Preparing for a desert trek of several days, three of us exhausted ourselves at a food-buy in Reno. It was all shopping carts and a car packed to the gills, not the part of a journey you usually talk about, the eye-raking lighting and the immeasurable cost of plastic to get you on your way. The trip isn’t even supposed to begin until you are on the ground, water caches set and shuttle completed. But I am interested in all facets of a journey, including the bitter beginnings, half of our party stranded in southern Nevada where their VW van has broken down yet again and you are constantly thumbing your cell phone for updates as you hurry from store to store.
I was with adventure photographer James Q Martin and the whirlwind climber Timmy O’Neill, and this was our first solid trek together since a few years back when we made a pilgrimage to Chilean Patagonia. That trip began as a complete shit-show, a busted axle on a trailer carrying our gear a hundred miles down a dirt road in AysÃ©n, not to mention losing key pieces of equipment to airlines, and a couple crucial members of the crew bailing at the last minute.
I remember in Patagonia, we stopped at a suspension bridge over a turquoise river. While I cupped water and splashed it on my face, Timmy scrambled up the bridge cables like a rat. When I turned around, I saw him dangling a hundred feet up by one arm, while the photographer, Q, perched on a cable across from him shooting pictures of the spectacle. I felt as if I had embarked on a journey with a couple trapeze artists, the tableau burned into my mind, one-handed Timmy, and Q practically suspended mid-air against a backdrop of glacier-studded peaks. The trip had barely begun, we were still in the first days of logistics, and the first indelible image had formed.
In Reno, we’d finished the buy around dusk. Parking near the Truckee River where it flows through town, shallow and cool in mid-August, we walked to the river’s edge next to a bridge. Timmy was the first to strip. Respectfully wearing undershorts in a public place, he teetered across slick, green cobbles, water barely knee-deep. With a deep breath, he plunged his entire body beneath the surface.
His form was as fluid as fabric unraveled downstream in the current.
A new image burned into my mind, this time it was Timmy’s body pale and angelic under the water as he held himself to the river stones, his form as fluid as fabric unraveled downstream in the current. He looked like a bird, a fish. He stayed down for most of a minute until his head rose, mouth breaking the surface for air.
Q was next into the river, and I was behind him. I dropped to the slick, cobbled river bottom, and its cool flow purled over my head. The feeling of the stores and their plastic and busy lighting washed off of me, and when I broke the surface for a breath, I felt like an animal again, a living creature.
It is important how a journey begins, the parts you don’t tell later because they don’t seem crucial to the narrative, yet they matter more than anything. I believe that we go on treks partly because each is a lifetime in itself. You may remember the highlights, the arc of the earth in front of you, the treading of your feet on wild ground as days glide past you, but every moment, even the very beginning back in town, is to be savored.
As we stood on shore drying, the heat of our day finally off of us, a flock of 19 mergansers came poking up the river. Swimming and diving, they were feeding their way up the current. We were quiet so as not to startle them, turning slowly over a few minutes as they passed us, their heads raised, alert but accustomed to people. It was this quiet that I will remember, our skin cool, evening creeping in around us through the smell of willows that leaned into the breeze. Soon we would be hauling water on our backs on a caravan across a desert wasteland, sleeping in the glaring daylight hours and traveling in the cool of dusk and dawn. I would carry this beginning with me like a talisman, the image of Timmy hugging the river bottom, and then the bobbing heads of mergansers passing us like a small omen. This is what a journey is made of, not just the adventure ahead, but the fine moments that get you there.
Craig Childs is the author of numerous books, a National Public Radio commentator, and frequent contributor to Adventure Journal. You can read more of his work at his website, houseofrain.com. Photo by Shutterstock