Low Water, Loose Stone
Traveling by canoe in a desert miles from nowhere.
Your two companions, they’re up as well, taking in the morning by their tents. You light your camp stove, and then glance at your canoe, so yellow, almost shocking in its girth, the memory of its hull on the water, the ways it’s held you, all the waves. A raven barks. The river, the desert light, everything never quite registering. You’ve poured water in the little pot, enough for coffee, oatmeal, too. Out here’s the cream. And the sea is here, its footprint made this place. Sure, some continental plates were involved. The water bubbles, steams. Clean enough, your mug. And what of all the cane along the bank, that often are the banks? Halls of cane, aromatic as honey, corn tassel, summer. Sure, a raptor is watching you, always was. As the cane is invasive, as you are, too. Yes, the clouds are lifting. Ten more days. Have another sip.
Later, and for much of the day (and those to follow), your hands rotate along with torso and paddle, stroke after stroke. One motion, many moving parts. How many revolutions per mile the sum of the paddle’s dip, purchase, uplift, reach, and then another, and so on. Little adjustments, conscious sometimes, mostly not. The neck cranes as the gaze shifts. Edges of daydream in tune, somehow, as if traversing the swirls off the stern line. You take another stroke or you don’t and just drift, see bugs in sunlight, shadows reaching where they reach.
Another camp, easy enough to decide. The three of you have each other’s respect and each other’s backs, and it’s unsaid but understood that you are here for the place as much as each other. Some nights the right bank, other nights the left—the lay of the land tells you where.
You unload. You tie your boat to a paloverde, a mesquite, a boulder, something. There’s stray gear in the hull, silt, a few small stones. Here’s some flat ground for your tent. Soon enough, the moon’s up, the bats, a little peach glow faint in the sky. Frog noise? Yes, it’s January, and there’s frog noise. A metal post in the boulder at river’s edge, and what for makes little difference now. Sips, just sips of something good. Twilight does you like that, too, the food laid out, the pot, the spoon, the flame. Rest well, canoe, until tomorrow, carry the dew.
The river in the morning always looks a little strange, especially in mist. Looks slower. You sleep so well out here. Is it because this is home? And is that so odd, for this to be home? Someone a while back researched this river, which is a long river, and found sixteen different names in recorded history for the river, and you think of them now—P’Osoge, Tiguex, Río Bravo, Río Turbio—as you go by foot up the left bank. There’s ocotillo. A donkey bawls. It’s hard to take a step without crushing something.
These walks, often taken while waiting for the sun to crest the canyon wall. A maze of spiny things. Loose stone. A world unforgiving and fragile, crumbly, patient. Bold forms, fleshy. You cross the vega, and then scramble up, stop often. The mist shifts. Green ribbon of the river, browns, tans, grays. Talus, cliff droppings. Gravel bars. Birds bray and peep. Was a kit fox down there, at the walk’s outset, hardly wary of you, and why would it be—you haven’t begun cheating yourself of the present moment again, have you? You reflect. The whole place, just being here, has tendered your attention. How to reflect and how to keep on. And through all this, you feel as if you could catch fire and turn to ash, as if you already have.
You squat above a spring and pump from it through a charcoal filter into a 32-ounce bottle, the fourth of twelve you’ll fill and dump into a square, six-gallon container. You pump, and you think of how you’ve brought extra food, water, and clothing for anyone you see who might need it, though if they saw you first, as they likely would (this is open country), as some might even now be staring at you, wondering, they probably wouldn’t suspect you have food and water and smiles and respect for them, for their courage, their endurance, for just being alive. If they saw you now or later or saw you earlier, in your yellow canoe and your sunburnt skin and buoyant life vest, they might think you are carrying a gun, though you are not carrying a gun; and they might think you work for the government, your government (which doesn’t want them to cross the river), though you don’t think much of your government. If they see you, they might wonder, where is your spouse, where are your children, where is your house, your truck, your dog?
The moon rises full on this, the sixth of your ten nights. You planned this trip less around the moon than work schedules but the moon has been a vivid presence. Each evening prior to this one, the moon beamed large and radiant in the dry desert air, only setting long after you turned in. Except to read, you haven’t wanted a headlamp but rather to witness this already singular, desert landscape grow even more singular with the cast of each thing—stone, cactus, shrub, cane patch—both lit and shadowed. There’s a softness, an intimacy. The place feels both less and more foreign and familial. How that gossamer, silver-downiness washes out the details yet registers the essence of things, colors—violets, lavenders, grays, pales, greens—growing so tidal that each object appears accented in beforelife. Or maybe all things feel equally foreign. It feels, if you’re breathing well, medicinal, like the moon’s looking out for you. Your pal mentions that snakes are less active under big moons, but you know their spirits are more active, as all spirits are, even during sunlit hours those days when the moon’s waxing big and you may not notice it but you know it, just feel it all day long, like some longing, love, for this, now, for life.
Another few hours on the river, and then you leave your canoe to poke up another side canyon. Side canyons are for quiet, the river’s talk out of your ear for a bit. The breezes. The bird- and bug-noise. What grows, what doesn’t grow. When you try to move quickly, cover ground, all focus goes to your feet, the next step. You stop often, pause, consider the water that has moved through here, the scour patterns in the stone bed creating currents that seem to touch if not inhabit you. You stand in the aftermath of many torrents. Water moving with such force it would obliterate and sweep you into a cauldronish spume of debris. There’s no water now, not even a pool, no tinaja here. You listen to rocks fall, bounce down the cliffs, and you wonder at the critter prints, scat. These are the desert’s superhighways, with periodic flood maintenance. Caves are here. Up on the walls, these caves, and in them artifacts and evidence of fires can be found, lifeways imagined. You keep going. You watch your step. You can fall and break your body if you don’t watch your step. You can fall and just stay here until you’re outside of time, even further than you are now.
You scramble to a cave about 800 feet above camp, hoping for vistas, maybe evidence of prehistoric culture. You find vistas, yes, and artifacts, too, including a Monster energy drink can, Doritos wrappers, a hoodie, two Dolce & Gabbana faux leather coats (small and medium), some dirty socks, three voter identification cards (from the country on the other side of the river), and a length of rope. It is a sobering midden, haunting. The clothing is tucked into a cave within the cave, in a very low and deep limestone cavity, drip-textured. One of the ID cards is torn in half. More consonants than the names you’re used to hearing. You squat there and breathe in deeply and look out over the river and cliffs. You see your pals, small figures down there at camp, the bright tents, canoes. Out loud you read the names off the cards, imagine the people who bore such names and wish them well, and then thread your way slowly back to camp.
Another morning, another canyon mouth, mile 78 or 79, the Mexico bank, and there’s frost again, no mist now for days. The wind has set down. It’s colder, some ice having formed overnight in the water bottles. The stars, before the moon rose, layered and dense. You stared at them for a long time. Now your pal’s voice has called you to see critter tracks in the silt on the downstream end of the cobble bar, about two hundred feet from your tents. They are mountain lion tracks, unmistakable, and they’re fresh, from last night or early morning. How this same pal’s voice, at some point, cut through the night’s pre-moon dark: “I thought I’d seen stars, but now I’ve seen stars.”
Later, the bighorn, four of them. They stare at you. You stare at them. You’re in the runout of yet another long wave train. The present has sucked you in. The present, in a desert canyon many miles from nowhere, no roads, no phone service. Sucked in, or is it something else? Could you be nailed to the present? You go on, another stroke, and another, and listen as the river—this wound, this balm—whispers its names, and then erases them.