Once the boats hit the water, a new world opened up to me.
A lifelong victim of earaches - sometimes caused in childhood by swimming, and eventually resulting in a ruptured eardrum - I am not by and large what I'd consider a water person. But it didn't take long before I started to see the allure of a float trip. MT captained one boat - with me, and a majority of gear, on board - and her Boss T piloted the other, larger boat, with his wife L, their son LS and another couple with a child. Also along was a young woman in a canoe, paddling along beside us, and laden with her own gear.
The San Juan is an easy river, dropping only about 8 feet per mile (although it does have some class-III rapids, and occasional sand waves that occur unexpectedly along its course.) Early on, the river was smooth and quiet, a medium silty brown as we drifted on its gleaming back. There was a moderate amount of river traffic apart from us; it wasn't what I'd call crowded, but our little convoy was one of several that we glimpsed here and there. We drifted along pleasantly, rowing over and tying up to the shore for lunches, when we excavated in the cooler for roast beef and avocado sandwiches, bottled water and juice. In the evenings we tied up and pulled the kitchen gear out of the boats - lugging what seemed an outrageous amount of stuff back and forth, until you realized that it contained tables that cleverly folded up into tight cylindrical bundles, a four-burner Coleman stove, lamps, and a full assortment of cooking gear - not to mention food unlike any I've ever had on a camping trip. We had steaks, we had spaghetti and meatballs, we had chicken cacciatore - not a bit of it freeze-dried, dehydrated, reconstituted or otherwise robbed of flavor or texture. We had wine and beer and sodas. We had sour cream and fresh tomatoes and salad and sliced turkey and fresh bread and mayonnaise. It was like a magic act, every time the cooler was opened: what amazing thing would emerge from it next?
We'd pitch our tents in the evenings - me in my tent, MT in hers, T and L and LS in one, the other couple in another, the lone canoeist on her own. After dinner and clean-up, we'd lounge around, chatting, watching the night creep across the sky, waiting for the bats to come out in the twilight, along with the stars, and start their nightly hunt. We would talk and laugh and tell stories, and I would write in my journal and soak up the peace.
After the first two nights, the first take-out came up at Mexican Hat, a name I'd long known from Tony Hillerman novels. The canoeist and the couple with the young child departed and we continued on, just MT and I in one boat, and T, L, and LS in the other. Much of the weekender traffic on the river departed at the same site, and the river grew distinctly quieter. I lay back against the padded side of the boat, wriggling my rump down comfortably amongst the dry bags, letting my head lay back on the warm grey rubber of the Avon.
"There," MT said quietly. I looked around at her.
"There, what?" I asked, wondering if she'd seen some wildlife I'd missed by lounging.
"I've been waiting for that - the moment you finally relaxed. I knew it'd come, but sometimes it takes a few days."
"What do you mean?" I asked her, half-laughing. "I've been having a great time."
"Yeah - but just now you relaxed. All the way. You just put down the rest of your life and came to live on the river."
I looked at her for a moment, and a small smile started somewhere in my chest and emerged onto my lips. "So I did," I said softly, and laid my head back against the warm flank of the boat once more, smiling at the deep fathomless turquoise sky.
Now, many years down the line, I've come to recognize that as the cardinal sign of a really great vacation: that moment when you surrender yourself completely to it, letting go of your "regular" life so completely that you start to lose track of time; that all the world is Now. No past; no future. Just Now. Just what is right here in this moment, both timeless and eternal, completely sufficient unto itself.
Somewhere along the line (Sand Island?) we stopped at a Kachina panel, petroglyphs made by the Anasazi or other ancient cultures. This panel rises high above a rock bench; there are footholds carved into the flank of the bench, shallow dents that were somehow sufficient ladder for the artists to surmount the hump of the rock and gain access to the cliff face where they made their art. The panel rises impossibly high - too high for a person to reach - and there are, carved into the sandstone wall, holes where I guessed that some kind of scaffolding was once butted into the rock, allowing the artists more scope for their work.
Somewhere else along the way we stopped at River House, a small cliff dwelling. The river was faster and higher there, and tying up a bit tricky; there wasn't much bank, and we were moving relatively fast. MT rowed us hard toward the bank, and I managed to grab hold of some vegetation and, hauling hard, pull us in toward the poking, tangled branches of some trees that were half-submerged at the river's edge. T, having already secured his own boat, splashed over and caught the line I threw him, heaving back once with the skill of long practice, and effectively snugging our boat into a safe tie-down.
The walk to River House was extremely hot; we crossed a silty flat - striped here and there with unexpected slimy gullies of standing water, and thick with resillient, shrubby growth - assaulted in equal measure by the sun and a plague of small, stinging black flies. The air was completely still, hard as a brick wall with the heat. Once clear of the wiry thickets of undergrowth, the flat silty pan was easier going - but not much, as we struggled through the shifting sand and the oppressive glare of the baking sun. River House rose ahead of us, halfway up a cliff wall. The climb up the cliff was easier and more pleasant than the slog across the flats to get there, and once there, the wisdom of the Anasazi becomes immediately apparent: the dwelling is situated in such as way that it is bathed in a cool, pleasant breeze, one that is completely absent directly below us on the canyon floor. The breath of the canyon lifts our sweaty hair off our necks and soothes or hot skin, and we drop into timelessness once more.
River House is small, maybe 7 or 8 dwellings, but surprisingly snug. The houses have been built close under the overhanging mass of the cliff above, floored by a soft, fine silt and roofed by the masive weight or rock overhead. I poke my head into one dwelling and see, on its ceiling, paintings. A handprint, made in some white substance. The unknown artist has then drawn wavy finger-lines down the palm. There are two or three such handprints there; and for a moment I imagine the reflected light of fire against the stone, the shine of eyes watching as this warm hand traces these lines on the rock, never realizing that a thousand years hence other eyes will see it, and think of the artist so long gone... and wonder.
Higher on the belly of the overhanging rock there are a few small petroglyphs... a snake, some bits of patterns I do not completely recall. Here and there on ledges of tumbled stone, where some of the dwellings have begun to crumble, people have placed tiny potsherds that they have found over the years in the dwelling: Some plain, some with fragments of patterning on them. Here too are bits of bone or flint, maybe part of some tool; here a feather, there the tiny skull of some animal, offerings of rememberance to a vanished people.
For a while we have River House to ourselves, but from our aerie I can see other people walking across the pan. Soon we are joined by others, smiling and friendly, but somehow hushed up here, as if this were a cathedral of some kind. And perhaps it is.
After a while we make our way back down the cliff and across the hot flats, even more oppressive now, with the memory of the cool, sighing breeze of River House. We battle our way back through the scrub and to our boats, now flanked by the boats of others. We pile in, untie our moorings and push off, down the river.
[Next: Deep in the Canyon.]