I didn’t wait around for him to change his mind.
Twenty minutes later we were at the Lajitas Crossing loading rafts. The Rio was high, even for pre-drought years, because it had been raining. Sunlight caused bouncing diamonds on the muddy water racing past us, the cliffs were shiny clean from recent rains, and excitement was in the air.
Wayne and I were part of a trip with three or four rafts, but we stayed far enough behind to speak privately. He wanted to talk to me about the value of the wilderness adventures we were selling, but he was preaching to the choir. The healing, restorative power of the wild was what had kept me in the Big Bend area in the first place. I had long before bonded with the mountains, the desert, the river, and the long-distance vistas, but I let him preach on because of the light in his eyes.
Before that day, Wayne was only the boss, the guy we rolled our eyes at behind his back. He could be fun and funny, but we also knew him to yell and be short-tempered. By the end of that trip, he had my respect. Having respect for someone gives us patience with them. In times to come he would rant or blow up in my face, but before I responded with anger, I would think of the part of him who was my river guide through one magical day.
Wayne was hell on wheels when it came to protecting pristine places. He believed, as I do, that we need them in order to survive. He held me captive with his extensive knowledge of the Big Bend area, the Rio Grande, the canyons, and the lore. He brought tears to my eyes more than once by the passionate way he phrased his thoughts.
We laughed and had fun. We stopped to pick up trash from the bank or to admire a bird, or we floated along in silence, breathing in the grandeur.
“Rivers,” Wayne said, “have the power to wash the grunge of everyday life from the soul of man.” After all these years, that may only be a paraphrase, but you get the drift.
When we stopped with the rest of the group for a short hike to the ruins of an old Spanish fort, Wayne’s enthusiasm was contagious. I could never tell if I was hearing the whole truth from any guide, including him, but it didn’t matter. They love to embellish the facts, and how would I fault anyone for that?
Lunch was served but I was too excited to eat. We’d barely shoved off the bank before we rounded a bend and headed dead-on for a gigantic rock wall. The fast current was going to slam us into it. Being splattered against a wall was never mentioned in the brochure! Wayne explained how he avoided that calamity but I couldn’t hear him. My heart was pounding in my ears.
We glided into Santa Elena Canyon and all talking stopped. I’ve never been in a place more holy than that one. Our group went from rowdy levity to absolute silence in one second flat. I’ve never seen the spell of the entrance fail to work. Coming into the great canyon simply touches you where you live and you feel something beyond what words can describe.
Sometimes when I struggle, I think of the astounding work of art that is Santa Elena and I remember that the Rio Grande didn’t carve that beauty in a day, or even in a year. It didn’t do it by being in a hurry and rushing to get it done; it did it by persevering. In nature, there’s a lesson everywhere you look.
When we stopped to scout the rapid called The Rockslide, there were no rocks, only terrifying current and mammoth waves. I didn’t want to go. Where is a helicopter when you need one? Wayne talked me into making the run in the same way the river carved the canyon—with patience. He pointed out that it was all right to be afraid, but I shouldn’t let that stop me. That’s been a recurring lesson in my life, one I’m still getting.
I climbed back into the raft with a pounding heart. As we headed into the turbulence, I told Wayne to keep in mind that I had a baby at home who still needed me. He grinned. “You’re going to love this.”
He was right. I loved it and wanted do it again and again. Part of that was because of the adrenaline rush, the sheer fun of it, but part of it was the feeling of having conquered my fear. There is so much power in that.
The remainder of the ride was the stuff of memories, too. It comes to me now in a rush: the strip of perfect blue above our heads, the echoing trill of the canyon wren, the amplified caw of a raven, the lapping of water against the bank, the wet-desert smell of the river, laughter, the creak of oars, splashing, feeling the wonder, gazing up at the 1500-foot walls until my neck hurt and then gazing up some more.
The end came too soon. We rounded a bend; the canyon opened up, and ahead was the rest of world.