New poems for the Shofar service
All the Words

Watching the river run

19145421875_5c90bc5c48_zIn the summer of 1989, I spent five weeks traveling the American West with a group called Man and His Land. The trip offered opportunities to taste a variety of different wilderness experiences: backpacking and canoeing in Yellowstone, a river-rafting trip in Utah, horseback riding and llama trekking and mountain biking in Wyoming, culminating in learning how to do some technical climbing in the Grand Tetons. We caravaned in a pair of big vans when we had to move from state to state.

In retrospect, I cannot imagine what moved me to do this. I had never been an athletic kid. I always chose books or art or theatre over outdoor activities or sports. What on earth made me think that Man and His Land was a good idea? (Actually, I think I know part of the answer to that -- it was my friend Milly, who went with me. I think it was probably her idea. But I agreed to it all the same.) Of course, it was a great idea. Even bookish kids can fall in love with the great outdoors, and the trip was designed to be a supportive environment for kids to stretch themselves and find their wings. But it was hard.

I grew up in south Texas, and had been to New Mexico, so the vistas of the American West weren't as mindblowing to me as they were for some of the kids who came from more eastern or more urban locales. But I'd never experienced backcountry camping -- the kind of camping where you hike for miles into the wilderness, and carry everything in and out. I was not in good shape (although at least I wasn't struggling to shake a cigarette habit like some of the other teens) and I huffed and puffed my way up every mountain. MHL asked me to do things I didn't think I could do. Somehow, I did them.

1989 was smack in the middle of the era of the mix-tape. And our trip leader -- a woman named Barb, whom I idolized; she seemed to me impossibly wise, at the advanced age of twenty-eight -- made use of a mix tape in a powerful way. Before each segment of the trip, she would gather us around the campfire and play a little bit of the tape. The trip began with a Cat Stevens anthem: "On the Road to Find Out." Before our warm-up hike in the Great Sand Dunes National Park at the edge of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, she played us Carole King's "I Feel The Earth Move Under My Feet."

Before we went backpacking in Yellowstone, we heard Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get It If You Really Want." Before our river rafting expedition, Loggins and Messina's "Watching the River Run." The songs pervaded and permeated our time in the wilderness in a way that wouldn't be possible now in the era of phones which double as mp3 players. It's probably unimaginable to today's teenagers to be away from their music; music lives on their phones, music lives in the cloud! But none of that was true the summer that I was fourteen. That mix tape was the complete soundtrack of that summer.

I don't consciously think about Man and His Land much. But the songs from that mixtape are still with me. Often I find the melodies and lyrics in my head, and only then do I realize what current emotional or spiritual situation has called them forth. Most of these are songs I haven't heard in decades, but they're inscribed deep in my memory. Probably the one which most frequently arises for me is "Watching the River Run." I'm not especially a fan of Loggins & Messina per se, but that one song still holds meaning. Maybe because I first encountered it at a time when I was doing a lot of emotional growing.

There's something about the metaphor of the running river which speaks to me. Like time, a river flows only in one direction. Like a life, a river may flow past great wonders and also at times great monotony. And when there are sharp rocks along a river bed, the best thing to do may be to let go and trust that the current will carry you safely to your destination. If you try to hold on too tightly to any place along the river's course, the fact of its current can hurt you. Sometimes you have to leave something beautiful behind, trusting that wherever the river is going, new beauty will be there too, waiting to be found.


Barb, my trip leader all those years ago, is still leading wilderness expeditions -- now in Alaska.