River’s End: First Draft of a Memoir

    By Christopher Ketcham


    The boats Eric carried taught me the first lesson of the desert, which was the key lesson, the only one: Find water, follow it. An ancient wisdom, but to an Easterner accustomed to the milk of maples and the shade of the hemlock and the generous cloud that kept the streams flowing and the reservoirs filled and the thirst of the cities at bay, the question of whether there would be water was new, unbelievable.

    So find the roads that lead to water, because the gas is going to run out, the sun will run you down, the heat will wring out your eyes and suck the marrow from your bones. Find the path on the water, may it cause you trouble. It did Eric: the trouble of the river was the trouble of the man. Eric now is made of all that he was and more that he wasn’t. My family watches the flickering Super 8 film that we shot of our trip down the river, the one trip we would take together – the waves boil up, crash, crown him. I drink afterwards, watch the film again alone. I don’t believe in karma, or God, or the afterlife, but for a long while I thought he was watching me.

    I come back often, like this, to the Green River in daydreams, the river as I knew it in 1988, when I was 15 years old and discovering the West and Eric was still alive and captain of his unlucky crew of three. Sometimes I wonder how I made it out of the canyons not ending up a cripple, one-legged, the limb gone at the tibia from gangrene or whatever happens to limbs when you break them cruelly in the wilderness and for a long while there is no help. I think of how we rowed and rowed in the new moon’s darkness, racing against the leg, Eric waking from the bow, and I not saying a word. I think of the long days of June on the river, always the river, us like the loneliest, most primitive men. Or so my 15-year-old mind recorded it that way, romantically.

    I remember how when we beached at the one or two outposts along the way, in Indian villages, in towns that consisted of a bridge and no Coke machine and no telephone, I looked at myself in a bathroom mirror astonished at the burnt brown wild-haired boy staring back, who had muscles that weren’t there in New York, who had no idea what date or day it was. And then I knew I wanted to live forever naked on a boat in the desert under the canyons, finding the hanging gardens of the cottonwoods where we could sleep in the sand, and in the mornings, fearful and hopeful, finding the path down the broken steps of the whitewater. And I think of Eric, who by the end of the trip was not my step-brother but a brother simply, who took care of me and cursed me for it, who was the wise man and guide and Bly of our ship, who adored the water and was in the end its victim. By tragedy he had soon become, in daydreams, an unreal figure, someone I never knew, who I wish I’d known, to run a river again, if we’d only had the chance.



    What good are forty freedoms without a blank space on the map?

    – Aldo Leopold

    The American desert seen for the first time in an Econoline roaring down I-80, with the radio playing Zappa, the windows open, the van shaking like it will fall apart, the boats we carried wanting to inflate and go, out of the night and into the sun, into the free light of the American West – the desert, so spare and bright and big, should be first seen when you are young enough not to know you’re on an adventure, and old enough to make a mess of things. And by adventure I mean when you get very hurt or very lost, when you apprehend that you could die, here, now. Much later, of course, you might scale Denali or make a silly attempt at heroism, with expensive gear, but none of it compares to that first leap into mortality, when you did it not knowing the map.

    Eric knew the way: I-80 east across the high red desert of southern Wyoming with its hoodoos and dunes and buttes of red and amber, then south to the put-in at Dutch John, Utah, where the Green River waited at Flaming Gorge Dam.

    Eric chose the Green for probably simpler reasons than I’ll venture. Perhaps because it was there. Or because it fell into canyons that only the few had seen. Or perhaps because its captains and fools and big-hearted river-rats pretty much invented the art of modern whitewater rafting, having learned first from the Green how to face a boat into rapids and survive to enjoy it. Or perhaps because the Green River was one of the epic drainages of the American West, a river of the beaver trade, a wintering water for rustlers and gunmen, a compass point for the conquistadors, and it told a story as wild and tragic and bountiful as the West, a story that in its final pages marked the end of the classic era of continental discovery.

    Or let’s say it was because the Green was the last of the great American rivers Eric had yet to run. So there was no choice, really.

    Eric envisioned a whole month in the wild, half of June and half of July, the high heat months, 20 miles a day down 500 miles of the Green across Utah to its confluence with the Colorado River. Only one other mate would join our crew, Eric’s oldest friend, Rob Morris, who was pensive and quiet and whose stillness threw Eric into screaming fits, making them somehow a good match. In retrospect, the whole thing seemed so foolish, dubious at best, so rife with peril – two men and a boy in a fifteen-foot boat, alone, unsupported, floating some of the remotest country in the U.S. – that I wonder if my parents, sick of me being stoned, kicked out of school, failing class, hadn’t finally given up. Perhaps they felt Eric would make a man of me, whatever that means. Brother by the re-marriage of my father and his mother, Eric like me was an Easterner, a New Yorker – he was from Manhattan, I was from Brooklyn – a kid of the city who early on went West and was driven to distraction with lust for wilderness. At 17 he bought a backpack, hitchhiked the U.S., climbed the Rockies, got sick of walking, discovered boats to be easier on the feet and infinitely more dangerous for the body. At 21, he ran his first river, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, knowing almost nothing about whitewater. Eric promptly flipped the raft, lost the meat not battened down, heroically saved the beer in the aft, clinging as the boat crashed among the boulders. When he called his mother from the canyon bottom, at the crumb of civilization called Phantom Ranch, she asked if the water was cold. “Mom, I’m too scared to be cold.” Scared and drugged by it, having fallen into the abyss of the canyons to come up kicking. And I think already Eric had an inkling that maybe rivers were not meant to be run at all, nor the canyons they carved to be seen by human eyes.

    Eric had always vaguely terrified me, but I also held him in awe, for he had traveled the world and brought home the trophies to show for it. When he was 21 and living in the basement of my father’s house with two Italian girls on a single futon, he showed me a pistol he said he’d smuggled out of Germany. It was a semiautomatic, compact, shapely. One day I went running after him down our Brooklyn street, calling out for some reason, and he turned and opened fire with the pistol, squeezing off four rounds, aiming right at my chest, and then whipped around and kept walking, like nothing had happened. I fell to the concrete, 11 years old and terrified, my whole body keening, wondering how he could have missed at that distance. Later he confessed the pistol was full of blanks.

    So that was Eric: slightly crazy, possibly sinister, consistently haremed and definitely the brother I never had. To my mind, Eric shooting a pistol at me was a sign of affection.

    So, too, was the Eric with his van seismic at a hundred miles an hour screaming something about the Green River being “gone soon,” the “last of the wild rivers,” and “people like us are fucking it up by just existing.” In 1988, the Green was not the last of the wild rivers, nor was it under threat of drying up. As for “people like us,” I thought that we, Eric and Rob and I running the river, carrying only what we needed, were the good guys. Eric, however, was racing against the imminent collapse of the planet. And we were all complicit.

    The trip began with the kind of foolishness you’d expect of a fifteen-year-old pot-head. On June 20th, 1988, Rob Morris and I flew into Salt Lake City expecting to find Eric waiting with the Econoline, but a phone call to New York revealed that his van was stuck somewhere in the Colorado high country, fuel pump fried, and Eric himself was hitchhiking in a pair of sandals and boxer shorts, with only a wallet and keys and hat, rolling from town to town looking for the right part for his van, until he ended up in Denver, 400 miles from his van, half-naked but with the blessed fuel-pump in hand.

    Sitting around the airport for a day or two was not a problem; I had brought lots of drugs. I had several ounces of marijuana, an ounce of psychedelic mushrooms, baggies of hashish, several tabs of acid, and my favorite pipe and rolling papers, all of which I stuffed in the pockets of my Boy Scout shorts when we got off the plane. With the drugs in them, the pants bulged obscenely, like little protruding mounds of flesh. Rob, who was paranoid, kept whispering that I was going to get caught if I didn’t show a little care in my smuggling.

    I looked at the swollen pockets and shrugged.

    “And I can smell the dope coming off you. This is ridiculous.”

    That was true. The sweet-sour tang wreathed me when I walked.

    “Let’s go check out Salt Lake.”

    “Leave the drugs!”



    “I’m not leaving ‘em in some locker to be sniffed out by dogs. All that other crap we can lose.”

    Rob shook his head in disgust and we grabbed a cab, telling the driver to take us to the action, to the city center, to where the Mormons hung out. Salt Lake was my first experience of a big American city outside of New York, and it was an awful thing to behold, because it didn’t look or feel like a city. I remember it being highways and wide empty desolate streets with empty homes that all looked alike. No one walked on the sidewalks and there was no noise in the air, no voices, no radios, no footfalls, and the traffic was only a distant hum, like a pumped-in background music. Maybe the people had fled the ugliness of the place. Or maybe people weren’t meant to walk abroad in such a frightening and strange civilization. Maybe they lived in underground tunnels. Maybe walking was illegal, because a cop in his cruiser soon rolled up and floodlighted us like two bone-headed deer.

    “Well there,” he stood with the light blasting. The cop had a funny way of speaking that swallowed words and spat them from the side of the mouth. All we heard was mush-mouthed gibberish.

    “Uh,” Rob and I looked at each other. “Sorry.”

    “Sorry?! Curfew been haid six fine old buzz chimp-pang the zoo! Even the zoo!”

    A curfew! I figured out that much. This was horrible. A curfew, and all these drugs on me. I was suddenly pouring sweat.

    The old cop shook his head. “Boys Salt Lake no I.D.?”

    “Well,” Rob said, and then foolishly launched into the tale of Eric’s desert breakdown in the Econoline (skeptical look from cop), how we had flown in from New York (losing him), how we were to boat the canyons of the Green River (that was quite enough) –

    “Now them I.D.s?

    But we had no I.D.s. They were back at the airport in our bags. The only thing in my pockets were the goddamn drugs, which started to feel very heavy – like a long prison term.

    “Smother jeezus,” the officer said. “But! Takin’ them pity ‘cause good Salt Lake! Hey nah?”

    “Absolutely,” said Rob and motioned to me to start walking.

    The officer was aghast. “Where going you hell’s bells?” He whipped out two yellow pieces of paper and waved them: youth identity cards to be filed at the police station. “Got ID ya!” He peered with his great bastard lamp first at Rob, scribbling a description of clothes and hair and eyes and ethnicity – half-Jewish, half-Filipino, Rob was a New York original – noting his social security number and address back in NYC and what time it was and where he’d found us and what our reasoning was for being out on the street.

    Then he turned to me. Stopped. Peered. His face twisted up. “What them shorts there?” My blood froze and I went hot all over and glanced down at the bulging Boy Scout shorts and I could smell the two fat weed bags reacting to the hot flashes: a long sweet stenching breath of marijuana filled the air. God, it was all coming to an end –

    “Tan,” the officer said a second later, scribbling, having asked only the color of the shorts.

    Rob and I fled back to the airport. I was soaked in sweat and trembling and felt like throwing up.

    “Throw up then,” Rob muttered. “I told you not to bring the drugs.” He admitted, though, that the event was worth capturing and embellishing to be passed along to Eric, who finally showed up in the hot dawn, hairy-chested in his sandals and boxer shorts, and with barely a hello. Eric was not amused.

    “This trip is starting fucking great! You know, I was doing fine without the drug cartel in my truck. Little stash of weed! Little acid! Under the radar? Know the concept, Chris? Don’t you realize these Mormons are sick and dangerous people? You think you can just walk around here without drawing attention?”

    But after a minute, Eric said, “So roll a joint already.” We sparked the joint and the wind whipped the smoke out the window, and dawn broke over the desert, and my eyes burst at the sight. Soon there were no cities, no houses, no habitations, no highway, a road dwindling to two lanes and then to dirt. Then the only road was water.

    Our raft was a Maravia, 15’ long and 7’ wide, pliable to beat against rock, the same craft that had flipped in the Grand Canyon, with an oar station at its middle, storage front and aft, seating in the soupy bottom or on the tubes with ropes and rings to hold onto. In ammo cans and watertight bags we carried bread, ham, cheese and chocolate that wouldn’t endure in the sun – our last pleasures of civilization – and cans of tuna and beans and rice and nuts and beer that could last forever – except the beer, Eric drank gargantuan amounts of beer – plus life jackets, big-brimmed straw hats, river maps, first aid kit, tent, sleeping bags, grill and pan and gas stove, plus Eric’s red Prijon T-Canyon kayak, all ten feet of it torpedo-like strapped to the stern, the baby on the mother’s back. Eric loved his kayak.

    We carried river books. I brought Huck Finn, and Rob brought Heart of Darkness, and Eric brought a muddy and stained paperback called Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons, by someone named John Wesley Powell, who would come to be the ghost on our boat, the fourth man. When the mazy rapids went still and the June desert days drew out hot and long and cloudless, Powell’s story captivated Eric at the bow. For 119 years earlier, in 1869 and again in 1871, it was John Powell, a one-armed geologist from Ohio, who came west to chart the waters of the high desert and catalogue in almost river-eaten logs the famine and mutiny and camaraderie of the first explorers on the Green and Colorado Rivers. When Powell set out from Expedition Island in the railroad stop-over of Green River, Wyoming, he entered a region of the Southwest that was then one of the last forbidding question marks on U.S. maps, an unknown as big as Texas. John Fremont, who explored portions of Wyoming’s upper Green in 1843, noted that “no trappers have been found bold enough” to run the river southward, “a voyage with so certain a prospect of a fatal termination.”

    A thousand miles later, where the Colorado River dies today in man-made Lake Mead, Powell emerged sun-blackened, half-starved, bruised by whitewater, surviving on spoiled flour and short one of his boats and three of his men, who were killed by Indians. Powell’s journey, remarkably, was not pecuniary, not for conquest, not an extension of government (Washington provided him almost no funding). His purpose was simply to know, to unveil the desert, and like Adam in the nude, he pointed to rock and rapid and bequeathed for posterity the names of the region. From Powell, we have Flaming Gorge and Echo Park and Son-of-a-Bitch Rapid, Desolation and Gray Canyons, Stillwater Canyon and Labyrinth Canyon and Cataract Canyon, Glen Canyon, and the Grand Canyon.

    On May 24, 1869, under the sunshine of a crowd that mostly thought he had lost his mind, Powell put in with nine men and four boats. On June 22nd,1988, Eric and Rob and I found the river 30 miles below Expedition Island, under the shadow of Flaming Gorge Dam, which had flooded the spectacular canyons of Flaming Gorge in the 1960s. No one saw us off. The current gathered us to its fast lane, the sun blazed, the water was crystalline and cold as winter, and you could read the pebbles at its bottom. Quickly came our first rapid, in high-walled Red Canyon, arriving with a distant bubbling whisper, and Eric said, “Told you twice now. Put on your life jacket.” The river went faster, you felt it tugging in the stomach, a tongue of water between boulders took us in, we splashed through a single wave, suddenly soaked, and then rollercoastered a minute. And that was my first rapid. A great ape arrogance came over me. I stopped gripping the ropes on the boat and turned to Eric. “That was easy.”

    “Don’t ever say that.” Then he said nothing more to me for the rest of the day.

    We camped that first night in the wide yellow-grassy bottomlands of Browns Park, surrounded by distant high-tiered ledges of rock. A few houses stood in the park, where people lived year round. This was once rustler country, protected by mountains, mild-weathered in winter, sweet-watered, and strategically situated at the corners where Wyoming, Utah and Colorado met and jurisdictions blurred. Lawmen for many years were afraid to enter Browns Park. Butch Cassidy and his cadres holed up here – that “wild bunch at Browns Park,” a name that stuck – and it wasn’t until 1900 that the last rustlers were either gunned down or chased out.

    On the second day I smoked weed and lazed and watched the blue sky and the water, which now by the action and turbulence had gone so brown with silt that it had no bottom and suddenly looked very deep and dangerous. When the sun went out behind a cloud, the river assumed the aspect of a living thing and it made me sit up. That afternoon, the landscape turned solemn and weird: the rock became the color of blood – oxidated from several thousand years of iron wash – the walls rose up 2,000 feet, as if clicked on, and the river plunged into a vertical crevice in the distance, a “great stone mouth drinking,” as an early trapper wrote. Powell named this the Gates of Lodore; he worried at the unknown beyond. A sound of rushing came from Lodore, and the Gates, Powell wrote, had become to his crew “a black portal to a region of doom…the old mountaineers tell us that it cannot be run.”

    I remember the rushing; I remember the great stone mouth as it drank us. The whitewater comes suddenly, as suddenly as falling down a stairs, though portended in the quiet air by the hooves of a distant stampede, an approaching jet-liner – the gradient falling now at 20 feet per mile. The raft explodes in a wave that nettles the eyes; we leap like a cat getting kicked. We see for a moment from the top of a wave the sky and rock and the calamity of more rapids below: everywhere there is rushing, roaring, the echoing of it, the walls tightening in (a roaring that at night in Lodore never stops – it floods the ears, it could drive you crazy). Then the eyes are again latticed with water, pillars toppling, filling our ship with diamonds, light, whispers, explosions, blindness, Eric crying, “Don’t fucking stand there, stupid – bail!” and I bailing but feeling more like a pinball with a bucket. I looked at him tearing at the waves with his long thin arms and thinner oars, and on his face there was a smile, white and toothy and a little power-maddened, as if he was churning the river to his will, which made me feel better. Behind us, the canyon rims closed over and cut the sky into a shaft. Here for the first time I knew there was no turning back.

    Seventeen years later, I went to find the place where we put in; this seemed extremely important. I flew into Salt Lake City and followed the tracks: I-80 east into Wyoming, with its trucks howling, then to the town of Green River and Expedition Island, where eight desert rabbits ran away in the brush; then a road with no other traffic, south to Dutch John, where I ran out of gas and limped to the pump. It was winter and foully cold but snow patches lit the fur of the pinyon trees and the yellow marching hills of the sage-grass, and I could see the Uinta Mountains in the distance, jagged and snow-packed, feeding their waters to the Green. I came to the spillway under the high white arc-light of Flaming Gorge Dam, where the dam settles like perfect teeth in the mouth of Red Canyon and the narrow river races. And with a thunder-clap I saw us under the shadow of the dam, blowing up the boat, decanting the van, Eric screaming orders, marshalling his troops and gear. But night was coming on at zero degrees and the vision was swept downstream in the cold. Still, I whooped at the discovery, I called out, I marked the spot with a snow angel, I splashed the freezing water on my face.

    Then I stood awhile near the boat-ramp, with frozen hands, waiting for the shades to form again. On a wooden post was a warning about the river and how it drowns people, and I thought of Eric and what it must have been like, how they say it’s painless, and suddenly I saw my father and step-mother and sister and myself, almost my whole family, in tall white surf off Long Island on a summer’s day. I remembered how the surf turned on us that day: it pulled and it hit and knocked us down, I saw my father’s face growing pale as he fought, and I saw my sister growing panicked as she watched my father’s face, and I saw my step-mother getting pulled away, and I called out but no one could hear me above the waves, and then the current changed, like a smile, and spat us all bobbing back to land.

    It got cold again. The swift central current spun a big-hipped eddy that beckoned continually where the boat-ramp touched the water. I watched a single moment of water in the eddy, following it through the motion of its hydraulics until the moment in water-time reached its arm into the central stream and was gone downriver where the canyon bent beyond sight. I remembered that riding the river, you felt entirely still. The land passed away; the river remained.

    -end of chapter 1-

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