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Floating past ghosts on the Green River

  The White Rim is a strip of manila sandstone on the edge of the Green River canyon. We've been following it for three days now, floating this 60-mile flatwater stretch above Cataract Canyon in Utah, one small raft and a kayak; 20 miles yesterday, 15 or so today. Sometimes delicately thin, sometimes robust and thick, the White Rim is faintly iridescent in the moonlight, oddly distinct in the day, always a gentle reminder of the past.


Randy can't stop talking about it. Because it is rare, anomalous, in reach and tangible but immutable, it is, in his mind, the ultimate metaphor. He leers at it throughout the day, returns to it in conversation, speculates on its geology from beneath the rim of his purple sun hat in his seat at the oars.


He is pushing 50, with encroaching gray in his beard and creases in his craggy neck from decades in the sun, entire winters in the Sierra, 20 years of fall fishing trips to the Winds. He and his wife have three teenagers now, a house, respectability. We've broken away from our jobs for this 10-day float in early summer weather, before the water gets really big, the weather gets hot, and the people come out.


Looking upstream, Randy can sift the sediments of his life, rifling through a grab-bag of what Thomas Wolfe called "the billion deaths of possibility," to find, perhaps, catharsis in chaos. There are old lovers in that glowing rim of sandstone, uncorrectable mistakes, remembered strength, regrets, great heroics, forks in the road, youth ..." - in a word, ghosts.


A woman passes us alone in her canoe, silent, too far away to talk. She wears a frumpy, broad sun hat and an ancient lifejacket. We think she must be some kind of Annie Dillard character, philosophizing about her life, brave and adventurous, confident and a little wistful.


When she is close enough to talk, we engage her. She is a guidebook writer from Massachusetts, and she floats flatwater like this when she can; she's been doing it for 25 years. Randy explains what we thought about her, and describes my role in the picture. "He's 20 years younger than me. We go on these trips together and I reminisce about my past, and about his future. He's my foil."


Annie, as we've dubbed her, is pleasant, friendly, not shy. She eventually floats away. We see her once again at Anasazi ruins, then no more.


Evenings, Randy and I leave our camp among the cottonwoods and hike downstream until the sandstone turns pale gold and we are high on the canyon wall. We find infinite Zen gardens of rock, flowering cactus, white lilies, Indian paintbrush, pools of water, all arranged in unique patterns, in deposits of sand. Randy says: "Go on solo for three days, and you'll see God in these rock gardens. You'll be looking at them and crying. Trust me."


We pass fields of cryptogam, or as Randy calls them "Cryptogam rainforests: the New York City of cryptogam." He says: "You can't understand what it's like to grow old, Auden. Even when you're old, you can't believe it."


On the edge of a 300-foot cliff that drops, overhanging, to the river, we look down onto a party of canoeists camped on a white sand beach, the tip of an island overrun with tamarisk. It is hard not to think of Huck Finn, harder to repress the loneliness that comes from watching a group of friends as an outsider. What could happen if we rowed our raft over with a peace-offering of boxed cheesecake in a skillet? Who might we meet? What would their reaction be? How long would our friendships last?


The next day, we float the remaining flatwater to the Green's confluence with the Colorado. Ahead are the rapids of Cataract Canyon, which wreaked havoc on John Wesley Powell and other pioneers.


We have forgotten our river map, and so know nothing of what lies ahead, except that the worst of the big drops is called Satan's Gut. Randy turns to me, oars stowed and feet kicked up on a cooler of beer and ice, and asks: "If you could be with anyone now, who would it be?"


Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives in Basalt, Colorado.