Friday, February 18, 2011

SFTR: A River Runs Through It

When I'm not in a good mood, my thoughts tend to wander to trips long ago. Although today was by no means a terrible day, it certainly wasn't a great one. And so I would often think of my vacations for the last few years. In general, I have been attracted to peaks and rivers, and have really not strayed from either one since I can remember.

I often wonder what is so glorious about the mountain peaks; if you think about it, few environments are more hostile. A lot of travelers call it "savage beauty", and it is tough to come up with a better phrase. I think a lot of people love what they cannot conquer. Even after the success of climbing a mountain peak, we're left with a view of the world through very insignificant eyes. What we see is a huge landscape that we could never survive on, and a big jaunt back down to the promised land.

As much as I enjoy the mountain peaks, I'm a bigger fan of being just below them, looking up at something much larger than myself. The mountain cirques, for example, are a phenomenal reminder of how little we really are. An ice cold glacial lake sitting underneath mounds of scree and snow -- I just don't think there is anything that really comes close to provoking such wildly conflicting emotions as something inherently hostile and gorgeous at the same time.

I think the same thing applies to the sea. Besides the nice climate that often comes with most beaches (most beaches, I say), I think people like looking out into nothingness, realizing they will never be able to live (for long, at least) anchored in the ocean. We see out into the blue, and know that it is always going to be victorious.

People are biologically -- naturally -- attracted to water, even water we can't drink (i.e., the ocean). A river valley or a gushing gorge or a dirty delta -- there is beauty in all of these things too. And yet, here are things that essentially give us life. A river is a primary means of energy (hydroelectric power), drink (obvious), waste removal (natural sewage), fertile soil, etc. And yet, these are often just as beautiful as the inhospitable wastelands of volcanoes and deserts.

Life is full of contradictions, and I have often thought about this one. I love the mountains, the ocean, the lakes, and the rivers. They giveth, and they taketh away. So many have died climbing the peaks, lost at sea, drowning in rivers and lakes. And yet, we go back, undaunted.

Talk about savage beauty. Every year, a migration in Africa results in a collision of zebras and crocodiles. Every year, the zebras know that many of them will die crossing a river in a persistent quest for food. Every year, they cross dying so that they can survive.

In many ways, we are comparatively nonsensical. I hear stories of climbers falling from summits too frequently, and yet I am always drawn to climb that very mountain. Why? My survival doesn't depend on making it to the top.

Well, maybe not. But we are natural explorers, and our curiosity is innate. Maybe we can't live there, but it sure would be nice to be there just for a while.

I've seen many rivers in my lifetime. The Snake, Columbia, Colorado, Missouri, Mississippi, Ohio, Connecticut, Tennessee, Red, Red, Platte, Niobrara, Big Thompson, Potomac, and Arkansas. I've rafted on some (Arkansas), canoed on others (Niobrara), swum in more (Missouri), hiked along others (Potomac). I've always been drawn to the river, and most of my stories from the road involve a river at some point. Some are tame; others are savage. Nature doesn't care -- the beauty is one and the same.