Monday, August 6, 2012

Changing of the guard

We push off -- four families disbursed across five boats and a few duckies -- and out onto the low-water mid-summer San Juan River.

And already it's day four.


I mean that figuratively, of course. I mean that we've done this so many times -- and so many times together -- over so many years, that we slip into our day-four modus floatandi as soon as our tubes hit the water. The kids coalesce naturally into one big mass of teen spirit on their own boat. The adults pick up old conversations, threads of thought, jokes and jests where those various interactions were adjourned a year ago at the takeout. And we all right away shed the shit, forget the frustrations, lose the loads, and drop the doldrums of our daily dutiful days.

What I mean is, the practice and repetition of our gathering-together on the San Juan River has imbued a magic into just grasping the oars, sitting on the tube, or paddling a duckie, those familiar actions alone now transporting us ahead to that beatific state of letting go to the just-here-and-now that is the objective of all multi-day river trips. And which it usually takes three or four days to achieve.

But not here, not this trip. And so as Sand Island fades away upstream, the San Juan moves in. And I mean that literally.

For the teens gathered with us here today, this phenomenon is perhaps especially pronounced. And especially so this particular year. This group, the eldest of whom are now getting ready to shed the "teen" title, has grown up together with the San Juan River as their summer camp, which they have visited for extended stays several times each year. Their lives are literally writ upon the water along this 85-mile-long stretch of desert river and limestone canyon. Because of this, they are aware, as we all are, that as they start scattering off on their own lives like cottonwood seeds onto high water, that these summer floats together on the San Juan will likely grow less "together."

Not an insignificant passage. These kids have gone from being toddlers wobbling on the boat -- my and my wife's two kids' first river trips were both when they were one year old, and ridden out in a Gracko playpen strapped to the pile of gear in the back of the boat -- to where they are today: assembled away from their parents on their own slate-grey, 1980s-issue, 13-foot bucket-boat (a refugee from a DARE program, as is still emblazoned across the side of the craft) with a slowly deflating front right tube, a shanty-style umbrella, homemade wooden frame, and mix of oars of a variety of brands and colors.

I couldn't be prouder.

In the high heat of afternoon we pull our boats ashore on a sandy crescent of beach that isn't in our river guidebook, but that we know from experience emerges at low water. We, in fact, call it the "Sand Camp" -- not for the beach, but because of the night we camped here tentless, and rode out a wind-driven sandstorm. The next day I felt like one of those Dust Bowl children with lungs full of sand. But it's a lovely camp this year. So we set up the tables under sun tarps, erect the kitchen, circle the camp chairs, and stake out our sleeping spots. The kids -- all ages, both genders -- as usual, set their camp as far upstream from the adult camp as they can. Their cots are laid in a spoke pattern, with their heads in the middle for an all-night huddle.

This, too, is all usual. Camp. Dinner. Games. Talk. Music. Sleeping out of doors, under the stars, to the tune of the river. Next day: Repeat. All as it has long been. And all part of the reason we do it: The building of tribe around real experiences in meaningful, beautiful places. The way it's been done by people for hundreds of milennia.

But tonight ... something's different.

After dinner, the usual river games emerge -- all-terrain bocci, fisbee, baseball tossing. But soon the kids take over, and we find ourselves engaged in new forms of gaming for our river tribe: A tournament of tug-o-war with combatants standing on buckets. Then, we move on at the kids' guidance to a big and boisterous round of bow-line jump rope, complete with song list and double-rope round.

As darkness settles in, we, as usual, shift to music and cocktail mode. But, again, the usual soon slides into the novel, as eventually the festivities somehow end up unfolding down on the kids' end of the sandbar. The guitars and singing still fill the canyon, but this time the kids alternate with us at playing and leading, updating the tribe's classic rock and old-time country playlist with Mumford & Sons and Avett Brothers and Old Crow and other tunes written after the turn of the 21st century. The kids know all the lyrics and belt them out together, and we adults join in as best we can.

Eventually, I wander back to our sleeping bag and climb in next to my wife on the shore of the river, as always. And as I hope it will long be. But, I know that changes are coming. As they must. But I also know that the future is in good river-tanned hands.

And I couldn't be prouder.


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Check out a video of that trip.


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Read this story in the Durango Telegraph's "La Vida Local" column.
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