Here’s the thing about this river: its color changes seasonally, sometimes daily from silt gray to steel blue to latte. Then green, so many greens, a whole melted Crayola boxful—olive, forest, lime, emerald, avocado—bleeding one into the next, but not opaque, translucent like marbles, like Japanese glass buoys, like a wild cat’s eyes. Penetrating. Unreadable. Changeability used to be something I admired, something mysterious and irresistible. In late spring and early summer, when snow—ten feet annually on the valley floor and more on the surrounding peaks—comes charging down, the river is a sporting one, whitewater Class III, maybe even IV. Lupine and trillium line the banks. Dogwood flowers lean out over the churn, shuttering. By fall, the river runs low, rocks shimmer from below, and Kokanee salmon spawn in the sand. Red-crested mergansers ride the riffles. The dippers, they dip. You get my drift. I love this river, I do. I also hate it.
Usually, in winter, the river runs lower yet, frozen near the banks and meandering mid-stream among snow pillows on rocks, leaning out precariously, icing over then melting. Not anymore. Not today. I would not even be out driving today, I swear it, would not even have stepped foot out of my house, except for the fact that Garfoot has cancer. He’s one of a handful of close neighbors who’s been diagnosed with cancer this lousy winter—another old timer, Wally, is already bedridden—and when it comes to visiting a friend with cancer, you shouldn’t mind a little rain, I know. This is not, however, a little rain.
I stayed inside for two days, wringing my hands. I had my excuses. Garfoot, after all, has plenty of other friends, friends who live closer to him, and besides there is nothing you can do about cancer. I figured I really only wanted to go visit for myself, for my own comfort, so I huddled inside, ostensibly writing, re-checking email, drinking in the early afternoon. A Ziploc bag with three novels he might like to read sat on the kitchen table next to a jar of homemade applesauce. Meager gifts to be. The rain fell, saturating the foot of snow we’d left unshoveled atop the woodshed roof after the last storm, growing heavier and heavier. How the shed could hold the weight I did not know. I half expected it to topple. Then, this morning, just after I dragged myself from coffee in bed, Garfoot’s wife wrote to ask for help setting up an email list. At last! Something I could do! I didn’t hesitate. I waded out to my pickup, started the engine, and headed down the road, which is, for lack of a better description, flooding.
It’s not even river water, or not entirely. It’s side creeks careening down the valley walls, spewing over the hard pack, and launching fire-hydrant style into the road. The accumulated current is moving fast, slush floating atop and a hard shell of white ice at the base, tire chain imprints visible through it all. The noise is deafening. I grip the steering wheel and hold my foot steady on the accelerator. What else can I do? I feel like a kid on an amusement park log ride or—check that, not nearly that fun—like a cartoon rat swept down a sewage pipe. The water clears the axles and seems destined for the floorboards. I lose steering and brakes and float toward the tight turns alongside a talus slope where I’ll either get traction back or tip over the bermless edge into the river proper.
When I was younger and worked at physical labor all day, I’d pack a water bottle and a magazine on my day off and ride my bike along the road to a spot near here where in three or four short shivery strokes you could land on a gray slab of granite, roomy as a twin bed, worn smooth and slanting sunward. I’d lay on that rock for hours, reading or sleeping or staring at the sky, woozy and sated. Now that seems like a very long time ago. I sense my rear wheels sliding wayward toward that very rock and steer with them, ever so subtly, to right myself, thinking: Nice spot, sure, but I don’t want to die there. I find myself joking about death a lot lately. It’s hardly ever funny.
At last I arrive at the house, just as my friends are packing for a trip to the oncologist and after that, to an alternative healing clinic in warmer climes. Garfoot does not look well: skin and bones, colorless and coughing, and he is not excited about leaving home. But he wants to try different approaches: diet, acupuncture, vitamins, anything. Anything at all. No matter what, he is not going down without a fight. Good, I say. That’s good. I help a little with the computer. I set up the email list. I pet the Shi-Tzu by the woodstove. There is really not much I can do, but at least I’m here. That’s all I wanted to prove: No matter what, I’m here. And now it’s time to go.
Only there’s no way I’m driving back home. Coming downvalley I was with the current. The other direction will be twice as hard. So I decide to ditch the pickup, and it’s not a hard decision, hardly a decision at all, only a concession to reality. I go back inside to borrow a pair of too-long skis and too-small boots, and a daypack with snowshoes just in case. I am still wearing sweatpants and the kind of shorty socks meant for joggers in San Diego or on a treadmill in a heated gym and the t-shirt I slept in with a light anorak pulled over it. But what else is there to do? When I came to this remote mountain valley 20 years ago, I came with the plain wide-eyed wonder of a kid in a storybook, like stepping through the wardrobe into Narnia, like slipping through a Wrinkle in Time, like waking up in Oz. The only difference is I never went back. I dug in deep, not intending to stay, but wanting to give it go. Did I fall so hard in love with the place because of the people? Or vice versa? The point is moot. I step into the three pin ski bindings and begin the slog.
The berm is steep and slippery, and my feet in the thin boots are instantly soaked, but the skis are edged and hold me in place with each timorous step. And with each step, I fall into a rhythm. The cacophony doesn’t stop. Rain spatters on my hood, the river roars to my left loud as an airport runway, so loud I barely notice three deer standing stock-still on the berm in front of me. They know high ground and cede it wearily, unwillingly, dropping into the froth only long enough for me to pass. Then they climb it again. My heart is beating, and the going is good, or good enough, and my mind can drift as it only can outdoors, and there’s something stunning, no matter how long you stay and how bad things get, about the whole of it: how clouds settle hard in the tops of cliff-rooted firs, how mule deer survive snow-starved winters, and how water always, always finds its own way.
I ski back past the talus slope, thinking about how I sit by the river more rarely now, almost never. Not that I am busier, only less interested, or otherwise distracted. I took up windsurfing, a gear-burdened sport on the lake, a public exhibition. More often, I walk a former meadow near our home. When I moved here, the meadow was one of the few open spaces in the narrow valley: sunny and spackled with tiny shin-high pines. Ferns grew green in spring, browned over in fall, and collapsed. In one corner of the meadow, a patch of red poppies grew along the edge of dense forest; over time, neighbors came to poach them, to plant them elsewhere, in proper gardens, before the river ripped their roots whole. As the river has. Most of the meadow is now cobble, but the pines, remarkably, have survived. They tower 15 or 20 feet tall, skirted with debris and surrounded by sand. Sometimes my partner Laurie and I think we should cut them and preserve this small preserve of sun. But we never do.
There’s a television in the woods near the old meadow, an old heavy wooden 1970s counsel, tipped on end, a popular destination for teenaged friends and relatives who come visit. There are bicycle parts and drainfield pipe, shattered and choked by electrical wire, and blue tarps everywhere, wadded and torn. One cabin has had a cottonwood trunk jabbed through it for years now, jutting grotesquely, and right behind it, one summer, the river carved a perfect sandy-bottomed pool within the log jam. We skinny dipped there without a thought. That’s how used to it we are. Or think we are. Once we came upon some vinyl classical records, 78s, the titles in German, upright like javelins in the muck, and I began to sob. The records hit the nerve I can’t touch anymore, one that’s hardened over. I think of them now and ask myself: Does it hurt? Does it hurt?
I have tried not to picture the tumors: normal cells gone berserk, growing large and combining for no decent purpose, for no damned purpose at all, attaching to pink healthy lung tissue and ballooning from there until the very life force that sustained you is killing you. Talk about betrayal. Sometimes I overhear conversations that hinge on deservedness: Wally smoked, but Garfoot never did. But at some point that point’s moot, too. There’s no parsing justice. The cells just keep reproducing willy nilly, and these strong vibrant men, accustomed to breathing outside air—a heady mix of pine and fir, sweat and diesel, dogs and horses, cowboy coffee and campfire smoke—eventually succumb to oxygen in a windowless room. They cough blood under fluorescent lights. Who deserves this?
The ski does not take that long, not really. Within an hour or so, I stand below our cabin and study the bank that holds us up. I wonder: big rocks or small, strong roots or weak? I turn to face the river. The water, for now, is even with the banks, the flow itself is flat, no waves, the color is clear, the debris minimal. Tire-sized snow clods zip across the surface and back like air hockey pucks, fast and silent. I know the river is coming. Maybe not today, but someday very soon. There’s no uncertainty about that. The road that skirts our property will be moved behind the house, and then we’ll be at the river’s mercy. We’ll buffer the bank with rocks and wood, with willow plantings and a whole lot of cash. I’m not sure it will make a difference. The river will win. I try to believe that I don’t hold this against the river, that this is not the reason that I ignore it or disregard it, why the passion at least has cooled. But surely it has something to do with it.
Sometimes I think of this river like a petulant teenager. We set it free—no dikes, no dams—and back it comes, like a drug-addled daughter, a stranger now, to steal from us, to rub our noses in it: you who loved most, you who are closest, you’re going to suffer most. And not just the river. There are fires in summer and now this glut of cancer from god knows what: air pollution from China, mine tailings in the water, asbestos in the roof, pesticides ingested or solvents absorbed or plain wrong-living. When I moved to the woods, I signed up for adventure and self-sufficiency, maybe even hardships—weeklong power outs, say, or wet sleeping bags in the woods—but not plagues of biblical proportions.
Here’s what I’m thinking: climate change is like cancer. It’s a dire diagnosis, maybe not yet terminal, but something very close, and it demands a kind of toughness, a fighting attitude, a willingness to change almost everything about how we live. People like to talk about this, to write articles and books and circulate petitions about the deservedness of it all, and the urgency, but hardly anybody talks about the flip side, about how beneath the diagnosis lies something else: cold hard grief, for what we’ve lost, for what we’re losing, for what we’re going to lose inevitably, no matter what, and maybe most of all, for how we used to be—carefree and ignorant of consequences, full of youthful invincibility, yes, but also full of easy passion. And hope. I can’t help it, I miss the hope.
I stand in the rain at the foot of the bank, and pull back my hood, crying at last, though I rarely cry, almost never, and it’s hard to know, really, if it’s even happening now. There’d be no way to differentiate tears, anyway, from the cold rain on my cheeks, and since the rain has soaked the anorak and through my shirt, there’s no way to wipe my face dry. Truth is, if nature is like us—diseased, in a way, due to fault and fate and nearing a kind of death—we’re also like nature: not nearly as near to the end as we think. Wally will hang on for months before he goes; his brothers will sprinkle the ashes from an empty Folgers can on his potato patch. Garfoot will fight even longer: shoeing horses in the summer, cutting firewood in the fall for his son and his young family of six, newly arrived back in the valley, refugees from a decade as professionals in the city, wanting to give it go. Then, a few months later, he’ll succumb. And we’ll still be here. We’ll be here by the river when it turns green, reflecting newness, and when it churns with gray glacial melt—too much, way too much—and when it goes shallow in the fall with drought—too little, way too little—and mergansers bob over ripples over salmon over rocks. I can say I hate this river all I want, but it’s not true. If there’s one way to show love, it’s this: No matter what, I’m here.