The beauty I saw this weekend nearly made my head explode. Man, I am feeling SO SMART for moving to Colorado right about now, truly verging on smug.
I met up with Jim and Barbara, two total strangers, on Friday morning and by evening’s end, we were a family - specifically, a polygamist man with his two wives. Barbara had lived in Utah with Mormons so we decided to role play, convincing our happy hour waitress, at the very least. (I was Wife #2.) We dipped our bodies in the mineral baths of Glenwood Springs and downed margaritas before camping at Escalante, alongside the railroad tracks and a few hundred ant hills.
The four-day trip along the Gunnison River in Western Colorado (just south of Grand Junction) was precisely what I needed to kick off my ‘Summer of Exploration’ here in the Centennial State. There were 21 of us in all – most from my ‘Up The Creek’ gang plus three guides and eleven canoes. The agenda: paddling, camping, eating, drinking, hiking and laughing – total bliss.
Beyond the salmon, ribs and strawberry shortcake, I’m sure I also ate a ton of bugs because my jaw basically dropped on Friday and stayed that way through Monday. Massive canyon walls in deep old reds and lively oranges, all dusted with a thin black desert varnish, made me feel so small, so young, so temporary. The banks were lush with pesky purple Tamarisk, Buffalo grass, Russian olive trees and Cottonwoods. Little white tailed bunny rabbits hopped around and I felt like passing out from joy. “This place is truly touched by the gods,” said Barb.
Turns out, it’s been waaaay too long since I’d been camping – Burning Man 2001. As a result, I was so excited that the idea of sleeping seemed intrusive. The incredible moonlight and star-filled sky certainly didn’t help. Neither did the mighty locomotive that came storming through the canyon several times a day hauling coal. I friggin’ LOVE trains, they make me kinda bonkers with glee.
Late one night, while chewing the fat with our river guide, Jim, I noticed a dim white shadow on the canyon walls. It grew brighter and bigger and then, the delightful old world sound of moving steel. I lept off the overturned canoe and nearly pissed myself with anticipation. In that massive canyon cathedral, alongside the Gunnison River glistening in the moonlight, came that long Union Pacific train. What an unforgettable sight. I put my filthy feet in the sleeping bag that night and finally passed out with a huge grin on my face like an over-sugared toddler finally hitting a wall.
Come breakfast, I was the first one up – completely out of character for a lazy bones night owl like myself. Our afternoon hike revealed more Sergio Leone scenery, waterfall-laden grottos, ancient petroglyphs and yellow-and-blue neon lizards. We climbed rocks, gave ourselves river mud facials and drank rum and beer. We told stories, juggled and wore funny glasses. We showered under waterfalls and stretched out to dry on giant, warm boulders. Meanwhile, the guides marveled at our collective low-maintenance joy. According to them, some folks venture out on the river bringing their freaky demons with them while we’d managed to luck out with a nearly perfect group dynamic.
On the last night, some choice Robert Service poetry was read aloud by the fire. Jim read his classic “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and I read “The Men That Don’t Fit”, which pretty much describes every man I’ve ever loved.
As we launched our canoes for the final paddle home on Monday morning, Jim again took out the Service collection, “The Songs of Sourdough” and asked us to pick a spot in the canyon to contemplate while he read “The Call of the Wild” which left more than a few of us misty-eyed:
Have you gazed on naked grandeur where there's nothing else to gaze on,
Set pieces and drop-curtain scenes galore,
Big mountains heaved to heaven, which the blinding sunsets blazon,
Black canyons where the rapids rip and roar?
Have you swept the visioned valley with the green stream streaking through it,
Searched the Vastness for a something you have lost?
Have you strung your soul to silence? Then for God's sake go and do it;
Hear the challenge, learn the lesson, pay the cost.
Have you wandered in the wilderness, the sagebrush desolation,
The bunch-grass levels where the cattle graze?
Have you whistled bits of rag-time at the end of all creation,
And learned to know the desert's little ways?
Have you camped upon the foothills, have you galloped o'er the ranges,
Have you roamed the arid sun-lands through and through?
Have you chummed up with the mesa? Do you know its moods and changes?
Then listen to the Wild -- it's calling you.
Have you known the Great White Silence, not a snow-gemmed twig aquiver?
(Eternal truths that shame our soothing lies).
Have you broken trail on snowshoes? mushed your huskies up the river,
Dared the unknown, led the way, and clutched the prize?
Have you marked the map's void spaces, mingled with the mongrel races,
Felt the savage strength of brute in every thew?
And though grim as hell the worst is, can you round it off with curses?
Then hearken to the Wild -- it's wanting you.
Have you suffered, starved and triumphed, groveled down, yet grasped at glory,
Grown bigger in the bigness of the whole?
"Done things" just for the doing, letting babblers tell the story,
Seeing through the nice veneer the naked soul?
Have you seen God in His splendors, heard the text that nature renders?
(You'll never hear it in the family pew).
The simple things, the true things, the silent men who do things --
Then listen to the Wild -- it's calling you.
They have cradled you in custom, they have primed you with their preaching,
They have soaked you in convention through and through;
They have put you in a showcase; you're a credit to their teaching --
But can't you hear the Wild? -- it's calling you.
Let us probe the silent places, let us seek what luck betide us;
Let us journey to a lonely land I know.
There's a whisper on the night-wind, there's a star agleam to guide us,
And the Wild is calling, calling. . .let us go.