I found existential terror over just two days on the Green River outside Moab. Packrafting was going to be my next new skill, but it turned out to be far more complicated than I could have imagined.
We’ve all heard people say, “go with the flow“, intending to calm and get others to mellow out and let things happen naturally. Go with the flow even sounds harmless—you just sit back on the proverbial river and let whatever’s around guide your course. But in March, the opposite happened to me. On a literal river, in a literal blow-up boat, facing the flow transitioned into a crisis of self.
What if going with the flow was not calming but rather like trying to let go and relax during an avalanche? Or a dust storm? What if “the flow”, even as a metaphor, is a tsunami-sized wave you can’t stop, and it’s your own personal version of hell and death all rolled into one? And, jeebus, what is wrong with me? Why can’t I have FUN?
I found myself pondering this and other obnoxiously huge thoughts when I was out on the Green River trying to have a nice packrafting and paddling skills weekend. Questioning my very purpose and meaning was not what I expected. Instead of quickly getting up to speed on stroke mechanics and how to put on a drysuit, I found myself over-metaphorizing the river itself. Each day I tried to navigate my craft downstream with varying degrees of success. I spent all my energy just trying to keep up with the group until I was exhausted, soaking wet, and freezing.
At night, I stared into the campfire and thought about death. Instead of talking to the rest of the women in the circle, I assumed a thousand-yard stare and went digging into that feeling of being out of control. I realized you can’t stop time or the creeping specter of our own personal grim reaper. Time flows, just like that river. You have to try to navigate as best you can, paddling downstream with as much skill as you can accumulate, not going too fast and not going too slow lest you get hung up on boulders or dead-spin eddies along the way.
And the river never stops. Never, ever. Until it does and that of course means you’re dead. But you don’t know if your river will end around the next curve or in the middle of the next set of frothy rapids or a bajillion miles downstream. You. Just. Don’t. Know.
Paddling isn’t so much about making speed. It’s about navigating well, avoiding traps, getting through the rough shit without a boat flip, bouncing over rocks without tearing a hole in the boat, bailing water sometimes, and just managing through everything while that water just keeps going. It feels scary to be pulled downward and to only have the chance to pivot this way or that but never to really stop. You could pull up in an eddy and rest, or spin, but the river still continues and you can’t spin forever. Or maybe you can spin forever, and then eventually your boat deflates and you get hungry and you doubt yourself and hate the water and think things like, “why can’t I just get up on the shore and stop moving and just WATCH!? Fuck.”
And that is how I discovered that paddling was no fun. River dynamics combined with my little human self whipping the paddle back and forth generated an existential terror that I could not face.
But I will. I have to. What else is there, after all?