Monday, July 20, 2009

Rafting the San Juan: The Beginning

So the last post reminded me, forcibly, of an altogether different wilderness trip I took, lo these many years ago, when I was in vet school. I thought about it with nostalgic smiles and a sort of vague, sweet longing; but it won't go away, so I'm bringing forth its ghost onto the blog to see what it looks like in the light of day.

I started vet school on the heels of my Master's Degree in Wildlife Biology, earned at the same University. In my Graduate School days I had a friend and compatriot, MT, who was a "Fish Head" - a grad student majoring in the Fisheries half of the Fisheries and Wildlife Biology department. We mammal-chasers were, by contrast, "Bunny Huggers", and there were our near cousins, the "Tree Huggers" (Forestry majors). At any rate, we formed a loosely-knit cadre of students; to some degree we were all in this together - as we all had at least oral exams to deal with, and some form of dissertation - but in other ways we were not: Some had doctoral exams to deal with, some had field work, some had advisor conflicts, others had TA-ships, and all of us had completely different projects upon which to work. As a result we were not nearly so cohesive a group as, say, my vet school class. In vet school, for the first two years we were almost without exception in the same classes exactly as all the other vet students (there being only a few elective options to the core curriculum for freshman and sophomore year); and while we diverged slightly more in Junior and Senior years, we had another reason to bond, and bond tightly: My class was the first of the vaunted but as-yet untried New Curriculum, a re-tooled course of study that my University had spent several years and a great deal of money and effort to create. We knew the eyes of the entire School of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Science were upon us, staff and student both, and we pulled together as a team: backing each other up and helping each other out, keen to prove that the education we were getting was better than what came before it, and that we were worthy of the doctorates eventually bestowed upon us, honestly earned and rightfully ours.

But I digress.

Despite something of a natural divide between the Fish Heads and the Bunny Huggers - us not sharing a great many classes in common - and an equally natural divide in terms of experience and personality, MT and I hit it off, finding in each other some kind of kinship of spirit that I, at least, enjoyed in both warmth and humor. MT was in many ways unlike me - but there was something about how her mind worked that I liked, and she had a forthrightness to her that I appreciate even now, though we many years ago lost touch. I'll always feel a kindness towards her, wherever she may be and whatever she may be doing. An interesting girl, and a good person, I think.

MT graduated from her Master's program before I did, and went off to Utah to work. But we stayed in touch as I fought my way through vet school, and she invited me, one summer, to raft the San Juan with her and her boss - plus his family, and some other people. This was to be partly a working trip - MT and her boss would be doing some measurements and gathering data along the river - but it was partly also for fun. Because the trip was a working gig, the State of Utah provided the boats (Avon self-bailers) and the gear. MT and her boss T provided the expertise, and the group of rafters provided the food. Luckily for me, my main job was to show up in Moab with my sleeping bag and basic camping gear; no need for a camp stove or a canteen or any of that: The State of Utah had better than I did, and there was no need to double up.

Moab is beautiful, in an arid sand-stony way; it's not for everyone, but having cut my Graduate School teeth on the works of Edward Abbey and Tony Hillerman, and having lived in semi-arid Colorado most of my life, I found it enchanting. Not everyone would appreciate the dry, red silty soil, speckled in little green knots of sage and other scrub, scantily shaded here and there by desert pinon and other scruffy, stunted trees; but I defy anyone not to catch their breath at the stunning skies, the deep intense blue of turquoise, punctuated with towering cumulo-nimbus formations, achingly white in sun, turning a deep glowering slatey purple when they were ready to break with rain.

There is a smell to the desert; dry and spicy, made of sage and pine and heat, underlain with the scent of oily resins baked hot in the sun. But I read somewhere, once (I wish I could remember where), a quote by a Native child, perhaps Navajo, maybe Hopi: Someone asked him what the desert smelled like. He said, "It smells like rain." I loved that idea... and certainly in our case it was at least at times true, as we did get rain there, in the desert: shocking downpours, sometimes, or quick spats; and other times we could see rain falling in the distance, a wispy veil descending from the belly of a storm cloud, dissipating before it hit the baking earth. And then, it's true: you can smell it in the air, taste it on the breeze: rain. The desert DOES smell like rain.

One thing I didn't have for camping was a tent. But as it happens, the State would sometimes go buy lots of used camping equipment off of some of the commercial rafting outfits who were retiring and replacing gear. MT, having been sent on such an errand, had sorted through one such lot, keeping what the State could use for its workers, retiring again what it could not. From that second-retirement lot I bought (for $10, exactly what it had cost the State) a used 2-man tent: a bit gritty with river silt, slightly battered in the tent pegs, but with a serviceable rain fly and more than roomy enough for me. The State provided her with a dry bag, so I used hers. I had my ever-handy supply of bug dope, sun screen, and film; my trusty Minolta (which later would be stolen by a roommate, and later still replaced as a graduation present); water shoes and lightweight hikers and sunglasses and hat and bandanna; toothbrush and castille soap and a journal. Clothes, including rain gear. My sleeping bag and therma-rest pad. The usual sundries of camping, but not pared down as far as normal: MT had coached me that rafting was not really like camping in that respect: You might have to carry your gear from boat to camp site and back, but in between the boat does the carrying for you.

In Moab, we did some shopping, and I "helped" gather and pack the gear for the trip. By this I mean I mainly watched MT and T do it, efficient and skilled in their comfortable teamwork. I lifted a few things, fetched and carried a little, but mainly just stayed out of their way. We gathered gear and people, and took everything to the put-in. Then we made the shuttle to the take-out sites, where we would of course need vehicles to return us home again. Because there were several people only coming along for the first few days, there were two take-outs, the near one needed only a vehicle, the far one had to have the boat trailer as well.

It was a long day, driving the shuttles; I, introvert child that I am, sat in the back of the vehicle and let the conversation flow over me, letting my eye wander over the ruddy landscape, letting my mind cast itself loose and fly along beside us as we drove. Sometimes MT would sing; she has a beautiful voice, clear and sweet. We had Bonie Raitt, Eric Clapton, 10,000 Maniacs to keep us company, though by and large all we needed was the landscape through which we drove and the easy camaraderie in the vehicle.

[Next up: we hit the water.]


MaskedMan said...

Utah desert smells like rain.

Other deserts, not so much. Sharja smelled like brick dust. The port of Jebal Ali smelled like the dust that blows out of your vents the first time you fire up the furnace.

AKDD said...

Ah. A worthy distinction. :-)

Me, however, I've only been to deserts in the southwest. New Mexico and Utah, the arid plateaus of southern Colorado.... those ones, to me, smell like rain. But it makes sense that different areas would smell differently.