From the right angle, my May iCal page looks vaguely Mondrian. It’s full of grid lines and primary colors indicating events, deadlines, activities and appointments for the whole family. Since May is end-of-school month, it's particularly stuffed. It’s a complicated Mondrian; it’s a political map; it’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” fractalized. The adage “it takes a village to raise a child” may be true, but I never thought that meant my calendar would look like detailed city maps.
Nearly every parent I encountered last month—in rushed, hi-how-are-you-sorry-to-run-but-we-have-to-go exchanges—said, “This month is CRAZY!” Yes, everyone said “crazy” in all caps and italics, with an attendant, tired head shake.
Parents, teachers, administrators and school volunteers have been brimming over with due dates, exams and projects, grading, commenting, organizing year-end events and celebrations, tying up loose ends, and preparing for whatever’s next. Some sports are ending (events, celebrations), others are starting (new practice times, new equipment). Work deadlines align with the spring-to-summer transition, budgets need updating, submissions are due. Our life’s organization around kids’ school schedules must rapidly transfer to summer camp schedules—except I haven’t scheduled any camps because I haven’t found time!
Smack in the middle of this gridded chaos, we went on a river trip with my sister’s family and friends. My husband, 6-year-old Theo, 3-year-old Sylvia, and I come with our own life jackets, dry bags, cooking skills and marginal entertainment value; in exchange, we poach space on my sister’s family’s raft, Sunshine.
Three Fridays ago, we drove north to the Chama River. The wind ripping off half of our car-top carrier provided our first excitement. We topped a hill outside of Abiquiú, saw a weird, wiggling shadow above our windshield, and then, whump!, heard plastic wrenching and watched through the rear-view mirror as our rocket-box top flew 200 feet to the nearest sagging fenceline. Shortly thereafter, roof cargo repacked beneath Theo and Sylvia’s feet, cell phone service petered out. We were literally shedding the trappings of our normal lives as we drove.
At the put-in we met up with the fleet: four rafts, three duckies, eight adults, eight kids between the ages of three and twelve, and quantities of food and beverage. Once properly life-jacketed, the kids happily got down to getting muddy and wet. Adults loaded, set the shuttle, and officially unplugged. We kept our phones in an accessible dry box only because they’re the only cameras we use anymore.
As I pushed against the silty bank and Sunshine moved into the current, I felt the static energy of my iCal-bound May give way. The river ran low and slow that weekend, and our pace was leisurely. The breeze was cool. Bank-lining willows had yet to leaf, but the occasional cottonwood tree stood brightly lime in the buff-brown valley. Road and camp sounds trailed away, and a stillness beyond our reach prevailed beneath the chatter of our group.
On Sunshine, my sister dipped the oars in shallow strokes, and I fed, sunscreened and brokered raft-position disputes among our collective four kids. This is the job of non-rower and it is ongoing, broken only by rapids, water fights and raft ejections. I was the first to swim.
We dragged through the cold water a mesh bag filled with chilling drinks. Although its camouflage print made it look tough, Sunshine’s drag bag ripped over the rocks, and I valiantly tried to rescue our beer. I anticipated stepping into shin-deep water, but I was surprised by mid-thigh coldness. It didn’t help that my instantly numb feet got zero purchase on slippery cobbles I couldn’t see. I lurched and flailed until I was completely soaked. I saved nothing. The preteens in duckies caught three bottles of Gatorade downstream, but everything else was lost.
As I slowly reanimated my frozen toes, the valley became a canyon and we found our first campsite in a juniper enclave. After dinner, as we got the kids ready for bed, the musicians among us unpacked their instruments: A backpacking guitar (sticktar), two regular guitars, a mandolin, fiddle, and plastic-egg shaker. Since I only play the egg shaker, I was especially grateful for a full floating bluegrass band.
Camping is nearly always restorative, even when it’s not particularly restful. River camping adds the magic of water, the songs of currents, water play and water wildlife like osprey and trout. Music introduces something like fabric, an aural textile that wraps around all of us. We are further sealed off from happenings beyond ourselves. We are clustered and full and, yet, aware of the largeness of the world much more than when we’re at home.
Both nights on the river, we hung in a sphere defined by campfire light, campfire smoke, gear-hung tree branches and a circle of friends and family with the richness of music at its center. Stars preceding a full moon and the openness of the traveling river reminded us of our smallness—and that was rich, too.
In the mornings, clear skies reflected blue on the water and early light reddened the canyon walls. We ate homegrown bacon and eggs and homemade sausage. Sylvia ran around in long underwear and a tutu. We tried to take ourselves and our kids to the groover (portable, poop-only river toilet) for a quiet sit with a peaceful view before any other rafting parties floated by.
On the river, Theo pointed out mud swallows’ nests in the rock eaves. We mused about fairy houses in pock-eroded limestone. We watched ospreys scan the river. We pushed the overladen Sunshine off a lot of rocks. We were loud and then, as we skirted the Christ in the Desert Monastery, we were quiet. We focused on needs as needs arose: All hands on deck for loading and unloading, feeding, navigating a rapid, corralling kids.
The river has its own rules. They are few and important: Don’t drown. Have fun. Notice your world. Forget your calendar. Remember how to listen. Reapply sunscreen. Eat well. Bring an impromptu bluegrass band if you can.