Wednesday, May 6, 2015

River Walker

Whistle collapsed onto her hands and knees on the wet ground, pulling her feet out of the swiftly moving river before the water could yank at her chacos and pull her back in again. She gasped to catch her breath and looked back and to watch the river roaring past. Water dripped from her legs, and she was suddenly struck with a resounding, clear, empowering purpose to her life: She needed to find a stick, and it needed to be a big one. Slippery rocks shifted beneath her sodden feet as she stood up and wobbled her way forward.

Sheer cliffs stood tall and imposing ahead of her, keeping her inescapably in the valley of the Gila River. Before embarking on this adventure, she'd known that the Gila River wound its way snakelike through the valley, necessitating countless water crossings. However, she had neglected to account for the fact that she would be in this section a full month and half before most hikers, and that the river would be at a much higher level. Her soaked American Flag leggings count attest that the river was, indeed, much higher than had been expected. She had already had to cross the river several times, but each crossing was getting progressively deeper and progressively faster.

Round-bellied clouds thick with unreleased rain drifted lazily through the low-slung grey sky. Whistle bent to pick up a large branch, snapping off the few still-attached twigs. The branch was thick, at least seven feet tall, and gave Whistle some small reassurance that through the next crossing she'd have a bit more stability. She also felt mightily prepared to poke any mean-looking badgers, should any appear. The next crossing luckily was not as deep, but the one after that was daunting.

Sliding one foot beneath the surface of the burbling water, she could immediately feel the undercurrent tugging at her ankles, begging her to be swept downstream. Reaching nearly the middle, the water level at her hips, buoyancy finally took over and lifted her toes from the rocks in the river bed.

"Whoops!" Whistle called out to no one at all, as the river took her bodily downstream. Kicking her legs and shooting herself forward across the gap, she rammed her large stick down into the rocks like a a gondolier's pole and was able to touch down onto rocks on the other side. She'd only been lifted up for a few seconds, but it was enough to put her a solid ten feet downriver. Clambering out once more, she scrabbled up onto a steep slope of sliding rocks, peppered with cacti. She navigated through the pokey branches of a bare plant, its twigs scratching and pulling at her like skeletal fingers.

After considering the sanctity of her own life and mortality, and after consulting her GPS and her maps, she determined that it was time to call her mother.

Mama Whistle got on the phone with local rangers, but everyone's advice was that she just had to keep going through the valley, or try to hike up and out one of the valley walls and bushwhack her way to a different trail. Though it was only 4pm, Whistle decided that it was time to sleep. She set up her tent in one of the dry spots in between the curve of the river, and listened to a bit of her audiobook, which at this point was Catch 22. However, Catch 22 is a book that is rather glib and cavalier about life, and Whistle shut it off after a few minutes, shouting to the empty wilderness that it was totally ridiculous to make fun of life because being alive is AWESOME and should totally be cherished, ALRIGHT?!

In the night, the clouds finally let loose their cavalcades of rain, accompanied by a powerful, driving wind. Twice her tent was knocked over, and she woke up with the fabric pressed to her face and wrapped around her body. Disentangling herself like an older sister trying to disentangle herself from the desperate clinging body of their younger sister who just wants to plaaaaaay! Whistle climbed out of her tent and reset it, as rain roared down around her, pickling her already pickled body.

In the morning she packed up her tent and got on the phone with Mama Whistle, who could track where she was using the GPS on Whistle's tracker. With the advice of a ranger, Whistle scrambled 800 feet up and out of the valley along a very steep mountain covered in loose scree, but much of the advice for directions was lost in translation, and Whistle got turned around and lost. Eventually she decided to turn back around and head back down to the valley, but found herself on a much steeper side of the mountain than she remembered. It was so steep in fact, that she had to crab-walk down it, dragging her bottom along the loose rocks. Clouds and fog hung very low and thick, obscuring the world ten feet in front of her.

Suddenly, there was no mountain.

Whistle stopped immediately, her breath catching in her throat as one of her feet went out into open air. The only sound was that of a few loose pebbles under her hands tumbling forward and rolling off the edge of the 500 foot cliff that Whistle had just discovered.

Gingerly, moving impossibly slow, Whistle re-positioned her body to climb back up the pile of completely loose, soaking wet, football-sized jagged rocks that made up the steep mountain face. With each crawling, grasping movement forward, the entire bed of rocks would shift, sliding her back a few feet, like loose shingles on a roof, sending large rocks tumbling over the edge and out into open air, to clatter to the ground far below. At this moment, there was a very real, true possibility of her imminent death. Whistle's mind went completely blank, no thought at all occupied her brainspace except getting back to the top, so that she could find her way back into the valley with the water that wasn't really so bad in comparison and retrospect. Whistle was unaware of the passage of time, and brain decided that it didn't need to spend any energy converting short-term memory into long-term memory.

And such it was that the next thing Whistle remembered, she was back in the valley, on the blessedly flat ground, picking her stick back up where she'd left it, and telling everyone on her GPS in her strongest voice that there would be "NO MORE BUSHWHACKING PLEASE" and that she was just going to make her way through the valley.

After this point, the shallowest river crossing was at her thighs, and the deepest one was at her waist. At some point, a white-water rafting kayaker flew by just as Whistle was getting out of the river at a crossing. This was the first human being that she had seen in days. Whistle screamed and screamed for him to stop, not because she was in much danger anymore, but just because she wanted real, definitive proof that she was in fact alive. She just wanted someone to look her in the eye, take her by the shoulders and say "Yep, you're definitely a corporeal being." She could have done with a good hug, frankly. But the kayaker didn't hear her, and was gone in a matter of moments. Whistle contented herself with the knowledge that even if she was a ghost, she was clearly a very determined hiker ghost.

Finally, in the last four miles of the day, the cliffs descended down to become more manageable mountains while the skies parted, and gave way to a very metaphorical (and yet very real) rainbow. Looking out across the stunningly gorgeous landscape, her butt quietly chaffing in her still completely sodden leggings, Whistle smiled and felt pretty happy to be alive, thank you very much.


Author's note: I'm sorry there was such a gap in time with writing - I was struggling mightily with how to write Whistle's terrifying near-death experience. I sat down to write it at least five times, and each time walked away with a blank screen. Even though the Appalachian Trail tried to kill me several times, I think it's a little easier to write about one's own scary things rather than someone else's. You can rest assured that Whistle is very much alive! There shouldn't be as much of a gap between writing now that we've gotten over this hurdle. Hooray, no death!

Giant River-Crossing Stick

This is my "Welp, probably gonna die soon" face.

"Oh look, this one's only up to my calves! Easy!"


  1. Yikes! Sounds a little scary out there on the CDT, what with cliffs trying to drag you off of them and rivers trying to drag you under them and those absolutely beautiful pictures trying to drag me away from my desk and onto the trail. Well, maybe the latter isn't so scary. Kudos to Whistle for persevering and thanks to both Whistle and Clever Girl for chronicling the adventure. I'll be looking forward to the next installment. Stay safe out there!
    --The Starman

  2. We learned from Clever Girl and Whistle that one of the things that bugs women thru-hikers is when people say “you’re so brave” but don’t say it to the men. Well, I’m sorry, but we’re saying it now: “Whistle, you are so brave!” And we’d say it to you if you were a guy…except that most of the guys we know wouldn’t have been able to do what you did. So there. You are scaring the hell out of Mama Whistle and filling the rest of us with awe. Having said that, let’s have a few routine and mundane entries please. We want to hear about the difficult choices you’re making between eating at Pizza Hut or Wendy’s on a zero-day; or complaints about how the hotel you’re staying at didn’t have enough hot water. Boredom please! At least for a little while. We can’t take much more. :-)  Love, Liz and John

    1. Oh...and another thing...did the 2nd picture have to be of bones?