I convince Bill, my husband of one month, to sign up for a week-long rafting trip on the Yellowstone to take place the following August. The expedition's description of journaling and rafting entrances me. Though Bill does not consider himself a writer, he wants to make me happy and agrees to go. What neither of us realize is that though more than a dozen writers are going, only one is an expert rafter: the author who organized the expedition.
I'd expected mountains but as our plane circles the Bozeman airport, everything looks lumpish and khaki-colored. It isn't until our plane lands and we begin the drive toward Bozeman that umber-colored hills emerge from their camouflage. Behind them, jagged peaks. Mountains!
We spend the night at the Fox Inn Bed and Breakfast and empty the contents of our suitcases into the dry bags we've brought along. I've never used dry bags before. I pack and repack them several times before I'm satisfied.
We've gathered on the banks of the Yellowstone, a bit south of Livingston, to begin our trip. It's cold, so after setting up the miniscule tent we've been assigned (Bill and I are the only couple), we search our dry bags for warmer clothes. As I paw through the contents of the largest bag, I feel the first stirrings of discontent. Filled with honeymoon ardor, I'd packed my things at the bottom so Bill could reach his more easily. Socks, tee shirts, underwear, flashlights, journals, tumble across our sleeping bags as I search for my jacket. When I repack, I separate our belongings into His and Hers bags: the big red bag for Bill, the smaller purple one for me.
Summoning one of his comic personas, the one he uses when I get irritable, Bill wiggles his eyebrows and assumes a German accent saying: "Vell, ven ve come on dis trip, I hed no idea you vould spend it packing and unpacking."
Normally I would laugh but I still feel grouchy. Bill's stuff is part of the problem. He's brought so much.
A family of six lives in a tiny trailer near our campsite. Seven-year-old Nikki attaches herself to me as I gather firewood. Her father is out of work and they have only enough food for two days. I mention this to the group at supper, and Al asks me if I would take our leftover food to the trailer. A blond woman in a baggy beige sweater opens the door at my knock. When I ask if her family could help us finish our leftovers, she pauses and I worry that I might have offended her. As she takes the pan of tacos from my hands, I notice Nikki and another little girl smiling up at me from the floor where they sit next to a baby in a plastic basin. To the left of the basin, I spot a man's legs. A toddler in a disposable diaper straddles his lap. My trials with dry bags fill me with shame. They arise from abundance. Here, I am confronted with need.
We rise early to begin our journey down the Yellowstone. A quick survey reveals that while most participants are fairly competent canoeists, none have ever managed a raft. Al, our leader, assures us that we'll do just fine: all we have to do is watch him. After a brief session on commands --paddle left, paddle right, paddle -- five men and ten women, ranging in age from seventeen to sixty-five, launch three rafts into the river.
The morning passes without incident. We stop on a rocky island for a leisurely lunch of cheese, crackers and apples, then re launch. We are buoyed for adventure. Several miles downriver, Al calls a warning and begins to reverse his raft to enter the narrow channel backwards. Our raft follows suite, narrowly missing the roots of a submerged tree. As we emerge into calmer water, we check on raft number 3 -- the one with my husband on board. It is apparent, even from a distance that this raft is in trouble. We can hear shouting as it careens toward the threatening roots. Horrified, we watch as the raft rides up and over the tree before catapulting upside down into the icy water. Seconds later I hear Bill screaming. My husband is an excellent swimmer but he is terrified of open water. An Iowa farm boy, he didn't learn to swim until he was thirty; he will swim only in a pool where he can see bottom. When I hear him screaming, I think he has panicked and I begin screaming too.
"Save Bill first," I shout.
We pull him gasping and sputtering onto the raft as the river rushes past. Mary slams into our raft. Craig has already sailed past, feet first as he's been taught, landing on a sandbar farther down. Bobbi, who had tried to stop the raft, is in danger of being submerged. We shout to let go, and she hears us. She grabs a rock and hauls herself toward dry land. We recapture the overturned raft and regroup on shore. Only then do we realize that seventeen-year old Megan is missing. Terrified, we scream her name.
Several of the men form a search party, while the rest of us try to attend the rescued. Bill is trembling with cold and anger. I feel guilty for having dragged him on this trip. I get him a warm jacket and try to comfort him but he is too upset. I leave him to join the search for Megan but she has already been found. Laughing and shouting, the search party returns with Megan in their midst. They found her up river, clinging to the tree that snagged the raft.
By the time we reach the next camping site, we have retrieved everything save for one paddle and Bill's hat from the river. Bill is still seething about the accident and rips into Al, the trip leader, saying that competent rafters should be in charge of each raft. Al moves Bill to our raft and assigns Owen to captain the shipwrecked crew.
As we prepare for bed that night, Bill searches for his toothbrush and spills the contents of his red bag all over the tent --vitamins, earplugs, decongestants, antibiotics, insect spray, foot powder, and sunscreen, but no toothbrush. He tells me that he had it last night, implying that I lost it in my repacking frenzy. We shall have to share my toothbrush. Neither of us find this option appealing. When we crawl into our tents that night, snuggling is far from our minds. It is only the second night of this journey, but already the warmth has edged from our loving.
"Damn zipper," I hear Bill grouch as he tries to fasten his sleeping bag. He turns first one way, then the other. The ground is lumpy and I can't help him. He's got the softest sleeping pad, the one with the air in it. Besides, the small toe on my right foot is giving me trouble. Red and swollen it keeps me awake. I wonder about amputation, about cutting a hole in my new hiking boots to make room for my miserable toe. Bill groans and attempts to wrap himself around me. I stiffen at first, unwilling to cuddle but then notice that it's warmer in his arms. Curled into the arc of his body, mine begins to relax. Bill has come on this trip to please me: he's never liked camping, has been shaken by his terrifying encounter with the Yellowstone, and now has to contend with a wife who's turned crotchety in the wilderness.
"Will you still love me after this trip?" I ask, giggling.
"Good question," he responds.
The weather changes so suddenly here. One moment the sky is cloudless and the sun blazing, the next it turns black. The waves churn higher, and the wind seizes us, making it more difficult to control the rafts. It pours with rain. Then suddenly the sun is back.
It is gray and wet when 18-year old Britta attempts to retrieve the missing paddle, which has washed up on a rocky spit, and is seized instead by the freezing river. Again rescue operations swing into play. Al's raft races after and retrieves her. We worry as she shivers in the icy rain, attempting to don the dry clothes Carol has found for her. Finally the sun returns and we shed our fear in its warming rays.
Only occasionally do we see other Yellowstone travelers, usually fishermen. Sometimes a train sends a lonely whistle salute from the distance. Our rafts seem insignificant in this panorama, our small group of travelers dwarfed by its magnificence. I am filled with an unexpected tenderness toward my companions. Strangers only three days ago, we have become intimates. The Yellowstone has bound us together with all our shortcomings and strengths. I notice how hard Bill works, how he is always helping out, yet he finds time to make sure I have enough water, to give me a hug. My irritability, brought to the surface by discomfort, has begun to crack. It falls in chunks from my psyche.
Everywhere I look there are mountains -- they surround us on the right and the left. If we turn to look behind us, they are there. In front, they beckon to us. Between them, the Yellowstone tumbles like a circus acrobat and our rafts bounce along in its rhythm. We've named our raft Bullwinkle and ride atop the Yellowstone through a wilderness so vast I have to hold tight to my soul. We pass cliffs pocked with what appear like crowds of craggy faces, riverbanks rife with cottonwood, and caves festooned with swallow nests. Behind us the Crazy's loom like immense pyramids bejeweled in radiance while shards of rain rush toward us on black wind.
When the river hurls us past our appointed camping site, we are forced to pitch camp elsewhere. The windblown landscape is suddenly filled with sheep that move in our direction. I'm grateful when a dog yaps them away. Bobbi looks like a Valkyrie as she struggles to launch her tent in this tremendous wind, her blond hair streaking behind her, while Mary, resembling Bobbi's raven-haired sister, attempts to anchor the poles. Bill and I have just raised our tent. My hands are covered with grit. They're turning gray like the stones on the beach.
I take a solar shower out-of-doors this afternoon. I love the experience, the breeze around me cool, the water warm from having traveled in plastic bags in the sun. Naked in the open, I am transported back to my childhood, grateful for the warmth of dry clothes after swimming in the icy water of our lake.
After supper, we gather around the fire telling stories. The setting sun burns red behind a huge cottonwood, turning the tree's silhouette into a mammoth, etching our faces with primitive features. Nearby, we can hear the river pounding the rocks and wonder if our rafts will hold against its current.
Bill reads a selection from his journal. Where did he learn to write so well I wonder? I catch him looking at me. I smile back. His eyes fill with gladness.
Owen, who has traveled the farthest for this trip and who took command of raft number 3 after its disastrous tumble, takes Bill and me through Qi Gong exercises while the others dismantle their tents. We've risen early, written in our journals and eaten breakfast. When we pack the rafts, it's for the final time; today we will enter Reedspoint and travel by car to a high sandstone bench overlooking the Yellowstone to camp for the night.
We feast on fresh beef and rice, washed down with icy beer, and settle around the fire to discuss our impressions of the trip. We've grown close -- learned to rely on and trust one another. Aspects that once irritated or frightened us now elicit hoots of laughter. Together we've been awed by nature: humbled by its power, dwarfed by its beauty. I lean back into Bill's arms, which encircle me. When he laughs his body responds like a hill of grass.
The drizzle that pursued us yesterday has turned into a rain so heavy it wakes us. Our tent has begun to leak. Quick as lizards, we dismantle everything and join the others in loading cars for the trip back to Bozeman where farewells are mercifully short. I've never been good at saying goodbye and am afraid I'll cry. Although I hope never to see another tent, I'm sad we're parting. I've grown to love these people and know that despite our good intentions, we might lose touch within months. Bill takes my hand and squeezes it.
We comfort ourselves with fat -- dining on hamburgers, fries, and malted milk before returning to Fox Hollow to prepare for our trip home. While Bill showers, I empty the dry bags one final time. I'm surrounded with stuff when he emerges, warm and ruddy, into the room. Embarrassed to be caught sorting those bags again, I smile sheepishly and shrug. Bill opens his arms and draws me to him.
"Vell, vill I ever be glad to see de end of dose bags," he murmurs into my ear.
Laughing, we tumble together onto the bed.