The cottonwoods release the last of their burnt-yellow leaves and the mapgies, in piebald coats, flash shocking white breasts against the monochromatic landscape of waning fall, white from weeks of rain washing every single inch of animal, vegetable, mineral within one hundred miles of the Tetons.
The fair weather part-timers thin out, too, like leaves, blown off to other, often warmer places; places where you don’t need to rely on one another as you do here, facing the expanse and solemnity of November, of winter, a solidarity against the elements that brings people together and puts the little things in perspective.
Life here becomes peaceful again. Normal.
We are five weeks deep into homeschool routine, and the writing is on the wall--or in our case, the pavement. I smooth out obscure Latin words on the macadam, egg-shaped chalk balls dissolving with each curve of vowel, sketch hopscotch courts to drill skip-counting, the nervous system, principle verb parts.
A moose wanders by. And then another.
The cow lets out a somber grunt, a mating call of sorts that sounds none-too-optimistic. The bull responds with pursuit, a thrashing of willows with his antlers, resolving his testosterone-induced agitation while he readies himself for the task.
I watched bull moose once, in Alaska, a circle of creatures, peeing on the ground, on themselves, rolling in their own urine baths to scent their coats with the musky stank of mating. The ritual seemed nonsensical, comedic--those little bulls were competing only against one another, no females in sight.
The victor, already established, was out in the deeper thicket, hovering over his mate, bedded down, the great hulk of Denali at his back.
Last good-byes, Teton County Fair (c) cara blessley lowe 2013
The girls know, when they receive them as babies, that the lambs will be sold and killed for food. Baby lambs are called kids, and seeing kids--mere teenagers!--leading their sweet charges up the feed truck plank to the slaughterhouse is an unfortunate irony.
It is a cluster of consoling: of boyfriends and fathers and brothers with their arms and giant ranch-hand hands wrapped around the girls’ shoulders, belt buckles half the diameter as their waists; of sisters and other girls, mascara ribbons streaking their faces, a profusion of tears usually associated with weddings, or war.
As a bystander, you can’t get too sentimental.
These animals are bought, born, loved, raised, sold: the lesson is that earning a living is not without sacrifice, not without a price. This sacrifice means giving up something you love, adore even, and not just letting it go or even giving it away to another family, but leading it to it’s death.
There is a giant banner that sprawls the barn walls hailing the virtues of “Character”, which makes me wonder if I even understand the word. I never had to kill one of my animals when I was a kid.
Perhaps every parent should have to dry the tears of what I’ll call ‘chosen loss’ before the world thrusts it on their kids unawares.
Might there be a future where 4H takes root in those beleaguered neighborhoods of Chicago and other American cities where children killing children has become common enough to the point of being overlooked by the media and our political leaders?
Might makeshift barns replace sacked-out tenements, children learning compassion--not vengeance--through the heartbreak of loss?
A fallen spruce dwarfs S, at the site where he retrieved his kayak. In early summer the Snake flowed over this strainer.
First I see the kayak. It is innocuously perched on a rocky sandbar, drybag still attached. But where is S
? I ask myself. I walk all the way around the boat, suspicious, trying to determine if the current has washed it this high. Unlikely. The beginnings of another braid loll along beside me and the boat. The beast of the river's main channel keeps on.
Questioned asked, question answered. A ring tone peals from inside the thick polyurethane bag. Church bells, "the pope", my nickname for S. I tear into the bag, determined not to let the call go to voicemail. There is relief enough for my subconscious, dammed up by prayers, to now leak into my reasoning brain. All fears vie for first, but now I know no helicopters, no ambulance, no funeral, no life insurance will be tapped today. Praise God.
Half-whacked with relief and disbelief, I answer the phone, delirious, "How's that for a ride, partner?!"
There is heaving on the other end, a gasp. "I saw my life, you guys, flash before my eyes." He's unusually sincere, any attempts of making light of the melee nonexistent. Instead, gratitude. You know it's a very close call when I don't even feel the urge to be angry. And the fact that he called instead of texting tells me he indeed needed the comfort of receiving word on the other end.
We fashion a plan.
I traipse back to N and the enormity of the accident is settling on her. We sit, reckon the details of what happened, and wait for S. Time cautions, plays tricks with us, and has it been moments or hours?--and then he's back, the sun cocked over the edge of the Grand.
The details of survival already seem pedestrian. S becomes oddly deferential to the aftermath do's and don't's of river accidents as though common sense finally matters. Calling the Park Service becomes a priority. He's concerned someone will see our flotilla of shoes and paddles and hats and water bottles and will start looking for bodies immediately.
Kirsten, with the Park Service, teaches us new river phraseology, "river right" and "river left", presumably with the intent of avoiding confusion. I, however, have my doubts about this reasoning as some of the most sophisticated, intelligent people I know still confuse their rights with their lefts. I jab clarifications into the conversations, "We are on the EAST side of the river, tell her!"
Kirsten--surprise--cautions bears, tells us to wait where we are. This seems an absurd waste of time. I know we are within a mile of the bridge, and really, we can make do with two pairs of shoes between the three of us. And at this point, bears are the last of my worries.
But in keeping with the theme of the day, I acquiesce. It's nice to be agreeable, especially in circumstances of extreme duress.
The details get frittered away by more details. The precise strainer
sticking up out of the water; the place where the river bends hard left before the next downed log; righting an inflatable puffed full with current; river shoes entrapping the wearer in the overturned kayak; the dry bag, lassoed around feet--on purpose or on accident and was he in or out of his kayak at the time? My head spins with minutiae.
Now as in most every conversation, I filter the detritus for the point. This means lots of nods, an "um-hum" here or there, and mainly remembering to not drool as I listen. And listen. And listen.
Finally, two key points rise to the top, and these become the Press Release of our Survival. "Two weeks before his birthday, S. Lowe almost had to put his party plans on hold. A kayak trip turned to chaos as the man, 53 years old, was dragged under two logjams, trying to retrieve his capsized boat as he floated down a braided, debris-strewn stretch of Wyoming's Snake River."
So there it is. It's not the river that is necessarily dangerous but all the crap that falls into it. And when your river rushes through a forest, that means trees. Big trees. Lots of trees.
The fatal ingredient of boating here is the likelihood of getting trapped, not bonking your head on a rock or drowning in deep deep water. Just the rush of the river, the trees, lodged hard in the current and their network of limbs, unyielding, gigantic, intricate, ongoing.
Had the two trees he got sucked under had more branches, had the life vest he was wearing get hung up on an underwater snag, this story would not be blithely told under the pretense of entertainment.
I'd be a woman in mourning.
Which is also the great paradox behind silly disasters: that scythe-bearing meanie lurks behind every beautiful day.
N and I share a pair of shoes and convert our hats into flip-flops.
Summertime in Jackson Hole takes on metaphoric status for making the most of life. Because the season is so brief--a mish-mash of 45 not necessarily consecutive frost-free days--local behavior verges on the manic: so many barbeques, hikes, lake days, bike rides, camping trips, fishing excursions before all possibility is gone.
Near-freezing mornings signal the bossy insistence of autumn. The end draws near. And there it is, that palpable sense of panic to get in all those missed activities before the snow starts to fall. The question lately on everyone's lips, "Did you take advantage of summer?"
Our second river trip of the year, S had it in his mind to explore a new section of the Snake. It's a tangled stretch that reads fast, flat water with lots of unknowns, braiding through and passing by some of the most exquisite, historic estates below the Teton Range.
With poetic brevity the JH Kayak School explains, "From the put-in at Moose Visitor Center the fast-flowing river soon becomes very braided...caution is necessary as there are often snags and log jams." There is only one concession licensed to guide trips from Moose to Wilson. And though in twenty years of playing here I've never known anyone to float this part of the river on their own, How bad can it be, late August, an epic drought year? I ponder to myself.
The launch north of the Moose bridge adds a few more challenges: a mini-waterfall formed by boulders downriver from the launch which I skirt within a stroke or two, only to paddle harder against the river's pace, the current doing it's best to drag me against the next obstacle to survival: bridge pilings frapped with downed trees.
Pondering quickly turns to mission abort. Less than ten minutes into the journey, I am spinning like a tick on the river's surface, kayak over-inflated and wind gusts battling water battling my dread of orphaning my only child at an age so young she'd barely remember me.
Resolved to quit, I beach my trusty craft. Terra firma, amen. My husband, already 500 yards beyond, hasn't even noticed I'm no longer in the game.
Thankfully my BFF does. She and S are nimbly slicing through both wind and current atop her kayak. I'm kind of stunned. They make it look so...easy. They stop on a mid-river island and I struggle not to pull an urban reference, shifting my three-finger "W-WHATEVER" gesture into thumb & pinky "Call me" sweetness.
"I'm done," I tell him on the phone. "I just don't have a good feeling about this. You guys go ahead. I can carry my boat back to the truck."
"Come on babe, you and N take this kayak. I'll take the single, it'll be fine."
Few people know this: I'm a notorious sissy. Even in my most adventuresome days, I was bearish. But here, now, even though that still, small voice is screaming, "NO WAY, JOSE!", I get back into my kayak, fighting the internal fight of self-preservation versus disappointing my spouse.
In the movies, doom rarely comes at high noon on a cloudless bluebird day. Directors know better and tap their audience's psyche to deliver a more evocative climatic reference.
Paddling to the island is eerily effortless. Once launched aboard N's sit-atop however, the horror crystallizes: two serene fly-fisherman casting into 20 yards of class II rapids. I know enough about rivers to know that after the rapids comes the calm. Eddy lines. Those cellophane-stretched spots that mean depth, downdraft, the place where sticks get stuck, twirling like the frantic needle on a compass.
My stomach turns. We bear down. Water sloshes our laps. We rocking-horse rock. We make it.
But then, in the nanosecond between respite and relief, the boat shifts broadside, starts drifting backwards.
In moments of sheer panic, the human mind takes comfort in the insignificant details, the simple memories, not the exceptional ones. The smell of your newborn's head. The way the morning light seeped into your bedroom in the house you grew up in and loved best.
The flip was nothing more than the switch of a trout's dorsal fin, leaving the rise. You almost question that you saw it at all.
The water is bath-warm, rare for the Snake. And my very human mind finds it's one small detail: my webbed rubber sandal, threatening to fall off. I battle not the current, not survival at it's essence, but losing my shoe.
Snap back to task at hand: shore, yes; logjams, no. Head down into the water, arms pulling against the current, finally reaching that place where the river goes slack right before you reach land. Trees, once towering, stab at my thighs, underwater zombie arms wanting to pull me under. Grab decaying tree root to crawl up crumbling riverbank and almost fall back into the rushing river. Note to self: decaying tree roots are brittle, unreliable and sharp.
S careens by. He's clearly in control, owning the river. N alludes to him "rodeo cowboy corralling" our yard sale of paddles and drybag and sit-atop kayak and other miscellany and of course, that's exactly what my husband is now, a rodeo king, riding the river and saving the day.
N and I trudge through thick willows, direction downriver, and N's in shock enough to be mostly nonchalant about walking barefoot through thistle patches. Sandbar, abandoned river braid and stones stones stones. We sit. Assess.
My friend is shoeless and freaked by the very real possibility of bears. I'm just freaked. I wonder, Did I remember to pray? I pray.
I leave N to find my husband, assuring her that it would be a cold bear in hell who would walk out onto a sandbar just to attack her. "The berries are ripening", I tell her, hoping she'll extrapolate a positive message from my line of thinking.
The sun shines on, the sky seamless, and somewhere nearby, I am certain, there's a kid on vacation flying a kite.