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Know the West

River home: an essay on life on the Arkansas River


Dad didn't like it when I moved here. Nine years before, I'd left Texas. Now here I was, leaving Colorado Springs for a town with 1 percent of its population and, Dad believed, 1 percent of its opportunities, if that. There are three of us kids, and I'm the nearest to his heart -- and the hardest for him to understand.

I decided to move precisely because of this town's smaller size, its nearby mountains, and maybe most of all, its swimmable river. The February I arrived, I began stepping ankle-deep into the Arkansas River, several times each day. By late spring, I was jumping in fully clothed, washing away the gaak left over from my front-counter closing shifts at Burger Land.

I went in to get clean, uniform and all, night after night. As a vegetarian who'd just spent seven years working at Wild Oats, I felt it was more than my outsides that needed cleansing. When summer came, I began downriver floats -- no raft, just a life jacket. I'd step in sweaty and smoldering, but when I climbed out half an hour later, all the ick had been washed away. The local kayakers started to notice me emerging from the river; now, I wasn't just cleaner but cooler, in both meanings of the word.

I went into the river to become clean and to be part of my community's culture, but mostly because it seemed the right and natural thing to do. The Arkansas was less than 50 yards from my backdoor. What else was I to do -- stay on shore watching it flow by, just listening to it bubble and chortle?

There's more to it, though. Dad was a wildlife biologist, and I grew up on two wildlife management areas in Texas, with vast tracts of land to walk and explore. I was always expected to be engaged in the world rather than separating myself from it. Among many other things, Dad taught me the wisdom of getting outside when your insides aren't working: Whenever I'd had a crappy day, out the door we'd go. After identifying and following tracks, predicting the weather from what clouds and leaves were doing, and having finally seen a fawn hidden in the brush, whatever had been bothering me would lose its power. Decades later, a half-hour float in the river has the same effect.

Half an hour. Half an hour to watch the scenery flow by, to let the harried, hurried mind slow down, to allow the heart to calm to the river's pace. To return to a more natural speed. For ages, rivers have been gathering places, and that's what I go there to do: to gather myself.

Dad, I am here because of this river. It doesn't care about my degree, my checking-account balance, or whether I take orders or command thousands. Instead, it accepts me as I am, with all my ick and gaak; and it always returns me better. Isn't that what we mean by "home"?

Years ago, a fellow resident of Salida, Colorado, called Eduardo's river floating "muy loco." He still appreciates the compliment.