The headlights of my car pierced through the washed-out darkness, and my tired eyes wandered skyward. The lights of suburbia had reduced the night sky to an empty blackness that hovered above me as it watched without interest or compassion. As I struggled to find the pinprick stars marooned in the alien blackness, my mind wandered back to a place where I fell asleep under the design of the entire Milky Way painted across the heavens.
Instantly, I’m back on the Pecos River, so far from civilization that electricity was only a distant memory. The first day of our journey was beginning to wane, and I was quickly getting accustomed to my kayak’s movements.
Haley, one of our river guides, was quietly paddling beside me. We were well ahead of the rest of the convoy, so the waters were undisturbed and had nothing to hide. Bats overhead swooped without a sound, their silhouettes blotting out the cacophony of stars that were gaining strength in the navy blue sky. Fish the size of my forearm darted into the safety of the tall reeds as our kayaks pierced the still surface.
As if on cue, the slender reeds parted along the shore only a few yards away to reveal three wild horses. The moon bounced light off their pelts as they stepped into the shallows and regarded us with the curiosity of wild beings who had never seen a human before.
Haley’s voice found its way to me. “I’ve never seen wild horses like this on the river,” she whispered. I nodded mutely, afraid that my voice would shatter the dream. The only sound was the timid splash of our paddles as they parted the water. The stallions followed our kayaks downstream until we reached a bend in the river, where they disappeared as quickly as they had come. Haley and I were the only two who caught that fleeting glimpse into the wild before they dissolved like mist. I couldn’t help but feel like it was a sign of things to come—out of everyone, the horses revealed themselves to me, allowing me a connection with this place; like the moment when you just know that you are going to thrive no matter the hardships because that’s where you belong.
We reached the first campsite when darkness was in full bloom, when the lights would quietly flick on back home.
Despite the images of a semi-maintained plot of land my mind had conjured at the mention of a campsite, it was nothing more than a relatively flat and bare slab of white limestone. No, on this journey all luxuries, even the basic ones such as bathing and having a pillow and a blanket, were stripped away. After eating a small dinner that involved pieta bread and a melted slab of cheese in a Zip-lock, I washed my single dented metal bowl and spoon in the river and forced myself to take a drink of water from my water bottle instead of the inviting Pecos water. Throughout the five day journey, we had to boil our drinking water in the same pots we cooked all of our food in. The result was a diabolical concoction of warm, strongly mango-packet flavored water with an aftertaste like burned sausage.
After saying goodnight to everybody, I located my wafer-thin sleeping pad among the sixteen that were scattered about the rock. I was unwashed and stinging from a sunburn I didn’t know I had, but as I later learned, anywhere you lay down is a comfortable spot on the river. As the dark waters sang their steady song just feet away from me, I fell asleep with nothing separating me from the wild desert or the endless sky above me.
As we rested at the fall of the sun’s light, so too did we rise with it. The dawn was our only alarm clock as it peered over the distant white limestone ridges that were topped with darker stone like a drizzling of chocolate. After we packed up and hastily swallowed smashed granola bars for breakfast, our ten-kayak parade got underway. The 100 degree heat beat down on my already sunburned arms and legs which had become swollen and purple overnight. My hands were so burned that one of the river guides had to bind them in cloth for me, because I found it impossible to bend my fingers out of the generally curled position they assumed when I paddled. The severity of the burn would shadow me for the duration of my adventure, but I think the ceaseless pain forced me to enjoy everything else just a little bit more, because losing hope and quitting was not an option.
The lazy current of the wide and shallow river by our camp immediately narrowed into a growling rapid with a mine field of rocks to get caught on, giving us no time to remember how to maneuver our stubborn kayaks. Kirsten, our other river guide, was first in line and she made it through safely, but after that it was chaos. The next kayak was almost clear when the girl attempted a sharp turn that got her wedged broadside between two submerged rocks, which caused a traffic jam for the next two in line, while another got the bow of her kayak stuck in the reeds. Still another boat, one with two passengers, got beached in a deceptively shallow area. The next few kayaks, including mine, tried to play a game of bumper-kayak to get them unstuck, and after the second ram, the freed group wasted no time in propelling into the one still stuck between two rocks, which promptly tipped and spilled the girls and their dry-bags into the water.
In the end, we all had to jump out of our kayaks and lead them through the rapids by their strings. The boats were like unruly dogs on their leashes, but with some grunting and shoving and a little bit of slipping on rocks we were back in safe waters. It was my mission from then on to be in the front of the group, because I soon found out that navigating the rapids was one of my strongest skills.
The river’s face was never the same twice. At times we found ourselves in an endless maze of flutes, where we would walk on rocks in ankle-deep water as we tugged our kayaks along in the avenue of deeper water that ran parallel to us. In others it would be so deep that it faded into the dark blue of deep water before we could see the bottom. Reeds would line the shore at times, and at others it would be nothing but cliffs that the river had carved over its lifetime. Enormous boulders of white limestone stood alone like sentinels in the middle of the river, as if they had just fallen out of the sky. In a moment’s notice the wide berth of the slow current could branch off into a tunnel of rapids lined with reeds that barely allowed enough room for our kayaks to glide by. Those roller-coaster areas were always marked by the thrilled screams of the girls that had already entered.
On the third day, I had just glided away from one of the lesser rapids when I heard Kirsten behind me. She told me that we could stop and wait for the others, because the white waters were just ahead. We beached our banana yellow kayaks in a sort of hollow just before the point of no return, where the rapid’s current would suck us in. The searing heat of central Texas, especially in the middle of a summer drought, caused us to continually seek shade. It was a rare commodity on the river, so when the hollow became cast in the shadow of the ridge I nearly jumped with joy.
As it turned out, the drought had sapped the water level as well. The rest of the group eventually managed to limp their way slowly to the hollow, but only barely. At least half of the kayaks had holes in them—they were made of plastic and weren’t meant to be repeatedly scraped over sharp rocks. My kayak was still in good condition, because I was in a single and I was pretty good at getting through the rapids unharmed, but most of the group was riding double. Not only did they get easily stuck in shallow water, but having a partner also made maneuvering more difficult because they had to communicate with each other. All of these factors led to their kayaks developing holes in their bottoms that let water in and made the kayak twice as heavy as the intruding liquid attempted to drown it.
The river guides were stumped. We were only halfway through our journey, completely cut off from the outside world with no tool to fix the problem. Their solution? The ultimate form of improvisation.
Some nylon string that was attached to our kayaks was melted with the cooking torch and molded to hold some of the holes shut, but doing that for all of them took time that we did not have. So instead donations of chewing gum were collected and stuffed into the rest of the holes, secured by athletic tape. It was meant to be a temporary solution, but the gum somehow defied the bounds of belief and lasted for the duration of the trip. We felt that we had to take a picture of it, or else nobody would believe us.
With the wounded kayaks patched, our focus shifted to the rapids. All the other ones combined looked like a teacup poodle in the face of this roaring lion. The uncompromisingly deep water frothed as it jostled its way between looming boulders that stood like the walls of a maze. We actually got on top of an overhanging cliff to map out our course, because one wrong turn in this monster could mean getting tipped, and being out of the safety of the kayak for only a second was not an option.
Kirsten went through first, and we all waited with short breaths until we saw her waving her arms from the top of a boulder at the end of the obstacle course. She was acting as our guide, showing us the right way if we got turned around.
One by one, each kayak disappeared behind the first boulder as the current swept them away. Our only proof that they made it to the other side was the sound of Kirsten’s cheers.
Then it was my turn.
I paddled tentatively forward, and the greedy grip of the current caught me by surprise. My heart raced with a mixture of unimaginable excitement and terror, and as I entered the gauntlet any planning for my course was gone in the roar of the water. Rocks blocked my path save for a skinny flute, so I plunged my right paddle in with no hesitation as I shot forward. The sheer force of the water almost stole the paddle from my grip, but I managed to clumsily glide through the opening. I desperately tried to control the narrow body of my kayak as it was tossed and smashed against the sides of boulders. The swift rapid was relentless as I attempted to steer straight, and I felt like I was fighting for my life. It was the most exhilarating experience I’ve ever had—I was fighting with the river, and I was winning. I couldn’t feel my sunburn, or the blisters on my hands; I couldn’t taste the dehydration in my mouth.
As my kayak slid between the last two boulders I heard Kirsten’s cheers above the roar of the rapids, and even louder I could hear the wildly triumphant laughter bubbling up from my core. The current swept me downstream for a few more seconds like a waterslide, and then I beached my kayak on the side of the river where the other girls were waiting.
At the time, I believed that those rapids were going to be the most insane part of my trip. How could there be anything more extreme than that? What I failed to remember was that I was on the Pecos River, and we had only gone half of our sixty mile journey, and nature had a way of finding the limits of your endurance. Once those limits are established, it does everything it can to make you go beyond them.
At one of the deeper sections of the river, Haley hailed for us to stop and take a break. Once we suspiciously hauled our kayaks halfway onto the shore, Haley began climbing up the sloping side of the cliff that bordered the water, beckoning for us to follow.
“What are we doing?” one of the girls asked with a hint of frustration in her voice. I knew the answer before Haley even said it; I’m pretty sure most of us could have guessed it by now.
“Wafo,” smiled Haley. Some groans were issued from the group. Wafo, or ‘wait and find out’, was the go-to answer to any question regarding the plan. It was only later that we found out that wafo was usually the answer when the guides really didn’t know what we were doing next. Most of the trip was made up as we went along.
Feeling especially sore and scraped up, we were in no mood for a surprise. That was our attitude as Haley led us up the cliff laced with thorns and ankle-twisting crevices. The higher we climbed, the more our sense of dread grew. Finally, forty feet up, she stopped with her back to the sharp drop.
“Okay, who wants to go?” she asked with a broad smile, sweeping her arm out to indicate the sparkling blue Pecos river below. There was a moment of silence as we all mentally pictured ourselves hurling our bodies off the cliff. Everything looked small from up there, even the banana-yellow kayaks perched on the shore far below. Haley assured us that it was safe to jump, but none of the girls took her up on her offer. I took a cautious peek over the edge and watched the sapphire water ripple in the breeze. At the start of the trip I had promised myself to jump into everything wholeheartedly, and this was no exception. I knew I was going to be the first to take the plunge, and I knew that I was going to do it alone.
I’m not going to say that it was easy, because it wasn’t. My heart was pounding and my throat went dry when I squared up to abyss. There were strict instructions: land feet first, arms in. Count to three and jump as far as you can. If you hesitate, you’ll hit the rocks on your way down. The first part sounded easy enough, but the problem was that the countdown gave me time to psyche myself out. One. Here I go. Two. What did I get myself into? Three. My voice trembled, and there was a moment of stillness as my common sense staged a rebellion, but it was too late, there was no going back. I leaped into the void.
The scream died in my throat and I forgot how to breathe. The same sense of falling that you feel on a roller coaster overtook me, except that I didn’t have the comfort of a safety harness. If I landed wrong, the force could shatter bones.
I frantically tried to arrange my limbs into the right position, but it felt impossible. When my body finally slapped the wall of water I was in more or less the right angle, but the impact still set my sunburn on fire and sent the breath from my lungs. In two words, it was freedom and triumph. I had set the precedent, and suddenly everybody else had the courage to take the plunge. As we set off down the river again, nothing seemed impossible anymore.
After two more days and a total of sixty miles from start to finish, we were finally reunited with civilization in the form of a dinky fishing boat that towed us the last two miles to the dock. Two hours later we had our first freshly made meal with a cold drink: Whataburger. We must have looked homeless as we staggered into the restaurant. My hands were still wrapped in tatters of cloth, my shorts were torn and my shirt was stained; my hair was matted and a peeling sunburn covered my unwashed body. The employees looked a little stunned as we devoured our burgers and moaned over the icy coolness of our milkshakes like it was the ambrosia of the gods.
When I look back on the river trip, I find that the images and the sensations have been stamped into my memory as if they happened last week instead of two summers ago. And yet, looking out at the mundane streets with freshly cut grass and manicured lawns it hardly seems real. The harder I look at the blank canvas of the sky, the more I doubt that it could have been as amazing as I remember.
It may seem silly or even insane to have such a connection with a place that caused me such hardship, but when I look back at the Pecos, I feel like I have lost a friend. It stretched my ability to endure, and to love, and to trust to a point that I can scarcely perceive. I will return to the River someday—I feel like I have no choice, in the end, for it captured my heart on the first day when it welcomed me with the gift of moonlit horses and every star in the sky.