Going alone has risks. It also allows you to assess the choices that changed the direction and goals of a lifetime.
A couple of years ago, I decided to do a monthly solo retreat in a nine-foot raft on the famed Wild & Scenic section of the Rogue River in Oregon. This 35-mile stretch has lots of class III and some class IV (expert) whitewater, no roads, primitive camping (no toilets), and a few bears. This three-day retreat is like entering into another dimension. Maybe it is a substitute for the psychedelic mind-altering drugs of the Sixties.
Getting away from traffic, away from the phone and Wi-Fi, and out of electronic fields provides lots of exquisite time for reflection and meditation. It’s time to spend with the gods of the river, as well as the bear, eagle, osprey, and salmon.
Going solo has its risks. One bad oar stroke at the wrong time and you are flipped upside down in the middle of a tumultuous rapid, with no one to call for help. Then the river goddess may suck you down to her cold, wet bosom, where she tumbles, pummels you in a chaos of passion and bubbles. If you’re buoyed by a good lifejacket, she typically spits you back, and you thrash toward shore, sputtering, gasping for air, relieved to have escaped, knowing she has left only a damp kiss on your throbbing heart, and not a fatal bump on the head.
Sometimes we think the gods are fickle and arbitrary, but they just follow the law of consequences. When people drown in the river, which they do every year, it is usually because they weren’t wearing a lifejacket, or they made a careless decision. Or maybe they didn’t take into account the water level of the river, which can change your routes, expose holes and rocks, and shift current eddies.
The mindful river rafter studies the course of the current, the changing channels; he watches subtle bulges and motions of water, listens to the quality of sound; feels the dancing surges and vibrations through his oar blade. He becomes one with the flow, using her power and forces in a liquid aikido—sliding around a suckhole, pivoting on a crest, rolling in a curl, pirouetting between rocks.
I row backward (with a bike mirror) in the flat water for more power, and forward in the whitewater to navigate the rocks. At times I see where I have come from and where I am going, and this perspective flows into the course of the meditation. One can assess the choices that changed the direction and goals of a lifetime.
After pulling into a quiet, sandy cove for the evening, one must be mindful of the neighbors: the ever-sniffing bears. Rogue bears know how to open most brands of cooler and drybox. The others they just rip apart. Smells that attract them are bacon and eggs, cold cuts, sausage, and other traditional camping fare. So I have oatmeal for breakfast, sardines for lunch on the river, and a can of chili for dinner. Simplicity: no campfire, no large kitchen or stove, no temptation for bears.
Watching the river go gently by in the evening is a good time to remember family and friends who have passed on. One can imagine a flow of loved ones drifting by, destined for the cosmic ocean of infinite dimensions. And just as this river water flows into the ocean, then to return to the mountains by rain and snow, and back down this riverbed, so we humans may complete our own everlasting cycle.
Nights are long on the river. When the sun disappears from the narrow canyon, the camp cot calls. The quiet is broken only by the night critters chirping and the occasional fish rising for a bug. This is a time to watch where one’s thoughts go, to be an observer of mind meanderings, to quiet the inner workings of the psyche. This is when the spirits pass by, looking into the windows of our soul.
The starry sky is brilliant, without ambient light. The frequent calls of an old bladder are welcome, if only to step outside the tent to gaze at the jewel-studded galaxy. Much of the river is in steep canyon, so it is important to choose a campsite for either early morning light or long afternoon light. I like the early morning light, to be cruising down the river just as Lord Sun peeks over the mountain.
Putting in the river at the beginning of a solo trip feels like entering the river Styx. I know this will be an exciting adventure. It is like jumping off a high cliff, or entering a doorway to a new dimension, a stargate to another reality. It feels like what the final transit will be, exciting yet scary.
And you have to do it alone…
—Marty Thommes, Age 85