This is what I have learned: If you have a broken heart, go to the river. But even if you do, eventually you have to come back.
As soon as I ease my borrowed kayak into the snowmelt-fed Grande Ronde River, there is no time to think about anything except making it through the next wave train. Running high and faster than I can walk, the river is an endless riffle. Behind me, the raft is out of talking distance. I am in a cocoon of standing waves, focused on just this one, immediate thing.
In my small eastern Oregon town, sandwiched against the unforgiving Hells Canyon breaks and the Wallowa Mountains, our friend, Ken, is leaving us.
I have never been this close to the end of a terminal illness, one that took someone from me so quickly. It is a punch to the stomach, something that aches and lingers a long time.
A relative newcomer, a gypsy who purposely avoided entanglements by moving frequently, I am uneasy in the company of friends who have known Ken for decades. My sorrow is only a small cup compared to theirs. As someone who has decided to put down roots here, I am seeing for the first time how the fabric of a small town can be torn by one person’s passing.
I’ve spent enough time in the mountains to know that there is no such thing as permanence. I’ve sliced a crosscut saw through the bark of fallen trees to clear the way for hikers. I’ve moved boulders using my bodyweight and heavy steel bars as levers. I’ve helped re-route trails when avalanche and storms moved entire rivers into their path. I’ve lived on a ring of fault lines and volcanoes tracing a precarious line across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. I know that nothing lasts forever.
Even the character of the Grande Ronde changes daily, swelling pregnant with melting snow, rocks peppering the surface later in throat-dry summer. Already, this has been a year of extremes: Wallowa Lake freezing solid for the first time in several winters, 90-degree temperatures in May. It is natural, too, that friends should leave us, but in a town of less than 2,000, the hole they leave behind them seems much bigger and wider than we know how to fill.
Day after day, we have gathered at Ken’s house, holding his hand, asking Clare for projects so that we can fill up some of our sense of emptiness. Some of the guys fix fence, and I rake the lawn. We bring food. We struggle with what to say. It is never enough.
Ken, at 62, was the thread that held the backcountry ski community together. On any winter day, he could be found skinning up the shoulder of Redmont Peak or on his way to Phat Ridge. I know his ski buddies are remembering nights at the yurts, days carving fresh tracks. Years of memories piling up like snow, the kind of dense memories you can only get by staying in one place.
The raft pulls up beside me, Brent at the oars. “Camp should be just around that bend. Look for a cobble beach,” he hollers. I ferry across to river right, pulling hard against the wind. As we sit in our folding chairs that night, four bighorn sheep climb the ridge across the river from us and pose against a darkening sky. Even off the river, we are still a part of it, the constant music a backdrop to our sleep.
As soon as we complete the takeout and shuttle and the home town mountains come into view, the same old lump in the throat returns. In unimaginable pain, Ken manages a smile, once again amazing me with the gentle kindness that will be so hard for us to lose. I both want him to go, for his sake, and to stay, for mine.
In the end, it would be simpler to stay on a big Western river forever, just like it would be easier to pack up my truck and move every few years. But this is my home now, and I’ve decided to take the good with the bad, the pain and the joy, all mixed up in one complicated bundle. It is something I won’t trade, even now.
At our backs, the river punctuates our lives. In winter, half-frozen; in spring, a tumble of whitewater under the bridge. This year alone, three people have left us, leaving long shadows behind them. We bend like the willows along the banks of the Grande Ronde. Our sorrow threatens to swamp us sometimes. But we go on, somehow, around the next bend.
Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She writes in Joseph, Oregon.