Healing on the river

2016 Bell Prize winner.


Water chops against my face, and suddenly I am 17 again, clinging to straps and leaning into each whitecap. We crest the final wave of Hermit, one of the Grand Canyon’s most enjoyable rapids, and I realize I am smiling. Smiling ear-to-ear, crinkly eyes. Smiling. A real smile, after two years of fake grins and forced cheeriness. What is happening? There’s an upwelling in my soul, and the pithy hum of river enchantment overcomes me.

We reach camp that night, and I sit quietly in the July heat haze, scratching my sunburn and prickling at the noisiest silence I have ever heard. As the sun drops, I stuff back tears: tears I am not yet ready to acknowledge, tears I desperately want to pound like the holy water from Deer Creek — to descend transcendentally as if from the font at Elves Chasm.

I sit silently and pick at my blisters, the ones I never mention.

The author, who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, rows Vinegar Rapid on the Main Salmon River in Idaho.
Thomas Gotchy

Conservation rhetoric has long touted the value of the important places. From venerable alpine peaks to inscrutable desert chasms, the West is the bastion of preservation, the linchpin in our federal land system. We rely on these spaces for food and goods; comfort and respite; awe and notoriety. We bolster our nation’s reputation, touting our parks as “America’s Best Idea.”

Each time I release my body into one of these protected spaces — a national park unit, a wild and scenic river, a multi-use national forest — I am buoyed by their immense capacity to heal. These places face seemingly insurmountable desecration, parallel to the vitriol heaped upon any out-group, anyone who feels the hollow pangs of un-belonging.

Acknowledging the power of place to reconcile human hurts creates a new paradigm for preservation. Valleys, canyons, oceans, vistas: Each can whittle their way into shattered hearts, inviting us to come as we are. They provide refuge and solace. They have been paramount in my life. My mountaintop moment was not upon a peak, but instead in the silty depths of the West’s most famous canyon.

As a teenager, I came to the river grudgingly. Like far too many of my peers, I carried the unspoken weight of sexual assault: endless rapes that hardened my soul, made me believe the places that enlivened my childhood would no longer serve me. I was unworthy.

The river carried me through a heft of pain and chunks of meanness, unbridling my pent-up sorrow and paying the penance. Healing at the brink has little to do with meager offerings. Embattled in a silent hell, the only sound I released from my steel soul was “NO.”

The river told me “YES.”

I urge you: Find your park. Step on hallowed ground and revel in grace. The West’s great mantra is one of reinvention. If we refuse to recognize our wild spaces as vital to our humanity, we will slowly tick away — a civilization that fake-smiles at sunsets while our hearts remain locked in concrete cages. These emotional journeys are anything but trite: They are the very spirit, the very soul, the very reason why we are West.

The author examines a puddle while studying aquatic insects in the Grand Canyon.
Madeline Jane Peace

Winner of the 2016 Bell Prize
The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental 
issues in the American West, Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy. Read the runner up essay. 

High Country News Classifieds