14 July 2013

Working notes: Take Me to the River

Writing notes from the shore. It's a process.

Take Me to the River was one my first editorial pieces I wrote  since moving to Tucson for Perimeter Bicycling Association of America. It was my first winter in the Tucson desert and I was thinking of spring days down in the Grand Canyon. 

My mom's longtime friend Sally Valenzuela, heads up the marketing for PBAA  had kindly invited me to a "welcome to Tucson" lunch. I had grown up with Sally's daughters in Flagstaff and we hadn't seen each other in years. I had been out fishing for graphic design work that morning following a lead from Craig's list and happened to have my portfolio in the Mariachi van. Sally shares a love for photography, Mexico, art and community service and suggested I share my work with her colleagues at Perimeter and encouraged me to  submit  work for TAILWINDS Magazine.

I had begun a new chapter of life in Tucson. I wrote sitting at my new desk, at my new, old adobe casita in Barrio Viejo. I am still  adjusting to  the  rhythms of my new life and  like writing, and river running looking for those lines to follow, it's been a process.What words and what images tell the story  best ? With my Gemini nature and love of odd tangents it's hard for me to choose.

It was funny to me because after living in Mexico for the past five years documenting horse traditions and every day life in Casas Grandes region of Chihuahua, I had an archive of photographs of people in cowboy hats but I didn't have any stock photos of athletic images of people running, bike riding, or swimming in an urban environment. What I had to draw from was my experiences of traveling down river.

I have included the long and edited versions I wrote for Tailwinds Magazine June 2013 issue. The inspiration began with my memories of Taki's journal notes. I was struck by her story and love for the Grand Canyon, a place she never visited in her brief life. Yet her life and the treasure of her words are at home amongst the layers of time's passage. Her presence within the canyon has touch many people over the years; worn pages flutter in your hands dusted with sand; notes scribbled, inspired words of gratitude from other visitors who somehow heard of the secret treasure and  climbed the same rocky outcropping to ponder the tender well worn pages. It was  the section of the story that I thought was key but it got cut. But without having written that part the story would have taken a different line. I look forward to re-editing the story for a longer piece in the future. I also wanted to share some of  the other photographs I chose for the story. 

Enjoy the journey. And Thank you Sally. I look forward to sharing more collaborations with PBAA team! 

Here's the links to the final editorial. Please feel free to comment. Gracias. 

TAKE ME TO THE RIVER    EDIT 1st draft    1715 words 


One looks down river,  the canyon ascends and recedes in the distance in layers of azure blue shadows. The reflections of towering red wall breaks apart in dancing patterns of the river and blue sky,  golden lines merge, disappear, then silver, dark line against white foam.  Like the seasons of our lives the river changes her colors, clear emerald green, then red and then brown as iced mocha.  The seasons change but the river like us is never the same.  

I have heard it said of the Grand Canyon,  it is a natural wonder, a religious experience, and is endeared as a collective living room we share with our fellow travelers. How old will you be before you actually sleep under a canopy of stars?  The summer I turned twelve  I went down on 21 day Grand Canyon youth river trip.  My family was separating, I was entering the gawky  and  awkward teenage years.  We did solo overnight  hikes in the side canyons,  listened to our boatman read philosophy  books, quoting cowboy poets and the ol’ time river runners who followed the call of the wild and unknown lands out loud as we learnt how to read the water and face the waves of smaller riffles and rapid.   I rode through Lava Falls with my feet in the air holding on so I wouldn’t get washed out of the boat.  Since that first trip over thirty five years ago I  have met many people  over the years working as a river cook on commercial and scientific expeditions.  My brother JP,  a Hatch boatman has always said the kitchen is the heart of camp,  the place where people find home and sustenance upon the unknown shores in a harsh and gorgeous landscape in an other worldly place. 

Exploring  a river in the southwest can be a day trip,  a week and even a three week trip.  We have in our backyard The Salt, The San Juan and THE Colorado River at the bottom of Grand Canyon.. If you added up all the rapids in Grand Canyon’s  280 miles, it’s estimated, all the excitement of white water would be less than 15 minutes.  It’s not an uncommon question from passengers for the seasoned oarsmen or woman, “ Have  you ever flipped or swam a rapid? “. 

With a dip of an oar, or a coyote glance downstream, a guide’s answer is vaguely humble and remain in grace with the river Gods. It could happen to a rookie or a seasoned veteran. It’s a given, it’s not IF but when it may happen. “There are those who have or those who will. " And like life who hasn’t had a bad run now and then?   Maybe it’s the thrill of the whitewater, the bucket list experience; I doubt people expect the effects of  the long quiet stretches that lie on either side of the rapids after they’ve returned home to world above.  Just as your above the rapid you’re through it and then your right above it again.  It’s what stories are made of and no matter the run it’s in the recovery  and getting back into the current that counts.

Beyond the roar of the rapids and excitement are the long stretches of calm water; side canyons reveal their secret pools after long, hot wanderings in the sun. Other trips go by and strangers wave;  start water fights, trade for ice, beer, some tobacco, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and bread; icing for cakes, outboard engines, and  even rolls of toilet paper.   All and all it’s  about helping people find there place like a stone washed upon the shore and help instill the idea of stewardship for each other; to  discover and treasure the legacy of wild places in nature and within ourselves.

Many years ago one of my boatman told me the story of  hidden treasure  located in the inner canyon gorge.  He looked up the high cliffs and nodded with his head l as we motored on by.  Years went by and I still wondered about that story and a treasure of words. One late afternoon we pulled into the camp below the cliff where he had nodded up too. After setting up camp a couple of us walked up the cliff face.  As it were told,we discovered the ammo can holding the gathered pages , ‘ The Journal of Tiki Galt 1951-1971”. Tiki’s dream to visit Grand Canyon never was realized as she left the sweet world at the age of twenty after a long struggle with Hodgkins Disease.   Yet her young life and wisdom beyond years has touched many and her journal still remains a mystery.  Just as the Ancient cultures have left their  signs in pot sherds and pictographs continue to inspire more questions than answers.  Who am I?  Where are we from ? Where are we going?  

LINK: The Journals of Tiki Galt from the bottom of Grand Canyon
 Tiki Galt:  Grand Canyon Boatman Quarterly http://www.gcrg.org/bqr/pdf/23-4.pdf


Like the river,  time doesn’t move linearly but rather cyclically.  More years go by and I find myself cycling  back to the  touchstones  along the way.  Once again I am on the  familiar shore, we’re the same but different.  I look up and my eyes wander up to that non de-script hidden place to feel again the sands of time within the pages  of a girl I never knew  yet whose story has given me  and others the courage to live.  Words hold dreams and reflections from other people from another time and place ; notes from  life’s journey written on small pieces of paper escape; down below the smell of dinner being made; out of the blue a low moan of a saxophone note catches the air and lingers just like a raven’s line of flight. I look down at camp. People and  boats are small insignificant dots along the shore;  A circle of chairs and a community is made;   strangers are now friends visiting, helping one another, setting  up tents and sharing recipes. It is enough to just sit on a rock, and contemplate the symphony of nature- the crescendo of a  Canyon Wren and human laughter echos across the water and rises up on a jazz note. 

A fellow traveler told me,  “Relationships are like campsites, we should leave them better than we found them.” People come and go but their presence remains.  As a photographer, I have witnessed the  silhouettes of our human family through the ages along the river’s shores. Moments like memories come in waves, overlapping and braiding the currents in the life stream. The exhilaration of adventure and the quiet contemplation with people who touch our lives, some ever so briefly but remain a profound influence long after we’ve all gone home. 

 Thousands of visitors camp along the shore but the only signs are their footprints in the sand.  No trash, not even a cigarette butt or one plastic bag. People learn to care for one another and  cultivate kinship.  There is a trust of the guiding presence of a hand reaching out to help one another,  across a cliff face, fording a rushing stream and righting a capsized boat.  People’s faces and the masks we wear in the world on top are discarded,  become weather worn, sun kissed, with each day the light in their eyes grows brighter.  I have seen people break down from dehydration;  and their fear of the unknown and from the sheer profound beauty of it all.  Some people know it will be their last and only trip on the bucket list because of their aliments, cancer and age.   Other’s will come back again- one more run or a hundred more.  I remember one woman who asked shyly if it would be ok to stand naked under a waterfall after her battle with cancer.  Our group allowed her the privacy to commune with nature’s gift.  When she returned back to the group she was radiant with tears of joy  in her eyes. Families  and friends, long time married folk and young love mark the seasons of the years amid conversations with stones and water in the deep shadows and by firelight.   People celebrate, dance, trade life stories, and make new friends as each day people overcome their fears of water, heights, death and question their preconceived ideas and discover and explore the depths of their own lives.  No matter the age or status in life the river teaches us humility and like Kafka’s poem Ithaca,  the journey is the destination.  Courage is grace under pressure and people experience what it means to live fully within the arms of nature’s harsh and wondrous beauty with a new attention to the details and discover their own place with in it. 

I look to my experiences and reflect on my fears above the rapids.   I hear the voices of my river mentors,  and the kind people I met along the way, the women and men, who taught me to wear good shoes on big rapid day and that it’s not about brute strength but is more about finesse.   Face your danger.  Keep it straight.  Keep your angle.  And don’t give up.... “Don’t do it like a boy ; kiss that rock and work with the current; “ and repeat. I can do this.  When faced with adversity I always sing a little song or say a little mantra above the rapids to myself.  The river has taught me, runs through me.  Should you find yourself in the water it’s encouraged to  actively swim and participate in your own rescue.  I grip the oars and squint into the blinding sun.  Looking downstream  I search for the bubble line,  an almost indiscernible line that is the key to threading the needle in the midst of chaos below.  There on a liquid glass tongue exploding into shattering droplets and crashing waves there it is.  A small sign that says follow me.  Edward’s voice chimes in from the past.  I repeat to myself,   “ Don’t dig your oars too deep; make your strokes count ;  Start early and finish late.  And one can never be reminded enough, ‘ don’t forget it’s a desert, so drink your water.  “ There it is in a nut shell. I hope you won’t wait til it’s time to retire before you sleep under stars for the first time. “
Please enjoy one of my favorite "journey" poems by   C.P. Cavafy
ITHACA [1910, 1911]
As you set out for Ithaca
hope that your journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laestrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare sensation
touches your spirit and your body.
Laestrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope that your journey is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and learn again from those who know.

Keep Ithaca always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so that you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would have not set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithacas mean.

This is a great little video promo for Hatch River Expeditions. My broher JP
 has guided with them for over 20 years shot by Matt Fahey, fellow boatman turned film maker. It gives a great sense of what a river trip is like.


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