I’ve been avoiding revising this draft for months. At some point , you just have to say enough is enough and let go. Unclog the blog. Even if it may ruffle some feathers among people I respect and enjoy.
Sitting in a lounge chair on the beach at Schist Camp, nursing a cold beverage, I’m wondering if I should be having more fun. And I wonder if I should blame Ed that I’m not. Wine and stories flow freely, laughter echoing from the canyon walls, but try as I might I cannot ignore the helicopters overhead, one or two of them at any given moment thwopping their way from rim to rim, giving sightseers a look at Crystal Rapid below (said sightseers drowning out their own noise with stereophonic music through Bose headsets, I understand.) Abbey pesters me with his unequivocal vision of canyon visitation:
HUMAN BEINGS WELCOME; MACHINES KEEP OUT.
Damn straight. “Can you believe the helicopters?” I ask one of my companions. He looks at me with surprise, listens for a moment. “Gosh, I hadn’t noticed them,” he says, and now I feel guilty that my gift of awareness has shattered his peace and quiet, too. Or maybe not—he returns to the food table and the enormous pile of nachos our guides have cooked up. They do look delicious.
Later tonight the overflight procession will come to an end, and the stars, endless depths of stars, will come out. Belinda and I have set up our tent “just in case” but plan to sleep out in the open. The nachos are good. The first bats flit past, taking care of any interloping mosquitoes. The river slips on downstream as the shadows deepen.
Heat and unrelenting sun. Dehydration headache. Mid June in the depths of the canyon. Midday. Pulling over for a riverside lunch, we all clamber off the boats and scurry for cover against the canyon wall like cockroaches, slathering on more sunscreen and picking at dry and cracking lips. Quick-dry clothes redefining themselves. Perhaps a quick swim in the river to cool off?
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It is not the writer’s task to answer questions but to question answers. To be impertinent, insolent, and, if necessary, subversive.
Ed Abbey hitches along in my backpack as we head down the Bright Angel Trail at sunrise to meet the rafts near Phantom Ranch. Up way too early in a foreign time zone, I yawn and rub my eyes—better be alert as we head down or a blundering step will find the shore of the world—while Ed slumbers snugly in a ziplock bag, along with my journal, tucked somewhere deep inside my pack. It has been a while since we spent any time together, even though a good percentage of his collected works occupies a whole shelf in my study. I lingered at this shelf a while as I gathered my stuff together for this trip, eventually selecting Down the River, inspired by its opening essay, ” Down the River with Henry Thoreau”:
With me are five friends plus the ghost of a sixth: in my ammo can—the river runner’s handbag—I carry a worn and greasy paperback copy of a book called Walden, or Life in the Woods. Not for thirty years have I looked inside this book; now for the first time since my school days I shall. Thoreau’s mind has been haunting mine for most of my life. It seems proper now to reread him. What better place than on this golden river . . .
Likewise, Abbey’s mind has been haunting mine for the past decade and a half, and to some extent I have him to thank that I ever became an English teacher. When I spent my single season as a backcountry ranger for the BLM in Escalante, UT, I knew of him only by reputation, his subversive novel The Monkey Wrench Gang having inspired the eco-sabotage of EarthFirst! and their ilk. Far too radical for me, I figured. But then a fellow ranger, the warden of the local state park, pressed copies of The Journey Home and Desert Solitaire into my hands as a parting gift before I made my way to Green River and the bus that would take me home when my nine-month tour was up. I stayed up all night on that Greyhound bus, reading by the glow of my headlamp as we slid through the Colorado Rockies and then out onto the high plains. Worn out from years of literature study, a pursuit that had become more and more a lifeless exercise in self-indulgent navel-gazing, I was thrilled to find a writer who was up to something, a writer who spoke for me:
Here yet you may find the elemental freedom to breathe deep of unpoisoned air, to experiment with solitude and stillness, to gaze through a hundred miles of untrammeled atmosphere, across redrock canyons, beyond blue mesas, toward the snow-covered peaks of the most distant mountains—to make the discovery of the self in its proud sufficiency which is not isolation but an irreplaceable part of the mystery of the whole.
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