By Kate Siber
Jay Daniel has all the trappings of the prototypical river rat: hair painted blonde by the sun, a caramel tan, an ample beer belly, and shoulders caked with muscles from years of rowing boats. At first glance, he may not seem like a wizened sage. But on a sun-bleached Tuesday in March, on the shores of Lee's Ferry, Arizona, the put-in for Grand Canyon rafters, Jay unwittingly delivered an enduring piece of advice.
It was Day One of a private boat trip that my boyfriend Andrew, a kayaker, had organized. Our group consisted of four rafts, one dory, three kayakers, five boatmen, eight passengers, and an ample supply of Pabst Blue Ribbon. I was one of the least experienced rafters, so I sat on the riverbank listening intently to Jay, a former river guide, ceremoniously expound on safety.
"There are three rules of rafting," he said, shirtless in the sunshine and sporting his characteristic grin. "Stay in the boat, stay in the boat, and stay in the [expletive] boat." But after relating the sundry protocols of Colorado River rafting, Jay turned momentarily solemn.
"If you somehow get under the boat, don't sit there and try to figure out which way to go," he said. "Just pick a direction and go with it." Eventually, his reasoning went, by taking a straight line and not overthinking it, you'll reach air.
When spending uninterrupted days in the wilderness, entirely disconnected from civilization, it doesn't take long for the strictures of normal society to loosen, for the complicated rhythms of daily life to simplify, and for one's existence to distill down to the essentials of food, shelter, and community. A week is about enough time. At that point, the lingering mental residues of regular life drift away as easily as dead wood and questions turn simple: Where will we sleep? What will we eat?
Just over a week into our trip, on a cool, sunny day, we passed through Hance Rapid, a string of wave trains, and a canyon marked by ribs of dark granite. After sliding through the last riffles on the map, we loosened our grips on the straps, broke out the beers, and splayed like seals, sunning ourselves and telling jokes.
Though more or less every foot of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon has been scouted, rafted, kayaked and dissected, it still remains unruly. Here, it's not uncommon for a new, undocumented hydraulic to materialize in an otherwise calm section of the river, ready to sneak up on unsuspecting boaters.
Jay was the first to spot the solitary hole, but it was already too late to square up the boat. In a matter of seconds the whitewater tipped our lipstick-red raft as easily as a pancake and all three of us passengers tumbled into the drink. Just as easily, the raft slid right back down on top of us.
In an instant I found myself plunged into the dark watery underworld beneath the boat. It happened so quickly and cleanly that I didn't have any time to conjure fear. Instead, I felt strangely calm as Jay's voice wafted in on my brainwaves: "Pick a direction and go with it." Without thinking I palmed the underside of the boat and in a few moves popped back up into the sunlight. Back on top of the boat, dripping but safe in the knowledge that there were no casualties—except a can of PBR—we laughed at our carelessness until our ribs hurt.
Later that night, lying in my sleeping bag and staring up at the dark desert sky, I realized that my swiftness surprised me. Serious and circumspect, I stumble over the simplest decisions—Corn Flakes or toast?—and agonize over important ones. I make pro and con lists and simmer soups of considerations in my mind. Decisions often seem like important forks where the success of subsequent months or years hangs in the balance.
But Jay, a guy who cracks a beer by 8:30 in the morning and is perhaps happiest when wearing a French maid costume on some untold riverbank, helped me see that I'm more often paralyzed by my indecision than my poor choices. In the two years since that Grand Canyon trip, when faced with decisions both miniscule and monumental, Jay's words continually float through my brain: Just pick a direction and go with it.
The Grand Canyon, with its humbling magic, is an unparalleled place to learn to let go. Like so many others, I'm often transported by thoughts of my experience there. Watching a peach-pit moon rise and spotlight the cliffs like the walls of some ancient theater. Listening to the roar of the rapids against billion-year-old rock faces and the echo of even a drop of water off the oars. Laying a hand on the Great Unconformity, a gap in the geological record of 1.2 billion years in Blacktail Canyon—1.2 billion years gone without a trace. In those moments, I realize that whichever directions I choose will probably lead to a similar place: downriver.
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