I am not a paddler. Kayaking, like most outdoor pursuits, is simply an activity that I attempt to do and hope to mildly succeed at. I’m not particularly skilled at paddling, nor do I ever expect to be. Just 24 hours prior to tugging my boat towards murky flow of the Rio Grande, I didn’t own a single dry bag. I didn’t even know the correct way to roll it up to keep my gear dry.
But I was invited on an unfamiliar adventure, and I like to make it a habit to say “yes” to ideas that leave me wondering what I’ve gotten myself into.
Big Bend National Park is a desolate behemoth of land sitting on the border of Texas and Mexico. One of the least visited national parks in America, it provides no comfort in the kind of recognizable landmarks you see on postcards from Yosemite or Arches. Big Bend is 1,250 square miles of pure desert.
There are no throngs of camera-touting tourists or commercialized gift shops to set a leisurely tone for your park experience. During the hour-long drive from the ranger station to the parking lot where I left my car for three days, we didn’t see a single other party; there was nothing but lawless landscapes and windblown stretches of bumpy dirt road. It conjured up feelings of forsakenness, as if I would enter the canyons before me without assurance that I’d ever emerge from the other side.
Without knowing what I was looking for, I felt sure that I’d find something stirring within the walls of Santa Elena Canyon; something unexpected to take home as a souvenir for the soul. I wanted the terrain to suck me into its current, chew me up in its rapids, and spit me out on the other side with a fresh perspective and a body full of bruises. (It would.)
I had never been on an overnight paddling trip, nor had I floated whitewater in my own craft. On the first stretches of calm water, my leader corrected my sloppy paddle grip, my lopsided skirt, and my poor attempts at pointing my boat in the right direction. Slowly, my strokes grew confident and my grip felt strong.
As the miles passed and the sun stretched higher overhead, I decided to be bold, to be brave. I leapt between boulders while portaging, traded fright for delight when I accidentally plunged into a shoulder-deep river abyss, opted to sleep outside with the stars instead of in a bug-free tent, and welcomed Santa Elena’s challenges instead of finding anxiety in them.
On the last day, we encountered the biggest rapids of the trip. Like little paper boats in a storm drain, we careened through the fervent channels and swept into the pool below. One, two, three, four, all nine of us spun to the bottom of the rapid. Huddled in a circle on a sandbar, we raised lukewarm cans of cheap beer and someone proposed a toast.
“To peer pressure and collective ignorance, convincing each other to go for it on the river,” I half-joked.
“Cheers to that!”
Later that night, we gathered over a meal of noodles and chicken sausage, and partook in a little tradition called Thankfuls. Each member of our ragtag tribe took a turn expressing gratitude—for the river, for opportunity, for pushing limits, for each other.
“I’m thankful for periods of stillness, like this one. And I’m slowly learning to embrace it,” a friend’s voice said softly after the rest of the Thankfuls were released into the night’s humid air.
I peeled backwards, skin settling down into the tall wispy grass on the embankment. Feet pointed towards the river, hands clasped to hold my head, I felt the cool embrace of earth and fixed my gaze upwards. My mind, cradled by the sky, slipped away from everywhere else it had ever been.
The canyon was here, free and present, and so was I. No notifications, deadlines, relationships, health insurance woes, or wondering how I’d ever get all the pungent mud out from between my Chaco straps. Just me, and the desert, and the Milky Way. It was the kind of moment that begs for a soundtrack—a simple, sweet song to keep my pace steady and slow. As if he heard me thinking, someone quietly picked up a small guitar from the bow of a kayak and began to play.
And in that moment, I was found.