We’d been on the water for quite a while, neither of us at all sure just how much longer we’d be on it before reaching the Hursh Road Bridge, cattycorner to which, in a poorly tended gravel parking lot marking the head of a trail through a nature preserve, I’d parked Kevin's work truck before transferring vehicles to ride with him in his wife’s truck, kayaks strapped to the roof, to Cook’s Landing, another park situated in the shadow of a bridge, this one for Coldwater Road just north of Shoaf on the way to Garret. After maybe an hour of paddling and floating, it occurred to me to start attending to our banter and assessing how faithfully some of the dialogue between friends in my stories mimicked it.
“What the hell kind of bird is that?”
“Probably an early bird.”
“Probably a dirty bird.”
“Oh yeah, it’s filthy.”
At one point, after posing a series of questions about what I’d rather have fall on me from the trees—a cricket or a spider?; a spider or a centipede?; a spider or a snake?—followed by the question of what I’d do if I saw a giant snake someone had let loose slither into the water after me, he began a story about a herpetologist in Brazil: “Did you hear what happened?” Of course, I hadn’t heard; the story was from a show on cable about anacondas. This hundred and fifty pound woman was walking through the marshes, tracking a snake, which turned out to be about twenty-eight feet long and five hundred pounds, to study it.
“She’s following the track it left in the tall grass, and then she senses that there’s something watching her. When she turns around, she sees that it’s reared up”—he held up his arm with his fist bent forward—“so it’s just looking at her at eye level.”
“Did it say, ‘Who da fuck is you?’”
“Snakes don’t generally creep me out, but I don’t like the idea of it, like, following her and rearing up like that.”
“Yeah, I’ve never heard of an anaconda doing that. You hear of cobras doing it. Did she say, ‘Dere’s snakes out here dis big!?’”—my impression of Ice Cube in the movie Anaconda.
When I asked what she did, he said he didn’t remember. The snake had attacked her, lunging at her face, but she must’ve escaped somehow because she was being interviewed for the show. At a couple points in his recounting of the story, I thought how silly it was. For one thing, it’s impossible to sense something watching you. For another, her being a herpetologist doesn’t rule out the possibility that she was embellishing. And yet I couldn’t help picturing the encounter, vividly, as I paddled my kayak.
The story was oddly appropriate. Every time we put in on Cedar Creek and make it some distance from the roads, we get the sense that we’re closer to the jungle than we are to civilization. Kevin knows snakes are my fear totem. At times, scenes from the Paul Bowles collection A Delicate Prey, or from Heart of Darkness, or even from Huckleberry Finn would drift into my mind. We did briefly discuss some paleoanthropology—recent discoveries in Dmanisi, Georgia suggesting a possible origin of modern humans in Western Asia rather than Africa—but, for the most part, for the duration of our sojourn on the river, we may as well have been two prepubescent boys. Compared to the way we were talking, the dialogue between friends in my stories is far too sophisticated.
But that’s really not how we normally talk. As our time on the water accrued long past our upper estimates, and as the fallen-tree-strewn stretches got more and more tricky to traverse, that sense of being far from civilization, far from our lives, our adult lives, became ever more profound. The gnats and mosquitoes and splendidly black dragonflies, their wings tipped with blue, swarmed us whenever we lolled in the shade, getting more bold as more of our bug spray got washed away. We talked about all the ways we’d heard of that Native Americans and other indigenous peoples avoided bug bites and poison plants. The shores were lousy with poison ivy. It was easy to lose your identity. We could’ve been any two guys in the world, at any time in history. The phones were locked away in a waterproof box. The kayaks could’ve been made of anything; the plastic was adventitious. Out here, with the old-growth trees and the ghostly shadows of quickly glimpsed fish, it was the big concrete bridges and the exiguous houses and yards backing up to the creek that seemed impermanent, unreal. Even the human trash washing into the leafy and wooden detritus gathering against the smoothed-over bark of collapsed trees was being dulled and stripped of all signs of cleverness.
“Do you ever have déjà vu?” Kevin asked after we’d passed all the expected landmarks and gotten over our astonishment at how drastically we’d underestimated the length of the journey down the creek. “Because the first time we kayaked here, I was completely sure I’d had a dream about it—but I had the dream before I’d ever been here.”
“I think it’s something about the river,” I said, recalling several instances that day when I had experienced an emptying of mind, something I’ve often strived for while meditating but seldom even come to close to achieving. You find yourself being carried downstream, lulled, quieted, your gaze focused on the busy motion of countless tiny bugs on a swatch of surface gilt with sunlight. Their coordinated pattern dazzles you. It’s the only thing remotely resembling a thought. “There’s something about the motion of the water and the way it has you slowly moving along. I keep laying back and watching the undersides of the leaves move over me. It puts you in a trance. It’s hypnotic.”
“You’re right. It is, like, mesmerizing.” He knew what I was talking about, but we kept shuffling through our stock of words because none of them seemed to get it quite right.
So there we were, a couple of nameless, ageless guys floating down the river, leaning back to watch the trees slide away upstream, soft white clouds in a soft blue sky, riotous distant stars shattering the immense dark of some timeless night.
“I forgive you river for making me drag my boat through all those nettles.”
“I’ll reserve my forgiveness until I find out if I have poison ivy.”