Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Racing the Moon

It was a blistering hot day that day, the kind that only air conditioning can keep you from sweltering. As night fell, the heat released from the ground and a gentle breeze cooled the valley. A huge, full moon hung low in the sky, daring me to follow it. The siren call of a night drive along my river was too tempting to ignore.

I drive through town, my hair blowing in the open windows and my favorite music blasting on the stereo. The breeze feels delicious on my bare arms - still warm from the day's brutal scorching, but as it streams through the car it feels like a cool caress. 

Soon, I'm on the back road that will lead to my river. The moon is somehow even larger, and I race against it to see if I can catch it. "Alone" by QED shuffles onto my stereo, a fitting song for this race. Even though deer frequently cross the road, I find myself pushing the speed to 65 the 70 as the wind whips my hair into a frenzy. I sing along and laugh at the freedom and adrenaline coursing through my body. The canyon that marks the appearance of my river to the left looms ahead, and my heart starts racing. Then she appears, a glossy ribbon sliding in the moonlight far below. Having beaten me there, the moon hides behind a mountain as I drop out of canyon; the mossy, green smell that is my lady river's perfume fills the car. The bridge that puts the river on my right looms ahead; my favorite sight. A short ways away from the big campsite that hugs the banks of my river, I smell the incense of campfires. Here, the smell isn't annoying; it smells like pure cedar and spice. I pass happy families around their fires, my music raising a few heads. It's time to turn it down as the song of my lady river is nearing.

I enter a densely forested part of the road the smells even deeper of moss and loamy earth. I inhale deeply; the smell is as intoxicating as any perfume I've smelled. I can hear the river roaring gently over the rocks in her path, creating the rapids that draw hoards of adventurers during the summer.

Too soon, the road rises into another canyon and I drive with urgency to get my river back. Navigating the dangerous curves and high banks that hug my path is as familiar as sliding into my favorite pair of jeans. Flattening out, I can smell the river again, but it's hidden from sight deep in the river scrub trees. Relaxing, I know the excitingly dangerous part of my drive is over and I slow my pace. Brushing my wind-swept hair from my face, I lay my left arm on the open windowsill, the now-cooler air raising goosebumps on my flesh. There are high mountains on both sides, with only the road and the river between them.

My lady river slides closer to the road and back into view as I round a sharp corner; the moonlight rippling on her surface looks like glossy black ribbons of silk. With every turn of the wheel, my spirit feels lighter until it seems I have no cares in the world.

A few minutes later, I pass through Galice and climb back up into canyon walls again. This time I'm climbing impossibly high, on a single-lane chip seal road that had been carved out of the cliff walls years ago. I hear each hidden waterfall I've visited splashing as I pass them, smiling to know the summer heat hadn't dried them out just yet.

A few more narrow twists and turns and the moon peeks out, lighting up the high bridge that marks my turn-around point; at least for tonight. Barely slowing after I cross the bridge, I guide my way down a ridiculously steep path barely the width of the car that leads to the banks of my river. It's fitting that it is also the boat ramp that marks beginnings and endings - ending a long day of rafting the upper river for pleasure seekers; beginning the journey for hard-core rafters on their multi-day trips through the wilder water ahead of them. I get out and find my favorite rock, which has finally risen from the water as the winter run-off has diminished. This rock is my old friend; I sat here as a wild river rat when I was a child, but most recently as a place to give my stress and anxiety to the river and let it float away.

Sliding my sandals from my feet, I dip my toes in the water, feeling the minnows nibbling them gently. I smile at the tickle, remembering hours of childhood bliss chasing the tiny fish through the shallows. I stay long enough to see several large fish jump for their dinner, to fill my senses with the heady smell of my river, and to bathe in the moonlight. Once my mind is finally empty of all the noise of the day and I'm tired of waving the gnats away, I'm ready to go.

Begrudgingly, I walk slowly back to the car, pausing to give my river one last glance. She's so ancient, so serene. I envy the fact that nothing has forced her from her path - flood, drought, fires, mining....she's survived them all and still finds her way to the ocean triumphantly.

The drive back home is just never the same. Usually, I would continue on and spend an hour gazing at the stars in my secret spot, but a full moon makes for poor stargazing.

My favorite part of going home is passing the incense-like campfires at the campsite. It reminds me of days gone by of being free, being young. I still glimpse that wild, dirt-covered child when I'm's as if the happy parts of my childhood are being lovingly held by my lady river, just waiting for me to come back and play.