I woke to find myself floating down a river. From all appearances — the beating green of the knee-high grass, the granite bones jutting skyward, muscular redwoods lining the bank — I was slowly drifting through a valley in the Pacific Northwest, on a river pregnant with fresh snow melt.
The previous day I had driven up the coast of California, intending to spend two days hiking through the forests. Although I had enjoyed the falling off of the sharp lines of the city, and the steady accumulation of the rough, untidy edges of forest and sky, by the time I had hiked the mile or so to the campground and pitched my tent, a loose tiredness, of the kind that emerges at the end of a busy day, had stilled my body. I had folded onto the thin plastic of the tent floor, zipped up my sleeping bag and fallen asleep.
And now I was in the river. My clothes were the same as the ones I had worn the previous evening, a long-sleeved cotton tee shirt and athletic pants a size too big. My hair was the same length, and I still had the “Gloria” of Bach’s B minor Mass stuck in my head. I had rubbed rheum from my eyes. But I now found myself out of the confines of the tent, floating weightless, in the river. I heard cars in the distance, only a mumble, and saw a two lane highway dip in and out of view. The sight of other humans, even those ensconced within automobiles, brought a small amount of comfort.
The water felt cold, and I could not see the bottom of the river, but as I continued to drift I was surprised to find that my body did not lose any heat; my fingers, as I brought them to my face, radiated warmth and we completely dry. My clothes were likewise dry. This reduced the urgency I felt to see hikers, or to signal to the drivers on the road. In the one instance I did try to signal to them, all I received was a wave and a quick smile, flashed like sunlight off a pikeminnow.
The road disappeared, first from sight then from sound, and the current carried me on. I made a couple of half-hearted attempts to move laterally toward the shore, but found the water driving me to the center, where the way was clear and smooth. And it was enjoyable in its novelty. I liked the river carrying me, so gentle and sure.
Eventually, after an hour or two of relinquishing my movement to the will of the water, I wanted to have more freedom. I wanted to use my legs, to carry my body by my own power. To have, within the path of the river, an ability to oversee the river. I wanted to be carried, but also to watch the water as it carried me.
So I attempted a raft. I had made some rudimentary rafts before, toys made of twigs and leaves that bobbed in a fountain or a pond. They provided fascination as my friends and I bet on how far it would get before running aground or coming apart at the seams. Casting about for material, I absentmindedly reached down in the water and felt around. My fingers closed around a large object, and when I looked down into the water, I saw my hand grasping at the trunk of what was once an oak tree. Incredulous, I stared at a suitable piece of wood. I started to maneuver it around in front of me, still submerged, but the current tugged on the end, and I let go.
The log dissolved back into the river. The river was not totally clear, but I should have been able to see the log as it floated past. I moved my foot through the space it formerly occupied and found nothing solid to make contact with. It was gone.
But I reached in once more, looking for something with which to build a raft, and once more the log materialized, the same craggy bark I felt the first time. As I brought it above water, I began to feel its full weight, and I began to struggle to extract it from the reticent element that contained it. However, when the first fiber broke the surface, a great buoyancy came over the log, and it erupted from below, almost hitting my head as it came to rest, half-submerged, on the surface of the river.
The first attempt at a larger raft came together quickly. I was able to elicit five logs in total from the river. After I had two logs, I scavenged some branches as they floated by, and sandwiched the two logs between them, tying the whole mess together with vines pulled from overhead. When I had finished, sliding the three other logs in between the rough tapestry of branches, the raft closely resembled the toy rafts of my childhood, but at a size large enough for me to attempt a roll onto the top.
However, no sooner had I put some pressure on the raft before it came apart, disintegrating into the simple components it once was. The logs melted, became indistinguishable from the rest of the river, and the branches, without anything solid to join them, slipped from their restraints and dispersed. I was briefly disappointed, but the incredible fact that I was able to make a raft warmed me as I reclined to float on my back and watch the sun streak the clouds with color – orange, red, purple.
The next morning brought a new urgency. I was wet. The warmth of my body started to seep away. I was turning cold. Driven by the chill, a new craft came together: a frame, a skeleton, with none of the decorative redundancies of the first. This time, the logs did not come as readily. They did not maintain their concrete nature unless I paid great attention to the type of log I wanted – a foot in diameter, rough bark, tightly packed rings, six feet in length. The branches were scarce, and the ones I found bent at awkward angles, too thin to serve as the stabilizing beams for my raft. By wedging branches into the cracks of the two logs, and twisting the vines into weak strands of rope, I created a primitive catamaran. I could only ride it by balancing my hips on one log and stretching my legs over the center of the raft, across an empty gap through which I could see small, choppy waves. My feet rested on the log parallel to the one I sat on, and by shifting my weight, I was able to have a small amount of control over how close I steered to the banks. It creaked and flexed, but remained intact.
Having earned a brief respite, I took stock of my surroundings, and realized that there were others, ahead of me, on the river. Although I could hardly steer my raft with anything resembling direction, the canoes, upon seeing me, paddled upstream until level with me, then turned to maintain pace as I continued to drift with the current. Confronted with their seemingly effortless ability to maneuver, I decided to acknowledge my predicament, but did so in a tone of voice that conveyed a casual confidence.
“Hello, do you have anything that could help keep me warm?”
“No, but we do have some food. And I swear, using cloth to keep warm won’t last more than an hour. The effective technique is to keep moving.”
They gave me a bag of trail mix and a water bottle. I asked them where they were going.
“Nowhere defined, we’re just rowing. We’ll probably stop at a waterfall up river.”
Another one contributed, “Some of us camped there a decade ago, and we want to revisit the site.”
The first nodded. “See what has changed; could reflect our own changes.”
Of course. They appeared experienced, comfortable. The river which pushed and swirled unpredictably beneath my makeshift seat seemed to yield few surprises to them. They stayed in the calmer waters, or took the faster currents with deliberate decision.
They consider my raft. “Towards what are you drifting?”
“I don’t know. I just happened to find myself in the river. I was just trying to get above the water.”
“Here, have this rope.” I received a braided, multicolor nylon rope, of the kind rock climbers use to secure themselves. “Not ideal for the water, and yet it will help. You can lash all the branches together.”
Demonstrating with the handles of their oars, they quickly formed a knot locking the oars at right angles with each other. After showing it to me again, slowly, they tossed the bundle to me. I caught it, and I felt a brief glow of pride. They deemed me capable of taking care of their belongings.
“You can return it to any supply shop down river. Just tell them the Mafa group owns it; they’ll know how to contact us. Oh, and young sycamore trees up ahead which were cut – their bark, if it’s stripped, can be used for your raft’s platform.”
We said our farewells, and they turned once more up river, to their original course, against the current.
All they had described came to pass. I encountered the sycamore trees, floating like dead fish, and a combination of poling and sun slowly warmed me up and dried my clothes. I looked back down at my raft. The sycamore bark did make the raft more comfortable. I had layered it over the branches I added to fill the gap in the center of the raft. The loose knots I shored up with the new rope, but the seemingly stable connections at the other three corners of the raft began to shift as I tried to get the first into alignment. I suddenly became attentive to the clunky and unwieldly nature of my craft, compared to the elegant, swift, graceful canoes. I had only a branch which served as a pole to influence my path. I considered whether the rowers were being completely benevolent in how they gave me assistance. Could it be that their food and advice were merely expressions of pity? Condescension to an individual too weak and inexperienced to receive the harsh truth – that a raft is an outdated, ugly, and primitive mode of transportation made obsolete by the existence of modern canoes.
This line of thinking was pointless; I didn’t have a canoe, all I had was the raft, gathered under me from the river. I straightened out the logs and the branches as best I could, then ate the trail mix and drank the bottled water. My stomach was a bit unsettled by the food after the day-long fast, but I forced myself into a fitful sleep.I woke again, and the world was dark and a fine drizzle dappled my face. It was still the middle of the night so I tried to return to sleep. The rain continued to fall, harder, and I could no longer ignore the water, coming now from above and below.
A slash of daylight emerged, lightning. Crushing the air itself, cracking it into hard bits of sound that tumble from the sky. Darkness was complete. I felt the bark under my feet, and the solidness of the logs and the branches beneath that, but my blindness placed me in a void at once massive and oppressively small. My mind reached out, trying to construct a scene, calculate distances between myself and the banks and the sky and the planets, but at its fullest extension found only its own shortcomings. And the water was everywhere – the air I breathed and my skin and my mouth – water pressed up, permitting no movement, no space, between myself and the touch of water. The presence of water, the sheer matter of water created slippage, the water began to dissolve me, losing myself to water, losing to water…
On my hands and knees, I rest my forehead in the valley between two branches. The raft remains concrete. I can smell the sweetness of the sycamore. It reminds me of covering the raft. Breathe in. Breathe out. I think of how I bound the logs together with fiber, with nylon. I think of this current raft, constructed in haste, in opposition to the structural failures of its predecessor, the one that rose out of a memory of a toy, an object of amusement. I think of the wood rising from the water, the clear water, and how it floated on the surface.
I think of myself looking at the log as it emerged, and thinking about walking. Walking in midsummer, wearing cargo shorts and running shoes, feeling my hair absorb the heat of the sun. Twelve, and finding in the safety of a suburban park the thrill of solitude. Encountering a large hedge and claiming the leaf-strewn ground within it as my own. Observing others as they walked past – parents with massive armored strollers, stolid joggers, athletes whipping a Frisbee through arcing flight — and through those observations placing them in my care.
The raft was solid. I was solid. I stared ahead, carried by my raft through the darkness.Dawn came and I saw light re-speak the word, recall the world into being. Touching the sky, the trees, the banks, the boulders, the leaves, the water, giving me my place again. The clouds still loomed behind, pouring themselves over the path I had already traveled. On the bank I saw a small dock, leading up to a dull, aluminum-plated shack. I gauged the distance between me and the shore, then started poling at an angle, such that the raft crashed into the end of the dock. The impact was jarring, and I narrowly avoided crushing my foot between the piling and the side of the raft. But I was able to hoist my hips over the rough lip of the wooden planks and walk towards the shop on unsteady legs.
Making my way to the front of the building, I saw a hand-painted sign, red letters on white, proclaiming “Supplies.” Inside, the shoulder-high shelves were arranged horizontally in two rows, creating a corridor leading directly to the cashier. After the cacophony of the previous evening, the shack held a sacred quiet. As I approached the counter, I saw that the cashier was reading a book. When he laid the book, spine up, on the chipped Formica I saw that the title was in French: L’Esprit Saint du Cygne.
“Can I help you?” English, and a gravelly voice that was seemed too large for his hunched, slight frame.
I told him I wanted to purchase a nylon rope, about half an inch in diameter, about one hundred feet long.
“That will run you about 90 dollars, my friend.”
I reached into my pocket, and extracted a waterlogged wallet. “You haven’t heard of the Mafa group by any chance, have you? They lent me a rope and told me I could drop it off at any store around here. I figured I should just buy them a new one, seeing as theirs is holding my raft together.”
The cashier nodded. “I know them.” He took the coiled rope and ran his thumb along the cords. “Tell you what. Keep your money. I’ll tell ’em that you made it down here alright, and get them another rope.”
I wasn’t sure whether he was being extraordinarily generous, or if he was trying to get me to admit a moral failing. He shared that ability to cause uncertainty with the Mafa group. “How do I know you’ll give them another one? I don’t want them to think I stole their rope.”
“Can you pay for this?”
A good question. I opened my wallet. No cards. About forty dollars in cash. “No.”
“You can’t buy this rope. I’m not going to let you sail further downriver without something durable keeping your raft together. Looks like you’re going to have to take me at my word.”
And again, I found myself in a situation in which I was mostly powerless.
He gave a small nod, like he had made a decision. “Listen, the Mafa group and I have history; they send business my way and I occasionally give them a discount or a gift. When it’s warranted.” He knocked two times on the table, punctuating the end of that part of the conversation. He asked me where I was going, and again I had to answer that I didn’t know. Another similarity to the Mafa group.
He pulled out a map. It showed the river valley, but at a great distance. There were only a few symbols marking notable geographic features, two or three major roads, and a thin blue line transversing the page. He had marked the location of the shed with a red “x”. After examining the map for a few seconds, I was able to locate my camping spot, the last place (until now) I had stood on solid ground. I knew that some part of the past three days was spent in between those two endpoints, but because I had woken up in the river, I couldn’t say where I had begun. The map also did little to demystify the path ahead; the river flowed downhill, yes, and seemed to curve more frequently later on, but there was no telling how deep or fast it would run, or what materials I would have should I need to shore up my raft. But I could see it laid out now, in front of me.
I looked up from the map. The cashier and I made eye contact for a moment. Brown and Blue. Then he looked down, folded up the map, and tucked it back under the counter. “Anything else I can help you with?”
“I’ll take three of those MREs, a gallon of water, and one of those waterproof ponchos.” The cashier rung up my purchases, and I gave him a few soggy dollar bills. “Thank you for taking care of the rope. I hope to see you and the Mafa Group again sometime so I can provide a more concrete form of appreciation.”
I walked back out the door, back to my raft. Back to the river.
This is the last post. As I have now graduated from college (picture below) and am moving on to other things, I’ve decided that this blog has served its purpose well and deserves to be honorably retired. Thank you for your gentle constructive criticism and lavish encouragement, and for, in many ways, watching me grow up.
For Christo, Ecclesiae, et Veritas,