Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Finding Wilderness


     There is such an unmistakable, yet unquantifiable value to wilderness adventure. Spending time out in nature, pushing oneself physically and mentally, taking risks, venturing into the unknown. Over the years, it has become something I long for. It is a passion. And the more experiences I have on the rivers and trails and mountains and canyons of this awe inspiring earth, the more I realize how much I need them. My soul needs time in creation. My spirit needs adventure. These experiences make me a better person. They teach me lessons about life, about myself. They remind me how good it is to be alive. 
     My best friend Casey understands this as well. For the past ten years, it has been our understanding of this shared passion that has largely made our friendship what it is. We understand each others longing, and we love sharing adventures together.  After living on opposite sides of the country for the better part of a decade, Casey in Utah and myself in West Virginia, we found ourselves both back in Texas where we grew up. Over the years, we would travel across the country to meet up, doing river trips down Cataract Canyon out west, and the Gauley River back east, but often we would get to see each other only a few weeks to a month out of the year. Now, we were living in the same town again, both grateful to have ample time to hang out, but we found ourselves wondering, where is the adventure? We were living in New Braunfels, a town on the I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Austin, and though it is a beautiful place with some great people, wilderness is, without a doubt, lacking. Without realizing it, we had both become somewhat spoiled when it came to open spaces. In both Utah and West Virginia, wilderness abounds. Casey and I worked as river guides and wilderness instructors, and spent the majority of our time out in nature. Experiencing wilderness had become a part of life. So now what?
     Initially, I accepted to role of victim. There are no open spaces, no wilderness here, so there is nothing I can do about it. I resigned to putting that part of my life on hold. But as time passed, both Casey and I soon realized that our desire to spend time outside, our passion for wilderness, was not something we could just turn off. I began questioning myself. Why was I letting my situation in life dictate what I do with my life? If I am truly passionate about something, shouldn’t I be passionate about it everywhere? Casey and I would spend our evening hours enjoying cigars and a few beers and tossing out ideas. Then one day, it hit us. It was time for an adventure.
     About a month prior, Casey had heard about stand up paddling and how it was a big hit on Town Lake in Austin. He bought a few boards, and we started taking them on a flat stretch of the Comal River in downtown New Braunfels. It was great. We’d go out and paddle early in the morning, while the fog was still rising off the water, or under the glow of a full moon. The more we paddled, the more we talked about how good it is to be on the water. We reminisced about river trips of the past, down the Grand Canyon and Cataract Canyon and down the New and Gauley Rivers. For the both of us, there is nothing we love more than river trips, especially when they involve multiple days. The moment of pushing your boat into the water, disconnecting yourself form the hectic pace of the “real world,” and knowing that you have everything you need is like none other. It is the ultimate sense of freedom. For the next few days, week, or month, your world is only as wide as the river and its banks. Senses are fully engaged with the chosen few around you and the natural world abounding. And so, naturally, after a couple weeks of paddle boarding, we both asked the question, “When’s our next river trip?” I guess instead of “When,” the real question was actually “Where?” Where could we do a multi-day river trip on stand up paddleboards? Our answer was literally just up the road.
     The San Marcos River flows for 83 miles, beginning at a spring in the town of San Marcos and making its way to the confluence with the Guadalupe River just outside the town of Gonzales. We began looking at maps and trying to figure out logistics. There were a few roads crossing the river in between San Marcos and Gonzales, but the majority of the land on either bank was private ranch land. This meant that access was limited, which meant the chance remoteness was increased. The next thing we had to figure out was what we would take. On most long river trips, when taking rafts, you bring a lot of everything. Unlike backpacking, weight is not an issue. There is always room for more beer. On this particular trip though, we would have to strap everything on to the front of our paddleboards. For those who have never spent time on a stand up paddleboard, simply getting comfortable with balancing oneself can take some time. The challenge of taking minimal gear intrigued the both of us. On top of that, we had no concept of how fast we would move down the river. We did not have a clue what kind of mileage we could do in a day, what the rapids would be like, or how realistic it was to stand up and paddle for eight hours a day. Unlike kayaking and rafting, if we were to move downstream, we would need to be standing. The more we thought about it, the more we realized how many unknowns there were, which in turn got us even more excited about trying. After all, it is the unknowns and the risk that make it an adventure. After a little more planning and some food and water caches being hidden under a couple bridges, the morning of our launch had arrived. My wife Laura drove us the to Sewell Park, on the campus of Texas State University in downtown San Marcos, with the idea that she would come pick us up in 4 to 6 days when we arrived downstream in Gonzales. It was time to launch, and both of us were brimming with excitement. We had longed for some adventure, and we had found it.
     The next three and a half days were absolutely amazing. There was the thrill of being out paddling with my best friend, not really knowing what to expect. In the research we had done prior, we found very little info on multi day stand up paddleboard trips. Nothing we could find showed signs of anyone ever attempting to run the length of the San Marcos River on one. Near the end of our third day, we passed a older man sitting in a small fishing boat still tied to the right bank. He was wearing jeans and boots, an old button down work shirt, and a cowboy hat, the typical attire for a South Texas rancher. He was enjoying a cold, evening beer, and as we approached, he nodded. “Howdy fellas. Where you boys headin’?” “Evening sir. Trying to make it to Gonzales,” we replied. “Gonzales” he repeated, “well take care, and watch out for moccasins.” An hour or so later, Casey and I had found a sandy spot on the left bank to camp for the night. Sure enough around the bend comes the rancher and his fellow old timer. They were checking fishing lines they had set up earlier. As they passed, Casey and I were given another nod, and as they puttered off with their small prop motor, we could hear the rancher telling his old pal, “See, I told ya I seen some young fellas on surf boards.” The next morning we found out why he felt the need to warn us about the water moccasins. We saw over thirty in the span of 3 hours!

     Like any good adventure, the trip was a mix of struggle and awe, laughs and bruises. There were time when we forgot we were in semi-arid South Texas, finding ourselves surrounded by a thick canopy of trees and vines. Wildlife was abounding. We saw hawks and herons, hummingbirds and owls. The twitter and chirping of cardinals and swallows often competed with the gurgle of the ripples and waves. There was that undeniable peace that is found when surrounded by nature. By the end of the day, we were exhausted. Our shoulders were sore, our hands were blistered, and the arches of our feet were tight from standing and balancing all day. As I crawled into my sleeping bag at night though, I felt good. The good that comes after you know you’ve pushed yourself. Not knowing what was around the next bend, or where we would camp or it we would make it to our food cache, the adventure was invigorating. And looking back, I think what made our paddleboard trip the most rewarding for the both of us was that we had to search for it. We had to be inventive. Sure, we had been in way more remote settings dealing with way more extreme and riskier conditions, but we went out and found this adventure. Instead of simply sitting back and thinking about the places we weren’t, we actively engaged in the place that we were. I once heard it said that, “All great journeys answer questions that you didn’t even know to ask before you began.” I found one of those answers during our trip. Wilderness is out there. Time with nature can be found if looked for hard enough. I hope that I never stop dreaming about adventures in for off places, but I also hope to remember to embrace the place that I find myself in today. The truest of adventures is the one I find within. Nature, from the grandest expanse mountains to the shade of a backyard oak, is the setting and the facilitator of self discovery. As the wilderness prophet John Muir once suggested, “Keep close to Nature’s heart . . . And break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grand Canyon Goodness

Whitewater highlights from a 15 day trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

May I Have This Dance?

     In an instant, there is nothing but darkness.  My eyes are open, but they might as well be shut tight.  The only sensation they provide is the feeling of water moving across and against them, causing me to blink again and again.  With each flutter of my eyelids, I hope to see something. Still only darkness.  It is not silent, but the sound around me is dull, muted.  Everything is muffled, almost like a dream where I can’t quite make out what is going on or being said.  I can feel the current swirling all around me and against me, moving me.  The river feels like hands on my back and shoulders, standing over me, pushing me down from above.  My body presses against the riverbed.  I can feel the worn rocks on the backs of my legs and in the small of my back.  I reach out with my hands, out in front of my face and above my head.  It seems that the tips of my fingers have gained some heightened sense of awareness.  Smooth and worn, but not featureless, my hands move across the underside of a large boulder.  I can feel its variations and intricacies.  The more I move my hands, the more of this rock I feel.  Then suddenly, a flash in my mind, a thought, a memory.
     Sitting around a campfire, my bare feet are propped up on a stone fire ring.  Friends are in camp chairs all around, some with beer in hand, their feet mimicking mine.  My wife sits next to me.  Her long, straight sandy-brown hair hangs down past her shoulders, framing her face.  The flames dance in her deep, dark eyes.  We have sat like this a thousand times over: telling stories, laughing, debating.  But this memory is specific, for one of our topics this night happened to be death.  “How would you go, if you could choose?”  Most responded with answers like “quickly” or “in my sleep.”  A climber friend of mine joked about it happening on impact.  Not necessarily the most peaceful, but definitely quick.  But then I gave my answer, different from all the rest.  I knew the ways I did not want to die.  I had seen an aunt die after dealing with cancer for years, her husband and two daughters having ridden an emotional and exhausting roller coaster that I cannot even begin to fathom.  I had a grandparent who physically and mentally deteriorated from Parkinson’s and dementia.  The last time I saw her I am fairly sure she had no idea who I was.  Or maybe she did, but she just had no way of showing it.  Saddening while simultaneously frustrating.  I did not want something drawn out. I did not want to get sick.  So when it came to me around the campfire that night, my preferred method of departure was to drown.  I have spent over a decade, more than a third of my life, working on rivers.  I figured that if I died from drowning, that meant that up until the moment I passed, I was doing what I loved, and I liked the idea of that.  I remember even half heartedly joking that if I lived long enough to be a worn, salty, decrepit old man, that I might just take one last trip down the river and find a rock to stuff myself under.  Well, it was a few decades sooner than I would have liked, but here I was.
     As my hands continued to move back and forth, my fingertips had assumed the role of my eyes and searched for an exit.  The realization came to me, surprisingly matter-of-factly, “I’m gonna die under this rock.”  I did not feel scared or sad.  I did not begin to struggle or fight.  It wasn't that I consciously choose to not feel or do those things.  I just . . . didn’t.  And then, like being awakened from an extremely involved and intricate dream, my now highly sensitized hands felt something new, air.  My eyes quickly opened to notice light shining through the water above, and I went after it with everything I had.  Just as abruptly as it had begun, it was over, and I was breathing deeply again.
     Last night I learned of the passing of fellow paddler, a river guide I had the opportunity to work with and had come to befriend, admire, and respect.  It would be an understatement to say he was well known throughout the “river community.” A guide and instructor, world-class professional kayaker, and mentor to so many, he was diagnosed with cancer, and within a few weeks, suddenly he’s gone.  I remember every time we would see each other out on the river, Brian would make an effort to paddle his raft of people over to mine, and tell the folks in my boat, “You guys don’t know how lucky you are.  You’re getting to boat with one of the best river guides I know.  I really hope you appreciate him.”  Now, there is no telling how many different crews of paddlers he would say that to while on the river, probably more than anything to help out a fellow guide with a tip at the end of the day.  But never the less, it always made me feel special.  Here was this guy, 10 times the boater I’d ever be, and he would make it a point to compliment me, to build me up.
     More often than not, death can be so damn frustrating and seems so pointless, such a waste.  If Brian would have been sitting around the fire that night, I know for sure he would not have chosen “cancer in my 30s.”  I stayed up most of the night, as many others did I am sure.  The recirculating and unanswerable question of “Why?” came back again and again, and with each pass it made, I could feel the tension and frustration build.  My head would spin, mind jumping from one memory to the next, and my chest would tighten and my breathing become slightly strained.  I tossed and turned and sat up for hours, heart heavy and unsettled.  But as the first morning light began to make its way through the clouds and whispers of the night’s rain dropped off the leaves, I began to realize I had been completely missing the point.  Death had become a distraction, and I had allowed it to garner all my attention.  “How would I die if I could choose?” is the wrong question.  The more important, relevant question is “How will I live?” because that I can choose.  I have very little control over how I leave this spinning ball of rock and water, and maybe that is what’s so frustrating about it.  But I have complete control over what I do with the time I’m given here.
     I think back on all the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned from my time on the river.  In the beautiful whirling messes of waves and whitewater, there is way more out of my control than in it.  And yet I know there are a few certain things I do have control over, things that I can do.  Distractions are crashing and calling all around, trying to steal my attention, but if I remain focused on where I want to go, and the little things I can do to help myself get there, then I can find myself so immersed in the moment that time almost stands still.  In the midst of chaos, waves building and breaking and exploding off the rocks of the riverbed, I can dance with one of the most powerful things on earth, and, even if only for a fleeting moment, be a part of something beautiful. 
     There is plenty out there to distract us, plenty to steal our attention away.  To the living, death can feel like an unexpected punch in the gut, the kind that leaves you breathless and helplessly grasping.  Death can drop us to our knees and have us crying out to God.  And maybe, in some final twist, these are death's gifts to us.  For what good is death if it doesn't awaken the living?  That blow to the gut that knocks the air out of us reminds us how precious each breath is.  In dropping to our knees, death reminds us that it is important to stop, to cry, to question.  It awakens us from the complacent lull that we might not even realize we have been in.  Brian left us too soon, there is no question, but that doesn’t change how much he lived while he was here.  The sting of death is a little less when viewed through the context of life.  I grabbed my river gear this morning no longer questioning how or when I will die.  How we die doesn’t really matter.  My concern is how I am going to dance with life today.


Sunday, June 29, 2014

Dip & Rise

     The day’s first light graces the highest point on the canyon wall and slowly begins to work its way down towards the river, illuminating layers of rock and time in the process.  Shadows bend and morph by the minute, revealing unnoticed pockets and dimensions, a single sandstone wall becoming many as I drift by and gaze upon its array of intricacies.  Droplets of water fall off the outstretched oars as they methodically dip and rise, dip and rise, dip and rise.  The rhythm of them lapping the water is my morning music, my mantra, my prayer.  Like holy words repeated over and over again, they still my mind and center my soul.  Birds flutter and chirp, and in between spans of tranquility, the river narrows, tumbling over rocks and boulders.  Waves build and break.  Currents swirl and boil in a seemingly chaotic mess of froth and white.  It is written here in the turbulent mess, in the wild and the wet, the language older than time itself. For it is said that even before night and day, before heavens and earth, there was simply water and spirit.  We float along, listening to this language, reading the water.  Treading only along currents that invite us, we are careful to heed the warnings of other paths. The river speaks to us, and by listening we are connected to it and to the beginning.  We travel deeper into the heart of this place, and in doing so travel deeper into ourselves.  In side canyons we rediscover the awe and wonder of childhood, exploring and laughing and loosing ourselves, existing only in the moment at hand.  In others, we find ourselves overwhelmed by emotions we had stored in our own narrow, deep, hidden place.  The language of water is now written on us as tears make their way down our face.  We sketch images.  We write words.  We take photos.  We sit and stare and breathe deeply.  We do whatever we can to hold on to this place.  Though some of us shall return and others never again, we all know there will be times we will long to look back and to remember vividly in hopes of resurrecting these feelings again.  There were moments we felt 
strong, when we pushed ourselves, and others when we simply faced the challenge we had no control over.  Staring up at moonlit canyon walls and a sliver of stars overhead, we realized our smallness and became comfortable in it.  We shared stories and laughter.  We celebrated the days of our birth, and professed our commitment and our love.  We listened and looked each other in the eyes.  We connected.  And maybe in the end, that is the greatest gift of this grandest of canyons.  It inspires and encourages connection, with each other, with ourselves, with the waters and the world around us.  Here, we awake expectantly.  We look forward to that first morning light, excited for the places it shall reveal.  We listen for the soothing rhythm of oars as they kiss the water’s cheek, whispering holy words as they dip and rise . . . dip and rise . . . dip and rise.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Laugh Louder the Harder It Rains

     Four years ago today, my wife and I began a journey, a long walk north that has influenced us every day since. Here's to long walks, the insights they inspire, and the people and places they allow us to experience.  Looking back through journal entries from our time on the Appalachian Trail, here is one of my favorites . . .

     My feet hurt. My knee hurts. They do not simply ache.  They are not sore or stiff. They hurt. My feet are calloused and blistered. My heels are bruised and tender to the touch. Where the nail of my right pinkie-toe used to be there is now … well, I don’t really know what that is. My knee is swollen; I touch it with my index finger and can feel the fluid that has built up around my knee cap. One hundred and eight days, 12 states, and more than 1,600 miles of walking have taken their toll. I gently massage my feet and knees after another long day on the trail, mainly out of obligation, feeling guilty for what I have been putting them through. Sometimes I imagine them looking up at me and yelling obscenities, asking me what in the world I am thinking.
     As my mind drifts, I remember a story of a woman. She was also attempting to thru-hike the A.T., and, as every thru-hiker is at one point or another, she was asked the question, “Why are you out here?” Her reason was somewhat shocking. Shortly before starting her hike, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her doctor had given her months, a year at most, to live. She said she wanted to be on the trail because every day that she was in the wilderness, every time she struggled to make it up a mountain, every moment of pain, every step, was another moment that she knew she was alive. I have found that I understand her answer a little more each day. It is when I am pushing up the last few feet of a steep climb — sweat completely saturating my shirt and pouring down my face — and just as I reach the
summit, I am greeted by a gentle breeze that manages to send a chill down the length of my spine. It is when I am bending down over the coldest, clearest spring I have ever seen, cupping my hands, and tasting its refreshing purity. It is standing atop an exposed ridge, trying to comprehend the magnificence of the sunset that is on display before me, and all I can do is throw my arms out wide and scream. It is waking up to the beautiful songs of birds and falling asleep to the soothing hoot of an owl. It is when it rains so hard that all there is to do is laugh. It is getting to wake up on the morning of our fifth anniversary and look at my wife asleep next to me. We are in our tent, on the Appalachian Trail, living out a dream that was just some crazy idea we began talking about when we were engaged. These are the moments that remind me that I am alive, the moments that remind me that I am blessed.
     A friend of mine once shared with me his analogy for life. He explained  to me this idea of how life is like a big sponge that is totally saturated, and that the harder we squeeze, the more life pours out onto us. I have thought about that image for a while now. Often times I have envisioned myself squeezing every last drop of life out of that sponge, squeezing so hard that it even begins to hurt. I look back down at my feet, realizing I have a new understanding of my friend’s analogy. Maybe they are not yelling obscenities at me after all. They are simply reminding me that I am alive. Maybe life is less about being comfortable and more about learning to thrive in the uncomfortable. Maybe sometimes we need to embrace the struggle instead of trying to find an easier way. As I lay back and slowly begin to drift to sleep, I think about the experience, the moments, and the adventure that still lies ahead. Such a gift life is. I hope I will always remember this truth. I hope I will always remember to live life ‘til it hurts and to laugh louder the harder it rains.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Fragile Beauty

     The flames from the fire dance back and forth with the slightest ebb and flow of the night air. It’s not even a breeze per say, but more so as if the desert is breathing, taking in and then exhaling long deliberate breaths as it slowly falls asleep.  The juniper and sagebrush crackle as they burn, their heat warming our outstretched hands.  It is not a cold night, but the crispness in the air is distinct, and the warmth of the fire softens its bite.  We stare at the fire, often for long periods of time without saying a word.  Its movement is so captivating, making me wonder if flames are what first taught man to dance.  
     There is no moon tonight.  From this high sandstone outcropping, where hours ago the vast desert was laid out before us, now there are only vague hints of the mesas and canyons that lie below.   The stars, so plentiful and brilliant, reveal the line of the horizon and the subtle features of the landscape that surrounds us.  Some of us begin to lye on our backs, relinquishing the warmth on our faces to instead gaze upon the grand display above.  Cassiopeia, The Pleiades, Orion . . . those and many more shine their age-old light down on us.  It is a humbling and inspiring thing to look and to realize that this light has traveled for hundreds or even thousands of years simply to meet me right here, in this moment.  As we look up at the endless array, I notice a student reach up with her arm.  Still lying on her back, she stretches out as far as she can, her fingers grasping into the night air towards the stars above.  After a moment she stops, letting her arm fall and rest again at her side.  I hear her take a deep breath, and then she says to me, “Bryant, I’m so glad no one can ever touch the stars.  That way they can never get messed up.”
     Beauty is such a fragile thing.  I have been blessed over the years with the opportunity to spend time in the wilderness with many students like this young girl, and whether male or female, early teens or late 20s, they have all taught me about the fragility within us. The heroine addicts and the meth heads, the girl who sells herself, the alcoholic, the ones who make themselves throw up, and the ones who cut; I’ve sat around a campfire and slept under the stars with them all.  Those same dancing flames have become blurred as my eyes well up with tears from stories shared.  I have spent many nights laying awake in my sleeping bag, trying to process the things I had heard.  Raped, bullied, abandoned, or molested, as the stories unfold and the brokenness begins to reveal itself, the behaviors begin to make more sense.  Anything to numb the pain.  Anything to fill the void.  Anything to make them forget. 
     I have no answer tonight. No wise response to this depth of insight from a 15 year old.  I am an ill-equipped instructor.  It is a humbling feeling.  Nothing I can say will make things right.  But out of that humility and inadequacy has come a realization.  People who are hurting often do not need answers.  People who are broken often do not need advice.  They need someone to feel the pain with them.  They need someone to sit around a fire and listen.  There is a time for saying and doing, but there is such deep value in simply being for someone.
     The chill in the air has become more pronounced now.   As I sit up, I notice our fire of flames is now but a pile of coals.  They still warm my hands when I bring them close, but looking at the coals is not nearly as entrancing as the movement of the flames.  I stand and take a look around at the huge expanse of darkness and silence.  The peace out here is something I shall never grow tired of.  “You’re just as beautiful as those stars.” I say.  “And nothing anyone can do or say can change that.  People can wrong us, they can hurt us really deep.  But just like those stars, they can never touch our beauty.”  Beauty, as fragile as it is, cannot be taken away or lost.  Often we simply need to be reminded that it is still there.