2017, Chaitén, Expeditions

The Present

There is nothing else. There is only now. There is only here. Time and distance are meaningless. Five miles or five minutes, it is no different. I’ve lost concern for all but two. Everything else is irrelevant, nonexistent, inconsequential. There is only one direction; water flows downhill and I will follow. The world consists of the water around my legs, the rocks under my feet and all that is seen in the pale, dying beam of my headlamp. Josie is around, somewhere. I occasionally see her reflective pack or her headlamp; sometimes behind, usually in front. The sound of water, white noise, is all around. The rush, the gurgle, and even the silence, tell its tales: the silence a tale of deep, still water, the gurgle of shallowness, the rush of falls and dropping elevation.

The headlamp shows me what I need to know, now, in the moment. White rocks – safe, green/mossy – pretty safe, dark brown to red – caution advised, dry rocks – almost never slippery. There can be no autopilot. Now, after 20 hours on the go, only a few miles from camp, each step needs to be calculated. I plant my pole, move my feet, slowly, deliberately.  My eyes scan and strain and I feel the effects of dying batteries as they try to cut through the darkness. We study the river, looking for known landmarks: a machete hack here, a downed log there, deep spots and alluvials. There is a surrealness to it, one that only later, we would find out we were both experiencing.

“It was dark…so dark at night”

In the morning, sixteen hours earlier, I had slipped, cursed, splashed, stumbled my way up stream.  And that was in the daylight. The frustration and tiredness were palpable in my tone, my actions, the way I hacked at the branches blocking my passage. Now though, there is a calm focus and acceptance, one not often experienced at this hour or in this situation.

River walking in brighter times

We sit for a break, sharing what remains of a ProBar and a bag of salami.  Stationary, we turn off our headlamps and my arm disappears not far from my face.  Without our yellowish, bluntly stabbing, futile lights, the darkness is absolute. It rules. It is thick, depriving. It makes us think of and sing Billy Joel. It penetrates everything, eating slowly into a beam of light, little by little, swallowing what power remains. Dark clouds, dense overstory, soaring walls: they all conspire to block whatever the unseen starlight offers.

The water shimmies and dances in the waning glow. Rocks reveal themselves only to the immediate. There is no downriver planning. There is only now planning. My foot goes here. My pole goes here, my other foot here. White. Slippery. Wet.  Colder.  Dry rock, whitewater, fast, loud, a drop.  Deep.  Calculated jumps. White lichen and flower patterns equal slickness. These are the things I think.

The river does not run through our world. The river is our world. We know nothing else. Not hunger, not fear, not tiredness. Just the river, the moment,the step and the knowledge that we are here, now, doing this. We are nowhere else. There is no later. There is nothing else.

Featured Image:  Scouting up the Rio Alerce early in the expedition.