River Time

Spring break of my freshman year of college, nineteen years old and in desperate need of wandering after months of drudging through calculus and chemistry, I loaded my dusty Volkswagen with food and gear and left the snow-swept peaks of Montana behind to spend a week as a desert vagabond. Three nights of that week I spent in the canyon of the Colorado River outside Moab, Utah, where sunlight and desert and river converged beside the slow-moving meanders of green water.

Time ran a little differently there, as it does on all rivers; not the linear mechanical time we are caged by in cities, but flowing, cyclical, sacred. Time was measured by moon and sun, star and water; I woke with the dawn and went to sleep as the stars came out, looked for camp when the sun neared the horizon and waited for morning to crest the canyon walls before meandering down to the riverbank with my thermos of stolen dining-hall tea. Beside the river there was none of the stressed time of what we call "civilization"; no deadlines, no classes, no work shifts, just sky and water and earth. For those few days I lived to the rhythms of river and weather, armed with only my gear, my notebook, and a copy of Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire.

There is a tranquility in that place beyond words, where river and desert meet; time measured in the slide of golden sunlight over red-rock cliffs, in the glittering touch of starlight on the silt-laden green water at their feet, is something indescribably beyond the mechanized drone of the city. Here was the stillness, the quiet peace of the desert that Abbey spoke of. I rarely knew what day it was, and even more rarely knew the mechanical time; if the sun was up it was time for breakfast, if it was going down it was time to camp, and there were at least a few more nights between this wordless peace and my return to school. Each morning I would stand beside the water, toes pale with cold in my Chacos, and watch the Colorado meander wide and slow between startlingly vertical cliffs of varnish-streaked sandstone. I had stepped into the river of universal time, the realm of earth and water and sky, and left behind for these few days at least the artificial chains of ticking clocks and deadlines; in the cold spring air of the river canyon, battered fleece hat tugged low over my ears and my only pair of jeans slowly turning red with desert dust, I was free.

Eventually my return to the real world loomed, fierce and implacable, and I drove myself twelve hours of empty highways back to Bozeman. I had essays to write, rent to pay; for a while at least I would have to leave the Colorado behind. Eventually I wandered onto other rivers, to the Gallatin framed by tumbled boulders and ten thousand foot peaks and the Yellowstone with its wandering bison; but there remained something special about those days alone in the red-rock canyon of the Colorado, something different in the way desert and river had met beneath the clear spring sky. To this day I have no name for it, and I don’t think I ever will.

Sometimes I still cast my memories back to those days and nights on the river; to dawn on cool green water and sheer red rock, sunset over wind-carved towers, the rustle of bare oaks beside the bank and the shadows of ravens chasing their owners across the blaze of red-gold thrown back by the framing cliffs at sunset. What I found in the red-rock canyon of the Colorado was something different, unique, where sunlight and desert and river converged; something still with that deep quiet only the desert can hold, simple as the slide of sunlight over the canyon walls and complex beyond the capacity of humanity. Listening to the smooth ripples of green water over red rock, the muted susurrations of the current at dawn, I began to understand why Abbey called Utah’s canyon country “the most beautiful place on earth.” Words, though, will always fall short when trying to describe this feeling, this idea of "river time" that flows so differently from the tyranny of alarm and deadline. Colorado or Skykomish, desert or forest, time runs different with rivers, and those who run them are caught in the spell; it is just one of the river’s many gifts, a reminder that there is more to the world we live in than the constructed schedules of our city lives. Like all the gifts given by wild rivers, it is one I treasure with every float and whitewater run.

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