The Entrance Fee to Bliss
What I want to be free in a crowd of people for? –Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan
Dateline: Somewhere in the North American Wilderness
I felt I had to bail on a conference call the other day with the distributors of a super fun television project I’m developing. I actually was quite looking forward to the meeting, but I missed it because I was Out of Range at the time the call was scheduled (in more ways than one, but specifically, cell phone range). My atoms had to be where there were in order to realize the on-time return of a billy goat I had borrowed from a remote neighbor. Well, that, and while I was there (or while we were there: I had brought my hiking buddy KB along), I was going to scout the take-out for the following week’s five-day river trip — I needed to be aware of where the journey would end, so I’d know where to park the R.O.A.T.
OK, I also made the decision to return the goat when scheduled so I could honor my promise to myself never to miss a chance to touch a wild, un-dammed river. This is one of two such “gauge life by your ability to honor this” promises I’ve made to myself. The other is never to pass by a swing set without swinging. The argument being, “If you’re not too busy to hop on swing or in a river, how bad can things be?” If I gave the accreditation, a psychology PhD would be much easier to obtain. There’d be only one final exam question, for which the answer is, “Balanced when swinging, neurotic when not.”
I was only being mildly irresponsible, by the way, vis a vis my business responsibilities. I mean, my producer was at the meeting. She knew what we wanted to discuss. Plus, I checked while ankle deep in a side creek (one of those sun-flecked, shallow and pollen-choked channels where life begins), but no, both KB’s and my cell phones were talking to no satellites at the time the call was supposed to start. Or at the time I estimated the call was supposed to start: our phones weren’t even picking up the time. We were useless even to illegally tracking agencies. And to search parties. The likeliest way to reach us, as it has been in these canyons for several Millennia, was smoke signals.
Because of our blessedly wet El Nino winter and spring here in the desert, I thought it wise to also scout upstream from our putative take-out a bit, just to see what kind of river I’d be facing in a week’s time. Perhaps predictably, this turned into a soggy-toed, deer-infused hike featuring a brief clay fight. And so the time passed where it would have been feasible to join the Beverly Hills-based meeting.
I must say though, my decision-making process for the day — one of which any dog would have been proud, since it was of the “you can stop having fun when you’re dead” school of thought — felt nearly-instantly worth it. For one main reason: I spent the afternoon in a habitat. Scoping channels, currents and downed-trees in shin-deep, just-melted snow pack, I danced around newly hatched trout fingerlings feeding on algae, I watched out and listened carefully for rattlesnakes, and otherwise entered perhaps the second most joyous state of mind for a human: that of Member of the Animal Kingdom in an alive, benign universe.
Cities, traffic, office politics, â€˜flu shots, hate media, even business meetings designed to further one’s creative dreams, these are the Virtual Realities. The hideouts. The vacations.
In the wild, I am my media. I garner perspective on the latest official societal thefts that feels true — spin stilled by distance. More importantly by magnitudes, I know myself when I am Out of Range. I tend to gauge that I’m on the right track, or if not, I sense how to get back on it. Invariably, I emerge from the Planet stronger and more focused, and also geared toward achieving whatever seems like the Next Goal, not just with more of a smile than before I spent a little time in an Ecosystem, but intent on spreading the kinds of feelings that lead to smiles. Yes, even in a world comprised of genocide, blind hatred, blind profit and ignorant and corrupt leaders, I can speak of spreading smiles. Even though I’ve been to Rwanda, worked for a Congressman, and witnessed the oil industry in Alaska. Otherwise why live? Just to whine about how bad things can sometimes be?
The sound of a river current alone, to the desert dweller, is what “Death By Chocolate”’s appearance on the dessert menu is to some foodies. I can relate to both, actually. I try and fail to kick sugar the way some do cigarettes or heroin.
Oh, and when I re-emerged into cell range close to sunset after that day of scouting and goofing off, I heard on my voice mail that my producer and the distributor had nailed down everything I could possibly have wanted for the project. We were all of totally like mind. This was confirmed by a follow-up meeting I attended a few days later. I guess I had been there virtually. What they call “in spirit.”
Or maybe it was the cause of my truancy that made everything copasetic. “Dropping off a billy goat was a very good excuse for missing a meeting for a television show about petroleum-free living,” my producer explained that evening. “It’s not something they hear very often in the 90210 area code.”
That triggered a memory of the mid-way point in the hike earlier that day. Reflecting on our pending five days on the river, I asked KB, during a stream crossing, if he thought that during the deepest wilderness moment in our trip, in the Digital Age, the Age of Drones, the so-called Twenty-First Century, he thought I’d be able to safely howl like a wolf, unheard. “Or,” I had posited, “On an over-developed, over-surveilled planet, am I just fooling myself, thinking I can be alone?”
“You mean could we genuinely get lost, intentionally, in any part of North America, in 2010?” KB asked.
“Yeah. Or really, from a surveyor’s perspective, or a satellite’s perspective, is every place at this point just someone’s back yard?”
KB looked at the cliffs and hoodoos surrounding us, less than two miles from my truck. He thought about it for less than five seconds. “The Apache seemed to have excellent success doing that,” he said, referring to Geronimo’s Chiricahua band, whose evasive and survival techniques were so effective that the valley in which I live was unsafe for Westerners well into the Twentieth Century.
“Earlier cultures than that, too,” I observed. Indeed, not an hour earlier we had enjoyed an exhibit of seven hundred year-old Mogollon culture cliff-side pictographs. When things got heavy for those folks (due to, depending upon your favorite anthropologist’s theory, climate change, water shortage, a Tuberculosis outbreak, or the advent of said Apaches), they lived for a century in the cliff dwellings we’d be camping in for a night or two the following week.
So maybe that’s what we’re practicing for: a Digital Age disappearance.
“I’m not going to waypoint the take-out,” I said to KB back at the truck.
He knew exactly what I was talking about. We weren’t going to use military satellites to triangulate our location on this trip. Call it Ninja training. Or maybe just Apache training. I’d leave the GPS unit off.
“Just bring the compass?” he suggested.
“And the topos,” I said.
So that’s what we did. And we were only lost (I mean, to ourselves), for three quarters of the river trip. But we were probably Out of Range to everyone else on the planet as well.
“Are we on the right river?” I recall asking KB at one point midway into the expedition, as I was poring over the topos outside my tent. I guess I’m saying I paid what you might call an entrance fee for my access to the bliss provided by the planet. I mean, normally our overwhelmed sense of awe when confronted with True Space diminishes over time: what was planetary on Day One becomes My Backyard on Day Three. This thought progression, in the past, has of course often lead to wars. But poring over detailed government maps on this trip, I truly didn’t know if I was five miles in at the confluence of “Sarah Palin is Not A Positive Phenomenon Creek,” or 42 miles along at “Obama Seems Not Just Smarter But Marginally More Honest Than Recent American Presidents Brook” (names changed to protect location). I mean, how fast does a desert river move during spring floods? Yikes. Had I become that dependent on my GPS so seamlessly?
Upon consideration, orienteering and even sense of direction seem important skills not to lose. Like “hunting” and “well-digging” and “making time to swing on swings.” Still, this nagging intellectual worry was a small price to pay (I noted it for later contemplation), for the level of contentment being achieved at the moment. Plus, we had an ace in the hole: over the years, on land hikes, I’ve learned to follow my dogs when I’m lost, since they at least tend to remember where the last water was. On this trip, for practically the entire five days, I, in the lead boat, followed a pair of mergansers, who were running rapids as a pair, often unnecessarily, and clearly enjoying spring as much as I was.
Or, more to the point, they seemed to know where they were going. As did my headgear: thanks to same massive spring winds that left my hands looking like the face of an early Mike Tyson opponent, I donated both my main and my back-up ball cap to the country clubs of Phoenix, where my poor wilderness river gets sucked dry these days, instead of running to the Colorado like it’s supposed to. The second one had been a recent gift, forcing me to send this solar-powered email to my Alaskan friend Sabrina upon my return to the Funky Butte Ranch.
On Friday, April 9, 2010 at 11:13 AM, Doug Fine wrote:
I feel it’s my duty to let you know that the Chilkoot Bear Hat you recently gave me and which had quickly become a favorite, is now somewhere in a Scottsdale hot tub, where the last un-dammed river in the American Southwest gets drained. But this is a good thing — the lost hat, not the tapping of the river hundreds of miles downstream of me. Because it means I just spent five euphoric days in the wilderness. Both the hummingbirds and the desert wrens were out in force. Anyway, the headwinds were fierce, the hat blew off, and I thought to tell you that its tenure with me was short but delightfully adventuresome. Hope you’re having a lovely start to spring, and I’ll see you and the family soon, I hope.
Indeed, the trip itself exceeded even my high expectations: it provided the predicted recharge. Life or death, moment by moment boating decisions that had to be made were. Solutions emerged to issues with neighbors. Sleep was recuperative, deep, and filled with pine smells. I returned home sunburned, raw-fingered, and ecstatic.
River conditions, perhaps expectedly, were challenging by any standards. There was no slacking or lazy floating while cracking open a beer on this trip. Perhaps every twenty minutes, some tricky hydrological quirk swirled below a blind turn, and I had to thread the needle â€“- there was one option, one place I had to be in the channel in order not to flip or find myself sucked into pictograph-etched rock wall — and by watching and reacting, I generally could.
This, my friends, is my idea of the perfect adventure: lip-burningly tactile, with high consequences for any mistakes (misjudging either water conditions or my own internal temperature could easily and quickly prove deadly), and just enough of a physical challenge to keep me thrilled, on my toes, and a little scared. My only competitor was myself, and my surroundings were among the most wild and spectacular on the planet. To think some kids (young and old) get their thrills from video games! I kept so busy steering my kayak on Day One that I couldn’t fix my bathing suit wedgie until lunch.
I couldn’t believe how fast the river was moving, thanks to intense snow melt emerging from the surrounding mountains. I’ve lived in the American Southwest for more than four years and I’ve never seen anything like it. True, my river excursions are far enough between these days that I forget that I remember my boating muscle memory. I forget how to rig my boat, and how to strap up my PFD. But once back on the water, well, my return to timeless river mind usually takes between .1 and .4 of a second. Depending on weather. The ahhhhh. The Living In the Now and Remembering All Is Good in This Benign Universe. Why is it so radical to think God created a Cosmos in which it’s OK to succeed and be joyful, content and appreciative? The river reminds me every time — there is no lingering stress ball in my belly when I’m carried by water. And by the time I need reminding, it’s usually time for another river trip
In other words, any Entrance Fee To Bliss I paid was totally worth it: I judge this based on the revelatory thoughts I saw hastily scribbled in my damp notebook upon my return. Examples include:
–Does everything possessing feeling in the universe feel the way I do? Shoot, does everyone in my family feel exactly like I do?
–In the end, communication is all we ask of anyone from our lover to beings from other solar systems. “Speak with us!” we implore strange creatures in messages beamed from the Very Large Array. “Acknowledge our cosmic adulthood.”
–Sure, follow the dogs sometimes, follow the ducks sometimes, and sometimes choose your own way. Have faith: it’s deserved.
I woke up in my comfy bed the day after the trip feeling like a thousand pesos. My first words to my sweetheart following a sort of primeval “male returns from hunting or at least trying not to drown” reunion ritual were, “when the kids are big enough, let’s live for a month and a half on this river one summer.” She’s game.
Yep, the river provided the sublime return to Now that makes me such an unflinching warrior for wilderness. Every second of the trip, even the third degree foot-and-lip burns, were worth it. Every second, perhaps, except for the several thousand that led to KB’s touch of hypothermia, which he picked up thanks to several rounds of past-the-warm-part-of-the-afternoon unintentional swimming on Day Two.
Before his third dip, I remember turning in my kayak, thinking “this is the answer: quiet verses noise” and shouting to KB what felt not so much like a revelation as a recollection: “The Best Possible Explanation of any situation is usually the true one,” then hearing my colleague behind me saying, “If that works for you,” and then the next time I turned around noticing that he and his boat no longer represented the same object floating downstream along a very, very cold river. The expression of a conscious person in terminal distress always strikes me as unbelievably calm and comically accepting — more like stuck in traffic than losing strength rapidly and minutes from drowning.
I had to eddy out and make use of my dusty rescue bag, and there were a few scary hours before the shivering KB could feel anything other than one small part of his left shoulder blade. Still, a bright side was not hard to find: I took it as deeply metaphorical as well as a sign of KB’s commitment to the success of the expedition that at the end of his strength and nearly frozen to death, he, sensing a presence, reached behind him while I pulled him to the riverbank to grab his approaching paddle. It was an effort that evoked great come-backs: Game Six of the 1986 World Series, Larry David following the Seinfeld finale. KB saved the trip with that grab: talk about being literally up a creek without a paddle. Then he collapsed on the bank, lacking even the strength to change clothes.
But, ya know, I cooked him some miso soup, his core temperature crept back up, and we recovered his boat the next morning, while an eagle watched and commentated like a Muppet sportscaster from its peanut gallery perch directly overhead after we hauled my kayak upstream and started plotting the geometry of our rescue route.
In short, in these wild river canyons I howled. And it was good.
Most everyone I know who does this sort of thing believes folks rise to their most beautiful in the wilderness. When Out of Range. I tend to agree, so in a move that seems obvious to me, I’m trying to cultivate a wilderness in my so-called Everyday Life. To create a life where I can ponder the dry land equivalent of what, big picture, carefully-scouting-a-late-in-the-afternoon-rocky-chute-so-as-not-to-“go-swimming”-when-I’m-ready-to-set-up-camp means. I think it means something close to my personal definition of sustainability: joy comes when the physics of the Cosmos and my own spirituality are working in sync. When these both comprise a system that renews indefinitely, that’s sustainable and we’re good.
“Setting yourself up for success” is the phrase guides have for this way of behaving on the river. This is why I wash off and inflate my kayak whenever I can: for a refresher in living beautifully. To remember. Everyone in every profession should do this, because everyone would do well to be a solid student of him or herself. It helps your life performance. Because when you live in a wilderness/adventure mindset, you never have to worry about re-entry issues upon return (a common cause of neurosis). You’re always there. On the Planet. A loving member of the Animal Kingdom, a citizen of the Cosmos. And now I’m thinking about asking my sweetheart (she of the vintage sewing machine birthday present) if she would mind making us a pine needle mattress. I’m having trouble adjusting to sleeping on anything else.
Speaking of re-entry, I have another production call this week. I’m attending it as a member of the Animal Kingdom, a citizen of the Cosmos. A believer in the prospect of living in a universe where all who are kindhearted can strive, and no one has to lose.
That seems like a good place to end this Dispatch. But something’s telling me to mention that while we were de-rigging riverside at the end of the trip (and I couldn’t help noticing there was still a good part of a tree in KB’s boat as we deflated the tubes), a formation of far-more-than-just-supersonic military jets without warning ripped open the dusk sky above us, deafening us and nearly sending me back into the river for some quick devolution. It was terrifying to the core. My skeleton was scared. I couldn’t believe that any object in nature could move so quickly. And so loudly. The loudest sound I’d heard in the past week was river current. Or perhaps my cook stove.
I was wearing a spiritual badge as a fellow living as, you know, a benign and loving animal, when suddenly spacemen holding the same passport as mine started broadcasting in the most impressive possible manner (short of employing their weapons) that they were using my tax dollars to develop killing machines that, a) were so beyond my wheelbarrow-repairing technical understanding as to call in to question whether we held the same species classification and, b) were having trouble, at the moment, defeating hate-filled wheelbarrow-users halfway across the world.
For some reason at that moment I had the thought, “This is why I welcome UFOs but fear bombers: I imagine that technology isn’t the problem, but rather intent. I like to visualize the next stage in consciousness as being more like the mergansers I’ve been following: learning how to fly but using it to run rivers rather than to kill.”
Once my heart rate normalized and I emerged from the sycamore behind which I had jumped for cover, the jolting event did not alter my wilderness-inspired loving mindset for a moment. But I’ll admit I was glad to affirm that I could survive in a drone-safe wilderness if necessary. I looked over at KB and howled.
For his choice of cover during the sonic assault, KB had crouched amidst some bank-side willows. I looked at their narrow, shaft-like stalks, and saw a quiverfull o’ potential arrows. This is how my mind works now: I’m a Progressive, Neo-Rugged Individualist Organic Cowboy who hopes for the best and plans for the worst. I have a neighbor who makes bows. I might ask for some lessons.
We resumed de-rigging, wordlessly — shocked but not dispirited. Straps, dry bags, and carabiners rose in a pile in the mud alongside the R.O.A.T. Supersonic war machines exist — better to see them than to pretend they function in an alternate universe. After all, I partially own them. From some angles, I am thankful for the safety my home enjoys as a result of the strength of our nation.
The last thing I packed in the truck was my portable folding camp chair. It occurred to me that this is my definition of a Nomad: when youâ€˜re packing up your comfiest piece of furniture as you move on to the day’s next home. My definition of a happy Nomad? When you find yourself packing it last of all. You think pre-”civilized” life was brutish and short? My guess is that these conditions started later. Or at least elsewhere. I have a feeling that the Mogollon not only lived here in Merganser-like joy, but that they figured out how to keep their fingers and lips moisturized better than I have.
But even with charred skin, I don’t regret for a minute having to work to make this trip unfold safely (I can’t speak for KB — his teeth were chattering and his legs trembling at the moment I packed the chair — but I think he would say the same). To realize that here, in this thin-walled, hallowed remnant of Planet-as-it-was-given, I can howl, is priceless to me — worth nearly any cost in missed meetings.
I was given the blessing of being Out of Range, except to actual wolves, of course, who are being reintroduced right here in this wilderness. This had been a level-leaping trip for me, I acknowledged before the last of the jets’ engines even faded from my over-stimulated tympanic membranes: in boating skill, in event prioritizing, and in general self-belief. Some day I might find myself Out of Range more often than In Range.
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