Putting Her on the River (Part Three)

I didn’t make the NaNoWriMo goal, not even close. I think I accumulated just over ten thousand words. There were all those assignments to grade, more trips to lead, and a Thanksgiving break with the in-laws. I also had no idea how to write a young adult novel, or any kind of novel really. My characters felt flat and simplistic, and I had no idea who I was writing for. When my contract ended at the end of the semester, I put the manuscript away and headed back to Oregon.

My wife was right, as usual. Nothing catastrophic happened. I got home just before Christmas, which was rainy and perfect.

Three years later, my daughter just entering high school, I pulled the manuscript back out. The image of those sisters and that stuffed animal still haunted me, but time had altered the emotional weight. The moment had been remembered enough times that it had become something new in the remembering, something mixed together with other images and experiences. I made the main character older and gave her a new name: Emma. I decided to put her on a river. Putting her on the river was everything.

I’ve been a white-water kayaker for over twenty years. Setting the book on a river trip gave me a way to understand Emma that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. Because the river was a world I knew and a language I spoke, I felt more confident trying to guide Emma back home. And with that confidence, I think I actually started to let Emma talk in her own voice, and then after that it just became a matter of listening to her. One afternoon I even realized that on days I didn’t write, I actually felt sad about not getting to spend time with her.

I finished the final draft alone in a cottage on the Oregon coast during a week of gray and windy weather, my wife and daughter back home. After writing in the morning, I’d walk along an empty beach to where Beaver Creek flowed into the Pacific. With the tide out, the creek was only a few inches deep as it braided its way toward the crashing shore break. When I began the book, my daughter was just starting high school. As I finished, she was leaving for college. I wondered where life had taken those two sisters—wondered which trails they were on, which switchbacks they were negotiating. Did they take their kids to the Grand Canyon? I wondered who held the stuffed animal now.

The same loneliness and fear I’d felt on my way to Arizona still sweeps over me from time to time, but it is a loneliness and fear that Emma has helped me learn to deal with. In Emma’s case, all she could do was to keep heading down the river, hoping to find help, which she does. In my case, all I could do was to keep writing and keep paddling through it. Out on the coast, I stood facing the wind, watching everything flow together. I took a few deep breaths and turned around for the hike back. Somehow in writing Emma’s story, I’d discovered the strength to survive my own.

Putting Her on the River (Part Two)

We hiked out of the canyon the next day, the last of the water from Page Springs sloshing around in water bottles and CamelBaks. Even in November, even before it was too late in the day, the heat felt punishing. Again, the hike kicked everyone’s butt, but it kicked a few students extra hard, and at least one person puked. There were blisters and cramps and sprained ankles. The agony wasn’t just physical, though. The strain was also mental. You’d plod and plod and plod uphill, breathing hard, sweat pouring off, and then you’d stop and rest and look up to see how far you still had to climb, and the canyon rim would never seem any closer than it did the last time. In fact, maybe it even seemed a little farther away.

When we finally reached the top, one of the first students up there raised his arms above his head Rocky style and let out a joyous f-bomb, startling some of the tourists in the parking lot. There was something to savor in the looks the tourists gave him, looks that seemed both pitying and full of admiration. For most of them it was drive in, take some photos, and then drive out. They never actually bothered to find out what was really down there. They thought we were crazy while we thought they were.

A few nights after getting home from the trip, I sat on my futon mattress and started writing. I was renting a renovated garage from one of the college’s full-time faculty members. It came with access to the house’s kitchen and bathroom, but the garage was really more studio space than living quarters. It had no plumbing, a concrete floor, and an ancient wood stove but no wood. I had a TV that only picked up one channel. No smart phone. The only internet access was at the school.

Those big, innocent eyes. Those tear streaks. That dirty stuffed animal.

I still can’t reconcile the question. On the one hand, I thought it was immeasurably awesome for those parents to take their kids backpacking in the Grand Canyon like that—and to take them backpacking in that part of the Grand Canyon. I’m of the firm belief that spending time in nature is the best tonic to the otherwise insane world we live in, a tonic that’s especially important for kids. On the other hand, I wondered if there wasn’t also something a bit bullying in making those kids take on such a challenging trail. Even at a young age, kids can carry some of their stuff, but at what age do we make them start carrying all of it? A walk is not the same as a hike, and a hike is not the same as an overnight trip, and an overnight trip in the Grand Canyon backcountry is not the same as an overnight trip anywhere else.

I kept trying to imagine things from those two girls’ perspectives. Had their small legs burned and ached in the same way as mine? What did the drop offs that induced vertigo in me cause in them? What about the parts of the canyon that made me feel sublime? How much choice did they have in even coming?

What would they do if they were suddenly thrust into the situation where they were totally on their own, where there were no parents and no stuffed animal buddy to hold onto?

November is National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo, where the goal is to produce a fifty-thousand-word novel before the month ends, quality be damned. At the time, I’d been struggling to finish a collection of short stories I’d been working on for years, so starting a young adult novel while also teaching three classes made a strange kind of sense.

I decided I was going to put a young girl in the wilderness, and I was going to kill her father.

The first draft began, “When the sheriff asked me to tell him what had happened . . .”

“Putting Her on the River” continues in part three on Friday. Read the first part here.

Putting Her on the River: How A Series of Small Maneuvers Came to Be (Part One)

We came upon the family at one of the switchbacks. This was on the trail down to Page Springs in the Grand Canyon. The four of them—what appeared to be a mom, dad, and pair of girls—were tucked against a rock wall, catching what little shade there was. The awkward vibe that we’d interrupted a private moment hung in the air. The girls, maybe ages six and ten, were clearly sisters. Same blonde hair, same freckled noses. They sat huddled on a rock, arms around each other. Their eyes were big and watery and looked a little terrified. Tear tracks were scribbled on their dusty cheeks. The youngest one held a beat-up, once-white stuffed animal to her chest. I couldn’t tell if it was a rabbit or a dog with floppy ears.

The parents smiled sheepishly and tried to make more room on the narrow trail. We nodded and said, “Hi,” and kept heading downhill. I was co-teaching a college outdoor skills course for a small liberal arts school in Arizona, and we had a dozen or so in our group. A few of the young women called the girls “so cute.”

We’d been camping at the backcountry site at Horseshoe Mesa, and Page Springs was our closest water supply. It’s already a steep, three-mile hike to get to Horseshoe Mesa, and in its official description of the trail, the National Park Service uses phrases like, “The exposure here impresses some hikers as hazardous,” and, “attention to the problems at hand is essential,” and, “a fall here could have catastrophic consequences.” Though shorter, the trail down to Page Springs is every bit as rocky and steep, maybe even more so. In less than three-quarters of a mile, the trail loses five hundred feet of elevation—which, when you turn around, means gaining five hundred feet of elevation. Not one person in my group, not even the most fit among us, described it as anything less than an ass kicker.

I think it was the stuffed animal that initially haunted me. Something about the forethought to pack it along. Camping in the backcountry required you to leave so many things behind that what you actually brought with you took on a new kind of importance. The stuffed animal looked so ragged I thought there was a good chance it had even once belonged to one of the parents, that it had been their comforter when they were kids.

Maybe it was how both the girls had the same shaggy blonde hair and freckles as my own daughter, who I hadn’t seen in weeks. Or how it was so clear that only a few seconds earlier they’d both been in tears, and how they were now somehow holding it all together for us. Or how the one sister’s arm was wrapped so protectively and unselfconsciously around the other. Whatever it was, while the college kids in my group talked of parties and homework and tattoos they were going to get, while they debated movies and politics and strains of weed, I couldn’t get the image of those girls and that stuffed animal out of my head as I hiked.

My wife and daughter were back home in Oregon. I’d spent the three years since earning my MFA working as a landscaper, and I was so hungry for some teaching experience I moved to Arizona just to adjunct for one semester. While I’d first been excited by the opportunity, once I started driving south, I was hit by such a flood of loneliness and fear that when I pulled over at the California border to call my wife, I started sobbing before she could even finish saying, “Hello.”

Patiently, she waited for me to calm down and tell her what was wrong. “I’m just so scared that something is going to happen, and I’ll never see you guys again,” I finally managed.

“That’s not going to happen,” she said. She even promised.

“I know,” I said, sniffling. It was silly. I’d cried, and now I felt calmer. I’d had my meltdown, and now I could go on. “I know,” I said again, even though you never really do. You can never really know if an accident will happen or not.

“Putting Her on the River” continues in part two on Wednesday.