We’ve gathered a mile below the surface of the Arizona desert, a group of old friends together for two weeks of camping, whitewater, and canyoneering on the Colorado River. It’s an artist retreat of sorts; photographers, filmmakers, musicians, and illustrators fill the rafts floating downstream. A trip for deep discussion and lighthearted play, where time isn’t rushed and everyone sinks slowly into a better understanding of themselves and each other, a space to feel and connect fully with the surrounding environment.
Grit from the morning’s cowboy coffee swirls in my stomach, mixing uneasily with blueberry pancakes until it’s time to untie the raft and push off. My friend Meredith and I are both silent, solitarily reflective as she dips her oars into the water, propelling us out into the glassy pool where a horizon line demarcates the abrupt drop of Crystal Rapid. Crystal is the most feared rapid in the Grand Canyon. The current pulls us gently toward the roar, and Meredith stands on her seat to look for a single rock above water off the right shore—her reference point of where to enter. I, the passenger, wriggle my fingers deeper under tie-down straps and attempt to abate my nerves with long, slow breaths.
The freedom, this utter and complete autonomy, is intoxicating.
I ran Crystal once before, with my dad, whom I trusted completely. This scenario is different. Meredith, on her second trip rowing the Grand, is terrified. So am I. Our group is not orderly or by-the-book. We’re friends gathered from years of experiences off the river, united on this journey for better or for worse. We’re professionals in what we do, but we’re not approaching this trip like a job. We’re loose, anything goes. All-day nudity? Check. Synchronized dancing to greet other raft groups? Of course. Two bags of wine slurped down before dinner? It makes the food taste better. As we stood earlier on the sun-baked plateau above the churning rapid, scouting lines, reading bubbles and waves and currents, heads swiveling between guidebook and frothing whitewater, I considered following one of our rower’s suggestions to walk around the rapid and meet the rafts at the bottom. But I couldn’t. That felt wrong. Like cheating. Meredith needs company, someone to believe in her, and I’m it.
The thing about the Grand Canyon is, there are no rules. There’s no one there to tell you what you can or can’t do. You’re free to manifest whatever destiny you choose and sometimes, that’s scary.
Ostensibly, there are some rules, of course, as the ranger will hammer into your head during river orientation at the Lee’s Ferry put-in. Pee IN the water, not on the beach. No fires except in firepans. Pack out all your waste. But pushing off from the sandy, willow-lined shore, the last road-access point for 225 miles, dipping wooden oars into a clear, cold current rushing through the redrock desert toward Mexico, represents a hiatus from any societal constraints beyond those you put on yourself.
The moment of departure is tinged with giddy joy and fear. What business do we have thinking we can successfully navigate the rapids that lie downstream? Do any of us really know what we’re doing? But the freedom, this utter and complete autonomy, is intoxicating. Besides being at takeout in sixteen days, there’s nothing we’re beholden to. We have no plan, and in a world ruled by calendars and appointments and due dates, the no-plan plan feels the most freeing of all. We’re gone and there’s no going back. Whoops and war cries echo across canyon walls as the river carries us downstream.
Besides the few important rules, there’s river etiquette, too. Choosing camps and letting faster rigs pass (usually motorized commercial trips whose wrinkle-free-clad clients stare at our rag-tag gang with a mixture of fear and longing), for example. Mouths agape, they’re whisked by on massive rafts far above the splashing rapids that entrench our flotilla. Those straightlaced groups have a schedule: Make camp by 5 p.m., eat dinner before dark, and settle in with tents up long before bedtime. We don’t, choosing to spend our evenings reveling in soft dusky hours on the water as the sky melts from light to indigo blue, when birds dip low across a current rippling liquid gold, catching bugs for dinner.
One night, stars bloom over the faraway canyon rim as we row into the deep violet of night, water reflecting the last gasp of day, rapids sounding fearsome in the growing dark. Safe? No. But what is safe? Certainly not rowing down the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, unguided, for sixteen days with sixteen of your friends. There are experienced rowers among us, but our trip leader is of the “safety third” mindset and fun is the leading factor in most decisions. Not reckless per se, but blissfully carefree.
Yesterday, back away from the river, the steady, low beat of a drum drew me into the shadows of a deep canyon. Sandy depressions held pools of clear water beneath towering walls striped deep plum, coral, and garnet. Around a bend, four Hopi elders sat on boulders below a sliver-like stream trickling down from the chasm above. The men took turns drumming on a five-gallon plastic water jug, their mallet a sock wrapped around the end of a stick. Chanting reverberated between rock walls, carried upwards into the gulf of turquoise sky.
I can feel the pulse of their drum now. As our boat drops over the horizon line, the whole frenzied mess of Crystal becomes visible, the river like chocolate milk in a blender. I know it’s loud, but my mind goes silent. We skim nimbly down the tongue, set up to barely brush some nasty laterals occupying the center of the rapid. Slowly, steadily, the boat turns sideways. Everything feels sluggish; the movement of the raft deliberate and delayed, a slow-motion wreck. Meredith’s efforts do nothing to change our slipping, left-sided trajectory toward the meanest section of whitewater. “FUCK!” Finally, I hear everything: the shrieking oarlocks, the crashing waves. As we catch each wave more sideways than the last, the gaping bottom hole, stretching 30 feet out from the left shore into the current, becomes our fate. But going sideways here is not an option. The flip will be fast and violent before we circulate in the hole: raft, humans, and gear sucked down by hydraulics and at the whim of the current.
The left tube of our raft drops down, falling into the hole, dark and endless beneath us, its trough far below river level. As it rises up the face of the wave, the right side drops down, leaving us hanging, nearly vertical, above the frothing hole. I lunge toward the left tube, highsiding. The moment drags on as we crest the surge, pulling the right tube along after us, back into the sun. By some miracle, the boat is upright. The hole ushered us through, unscathed—the millisecond difference between a wave smashing down, causing everything to come crashing to a stop, and letting us slip by.
As Meredith throws her bodyweight against the oars, pulling hard to avoid a rock garden that catches the pieces of anyone unlucky enough to flip here, she’s pale and shaken. “Holy shit.” I nod in agreement and legs and arms trembling, we emerge from Crystal’s tail waves to ecstatic cheers from our costumed pirate crew.
As dusk grows, a rosy blush fades from forgotten storm clouds hunched over the horizon and we make camp at a small sandbar. It’s nothing special, and most of the group is keen to push on for something better. But the darkness convinces us to stay and we cook dinner by headlamp—sharing stories and beers after the biggest day of rapids on the entire river. Behind camp, the gravelly wash leads into a narrow canyon where a thin skim of water flows down a polished granite sluiceway. Perfectly spaced ledges permit an easy scramble to the oasis of all desert rats’ dreams… hot-tub-sized pools, full to the brim with clear, warm water. A trickling stream feeds one after another down the water-carved canyon. We light candles, haul up the guitar and a bag of wine, shed clothes on the still-warm rock, and sing shanties under the ribbon of stars dancing between canyon walls overhead.
Our freedom is as intoxicating as it is scary. We’re free to row vicious rapids, to make mistakes and learn from them, to live naked, to sleep in the sand with scorpions as our teddy bears, to set off into the desert and walk the line of dehydration. Our lawlessness is as fun as it is dangerous. It’s hard to imagine life without the ability to do as we please and I’m sure that pirating on downriver is the only way forward. But when we’ve traveled our miles and finished the final night of river dishes, we gather around the dying campfire. The triangular silhouette of Diamond Peak on the horizon marks the end of our journey.
Stars blaze across the sky as we sit late into the night, crickets accompanied by the strum of a guitar and a woman’s sultry voice humming river songs. Pirate personas are shed with the dawn and our early morning row to takeout is a portal back to the land of roads and rules. Showered and clad in clean clothes, there’s nothing to set us apart from those orderly clients we found so incongruous, the only proof of my anarchistic past a fading sunburn in a place that will no longer see the light of day.
Until we meet again, me hearties.