Far To Go

Three travelers weigh the risks, consequences, and rewards of a two-week river trip at the dawn of the corona era

By Noah Kaplan

On March 25th, Jared Polis, the democratic Governor of Colorado issued a stay at home order—a beacon of maturity—delivered by an adult politician. The panicking masses wanted it. I wanted it. He stood in front of the long microphone, this modest, deeply balding governor, to offer a flailing society his course, trying to calm the frenetic consumer, persuade the disaffected to listen, now, I know we’ve been pretty bad, or boring—your government has not always been brave—but listen now. Stay home.  I hear him on my phone’s little speaker, on the wood floor of my unfurnished one-bedroom apartment in Denver and I am glad he is there to rally us together. Like its 1941 and he’s Winston Churchill saying victory at all cost, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be;  without victory there is no survival and to arm yourselves, and be Ye men of valor, in readiness for the conflict— 

It’s not 1941 and Jared Polis isn’t Winston Churchill. But he appears caring and calm. I imagine him doing the dishes after dinner, his shirtsleeves rolled up, properly cuffed, his watch still on.

He says don’t go to the hospital. There are too many people there. Don’t go to restaurants, or bars, and don’t gather in groups. Don’t visit grandparents, friends. Only shop once a week, and less if you can. Socially distance and self-quarantine. Recreate once a day, or once every two days and for as little as possible.

^ ^ ^

Backcountry experience is first and foremost an exercise in navigation. The greater the distance, the further I see, the more I know about my nature. Otherwise, I remain on the convoluted web of society to find my way around its streets of desire, to wrestle with its bugs and learn of its nature, which may or may not be my own. But in the backcountry—behind country, when country does not do—I venture out, and am reminded of a truer history and a timeless nature, a foundational reliance on self, a return to what is basic and simple inside me.

 ^ ^ ^

As Polis speaks, long-time adventure partner, Wes Wright, a recent med school graduate on his way to a surgical residency in June, pulls into his parent’s house in Manitou Springs, CO in the inky dark of night riding a capped Ford F150. He has been living out of his truck for the past six months with his raft guide girlfriend, Kathryn, a birdwatcher with a mountain bike and a decade of experience running water. They arrive to load up three stand up paddle boards, 28 gallons of water, 35 freeze dried meals, 30 apples, 30 oranges, and a hell of a lot of oatmeal, peanut butter, salami, and cheese stockpiled earlier that month. I was to meet them in Manitou Springs, and then caravan to put-in some 450 miles to the west.  

^ ^ ^

The desert is a land of distance and decay. The boulders recall the day they rolled and sat. The sage fills the dry air. The quivering grasses cling to the sand. The drama that happens in the sky during the tides of March. The walls of rock melting slowly into and out of the ground—and the dead animals left to bake or sink into the sand and mud, forgotten by their kind.

You can see how the river forms here, by the melt of distant peaks, and by side canyons that funnel water from the mesas above, down washes and pour-overs that split and break the earth. You notice where some walls meet there are narrow passages through the bedrock. If you crawl from the water, battling in the brief tamarisk debate, you’ll find yourself on a flat bed of rocks and sand at the base of an impossible slice of time, and it will point you inward, towards a narrow break in the canyon wall. It feels like a  secret. The cool air. The features twist above. If you follow the shallow braided waters filled with earth through the valley, you’ll see the walls. Towering giants of rock in all stages of atrophy. It gets deeper and deeper, one risky pour-over to the next, entering each one its own threatening move—a decision to go on, or let them sleep, and turn around. Life is a series of decisions to stay or to go. 

^ ^ ^

Stand up paddle boards are not a usual mode of desert travel. Eleven feet long, three feet wide, inflated rubber surfboards, with retracting fins. Fixed rings that line the reinforced rubber exterior make for a vessel you can strap 200 lbs of gear to. You drag the beast into the water and notice it floats high. Then you paddle. Stand, sit, kneel—whatever, your gear piled in front and behind. You will fall off. But you don’t need but the depth of half a paddle to make the thing move. On a river often made up of disparate channels meandering a wide desert valley, running at 120 cfs, it is essentially the only way to navigate a waterway that may rarely be deeper than 18 inches. And you are still going to be dragging the damn thing—a lot.

^ ^ ^

The days leading up to the decision to stay or go are like long periods of peering over an edge that needs to be descended, and finding that each time I look, the distance to the ground has grown larger. Some people are better at finding safe descents than others. Put five people looking over the same cliff and each one may find a different way down. Some ways down may not be ways down. Crowded descents cause problems. There might be a trundler or two amongst you. Everyone needs to get down on their own. But today, together, we all saw the same curve shooting into the void, exponentially upward, a short line, ominous with all that space above it.

^ ^ ^

Wes Wright was born at the base of Pikes Peak in Colorado to a wildlife biologist and a school teacher who both came from little in the South, and found a whole lot in the mountains, in Wes, and not without some difficulty, in each other.  He grew up running rivers in a working-class mountain town. A make-your-own-way kind of place. I met Wes in college where he had the only tattoo he’ll ever have, long straight brown hair that wept down to his nose across his face, a wide bright, damn near perfect smile, square jaw and a get dirty attitude. An endless talker.  And during a time when I could barely be bothered to keep my shirt on, Wes was already preparing for medical school. He says people, bless them, are bad at taking care of themselves. Wes has become a man in the years I have known him, he has fought for himself, has gained some control, and tries like hell to be good to the people around him, with rarely a moment wasted in his rush to live. 

^ ^ ^

It feels better when we make decisions with others because it makes us feel like the right choice is achievable, if others say it’s so—but people are often wrong, and ultimately, you will be who you are when no one is watching, and that is when most choices are made. The first thing you do in the morning. Whether you wash the peanut butter jar out. The mess you leave for someone else. When you decide it is time to leave your house. How you treat a stranger.

^ ^ ^

Someone bothers to hang the stately blue curtains behind him. His hands gripping each side of the podium, Polis leans forward as if to keep it from moving. He is joined by men in slacks and fleece pull-overs. State parks for now were to remain open. Go be out, but be away from each other and do not go far, long. Don’t make it hard for us to find you. Polis’ tie is straight, but his little wisps of hair on the top of his head are askew. A hopeful sign that he may care about more than his own appearance.

^ ^ ^

For days I feel feverish with no fever, a memory of soreness pulses through my body. I run to prove I can.

^ ^ ^

Words that describe water: bubbling, brimming, blooming, pluming, gushing.

^ ^ ^

My dad, 66, able bodied. Pretty good cook. Loves to talk. Loves to clean. One of the wilting flowers of the sixties and seventies retaining the quiet pessimism of the comfortably dejected progressive—the leftist, lawyer class.  Thinks no one should leave their homes, really, ever, if possible. It is almost possible. 

^ ^ ^

The grocery store has always been an existential convenience. Did this banana have to travel so far in winter to turn brown on my kitchen counter? Who soaked my beans? I wrap a bandanna around my face. Now, almost finally, what do I need.

^ ^ ^

I get two flat tires on my way to meet Wes and Kathryn. They come to pick me up. I buy four new tires. I watch the mechanic place a plastic sleeve over my driver’s seat before wheeling it into the bay. How quick might you paddle a stand-up paddle board 85 miles on a foot of water? How fast with a fever? I am low on gas. I use the bathroom with my sleeve at the door. How far to go at the end of the world?

^ ^ ^

Delia, 27, hotel worker, furloughed indefinitely. She gets invited to a small town in Minnesota with her friends, a quiet place, away from people. She says no. Denver needs her here, at home she says, fighting for unemployment and imagining personalities for the cracks in her walls. 

^ ^ ^

If we didn’t leave that night we’d never leave. Leaning up against Wes’s truck in Manitou, he sits sideways out of the driver’s seat, and we debate. The gear is packed. An open road, and a silent, untraceable lie are the only things between us and the river and then two weeks alone.  We had done more dangerous things, we thought. But suddenly, it didn’t matter what anyone had done. Everyone was born again into the pandemic. The sun was setting and it was getting cold, the clouds swirled like they do in the mountains when a storm builds and little flakes were starting to fall. Kathryn, from her corner says there is no place she’d rather be, watching the birds and taking pictures of the rocks and flowers —but what makes us so special?

^ ^ ^

Risk is an important thing to consider when deciding to embark in any direction. Something dangerous now might become more or less dangerous later. Consider the likelihood of an event and then its consequences. Consider why one embarks at all, but do not consider this for too long. The more information you gather the more calculated the risk, the better informed your decision can be. Consider what you have at your disposal, what makes you special. Consider as Kant did, if everyone were to behave as I do, would the world be better or worse? Less suffering or more?

^ ^ ^

I have never been a great hand-washer.

^ ^ ^

Wes and Kathryn get into his truck at dusk, I into my Subaru with the fresh tires and we drive most of the night through a blizzard to reach an unintended destination. My late grandmother’s now uninhabited house at the end of a dirt road is on the other side of the Rockies, halfway to the Utah desert. We arrive to the house at two in the morning.

^ ^ ^

Later the next day, standing in the living room, two walls of windows look out on the prairie. Wes gets a call from his father. He has been reading fearfully. Devouring the bad news, investigating his aches in a new light. He hasn’t been feeling well. He doesn’t have a fever but is sure it’s coming. I see Wes look out the window on the snow-dusted West Elks. He says let’s wait one more day.

^ ^ ^

….rolling, folding, gerbilling, burbling, bubbling, careening.

^ ^ ^

My aunt, nearly 85 years old, holocaust, cancer, survivor with lifetimes of life in her deep comfortable wrinkles. Hands that have always worked the knots of land and home and spirit. She is missing many of her lymph nodes in her chest and arms after breast cancer and a double mastectomy. Readies her garden on the western slope of the Rockies, just a half mile as the crow flies from my grandmother’s house. She never leaves her house now, and hardly notices, though she does miss having lunch and working her shift at the hospital, as her animals age, she writes letters and thinks of others.

 ^ ^ ^

My sister calls me from her restaurant shift working Chinese food take-out and delivery in Denver. She removes her gloves and mask, with some sweat. She tells me Andy’s got it. They are turning people away from the hospital. He’s got pneumonia. He’s 28. Come back when your lips turn blue, they said.

 ^ ^ ^

On the phone, my dad, nervous, tells me its selfish. You put yourself at risk and you put us all at risk. He says, what if something happens to us while you’re gone?

^ ^ ^

Rare light and a moment of absolute quiet, and I thought—heaven might be a slot canyon.

^ ^ ^

I consider death —when it happens, where it happens—that it will happen to me, my loved ones. Where I might be when it comes. What I might be called to do. Wes doesn’t want to think about that. He already knows enough. Medical school has made a cynic out of him. He says there is a lot about a person you learn in the days before they die. The governing emotion of their life reveals itself. A fearful person will be afraid, a kind person will be kind. Rarely many people present. We each have our days. But there are people whose job it is to witness. 

  ^ ^ ^

Slavoj Žižek a Slovakian philosopher says that humans experience history, not when we are engaged in things as they usually are, but instead only when we see aspects of our culture retaken by nature. That may be why a ghost town is so exciting to pass by or why the settings of post-apocalyptic films can capture our imagination. We have our own awe and sympathy for the effects of the human retreat.  When nature reclaims the Indian skyline for the first time in half a century and the Himalayas can be seen, we see history, we feel it. “Something new only immerges through the failure of proper functioning, or the suspension thereof—a disruption of the existing network of our lives.” That is what history is, he says. Nature taking something back.

^ ^ ^

Eventually, a moment occurs where the meandering channels are made to constrict. The layers of the earth reveal themselves from that timeless violence of degradation, collapse, removal. A close rockfall. An immovable buttress. There is a rush, the small terror in the air, and you may stand on your board and look out and say that’s a rapid. Then it is best to hunker down, kneeling and set up as the river becomes a river once more. It’s shallow but fast. See if you can trust it through. It will be clumsy. The paddle will not help much. It takes a spot of violence to make a river. But once through, you’ll pause and look around. You’ll realize the river has transformed. The water has come together. The path has become clear. You put the paddle in your lap and slowly the board spins. A breath, a moment of ease, clarity—quiet. 

^ ^ ^

…screaming, roaring, meandering, lapping, braiding, 

^ ^ ^

Returning to my single bedroom apartment in Capitol Hill, home to the working millennial herd, I wonder if people will still be howling at dusk. The sun softens over the foothills, I sit on the front steps to my apartment building, thumbing my dry skin and suddenly—a lone kroon from across the street. Then another. And quickly all around, people are howling out of their windows and off their porches. It bounces off the centenarian brick and stone, lifting the jittering hearts of the internet’s first true and lonely generation, having put their phones down for their eight o’clock communion. From windows in the sky, on back porches, lone wolves howl out together. Some don’t really know how to howl, it’s more like shouting, or screaming. It’s what they’ve been taught to do. Other’s sound more like songs. There are a lot of ways to howl.

We are growing up during our own blossoming atrocities, sharing them with the rest of history and a 24-hour news cycle. It has been our whole lives, a great big country bear stumbling down the stairs. And now a moment of quiet. We have been sent to our rooms. And there, a place for peace to grow.

^ ^ ^

Beauty is real and life has meaning— when it is tested. I hope I do not give way to weariness or boredom, or nostalgia. I hope we don’t ever fall again for the idea that we can’t or won’t or couldn’t change. We have changed. We can wake up tomorrow and decide anew.

^  ^  ^

I sit as my friends ready their boards looking out on the lonely desert water, unclear, cut up, ten different channels, zigzagging through the mudflats, not sure if one or many of them would go, and I can’t help but think of people. Kathryn rigs my board for me. A golden eagle circles above, and a cow lies dead in the water downstream. My gums are swollen for some reason, who knows, my hands buried in this white sand on this frozen riverbank, dry. I write because I cannot cry. And Wes looks over at me and asks, “Are you ready?”

_______________________

Noah Kaplan is a New Journalist and public high school teacher based in Denver, CO focusing on the personal essay, exploring the intersection of politics, the environment, and the deeply personal “I”. He received the 2019 Roam Award for his winning essay, “Gravity”. His work also appears in Stain’d Magazine (staindmagazine.com) and Matter Journal. Instagram @kno_kaps.

X