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Location: DownByTheRiver, Central Iowa, United States

Husband of the world's most wonderful wife, father of the world's four most brilliant children, grandfather to the world's eight most beautiful granddaughters and two handsomest grandsons

Monday, July 02, 2007

Wild Communion

The RRR continues his journal of the River Trip with perhaps the most difficult day to write about. It does not come easy for me to describe spiritual experiences. It produces a feeling of being caught in public without one's clothes on or that it might be taken as braggadocio. I will attempt to describe things accurately and let the chips fall where they may.

In her book, Wild Communion, Ruth Baetz gives the following two quotes in the introduction:
“Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”... John Muir.

“'El-Shaddai!” the patriarch cried in anguish... 'In the town will we know you as we have known you in the desert?'
'Inside the walls it will not be easy for me to speak with you,' the deity answered, 'but I shall be there.'”
The Source... Michner.

I was on a Quest, not just a journey and I did not expect what the day would bring. It was Thursday, May 24th. I had slept to the rumbling voice of the drift dam and the muttering gossip of the river. The little oasis where my tent stood came alive with bird music at 0540. I once more wriggled out of the Wenzel and faced ominous, dark clouds. As I made my morning hot and cold drinks I noticed the Russian army pants were developing new tears. I got out the sewing kit and stitched them up for the last time.

That a storm was coming was obvious from the sky, the feel of the air, the odd gusting of the wind, and the cries of the birds swooping low to the water. Today it did not stir up the dread and panic it had before. See what Muir says above about their energy entering you. In the prelude to the storm, the gnats and mosquitoes seemed to frenzy into desperate feeding. The bug eating birds by the river joined the frenzy uttering those odd... “a storm is coming! Hurry! Hurry!” cries as they wheeled and snatched insects about the boat. With my bush hat gone I was wearing the head net closer to my face and it disturbed my vision more. The distant rumbling of the thunder moved inexorably closer. Now separate flashes of light from the lightening became visible. I began the count. Flash of light, “one, one thousand; two, one thousand; three, one thousand.” Then the crash of thunder. Sound moves about 1000' per second, approximately the speed of a .45 caliber bullet. Six, one thousand means the lightening was a mile away. It got that close, then closer. I slipped on my rain overalls and tugged them down over my rubber boots, noting that I'd developed a blister on the right great toe the day before portaging. I pulled my Swiss Army poncho on and snapped it up and pulled the hood over my head as lightening illuminated the day from perhaps a 1000 feet away and the thunder's crash had a physical presence.

The rain enveloped me in a roar. I sat in Shermona like a monk meditating in his cell, my legs crossed, the oars suspended over the water. The hood of the poncho and the head net tunneled my vision and shrunk it somehow. The river around me was churned to mist as the rain drops seemed to bounce and explode. The air and river seemed to merge into a new substance, not liquid, not atmosphere. The day had turned greenish with the light sometimes described before tornadoes. The birds were gone. The insects were gone. It was the river, the rain, and I... and we merged. Peace flowed into me and over me. Oneness was achieved. This is where the Quest becomes the Quester. Unconsciously, my breathing slowed... in through nose, out through mouth as a woman does preparing to give birth. The peace and energy of the storm became mine... no... Ours. I thanked God and tears ran down my cheeks, joining the moisture of the rain. The whole journey, all its preparation and trouble were worth that moment. But the moment stretched on and the Peace of Greenness stayed with me. I had the feeling I would never be the same.

The wind stayed brisk and when the river turned into it, the boat stood still or was even pushed backward, but today there was no fatigue. I rowed into it, sometimes singing army marching songs to the beat of the oars... “You had a good home and you LEFT... you're Right! Sound off, One Two.. Sound off, Three, Four... Bring it on down, One Two Three Four... One Two!” And... “Ain't no use is goin' home, Jody's got your gal and gone... Ain't no use in going back, Jody got your Cadillac... One Two Three Four...” etc. It was a happy madness. A flurry of rowing shouting into the wind and then rounding a bend to float downstream pushed by that same wind and immediately into a deep meditative peace. I talked to God as though he were right there beside me in the boat... and of course he was.

Toward evening, as though it were Planned, I went under a bridge and on the left was a boat ramp. I let Shermona turn sideways and with a quick flurry of rowing scraped her up onto the ramp just as a truck pulling a boat trailer arrived. They got entertained by watching me quickly unload all my gear, then flip the boat over beside the ramp. We talked fishing a little, then they were off upstream whilst I picked out a camping spot and began organizing for the night. The rain had stopped of course and the sky was brighter, though still overcast. The spell of the day's Experience still clung to me and I often felt I was moving in slow motion.

I had a sudden urge to fish. The people I meet along the river seem almost hurt or suspicious if I do not and rather than have my promise to the fisherman be a lie, I dug out my tub of Catfish Charlie's diddy pole and trotline bait and cut a short limb from a mulberry tree. I used bright pink mason's cord for line and put on a big treble hook buried in a gob of bait and jammed the pole into the bank. As I was scrambling back up to my campsite, an old pickup pulled up and the bearded man behind the wheel sat looking at me, as though trying to make up his mind about something. At last he made his decision and got out and walked over. His name was Hank and he is a genuine river rat. He and his brothers choose to live close to the Skunk and drive 100 miles each way to work rather than live in town. He knew every bend in the river, every fishing hole and snag. He sympathized with my dilemma of the snag dam the day before. He told me there had once been a railroad crossing there years before. The snag dam had started with drift trees getting caught up in the old bridge pilings. Different methods have been tried over the decades to clear it, but none successful.

Generously, he offered me the names of his brothers and the places they were camping downstream so I could visit as I went by or get help. This to a stranger. But perhaps there are no true strangers among river rats. I did not tell him the experience of the Oneness. It was still too fresh and too private. I am not sure I should be sharing it now. Darkness fell. And with it the clouds of gnats and hordes of mosquitoes were magically gone. I seemed in slow motion and puttered about getting ready for bed. And then things seemed to be going terribly wrong. Usually I have brought my body under submission by the the fifth day of a river trip and don't need to be constantly getting up to drain my bladder. But not this night. I hadn't been in the tent 20 minutes and the “urge” was upon me. I had unscrewed the lens of my mini Mag Lite to use like a candle. I couldn't find the lens, scrambled out in my skivvies to relieve myself and got chilled. Once back in the tent I couldn't find the lens which has to be screwed in to shut off the light. Now I was shivering, yet sweaty from the humidity in the nylon tent. Eventually I took the new LED bulb from the light to shut it off.

I became more chilled. And being more chilled had to go to the bathroom again. I was feeling desperate and had an odd detachment as though I was watching all this from a distance. Once back in the tent I pulled on pants and tee shirt and my canvas shirt and still I shivered but was so exhausted I fell asleep anyway, but awakened soon again needing to leave the tent and this time with a strong feeling of dread. I became faint outside and stumbled against a tree and panted. The stars which had come out as the sky cleared seemed to be receding and then coming closer. I got back into bed, this time putting on socks first and a stocking cap. Then covering my blanket bag up with the poncho. At last I was warm and could concentrate on what was happening in my body. And what was happening was not good. I was in atrial fibrillation. My heart beat was about 140 and highly irregular. I was miles from any medical help, though I did have a cell phone. My medication was out under the boat in the Possibles Bucket. But like a warm blanket, the awareness of the day's spiritual experience floated over me.

I deliberately relaxed my body and put myself back into the green rainy peaceful world. I felt the tension flow out of me... my heartbeat slowed... became regular.. and I drifted into sleep. It has never, never happened to me before. A miracle had occurred. I slept like a baby the rest of the night.


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