GREEN RIVER STORIES by Scott Carrier
[Transcript from a radio show.]
I have to confess a profound ignorance about what I'm doing. My preparation for this float trip consisted of buying a canoe and then grabbing a Wyoming road map from a rest stop on the drive up.
I've been in a canoe a couple of times. And I thought I knew how to make it turn and go straight. And I'd seen the river from several bridges I crossed on other trips in other years. And it was always wide and calm and flat. So I thought I could manage well enough. I could have practiced with the canoe. Gone out with someone who could show me the strokes and I could have read up on the river; learned about what was in store for me. But, I chose not to do these things. When you try to lay things out, try to control what's going to happen, you always end up disappointed or frustrated. At least I do.
My first surprise has been that the river at the top was not calm and flat. There were rapids; big rapids. I floated down and camped where I first heard the roar. It sounded like this. [SOUND OF LOUD RIVER RAPIDS.] This sound was carried on the wind to my tent off and on through the night. And it rained with lightning and thunder.
I got up with the sun, made some coffee, and prepared for the worst. I double and tripled-wrapped everything in garbage bags and tied it all into the canoe. And then I took off my clothes. It would be easier to swim naked, and if I was to drown I wanted, for some reason, to drown naked.
I started down the river praying for all the ants I'd ever stepped on, for all the bugs that had splattered into my windshield. I prayed for dirt and discarded things. I prayed for all my forgotten memories.
And somehow I made it. The canoe kept filling with water, but it stayed upright. And I got away with only a couple of welts on my shins.
I pulled out in the evening by a bridge. It was a grassy campground area, and a guy was parked there with a smoke colored '73 Pontiac Catalina, rusted out, the vinyl roof peeled off. He was an old guy with a long beard, a bony, deeply tanned face, dirty clothes, and his car wouldn't start.
He said he was a farm and ranch hand looking for work cutting hay, but it was still too early in the season. He had some tobacco in a can. We rolled a smoke and I asked him what he'd been eating.
"I had Spam and, uh, potatoes. And crackers. I did have some eggs. Uh, one of my favorite breakfasts is fried potatoes and onions -- you fry them together -- and then after they get done, put the eggs over them and stir 'em up real good. I don't know if you've ever eaten that before or not, but it's a combination that, uh, I kinda like real well."
"Where are you from?"
"Well, originally, I'm from Vancouver, Washington, but I've been doing some work in Montana and that's where my car's registered at now."
"Where in Montana?"
"Wisdom. I don't know if you know Montana that well or not. Wisdom's pretty small. It's one store and one service station. It's in what they call Big Hole, but it's up pretty high altitude. And even as tall as the grass is right here, it's not even gettin' that much started there yet. The grass here is not really too tall here, either, though, strangely enough."
"Well, I won't start, I don't feel I'm in too bad a shape right now. But, just a little stranded, is all."
The next morning, I gave him six bucks, some red salmon, tomato soup and I flagged down a pickup to give his car a jump. He said thanks and everything, but I don't think it really mattered to him. He was content waiting there for the grass to grow.
It's been easy floating the past couple of days. The river winds back and forth in these big, long S-turns. And sometimes I paddle maybe ten miles to cover just one as the crow flies. Yesterday at sunset, after a long, hot day, I pulled out and camped in a grassy field. I could see a ranch house about a mile in the distance so the thought of being on private property did cross my mind. But, like I say, the house was a mile away and it was late.
This morning, I unzipped the tent and the grass was covered with frost. My shoes, which I had left outside, were frozen stiff. So I got up slowly and just lay around till ten or eleven looking at the scenery. I saw moose and beaver, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and many little birds I don't know by name.
There was a little one in the willows by the river and it was bright orange and yellow like a parakeet you might buy in a pet store. So I was lying around thinkin' what a great place it was when a truck drove up and parked on a dirt road about a quarter mile away, and a man, the ranch foremen, Chuck Davis, came over to chew me out.
"Mrs. Callan called me up and asked me to come down and please ask you to leave, which I have. The Callans make their living, or the operation of this ranch comes from selling hay that you're laying on right now. The ground that you've knocked down this side of the river is irrigating right now. I mean, you can look out there right now, just ten feet away from you and there's water. They're irrigating this, trying to put this up as hay."
"Do you have a lot of trouble with people trespassing?"
"Yes. We do. And at specific times of the year. Hell, I'm a hunter and a fisherman and a sportsman and I like to go when I get the time to hunt and fish, myself, but these people have paid a specific amount of money and it's a large amount of money. They pay a large amount of taxes every year on this ground. And it's their right to say who comes and who goes on that property. Why do you have to come here? There's ground up there for the public. I mean from the Green River Lakes there's millions and millions of acres of public ground, of national forest, of state ground. Why do you have to come on this specific piece of ground?"
"It looked nice." [Laughs.]
"How long will it stay nice? How long will it continue to look nice if everybody comes down here. And I'm not pointing a finger at you, but if ten people come through here and nine of them leave beer cans or even four of them every day, or build different fires, and the fire ring is here, how long will this look nice? You've just got to draw the line somewhere."
I apologized for my trespass and was quickly back on the river paddling through some of the most beautiful country I'd ever seen and keeping my eye on both banks, the two lines I wouldn't cross again until sometime after dark.
There was a full moon and I was brushing my teeth by the river. I was waiting for the big trout to come jumping up out of the water for a dragonfly. I looked upstream and there was field of white pelicans on the water, thirty or forty of them, floating down towards me, holding the night, holding silence between themselves. When they were just across from me, when they became shadows in the moonlight, I spit out my toothpaste, and they all took off, pounding the water with their big wings, working hard for airspeed and then flying away out over the desert.
I started thinking how I hadn't spoken to anyone in the last three days. There had been men fishing from the bank, but I was afraid to approach them. If I were to have spoken with them, I would have spoken my mind, and there would have been nothing but questions. Do you believe in reincarnation? Why does the speed of light have to be a constant? Can you, by chance, sing like Roy Orbison? So I treated these people as ghosts and just waved at them as I went by. The man with the dog and a pickup truck was really Abraham Lincoln. His friend fishing was Socrates. And I saw Crazy Horse drawing in the mud along the bank. They come to the river to watch America change. They come, because they know that in one hundred years, the river will be gone, or locked away inside concrete. I could have stopped and talked to them about it, but to have heard a story with such an ending, it may have broken my heart.
Sand Wash is way out in the Utah desert. You drive two and a half hours on a dirt road and when you get there, it's a big canyon, a dry wash, cutting down through shale stone badlands and emptying into the Green River. The river at this point is slow and flat, the color of coffee with milk, and just about as warm. If you stand by the river you might see a great blue heron, a pair of golden eagles, a beaver, an otter. The river is a thin, snakelike oasis. But if you turn away from the water and look back up at the cliffs and barren plateaus, you might think you're now living on a dry, godforsaken planet. It's just the Utah desert, close to where Reuben Farr buried his cat, close to nowhere.
This desert is controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. They manage the grazing permits and they give out ten thousand floating permits every year to people who want to make the six or seven day trip down through Desolation Canyon. There's a BLM ranger station there where you put your boat in the water. Her name is Michele Stern. She's six feet tall and carries a clipboard. She checks your permit, checks your equipment, first aid kit, checks your paddles, life jackets. She jokes around, doesn't give you a hard time, and it's easy to see, she's not from around here, that's she's on some kind of leave of absence hiding out in the wilderness.
"I came off of working with homeless for two and a half years. Mentally ill adults and single males. And hungry people and low income families in downtown San Jose, California. And was really just tired and not enough joy in my life. [She sighs.] I wanted to be in the middle of nowhere, and so, after the first night I was at Sand Wash, I really felt at home and comfortable, and, yea, this is the right place. And the light and the wind ... I mean the factors that are really important and have bearing on your life are real significant factors. Things that you have absolutely no control over. For instance, if the wind comes up in the afternoon, that the light is real intense, I put on lots of sunscreen and hike in the sun. And around two or three in the afternoon, you have absolutely no energy whether you want to or not. It just takes it all out of you. And so you rest for about ten minutes, and feel a lot better and drink a lot of water. But then, like right now, there's sort of this nice gentle, cool breeze. You can write by the moon at night. At night these, wow, I don't know what they are, sort of airplane-type bugs, I don't think they're dragonflies, but they all just go ZZZZOOOOMMMMing by the bedroom window and checking things out. And the bats are really fun. They come really close. And the hummingbirds come really close. And I hear birders, and I hear people coming down the gravel road. And that's a little apprehensive, because I don't know what they want."
"Are you going to go back to working with homeless...?"
[She laughs.] "I don't think so. I don't think so. I think you need to have a strong faith and religious belief to do that kind of work. And I think I tend to see it more as a political situation rather than a religious situation, and so it just really produces more anger than saintliness or something."
"So you are angry?"
"Angry." [She hisses.]
"What are you upset about?"
"Okay, the thing that bother you is that you and everyone you're working with is doing as much as you possibly can, and yet you can't do enough. And someone else has asked you for something else. And you can't do it. And you've learned to have to say NO. That's a pretty dismal way to operate, always feeling your boundaries. And like if I keep stretching and stretching, I'm going to break, and so I have to protect myself so I don't have to break, and then I let all these people down. Do you see?"
What you see are shadows in the moonlight, the mouth of a canyon, the eerie shapes of red rock walls, the figure of a tall woman walking home to bed.
It happened in Desolation Canyon, a wilderness, a place of natural forces, but there was nothing about the river except a few easily negotiated rapids, nothing about the weather, except a strong gust of wind at sunset, and nothing about the night, except the pulses of some distant heat lightning. There was nothing to explain the blue plastic ground cloth rolled around the body of a small, sixteen year old boy. This plastic, set on the floor of a rubber raft, pulled up on a beach below a dirt road where the airplane would land. The young friend of the boy asleep on the sand, bleached blond hair, necklace, smooth tanned skin, a child. This man, an instructor, who came to fly the body out of the canyon,
"The boy who died was a sixteen year old student and he died yesterday on the seventh day of the course. He was discovered by a fellow student at his campsite at about ten-fifty P.M. with no apparent pulse or breathing. And cardio-pulmonary resuscitation was performed for forty-four minutes."
"As far as you know, that didn't have anything to do with the river or being on it?"
"I'm quite sure that wasn't the case."
"Do you have any ideas of what was the cause?"
"At this point, no I don't. I'm sure that the coroner's report will tell us what it was. I can't say. I couldn't speculate."
"What's it like when one of your students dies?"
"Traumatic. Heart-rending for not only for the instructors, but also for the fellow students. It's been a difficult twenty-four hours."
You know, the river has its own space and time. Earth dissolves into water. Water into air. And death is like a river. You stand next to it and all the words fall out of your head.
The Confluence overlook is a place in Canyonlands National Park, Southern Utah. You drive through the Park and then walk five miles across a desert plateau until you come to a cliff. From there, the crust of the earth falls away and you look down into the canyon, maybe two thousand vertical feet and three miles in a straight line, to where the Green River flows into the Colorado. They come together in the shape of a Y, both are slow and muddy, the color of milk chocolate. And they are so far below, so far in the distance, they are like tiny veins draining the huge dry mass of desert. Once, a long time ago, my older brother stood there on rim of the confluence overlook. He had a big backpack and a climbing rope. And he used a Coke can to rappel down the cliff. He smashed the can and crammed it into a crack at the edge of the cliff, then looped the rope around it and lowered himself down. Then he walked down to the river where he wandered around for three days, got lost, ran out of food and water, and was found collapsed or unconscious, by two Park Rangers. So if you had a rope, and something to jam in a crack, you could get by the cliff and walk down to the river for a swim. The water is warm and you come out smelling like mud. No Sta Gee La Bou. If you had a rope, you could go down to the river for a swim, hang out and watch the red sandstone at sunset, but I wouldn't go down without a rope. If you tried and fell, it would sound like this: [ECHOING SCREAM FOLLOWED BY A DISTANT SPLASH.]
This is the way the Green River ends from the confluence overlook. It becomes thin and distant, unapproachable, like what happens to a dream upon waking.
The sun is going down and three families are camped beside a trout stream in Southern Utah. The women are talking to each other by the picnic table. The men are watching the children playing in the water. Two of the women are sisters. One has just had an affair with a man in Los Angeles. On the phone, she swore to her sister that she would tell her husband and insist on a divorce. But now she is thinking she will not say anything, ever, about the affair, and maybe wait awhile on the divorce. Her sister is swaying back and forth with a baby in her arms. This morning, the baby stuck her right hand in a cup of hot coffee and cried for hours. Now, she's asleep, but her fingers have big balloon-like blisters that will break and heal slowly, leaving long white scars. The third woman is two days pregnant and thinking about taking a nap.
Of the men, one is trying to decide when would be the best time to drive into town and call his broker. One is thinking about running up the mountain to smoke a joint and watch the sun go down. The other is looking at the water, wondering if the fish might like a grasshopper.
The children are playing and fighting over a toy sailboat. The three-year-old boy is soaking wet and nearly out of his mind with possibilities. The five-year-old girl is standing on the bank, making up rules and shouting out orders and dropping lettuce and cheese from her sandwich.
There are little birds in the trees and big birds on the rock walls of the canyon -- red rock walls in the shadow of the afternoon sun. A dirt road comes around and down and crosses over the stream, and in the pool below the road a pale snake slides silently into the water and swims to the other side holding something rather large in its mouth. There are three cars, all white, and there's an Indian, or rather the ghost of an Indian, who lived and died in this spot, sitting cross-legged on the hood of the station wagon.
This is the beginning of a story. The story is about how the husband realizes his wife has been unfaithful. And it's about how the Indian died. And what the snake had in its mouth. And how the two-day-old life inside the mother grows and is born and becomes a beautiful young woman who paints the poems of Rilke on the desert blacktop highway.
The sun is going down and three young families are camped beside a trout stream in Utah. This is the beginning of a story, but there isn't enough time to tell it.
photos/text © 1994 Scott Carrier