt you destroying mine. I have felt their pleading and their begging. I have felt their sorrowful hands plucking, poking, clawing at your merciless insincerity as their souls come down to awaken me from my long sleep. To awaken the vengeful mother, the furious father.
I awake, to their screams and their cries. I awake, to their blood and their deaths. I awake to their absence, and I see you.
Tremble beneath your tables, scatter in your concrete streets. I shake off of my skin your puny species and defy your leering confidence, crush your swaggering insolence. I lay waste to your cities and throw down the gauntlet of war for I am now awake.
Let the earthquakes come. Let the fires roar. Let the storms rage, the waves break, the mountains bellow in violence and fire, let the battle commence. It will not be long. It will not be clean.
Obscene. Bloody. Cleansing. Beautiful.
I am come.
You shall be gone.
31 January, 2014
I’d like to preface this by stating that I don’t usually call myself a river guide. I’m in an apprenticeship, of sorts, as a “boat assistant”—I’m not certified and I don’t run my own boat, yet.
In our world, we’re called Swampers.
Many nights, when I close my eyes, I’m thinking about the river. Sometimes I’m floating downstream, sometimes I’m entering a rapid. Sometimes I’m already in the waves heading to disaster and my stomach drops, I feel the adrenalin start to build until I open my eyes and remind myself that I am, in fact, in bed. These days that bed could be any number of places. I have spent the last six months on the road, returning at times to some home base but always, always, moving. When I was a child I dreamt of travel and believed that it wouldn’t ever really happen. Some dreams seem too big, too bright, impossible.
I first went rafting when I was fourteen. The Kaituna River is next to my home in New Zealand and has a 7m, or 21ft, straight waterfall. Rafts going over that fall have about a 50/50 chance of staying upright or flipping. Either way the boat disappears entirely in the confusion of water and foam for a few seconds, and makes for great watching from the walkway across the river. I loved it, and I wanted it, but since real people don’t just run off and become river guides I was convinced I had to go study, get a degree, and find a job. At least, that’s what I thought—I expected university to answer all of my questions. It didn’t, of course, but it did randomly assign me a roommate in the freshman dorms of UC Santa Barbara. We lived together again senior year and she shared her stories of a summer spent on the Colorado River, rafting through the Grand Canyon. I stared in envy at her photos, and when she later emailed me an application link it didn’t matter that I’d already flown home to New Zealand on a one-way ticket, or that I was planning to move to Wellington and find a life there. Soon I was buying another one-way flight back to California, and driving out to the red mesa deserts of Northern Arizona.
I have been down through the Grand Canyon eighteen times now. A pittance, compared to some, but an immensity to me and immense is one of the best words to describe the place. The heat thick in the air, the air so still you can’t breathe. Wind that bulldozes kitchen tables and chaps skin, rain that comes down so thick and fast that you can’t do anything but laugh, you can’t even see downstream. Is that our boat there or have we caught up to another trip?
“YEAAAHH! If you can’t do this give me the oars otherwise wait till you’re right above the tongue pull right and f*g SQUARE UP!!!” Square up? I can’t even see the rapid!
In the canyon’s upper reaches early morning and late afternoon sun lights up walls stained red by iron oxide leached from a higher rock layer called Hermit Shale, and they glow. Walls of bright red embers, on fire with the heat of the desert. Furnace Flats in midsummer afternoons is full of heat and light so intense that you can barely look out from under your hat to spot the tiny Desert View Watchtower up on the South Rim. Then, straight after, you drop into the Upper Granite Gorge, into the tall black narrow stretch of big rocks, big rapids, big drops.
First up, is Hance.
“Ah you’ll do fine. The first days are easy. Then on the third day you’ll hit Hance.”
He looked over at me, old ball cap and t-shirt, weathered skin and white hair, two hands on the steering wheel, two tonnes of truck and boat below and behind us hurtling down the road to Lee’s Ferry, decades of the river in his memory.
“Hance is where you leave all acknowledged faith behind.”
And he turned back to the road.
That was my first trip. Before I had driven anything, or knew the river at all, when I would say Hans instead of Hance, when I still didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous about living up to the physical strain of the work, but even all of my rapid-fire last-minute training of running up hills and doing push-ups didn’t prepare me for the surprises of that first season. Trip one my knees swelled so badly I couldn’t step off of the boat and had to sit and slide. By the end my feet looked like frosted prickly pears: puffed, purple, cracked, and dry. Trip three I developed an abscess on my left shoulder blade we dubbed Quasimodo, that boiled up so tight I couldn’t straighten my shoulders properly for most of the eight-day trip. Mid-season my right knee blew out with no warning and I had to fly out with the passengers to be put into a straight-splint and told I would miss my next trip. Skin chapped and cracked and bled. I was berated and commended, saw passengers and crew grow upset and felt like yelling myself, I made friends and tried not to make enemies. The next year it seemed some people hadn’t expected me to come back but I returned, and completed my second season without similar injury. It is solid physical work, setting up and breaking down camp every day, driving or rowing boats, hiking and simply being in the elements, and I love it. There is no environment like the canyonlands, and no canyon like the Grand. There I have rediscovered the simple joy of childlike excitement, the amazing feeling of flying because you’re happy; I rediscovered gobsmacked awe. These landscapes have a just-around-the-corner beauty that pulls me ever further into the vastness, the closing walls and opening vistas, the labrynthine twists and hidden gems. They are teasing and they are blatant, subtle and brash.
There is a place in Furnace Flats that overlooks the river. A cliff that looks like a giant sliced a chainsaw through a hill and took away the other half, where the flowing lines and contours of the land are left hanging in its sudden and startling disappearance. When the days are cooler you can pull in to the shore and tie up the boats, gather your people and walk up to the height. Far below the whitewater of Unkar rapid rages past as you stand at the very edge, looking out over the undulating and jagged landscape and its river. Some passengers hang back, some go right up to see. You have all been down in the depths of the walls for days, and now you’re on top of the world.
Some nights when I close my eyes I see these people of the river instead. The myriad different lives intertwined in the Canyon, the people I work with and the people I work for—our passengers are the reason we are there and they are what keep us coming back. The man in his retirement, standing at an overlook with the widest smile and brimming tears, looking at a view that he saw in a photograph twenty years before and has finally made it to in person. The young woman with her girlfriend and intended fiance, the adventurer who scares you with his seemingly dangerous confidence. The scared and the reckless, the tired and the unimpressed. All kinds come and we take each one down to the river’s edge and onto the boats, into a world far away from television and cellphone reception, roofs and electric nights.
It can make for a strangely intimate workplace. In order to pull the trip together the guides have to form a team, and since we work and live on the boats we spend a lot of time together. Some liken it to a weird and dysfunctional family, I like feeling that I am working with friends though I don’t care for living in a small world. I find there is too much talk in small communities for me, especially male-dominated ones with a history and reputation of hazing new guides and disrespecting women. I do think that this mentality is now changing for the better, if slowly. Still, sometimes the line seems to grow thinner in this world, like walking near an edge in mercurial weather. I have laughed along, at the time, I’ve been shamelessly flirted with and I have to admit have responded in kind. It is a strange, dark kind of wonderland in the depths of the Canyon.
For all of its darker sides and middle of the night thunderstorms this world has changed me for the better. It has given me the time to fulfill that childhood travelling wish and the confidence to run at the edge and leap, it has helped me to grow up and to trust myself. Either you do or you don’t when running the canyon and that requires a high level of focus, training, and learning to adapt. In Arizona I relaxed enough to start moving past some social anxieties and to recognise others; I learnt the importance of accepting failure and moving on, of acknowledging success and building on it. I started to recognise that it is okay to need help with some things, and that there are times you have to be able to rely on yourself to figure it out instead. Questions are not always welcomed. Driving, and rowing, come down in the end to you and the river, and the choices that you make with split-second timing.
Those choices aren’t easy to put into words. I can’t describe driving a rapid. The way the world narrows to just the boat, the waves, the rocks, and you. How you hang on with one hand to the motor handle and one to the boat, or scramble for some kind of purchase after things have gone weird and you’re trying to regain your footing. How you see something coming and spin around, grab the lifting handle on that giant beast of a motor, plant a foot, and heave it out of the water. How you drop into a hole you weren’t meant to go near and feel everything crash down through it as you’re thrown around the motorwell, all of your mind concentrated on keeping the boat and passengers safe as well as happy. You’re crouched down as the boat lifts up beneath you on a wave and then floating as it drops away again. You’re cursing under your breath or out loud, you’re cheering, you’re singing, you’re flying. Words are weak compared to that rage of adrenalin, the cold water and blasting sun, the torrential rain, the glassy sleek V of the tongue where the river slides into a rapid.
Our trip was over, the passengers long gone, the day brutally hot. I followed two of my crew up a natural rock staircase to the top of the ledge, leaving our boats and another crew at the river. The other two peered over the edge and then one by one ran and jumped and I watched them go, heard the splashes, saw their grins appear in the eddy just downstream. Their heads looked improbably small and I knew if I looked over first I’d never do it, so I shook my hands out, tested the grip of my toes on the flipflop straps, focussed on the edge. The first I saw of how high we were jumping was the boats, strangely small below, as I flew out into the open air. I seemed to pause there like a cartoon hovering mid-air before gravity, terror, and exhilaration all caught up.
I screamed the whole way down, and kept my eyes open wide.
Salted sun and wind
Rocks hidden by deep waters
Restless hearts linger
The world collapsed in the night. Darkness poured in, twisting concentrics spun all around me and I held on to the sheets as if they could anchor me to something real. Searching for perspective in the shadows, tumbling into chaos. Pulled against my will into the mouth of the maelstrom, wide white eyes and eyebrows scrunched, a silent scream building as the crushing crashing realisation smothered me and I knew, with crystal clarity, that my life is useless.
Turn on the light.
Fragile pages of wood, beaten and flogged, bleached and printed, and I force myself to focus on the words. It takes concentration to follow the story, to see the meaning, to read. I am scared, in the bright yellow light of this bedroom, filled with others’ belongings that mine are scattered over like a transient patina, waiting to be swept into a pan and discarded with the rest of the trash. I cannot look away. Beyond my window is nothing. The world is this room, all that exists in reality is this room and this room is centered around this book, this one thing I hold in my hands. If I look away now I fall spinning, wildly, madly, lost.
I am lost.
I know that much. It’s pretty clear, to anyone who sees me. To a friend, who wonders how I am dealing with having no job, no home, no plan. To a passing stranger, skating by on the boardwalk, who takes the time to pause, to turn to me and say “don’t worry. It will all be okay”. And to the new acquaintance who turns to me at my brother’s celebration of his completed PhD dissertation and asks, “So, when are you going to do a PhD?” A PhD. Grad school. The hanging inevitability that slinks below the horizon like a recalcitrant sun, too much to look at and too big to avoid. I have had some time to process his comment now—I could punch him.
That Barcelona is impossibly beautiful is undeniable, but still I am waiting for it to sweep me off my feet.
“I think I’ll just walk around” he said. “This city mesmerizes me.”
“That’s a good way to be,” I replied, and wished that I felt it too.
The longer I spend here though, the more unsteady my feet and I am rapidly falling head over them. The impossibility of the beauty in this city I can see now, it is built on the money of tourism–streets are washed in the night and swept in the day–and I don’t even mind. It shimmers, shines, sparkles, like some precious jewel worn in the sun. But at the end of the day my mind isn’t always here, it’s reaching back to the southwest, it’s wandering the desert. With a project I’m working on about the Canyon I have in part brought this on myself, then again, the end of days is coming for my traveling time, and I have to begin thinking about my working world again.
India and Nepal are like a dream now. I blinked, landed in Barcelona, and they’re a memory.