This is heaven to no one else but me
And I’ll defend it as long as
I can be left here to linger
It is July 1994 and I am lying awake in a tent with headphones on. The ground beneath me is hard except for a badly inflated Thermarest that is gradually losing its air. I pull the headphones to the side and tug at the foam padding covering the left ear, then adjust the thin, metal headband and hit ‘play’ on my Walkman again.
We are camped somewhere on the banks of the San Juan River in southern Utah. We have been rafting for three days from Bluff, and probably have three days to go until the water flattens out into the beginnings of Lake Powell. We’ll row the final few miles because the water is so flat.
But that’s a few days away.
I am 13 and Sarah McLachlan’s album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy came out a few months earlier. When my dad and his partner, an outdoorsy lady called Ronnie who is also our experienced river guide, told us to pack for this trip, they said pack light. For a 13-year-old in 1994, a lot could be spared, but not the music. The music was absolutely crucial.
In my dry bag are two swim suits, two pairs of shorts, two tank tops, hiking boots, a waterproof disposable Kodak camera and my Walkman with two cassettes: Fumbling Towards Ecstasy and Mazzy Star’s She Hangs Brightly, which my friend from my riding stables who was a year old than me had told me about and I listened to all through my 8th grade year. I was in love with Mazzy’s music, but for this trip, it was Sarah all the way.
God, Fumbling was a beautiful album. I put on ‘Good Enough’ tonight, 28 years later, and run it through a new speaker, and it’s still goddamn beautiful. Layered, nuanced, melodic, haunting.
Fumbling Towards Ecstasy let me feel things. It gave me an emotional space. In the summer of 1994, my parents had already been divorced for a couple years and I had been moved from New Mexico to Lubbock, Texas to start high school. Everything was fucked up and weird, and I wish I knew then and also I’m glad I had no idea that life would basically feel like this forever after that time. Fucked up and weird. With unrequited love to a hauntingly perfect soundtrack.
The San Juan is a flat river, meaning that it is deep and runs steady and calm for 84 miles, winding through rust-coloured gooseneck canyons from Bluff to Clay Hills. Apart from the class III Government Rapid at mile 64, there is barely any whitewater and virtually no danger on the San Juan. It’s not an adrenaline-junky’s trip, which is I suppose why my dad and his partner and their friends were happy to bring a bunch of kids along in rafts for a week in the wilderness.
We had our own tents, and I would crawl into mine each evening, pull on my phones, turn on Sarah and let the music wash over me. It was ethereal and oceanic, swirling like waves – the exact opposite of the dry, desert gulches we were sleeping in – and it captured the feeling of lostness that a 13-year-old experiences when their life is moved and changed and there’s upheaval all around, and also mostly they are thinking about that one boy back in Texas.
Rafting, time stood still. The days were so lengthy that you’d get lost in the time, which was also harder to keep track of with deep canyon walls obscuring the sun’s movement. We’d take turns sitting in the hot seat to steer the raft, mainly keeping it away from the river’s edge and the potential for sharp rocks to cause a tear in the rubber. I would lay in the sun until it became unbearable, then slide off the edge of the raft into the water and let the river’s current pull me along without resisting, floating there, looking up at the space where the canyon walls met the wild blue sky.
There was a drag bag – a mesh bag we filled with cans and bottles of beverages and hooked onto a carabiner, then tossed into the water to keep cool. It was full of cokes and beers.
At night, we’d pick a campsite and because there were only a handful of rafting permits given out for the San Juan each year, we were almost guaranteed to not see anyone else. We’d haul the rafts up onto the shore and were expected to work together, pulling our dry bags and tents off the raft and choosing a campsite, then setting up our own tents, watching out for scorpions, snakes and other desert wildlife.
Each night, we took turns setting up the camp kitchen, collecting kindling, setting up the shitter and cooking dinner, which was usually simple things like refried-bean tostadas or spaghetti cooked on a gas camp stove.
Then we’d sit by the fire letting daylight die, watching the stars come out in a thin strip of sky above the canyon walls. In 1994, there were not nearly so many satellites as there are today, but we’d still crane our necks up hoping to see a streak of light, and my dad would talk about the constellations and the North Star and how to navigate from where we were based on what we could see after sundown. There was also a beat-up guitar that came along on which everyone took a turn, playing Woodie Guthrie songs or folk standards or familiar songs written by friends.
We’d crawl into our tents and I would pull the headphones onto my ears and dive into Sarah, letting my heart swirl and dream and imagine some kind of love I had not experienced but knew existed. Sarah’s music gave me that, and it still does, and I am still fumbling towards ecstasy.
Maybe someday it will find me.
I would Like to linger
Here in silence
If I choose to
Would you try to
NB: Many of the photos in this post are from a rafting trip quite a few years later, when I was about 20. But unfortunately I lost all the Kodak camera photos I took on the 1994 trip on one move or another.