At first, it’s just birth plans and cloth diapers, co-sleeping and schedules, and the next thing you know, your child is conspiring to feed the dog tacks.
Parenthood is no laughing matter.
We talk about this over rosé and s’mores, a campfire blazing away a threat of chill at sunset, the children as liberated from harm’s way as one could fathom: save grizzly bears, drowning and marshmallow roasting sticks to the eye. We holler the customary cautions and strap lifejackets on for safe measure, even though they are just skipping stones from the stern of an anchored boat. (There have been less obvious disasters, of this I am certain.)
We ponder choices, the desirability of geography, community, commuting, the trade-offs of not flying your Preferred Airline, hairy drives over wintry mountain passes, a winter that just does not quit, shares of beef and cubic-feet of deep freezers, all the while staring into the fire with the wizened eyes earned a handful of scant years into the walk as Keepers of Young Things.
“Think of their lives,” my friend throws out. “Their lives are crazy, they have no idea.” And they don’t.
This night is 360 degrees of mountains and foil-smooth lake, the cherry-topper of a full moon rising brighter than a lighthouse on a foggy night, and not a soul in sight.
There is something redemptive and grace-filled that children, in all their hope and optimism and God-given survival mechanisms, do not grasp the reality of their situation, as beautiful or as ugly as their situation may be.
In this case, it is beautiful. Of course there are still meltdowns and power struggles, heartbreaks and vulnerabilities beyond your wildest dreams, always; not to mention the abandonment, largely, of the life and personhood formerly known as Yours and You.
All of it, at this moment, seems a trifle of a concern.
All of it, you’d dare only with the best of friends.
Paw print at the crossing
On Christmas Eve, one of my best friends sent me an iPhone video that was nothing but blackness. “Make sure the volume is up” he told me.
Off in the distance, echoed and hollowed sounding, the howl of wolves. I imagined them, large paws padding the fresh snowfall, wending their way between the river-bottom firs.
What I know of wolves are speck-sized dust spots in my scope, the Lamar Valley, and so many head of elk running to and fro, careening like a flock of waxwings across the snow.
I was taught early on as a birder that the secret to identifying species is silhouette and context. The details get lost in the distance, the absence of glass to bring their barred and bibbed patterns in close a missed opportunity to tick a lifer off your list.
Nine o’clock in the morning. Late. The traffic of daily living already quieting. Sun high and a ribbon of inversion knitted together by the cold and rising. Priceless, but here, commonplace.
Click. Beautiful. Again.
The iPhone is a poor tool for such moments, but as the saying goes, a bad camera is better than no camera at all.
Besides, you don’t drive your preschooler to school thinking that on the way you’ll see wolves.
Black wolf, zoomed
The car was stopped. They came from the south. After two, I knew to wait. Accustomed to the ways of migratory shuffles, there are always more.
Black wolf. White snow. Cottonwoods. Grey wolf. Road. Grey wolf.
Three in all.
Lumbering and leggy, their run is a rocking-horse rock, their mouths the open mouths of carousel animals, bridleless. It’s full-out or nothing at all.
E watched along with me, speechless, a witness.
Much later, on the way home, we searched out the tracks, the place where the wolves crossed the road. I sunk, thigh deep into the sage flats and compared my palm to their paw, the way their tails cantilevered their gait against the awkward pull of the snow, wet and spring-like by midday.
I was still half-thinking we had somehow, the two of us, conjured the whole thing.
It wasn’t until later that I realized there, in my iPhone camera, in the big, wide view, the first black wolf is there. You can see him!
Not at all a ghost: opaque, pricked ears, that wild tail.
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.
E and I talk a lot about death these days. It must be a four-year-old thing. And while we said goodbye to her cranky-beloved granddog two weeks ago, it was this old mess o'bones that made the entire life cycle a bit more tangible in her eyes.
We found it, like all great discoveries, by accident, exploring a special place near our home, tinder-dry grasses scratching our flip-flopped feet, eyes peeled for random spiky thistle tops sure to bring a halt to the day's adventure. The coloring looks more like a ring-tailed cat, which we don't have in western Wyoming, at least according to the experts. Raccoons have blacker tail bands and the skull is so long that it doesn't look like either of the above really, or a housecat, which would be another plausible guess given the size.
One of the things I love the most about where we live is how one minute the place seems so civilized and genteel and the next, this. (Just like middle-of-the-night coyote howls I heard last week in Brentwood
.) The contrasts, animal wildness rubbing against human efforts to tame it,
are everywhere, and even seemingly humdrum suburban backyards yield the greatest of finds. Just ask E. O. Wilson
Children are especially fine lamplighters of these discoveries, if their unadulterated curiosities aren't squelched by the very adult ridiculousness of labeling things as "gross", "disgusting", "nasty" or "filthy"--any of which these things may actually be. W
e made it home before dark with just one thing to add to her collection: a chunk of vertebrae that E can hold up to the small of my back, understanding how we are put together, and what it looks like when that's all that's left.