Grew up in a nice little Jewish ghetto in Chicago. Miraculously my mother gave me the option of Outward Bound or Military School (where you went when you were a bad boy back then). Seventeen years old. All Growed up and signed up for a canoe trip in northern Minnesota’s Land of Ten Thousand Lakes.
On the bus heading north, I gaze out the window at a colorless world, gauzy, silent.
Maybe there’s a kind of Japanese Current further up in northern Minnesota, makes it warm like Seattle?
Not much out there but snow. Covering the pines and spruce, whipping across the road in the bitter wind, flying out of the grey sky. Not an animal or a bird in sight. I turn to the gentleman in the seat next to me.
“Um, excuse me, sir. Why do they have signs with names on them for those empty fields?”
“Those aren’t fields, son. Those are lakes. The lakes are covered in ice, and the ice is covered in snow. Those signs are the names of lakes.” He goes back to his newspaper, shaking his head.
“Oh…thanks.” I am such an idiot.
I pull out the brochure, which of course I haven’t read. “During Outward Bound winter courses, students cross-country ski over frozen lakes instead of canoeing in them.”
What the heck is cross-country skiing?
Winter does have its benefits. Minus forty can kill grizzled old mountain men, not to mention pink city kids bred on Daniel Boone reruns. Thus, we stay in cabins—“base camp”—rather than tenting it. Sourdough bread, buttermilk pancakes, a wood heater. For bathing, we fire up the woodstove in a tiny log cabin sauna next to the frozen river, sweating as long as we can in the punishing heat, secretly competing to be the last one out. Then we dash outside bare-ass naked, sprint barefoot twenty or so yards through the deep snow trench, grab the edges of the square hole chopped in the ice, and dunk into the black river slush sliding along underneath the tinkling, frozen world.
David, one of my fellow students, is the camp clown. Can’t ski to save his life. He breaks, burns, loses everything he touches. Feeling Siberian, we exchange nicknames: he is Boris; I am Igor. We are inseparable, finding comfort in our shared other-ness. Lying in late one frigid morning, close like puppies in our warm sleeping bags, unwilling as yet to face our frozen boots, we hatch a plan. Like modern-day Huck Finns, we will raft from the source of the Colorado River to its mouth. David’s mom’s boyfriend guides float trips down the Snake River, in some place called Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The Wild West! A real Mountain Man! He’ll teach us how to build a log raft, run rivers. From there to the Colorado Rockies, hatchets and ropes in our haversacks, to find where that River emerges from the earth.
When the course ends, we seal our commitment with a bear-hug.
The following spring, Pop, finally freed from yet another winter in Chicago by my miraculous high school graduation, loads me and Mom into the Pontiac. Ah, Los Angeles, where he can play cards twice a week and golf all year round with his boisterous and beloved brothers and cousins. I’ll have to earn my grubstake for the mighty Colorado in the City of Fallen Angels. It will be many years before I realize that I was drinking the stolen lifeblood of that very river every time I turned on the tap.
South to St. Louis on legendary Route 66, rolling west. Exhaust fumes billow out of the rusty muffler. No air conditioning. Sisters Suzie and Linny, already married off, are left behind. It’s just the three of us—Mom, Dad, and me. I am as ready as any human being that ever lived to leave behind the flatness, the sameness, the one-sheep-following-anotherness of Illinois. Midwestern cornfields heave into the Rockies. Real mountains. I sit up, take notice.
And the excitement of the mountains submits westward into to the desert. Impenetrable. I hadn’t really ever considered the desert.
Slouched and silent in the back seat, my eyes squint at the handsome blush of sun-baked earth, exposed and naked under a warrior-sky. Inscrutable people, colored and baked just the same, populate the sand-scoured gas stations.
Pop only allows one detour for the entire trip: the Grand Canyon. He’s on a roll for the coast and family, but the Grand Canyon? He relents to Mom’s insistence. We meander like water down the sloping ribbon of an earth-tinted road, which pretends to be wide enough for two vehicles, for mile after mile. An Indian on a horse in the ditch next to the road, both of them equally sullen and stoic, flips us the bird as we pass.
Dad pulls up at the east park entrance, pays the fee, pulls into the gravel next to a round tower of well-fitted rock. There is an insistent tug, unmistakable, a tangible threshold, a brink. Wooden poles poke out of the sides of the tower here and there, like those Navajo houses—hogans—we’ve been passing. Tourists flow in and out. Pit stop. I wander towards the rim. It is unpaved, unfenced, unmarked. Like my life.
Some time later, Mom discovers me, roots growing out the soles of my sneakers, seeking tiny cracks to penetrate, diving down deep into the rimrock, in quest of water.
“Jeffrey? Jeffrey Alan! Are you all right?”
It is a Park statistic that the average time spent on the rim by the millions of visitors to the Grand Canyon each year is something like two minutes. I, on the other hand, have never moved from that spot. A shard of me, like an ancient artifact, broke off there and then. It fits perfectly with the rest of me every time I return, making me whole. Add some pitch from the piñon pine, mix with juniper and set alight, keep the fire going with a circle of breath that accepts and gives, accepts and gives. Observe the fragrant smoke drifting slowly upwards as the sun sets behind the sacred Hopi mesas in the opal distance.
Now purified, dipped into hallowed earth by my heels, my brief and tormented past scatters to the heavens like doves released from cupped hands. I now know what I am meant to do.
I do not share this with my innocent, ordinary parents. They wouldn’t get it. I don’t even get it. But it can’t be helped; it is out of my hands. I will return. I will find some way to get back here, and that is that.
A helpful Navajo passerby points to the tiny ribbon of chocolate way down there, big Cowboy hat rimmed with turquoise and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his brown lips—
“There’s your Colorado River, man.”
My Colorado River…
Stony Point is located in a far corner of the dirty, overcrowded San Fernando Valley. Once surrounded by orange orchards, now by cheap stucco apartments and a freeway, it has become a de facto park, forgotten by the authorities. It is a hundred-foot-high sandstone mesa topping a hill, a lonely bit of nature all but consumed by Los Angeles. During the day, it’s a lodestone for aspiring city-bound climbers, at night, it’s a place for bikers to party. Overhangs and hang-overs.
Mesa—Spanish for table—basically a flat-topped mountain with vertical sides. These eye-catching erosional remnants of ancient seas are littered all over the Southwestern U.S., dotting the desert landscape like jasper jewels on brown skin.
At Stony, coarse, tan sandstone boulders of all shapes and sizes, once proudly crowning the summit, now lie scattered along its base. The keen observer can see the telltale gymnastic chalk marks from bouldering practice adorning improbable vertical faces. Along the brow of the mesa are several climbs, ranging from easy to hard, following obvious crack lines or incipient corners. Beethoven’s Wall, The Crack, The A-Frame. My buddy Steve and I spend our weekends there getting in shape, planning one day to do a “real” climb. Maybe Tahquitz or Suicide Rocks. Maybe even, someday, bowing east to Mecca—Yosemite.
We arrange our hammer, iron pegs, carabiners, and slings at the base of our practice boulder, the noisy jangle pretentious and reassuring, like the snaps and clicks when the cowboys load their guns before a big gunfight in the movies. We each re-tie our brand-new, super-cool climbing shoes, flamboyantly sling the bright yellow, hundred-fifty-foot hemp rope over our shoulders, and start our march towards the main scarp of the cliff. Our first difficult climb. Five-eight on a scale up to five-ten. We’re resolute, determined, scared shitless.
A voice calls out, “Hey, where you guys goin’?”
“We’re gonna climb the A-Frame” says Steve. Nonchalant, casual.
“Wow! Cool! That’s five-eight!” The voice’s owner appears from behind a tree, zipping his fly. He’s tall, handsome, lithe, near-naked but for shorts and climbing shoes.
Steve and I exchange disdainful looks. “Yep.”
“Can I come?”
We don’t need anyone’s help or interference. We can handle this ourselves. We are the ultimate of cool. This guy looks wiry, strong. Fearless.
“Sure, you bet.”
And so it is that Denny joins our mini-expedition. Nearly a half-century ago, and we are still brothers.
California to Jackson Hole Wyoming, 1971
Autumn, and my pending meeting with Boris on Wyoming’s Snake River beckons. Like so many things in LA, I am in need of color, a cool breeze.
Jackson Hole has some of the coldest mean temperatures in the lower forty-eight. At long last, I am going primitive. Of course this means living in a tipi.
Using plans cut from a well-worn paperback book, I create my sanctuary. I will live simply, nobly, needing no one. Once finished, I spread out my new tipi in my girlfriend’s parent’s backyard, waterproofing the canvas with a noxious liquid—which kills the lawn.
Time to go.
With a backpack and forty bucks in my pocket (my savings from working all summer), I hitchhike to Wyoming. I’ll find a job when I get to Jackson, mom will mail my tipi.
My needs are simple: an unused dirt road and a place to pitch my tent until the tipi shows up. My ride drops me off along the lonely highway towards Yellowstone and the Tetons, north of Jackson. Glorious mountains rear up close enough to touch, beckoning. Just the slightest hint of a chill whirls broken drygrass along the road’s margin. I’ve just hung up from talking to David, and the conversation echoes.
“Hey, man. How ya doin’, Boris?”
“Oh! Hey, Igor! Great man, how are you?”
“Great! Just got into Jackson Hole. It’s gonna be awesome! When are you comin out?”
“Um. Well. There’s been a change of plans, I guess.”
Pause. “Change of plans?”
“Well, yeah… I think I’ve changed my mind.”
“Changed your mind? Whaddya mean?”
“Well, I think I’m gonna move into one of the coops on my dad’s farm and become a chicken farmer.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Well, I hear you need a permit to go down parts of that river. It’s big.”
“Sure. Right. Some ranger cop’s gonna be in the middle of nowhere on some wild-ass river, arresting people.”
“Well, I heard that there’s some dams on it, too.”
“So? We’ll walk around ’em.”
“I, uh…I’m sorry, man.”
So much for rafting the Colorado.
San Francisco, 1975
Brunch in up-scale Sausalito at popular and trendy Fred’s Coffee Shop. The morning sun shines through the tasteful gauze curtains. Suave background music, genteel conversations. Tall, beautiful, long-legged Jeannie and I, tousle-haired and in jeans, enjoy an omelet and coffee. Jeannie, my current girlfriend, is a radiology technician at San Francisco General Hospital. A discussion between the well-dressed women sitting behind me filters into my consciousness.
“Check this out, Jill. A whole river pouring out of a cave in the Grand Canyon!”
“Wow! Would ya look at those falls! Fantastic!”
Jeannie doesn’t like me being childish. I can’t help it. I turn towards the women.
“Um, sorry. Mind if I take a look at that article?” They hand it over, glancing at each other and feigning smiles.
The caption reads: “Thunder Falls. Pouring into a magical side creek called Tapeats in the Grand Canyon”. And the photograph? Mist veiling the lush, emerald vegetation that grips the surrounding steep terrain, all of it set in burnt, red vertical walls. An outlandish fecundity of green framed by rock. In its midst, an improbable stepped waterfall gushing out of a cleft in the otherwise barren cliff. You can hear it roar. Like my future coming at me.
I turn to Jeannie, chin on fist.
“Says here you can climb into the cave and follow the river inside.”
After quitting being a paramedic in San Francisco later that year:
One fuzzy afternoon, after lying in bed most of the day like I’ve done for two weeks, I call Denny’s dad’s house in LA. Maybe his dad knows where in the world he is. Maybe he’d like to go climbing in Yosemite for a couple of weeks. It’ll do me good to be with my brother after all this time, in our beloved mountains, to get scared about something real.
Nobody’s home. No answering machines in those days. I take an afternoon stroll, survey a wide swath of neighborhood. The sun sets, the streetlights begin their sentry duty. I shake out of my brooding, finding myself amid shadows.
Did I do the right thing?
The next morning, My roommate Bobbie’s making breakfast. I waltz into the small kitchen in my underwear, glance at his cornflakes.
“Mornin’.” he groans.
“Yeah. Mornin’.” I brush by, grab a spoon and bowl out of the drying rack next to the sink. Bachelors.
“Hey, someone called for you last night when you were out. Left a message.”
“Mmm. Yeah?” I grab the milk out of the fridge. Those cornflakes look okay.
“Yeah, um…Danny, maybe?”
The arc of the milk carton halts midair.
“Yeah! Yeah. That’s it. Denny. Said something about being at his dad’s house in LA. Wanted to know if you want to go climbing in Yosemite for a coupla weeks or somethin’.”
Denny’s been envious of my career. While he’s been climbing with his redheaded southern gal, having a ball. But I no longer have a career.
Dennys says “Wow, man. Sorry to hear that. Hey, you know, you might be interested in this. I just did a whitewater school.”
“A whitewater school. They teach you how to row rivers.”
In my mind, Minnesota snowfields that have names. Long lost Boris, Jackson Hole, Huck Finn—they appear out of the fog like birds.
“Yeah. Company called ARTA. American River Touring Association. Incredible guides. We did a bunch of rivers up in Oregon and California. Did this river called the Rogue, and met this other group that was on the river. Etcetera. ETC. Environmental Traveling Companions. They do volunteer river trips for handicapped kids in the Sierra foothills. I’m gonna volunteer with them this summer. Learn how to raft and kayak and stuff.”
The sound of Bobbie chewing corn flakes stops. I feel his hand on my back. “You okay?”
That touch brings me back. Softly, I say into the mouthpiece “Count me in, bro.”
“No pay, man. Volunteer.”
“They give us a place to stay? Food?”
It took me until that fall, 1976, to kayak the Grand Canyon. That was 42 river guiding seasons ago, 25 of them in the Grand Canyon, 15 rowing dories. Finally got there.