The souls of the ancestors are the responsibility of the descendents . . . Forgiveness is vital to life—not for the well being of the forgiven, though, but for the well being of the forgiver.
—- David Mitchell, Ghostwritten
Not to know what has been transacted in former times is to continue always as a child.
The river was clear and cool as iced green sun tea. As he looked up from beneath the surface, though, the sky shone turquoise—the color of the stones in a bracelet he’d bought for her one autumn on his way home from the backcountry. The aspens had been golden in the mountains that October, and he’d seen seven coyotes watching over the road at various points—a sure omen; but of what? He’d driven a thousand miles with the bracelet on the seat beside him. He spoke to it occasionally through the late hours when only gospel came through on the radio. He apologized to that bracelet so many times on the way, that years later turquoise was still to him the color of regret.
He felt regret now, too, in the river, as one of his passengers floated past on the surface above him, legs scissoring just out of reach. Where was the boat, he wondered dreamily. As he kicked toward that shimmering convergence of blue air and green river, arms at his side, purposeful as a bullet, the underwater roar gave way to a single sound, one word: “Don’t.” And the river struck at him.
He tumbled back into the downward suck of the hydraulic. As it dragged him further from light, air, color, it seemed to say: “Breathe.”
Sometimes a hole such as this squeezed you out through a confusion of water and stone to a point of egress. Sometimes it was indifferent—he pushed again toward blue-green, heard again the word “Don’t”—and sometimes it was malicious, a “keeper” hole, grinding and spinning, taunting you with oxygen bubbles. The only way out of a keeper hole was to descend clear to the bottom where the current still flowed and let if flush you underneath the rapid like a note slipped under a door.
The bottom, he thought; get to the bottom. He seemed to recall a recent dream—or had it really happened?—in which someone lost to him—his dead grandfather maybe, though that was crazy—had warned him to get to the bottom, the real bottom, not some false one. Is this what he’d meant?
Rebuffed twice now by the river he felt a stab of anger, nostalgic, like the rhythm of breakers crashing on a dark beach in the night. He mustered another effort, kicking frantically, twisting his torso, pulling at the churning water with both arms, his jaw clamped shut. He felt a coolness that might have been surface. But could not reach it.
“Breathe,” the river said again as it weighed on him with blunt force.
His lungs palpated. They burned. He needed to try something different, and try it fast.
Cold water Maytagged around him as he reached for the zipper of his life jacket and yanked it open before slipping his arms out through the sides.
This time he pushed down, working with the river. Away from “Don’t”—now he recognized a familiar thickness in the voice, a guttural accent that had once meant home—and down toward “Breathe,” where the water grew dark as onyx and his fingers touched something that did not give way.
He shimmied toward it, pleading. He lunged. He willed himself toward it before realizing it could not be the river bed: he felt no sand, no gravel, none of the stream-rounded stones that would fit so smoothly in his palm. The river had become cynical, allowing him to fight his way to this false bottom, finally dropping him toward its real channel only when his breath was spent.
He felt the bursting swell of sweet and long-forgotten rage. He knew that the voice saying “Don’t . . . Breathe,” was his brother’s, and he remembered—a secret he’d kept even from himself for nearly all his life.
Part I: Utah; Oregon
I reached the mesa top and found my car in the late afternoon. The sun was angling down toward the west, warm still, but the light was growing syrupy, and in the shadows of the junipers the air held a cool tang.
I’d hiked about thirteen miles since breakfast, stopping twice in the upper canyons to visit ancient ruins tucked into alcoves just under the mesa rim. They were small dwellings, but the mortar work was tight and clean, decorated in places with evenly spaced pebbles. The ancient residents had left bright red imprints of their hands on the sandstone walls of the alcoves. At least five different sizes and shapes of prints, including several tiny ones, arced across the smooth surfaces. I imagined an Anasazi father dipping his son’s’ palms and fingers in the red vegetable dye and pressing them to the wall above their house. I held my own palm and fingers an inch away from one of the larger prints and marveled at the similarities—the knuckle creases, how the fingers tapered—and at our undeniable connection. At how these images reached out from distant history as if to touch us, or to communicate something—but what?—or just to wave good-bye.
The legacy these people left behind implied the beautiful simplicity of their lives: farming corn in the canyons and on the mesa tops, firing pottery, making art, hauling water from a spring. But it was also a tough living, no doubt. One they’d abandoned suddenly—or been forced to give up—700 years ago, for what reason not even archaeologists can prove. Some experts think the Anasazi didn’t disappear so much as they evolved into the present day Hopi, but if this is true the Hopi aren’t saying.
Throughout this rugged topography of mesas and redrock canyons, the Anasazi built their homes in the most treacherous and inaccessible places. If you know where to search in the south-facing alcoves, and possess the nerve or the singularity of purpose, or are just plain dumb enough to risk climbing to them, you can find ruins that look just as they did when the Anasazi disappeared into history seven centuries ago. Some of their dwellings hang on cliff edges hundreds of sheer vertical feet above the canyon floor. But don’t all families live with that sort of ever-present danger?
Had they loved each other in the way we think of it? Giving gifts: a nugget of turquoise, the tenderest deer haunch? Did they pine for each other and rut in the stream bottoms on nights that the moon was dark? Had they thought themselves lucky? It wasn’t until this trip—my twelfth year traveling in canyon country—that I realized something: in trying to understand these lost remnants of an uncertain legacy, I was simultaneously struggling to understand my own. To recognize the palm that was reaching out toward me.
I am from a family without history. In our house, we lived on a different sort of edge, where forgetting and concealing (even from ourselves) were team sports that all of us surviving Barretts—my father, my brother Spencer, and I—contributed our special talents to. For most of my life I’d thought it was Mom’s early death that transformed us into keepers of secrets, but I’ve since learned that it was a far older inheritance.
I leaned my pack against a tire of the old Subaru and opened the back hatch. A blast of trapped heat escaped, releasing the rich smell of coffee, which I never travel without. I’d also left a box of Chips Ahoys in the cooler as a treat for when I’d finished my trip, so I opened them and uncapped a bottle of cranberry-grape juice, and celebrated the completion of another great journey by holding up the bottle and toasting a nearby pinon pine.
When I drove down off the mesa a short while later, the air was hot and dry and smelled of sage. Dust billowed out behind the car in an endless stream. Heading back toward pavement, I steered with one hand and drank deeply from a milk jug filled with spring water. Time fell away from me, much as the days had fallen away in the canyons. I sang loudly and off-key to an old Lyle Lovett tape, songs about riding ponies on boats and being the man that you are.
When I tired of the lyrics, I made up my own: songs about desert canyons and solo road trips, strong coffee and the love of good women. Strong women and the love of good coffee. Double lattes, and the women who love them.
I reached Moab in that moment of perfect balance between dusk and darkness, when the last rays of sun were slipping up the wall of the slickrock mesa outside town and lights had come on in the small houses of the valley just before being necessary. Crossing the bridge over the brown Colorado, I inhaled the cool breath of the water below, the scent of fine silt and vegetation, rich beyond words. In a few days I’d be heading north to another river, the Chinook, up in Idaho, where I work as a whitewater guide for TREC, The River Expedition Company. I could practically taste that clear green water. Its touch on a hot day, when I’d been rowing hard all morning and then dropped over the edge of my boat in a calm stretch, was a river guide’s baptism of coolness.
Driving into Moab I also felt a perfect balance within, having traveled hard and well down in the canyons, seen a few things, and leached out my body’s toxins in the hot sun and cold pools. I felt sandblasted, pure clean, fully myself as I hadn’t in some time. Giddy with possibility.
Very soon now I’d take a hot shower at Kate’s, maybe stretch a little, and then change into clean river shorts and a faded tee shirt. We’d have a hot dinner in a cafe and drink a few icy margaritas and probably make love afterwards with the windows open to the desert outside. Then I’d fall backward into that safety of being with a woman I loved.
On the outer edge of town, a new cinder block motel cluttered the landscape where last year there’d only been desert. The parking lot was full of RVs that an hour ago would’ve all been lined up at the National Park entrance, waiting to be told that the campground was full. I shook my head, trying to be amused rather than cynical.
And in the next moment I was back in the world—or out of it, as my boatman friends might say. The streets rumbled with open-topped jeeps and bright sport utility vehicles driven by young bucks with multiple piercings, their dusty bikes racked on the back, their blond girlfriends wearing black Lycra shorts and Day-Glo bikini tops, looking hard and tan.
I took another hit from my water jug as the crush of people around me gunned their engines and waved to each other with just their thumbs and pinkies. Three girls came out of the Kokopelli Quik Market like Charlie’s Angels, carrying six-packs of micro-brewed beer in each hand. Music from the pick-up behind me—some techno grunge thing—made my teeth ache with bass.
Something plumed up in me as I waited in a line of cars at the first light, and I wondered: was I limber enough to just let this all go? I breathed deep into my belly, the way I do before running a big rapid at high water.
And then the door of the Cherokee in front of me opened and the driver dumped an ashtray full of cigarette butts into the street.
“You FUCKER,” I said and slammed the steering wheel with my palm. I thrust my rig into park and fumbled with the shoulder belt. The Cherokee’s door closed and the vehicle jolted forward.
I jumped out and stood beside my car, considering: should I just drive forward and ram the Cherokee from behind? Run down the street—traffic was slow enough—and bang on the window and pull the inconsiderate dickhead out, give him a good pummeling right there on the pavement with all the other stupid bastards watching? Or no: better, calmer—maybe scoop up the butts and catch up to the guy, and then say, as I once did to a young guide who’d thrown a cigar butt into the river, “Here. I think you dropped this. By accident.”
As I stood beside my car in the middle of the main drag, neon streaking the darkness yellow and purple and red, the driver in the Land Rover behind me leaned on his horn. A heavyset kid with a face full of attached metal poked his head out the passenger’s side window and yelled, “Come on, man. Get out the road.”
“Oh, fuck me,” I said to myself. I got back in the car. I shifted into gear and as the Subaru smoothed forward, I continued pounding on the steering wheel until I was playing a drum solo, and rage ratcheted down to a sharpness I could bear.
Just past the MacDonald’s and right before the Moqui Motel—with its Slickrock Water Slide and Anasazi Mini-Golf—I turned left off the main drag and continued down a street lined with small houses, many painted in pastels. I took deep draughts of air, visualizing one of my camps down in the canyons last week: a sandy bench just above the streambed with a lone cottonwood tree, its leaves whispering in the wind like rain. Sitting in the car my lower back began to ache, to throb down my leg, though I’d been without pain for days.
On this side street named for some old, dead Mormon it was quieter already. The air was palpable, perfumed with a flower I couldn’t identify. I know the wild desert plants—yucca, desert holly, globe mallow, penstemon—but I’ve never bothered to learn about the things that people grow in town.
Kate’s house lay a mile out along rambling streets—a weathered homestead, yellow with light blue trim. She’s wrestled the huge yard into a garden. A stream runs along the far edge of the property. A peacock lives up in one of the big old cottonwoods out back and occasionally broadcasts an eerie laugh track that leaves us giggling. Sometimes, when I’m drifting into sleep, Kate likes to imitate the bird, knowing I’ll always laugh.
She was sitting on the front steps as I pulled up to the curb, so absorbed in a book—reading with her river headlamp—that she didn’t notice me until I walked across the lawn. She wore a TREC tee-shirt with no sleeves, and a pair of cut-off denim shorts. Her hair was trimmed short, lending a boyishness to her beauty. A blue fleece jacket draped over her shoulders like a fraternity sweater. She knocked over a glass of iced sun tea as she stood.
We embraced standing on the grass. I moved my hands over her small, strong back and breathed in the scent of her, a sweet grapefruit fragrance. She kissed me hard and grabbed at my dusty, graying hair with both hands.
“Jake Barrett. You smell awful.” She stepped back and smiled, all strong teeth and green eyes and freckled suntan, pretty as a thunderstorm. My unimaginable California girl, with hair the color of summer wheat, a girl right out of an old Bob Seeger song.
“Wow. You’re the prettiest thing I’ve laid eyes on all week. It’s good to see you, Kate Egan.”
“Flatterer. Pretty as a bag of Chips Ahoys? As a box of mac and cheese?”
We stood holding hands beneath the gathering dark, trying to remember where we’d left off the last time. Waiting to tumble into comfort again. Crickets mimicked each other from distant hideouts.
Eventually I went back to rummage through my rig for some clean clothes and a razor and a small stack of juniper wood I’d collected for her up on the mesa as a gift. Chaos reigned in the back of the car—it was what Kate might have called ‘a total yard sale.’ Food boxes and backpacking gear and clean and dirty clothes were all tumbled together, but I found the things I needed and walked back up to the house.
In the shower I washed off ten days of good Utah dust. The water swirling down the drain was red and cloudy, and I hated to see it go. I washed my hair twice, scrubbed at my arms and legs to see what was dirt, what was sunburn. I felt the citrus sting of cuts and abrasions I’d collected while scaling rocks and slashing through side canyons and climbing up to ruins, looking hard for something that I couldn’t identify and wasn’t sure was discoverable.
I trimmed my goatee and shaved two weeks of stubble. Stood on the scale out of habit—190 pounds. I like to say that I’m not really stocky, just too short (a micron under six feet) for my weight.
Kate was lying on her futon bed when I came out with a towel knotted around my waist. I lay down beside her, happy to be surrounded by the things that fill her life—Tibetan prayer flags and the battered cassette deck, old Ry Cooder tapes, field guides and books on river rescue and wilderness medicine, and the old copy of Desert Solitaire that she loaned me on my first visit to the canyonlands more than a decade ago. Against the wall stood half a dozen red plastic milk crates filled with backpacking gear and climbing gear and whitewater river gear: loops of carabiners, rescue lines, life jacket, wetsuit, everything neatly arranged. Kate was getting ready for the river season up in Idaho, too.
“So, how was Juniper Mesa,” she asked. She played with the silver disk I wear on a leather thong around my neck. A boatman’s amulet, supposed to protect you on the water. Kate bought it for me three seasons ago. It’s carved with a copy of petroglyphs from along the Chinook River.
“Good,” I said, coming back into myself, into the room.
She smiled like her mind was on something else. She ran her fingers through my hair. She waited a long time before saying, “Anything you want to tell me about?”
I looked up at the Guatemalan drapery that hung from the ceiling—something she’d bought at the public market in Chichicastenango on a trip we’d taken together one autumn right after we’d finished guiding for the summer. I sipped the clean scent of the desert. The cool breeze tickled my skin.
“Not sure,” I said. Then, “Well, something. Just not yet.”
I woke a couple of hours later, just past eleven, groggy, disoriented, happy. Drooling on the soft cotton pillow case, a flowery design that could only have come from Kate’s mother. The moon had skated across the mesa top and disappeared behind it. Kate still lay beside me reading a novel about Afghanistan.
“This happens every year,” she said.
I nodded, remembering where I was.
“You’re hungry now,” she said.
“So we walk to the Rimrock and you have a big fat hamburger and we drink two margaritas each and then dance slow to a sad Bonnie Raitt song. The cowboys shoot pool and pretend they’re not watching us.”
I leaned up on one elbow. “They pretend they’re not watching you. You see ten people you know, even though we go to the Rimrock so you won’t see anyone.”
Neither of us mentioned that we usually came back after that and made love.
Kate went into the other room and chugged a glass of water while I dressed. We pulled on river sandals and walked to the cafe. As we passed the gallery that shows some of Kate’s work—she paints watercolor landscapes and throws some pottery—I pulled her close to me.
“I love you, Kate,” I said.
She looked up the street as we walked.
“I know you do,” she said, slipping an arm around my waist.