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An exquisite blend of memoir and nature writing, River House is the story of a young woman returning home to her family’s ranch and building a log house with the help of her father. An avid river rafter, Sarahlee Lawrence grew up in remote central Oregon and, by the age of twenty-one, had rafted some of the most dangerous rivers of the world as an accomplished river guide. But living her dream led her back to the place she least expected—her dusty beginnings and her family’s home.
River House is a beautiful story about a daughter’s return and her relationship with her father, whom she enlists to help brave the cold winter and build a log house by hand. Together, they work through the harsh winter, father helping daughter every step of the way.
"Handy with tools and rafts, a good neighbor, and a mighty fine horsewoman, Lawrence is also adept with language, writing with arresting lucidity and a driving need to understand her father, her legacy, the land, community, work, and herself. A true adventure story of rare dimension."
—Booklist, starred review
"With her keen eye and talent for writing about the natural world, Lawrence pays homage to the American West. . . Lawrence is one of those remarkable young women spawned by the American West who are adept at running wild rivers, operating heavy equipment, and building a log home, all evocatively told in this informative book."
"It's messy, this building of houses and relationships, but the experiences give this memoir an existential grace."
"It’s very simple: If you call Oregon your home—not just Portland, but this whole big awkward schizophrenic state—then you need to go to a bookstore and purchase a copy of Sarahlee Lawrence’s River House. . . if there's any justice, it’ll become an Oregon classic."
—Alison Hallett, Portland Mercury
"In her stirring memoir, River House, Sarahlee Lawrence describes a yearning to return to her rural Oregon home that’s every bit as powerful as was her youthful need to escape it. . . Lawrence brings her connection to home alive in the classic Oregon-lit tradition of turning landscape and climate into a beautifully surly character."
—Randy Gragg, Portland Monthly
"Astonishing. . . [River House] resonated more deeply with me than anything I've read about Oregon in a long, long time. . . River House pulses with movement."—The Oregonian
"Lawrence writes with remarkable candor about her loved ones; the joys and pitfalls of life in a small community; and the creeping development from upscale Bend 40 miles away. She is in her element writing about nature, and it's a treat to share her journey."
"A memoir narrative that pivots off the worlds of landscape and wild water."
—The Salt Lake Tribune
"It's a sturdy, honest, and direct recounting of the author's audacious life in unusual places, and is a beautifully clear exposition of her relationships with her parents, neighbors, and friends, living and dead."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Lawrence’s voice, like the desert, is beautiful in its simplicity, while she herself embodies the strong womanhood of the American West. Like her many skills, this debut book is versatile—resembling, at intervals, a memoir, nature-adventure writing and easily digestible rural philosophy. Her simple prose makes her adventures in construction, gardening and horse-tending seem as thrilling as Tambopata’s rapids. Lawrence’s writing is honest and, like the river that begins her memoir, raw."
—Salt Lake City Weekly
"More action and grit than soul-searching and pretty writing, this memoir ends up a love note to Central Oregon."
—The Eugene Register-Guard
"Lawrence’s debut book forecasts the beginning of a new career – that of a talented writer. Her descriptive prose paints a vivid and respectful portrait of the natural world, which she clearly treasures. . . River House is a rare accomplishment with a narrative that flows and ebbs like the mighty current of life."
"[Sarahlee Lawrence] has crafted a memoir with sentences that draw one’s attention like a firefly buzzing around your head in the heat of summer."
"An engaging piece of literary work about passion, travel, love, and what it means to come home." —Wend
"An exquisite story of personal strength and nature."—Fort-Wayne News-Sentinel
"A transfixing read. . . the end of River House leaves a reader begging for a sequel."—New West
"River House is about rediscovering family and working through the compromises involved in finding your life, the people and days you actually love. It’s tough, smart and eloquently told, a dead on beauty. Enjoy. I surely did."
—William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Willow Field
"Log by log, and word by word, Lawrence locates her love and affirms her commitment to her parents, her place, and the natural world. If you love wild water and land, if you value hard work and family, this is the book not to miss."
—Phil Condon, author of Clay Center
"In River House, Saralee Lawrence tells a story as carefully hewn and crafted, as lovingly rendered, as the log cabin she and her father have built together in the high desert of central Oregon. It’s a story of roots; the pull of the land that calls her back to the heart of her family farm. And it’s the story of wings, the journey of a father and a daughter each coming to terms with a dream."
—Judy Blunt, author of Breaking Clean
“Lawrence is a promising voice of nature writing’s next generation as evidence by the rich and poetic language that matches the breath-taking scenery it describes.”—National Book Critics Circle
“Sarahlee Lawrence has experienced more adventure in a couple of decades than most of us can hope for in a lifetime.”—Orion Magazine
"Only once before have I seriously considered calling in sick so I could read nonstop. [River House] made the second time. . . This is not just a book. This is more."—Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
I READ WALDEN ONCE
Marco and I crouched in a tent, sweating, while rain beat through the fabric. I held the napkin with the map on it. It was a cocktail napkin from a discotheque in downtown Cusco, Peru, meant to go under a rum and Coke. The sketch on the napkin depicted a two-hundred-mile section of the Tambopata River, which runs along the border between Peru and Bolivia. A single line squiggled out of some stick mountains. The single line became a ball of black scribble and had two words next to it: los monstruos, or “the monsters,” the rapids in the inner gorge. The map did not explain how to run these. There were only two landmarks. At the top of the squiggle, two streams came in on either side of the ink river, indicating the beginning of the gorge. At the bottom of the scribble a stream came in on the left and there was a giant boulder drawn with a tiny tree on top of it, at which point we could trust the rapids would be done. From there, the single line ran off the bottom of the napkin. I looked at Marco, then out the door of the tent at a raging jungle river and wondered how in the hell we’d come to be here.
It had all begun with an innocent drink at that damn discotheque in Cusco. Marco, an Italian kayaker, was following the river seasons around the world. I, too, was following the seasons as a raft guide and river advocate. Peru’s water was running out, so Marco was headed north, and I was headed to Africa to run the Nile. We had been throwing back rum and Cokes with another guide, Leo, when Marco told me the Tambopata was running. I was curious about the jungle, tired of guiding tourists, and Marco needed someone to go with him, so I told him I’d do it. Heading to the jungle with a man I hardly knew was crazy, but he was dangling in front of me what I loved most: extremely remote, unknown water.
Leo was one of two guides who had been to this particular river. There were many reasons not to go. It was too far, too unpredictable, too hot, too wet; the place will ravage you. Leo had been, though he said he would never go back after the river marooned him in the even less-hospitable jungle. Amused by our persistence, he drew us the map on the cocktail napkin of the three-hundred-kilometer section of the river. With a drink for good luck, Marco and I were headed for a flooding jungle river, spiders, bees, and insane rain, with the napkin as our only direction. We left for the Tambopata at three in the afternoon the next day. Our journey would take us from the high, dry mountains of south-central Peru, down to Lake Titicaca, then between the knuckles of the Andes, just over the divide to where South America drains east.
Gunnysacks disguised our two crafts—a cataraft and a kayak—our few worldly possessions, and food for roughly two weeks. We climbed on a lorry truck filled with crates, pipes, concrete, vegetables, and people for the forty-two-hour journey. The pavement lasted about ten minutes, then we endured the endless, potholed, bright orange road. Passing through the last little town of earthen buildings with days to go, I felt that the hours would surely kill us one by one. The truck climbed fifteen thousand feet over the Andes and descended into the cloud forest. I slept periodically on the uneven edges of the barrels, on the oars, the folded raft, and the kayak, but mostly I marveled at how my body shut down, resigned to the journey in that thrashing truck despite creaks and groans, despite cold, wind, and dust. I let my head fall over to look at Marco lying next to me, his icy blue eyes open but focused on nothing. Between the two of us, we’d seen a great deal of the world like this: cold, jostled, comfortless, raw. Often, I had been alone for such endeavors, and though even now my companion was silent, we shared the big white afternoon clouds and glacier-laden peaks tipping across our view until the sky went dark.
Two days later, with hardly a meal or a bathroom stop, the jungle enveloped us. Thick, lush forest rose at a low angle into the clouds, and the air lay thick on my skin. The truck dropped us on the bank of the Tambopata in the only town the river passes through, Putina Punco a tiny, ramshackle village clutching the steep jungle slope.
We chucked our bags and boats onto the river cobble, moving quickly with the help of the other hitchhikers in the back. Everyone wanted the ride to be over, and some were going far deeper into the jungle from there. Within a few minutes, the truck labored up the rocky track and was gone. I teetered on stones out into the river where I stood ankle-deep in the fabled Tambopata River. Cool water ran over my dirty, sweaty feet, and I smiled at my journey, the past flowing to a single second of presence, everything beyond unknown.
I turned and started helping Marco unwrap our crafts. I placed my two blue rubber pontoons parallel to each other on the rocks and grabbed the air pump. Once the boats were inflated, I strapped a metal frame between them and adjusted the seat. Sliding the oars through the locks, I sat in the middle of my cataraft, testing its blades. The whole craft was fourteen feet long, maneuvered from the middle. A mesh floor hung from the frame, and bags would be strapped to the crossbars. It was a small boat for the job, but easy for travel and remarkably stable.
A man with an official look to him, namely a green vest, showed up. “You need a permit,” he said with authority.
“Who needs a permit for a river that no one runs?” Marco took over in Spanish while I leaned against my raft. The guy told us that one of us could go one hour upstream to a town where we could pay someone, and he would turn a blind eye—maybe. So Marco climbed on the back of a motorcycle with this “ranger.” He looked back at me with that scruffy face and those bright blue eyes as they rode off. The river quickly flowed over the sound of the engine, and in that instant I felt suddenly anxious that I might not see Marco again.
By early afternoon I sat in my cataraft, fully rigged, still waiting for Marco. The Tambopata River rocked the pontoons of my raft while staring locals surrounded me—first hordes of children, then only men. The bank was littered with garbage, and I sat there for nearly four hours watching one person after another come down to defecate in the river. Women did their laundry, bathed their children, and dumped their trash. Flies buzzed around the discarded Coke bottles and cans of condensed milk.
Marco had told me to wait as long as I could, but if he didn’t show up by late afternoon, he said, he would meet me on river-left, past the last footbridge a few miles downstream. We had agreed it would be best to camp out of town. The ranger told us the river route to this footbridge was an easy hour of flat water and riffles. Marco never showed, so as the sun disappeared over a jungle ridge, I strapped his kayak to my raft and went alone to wait where he’d told me to.
Breaking the cardinal rule of rafting (never go alone), I pushed off the shore and headed around the bend. Condors circled and landed on the rocks in the river before me. Plain brown birds opened their wings and exposed huge red and orange eyes. River otters played in front of my boat. The air was thick, sweet, and loud with life. What a river, I thought. This was exactly what I had left my Oregon desert home for.
The short, “easy” run to our meeting point turned out to be made up of steep, rocky rapids. I was caught totally off guard and my out of control boat wrapped on exposed rocks in the middle of the raging rapid. First, I sat in sheer panic on the high side of my raft, stuck and helpless. The river kicked up and grabbed at my legs. I looked to my left and then my right. Sheer jungle wall, green knots of vegetation clinging to rock cliffs. No road. No people. No ropes. I screamed out, and the river drowned my voice. My mind froze in sudden terror. No one should run alone, especially on an unknown river, no matter what anyone tells you. It went against everything I’d been taught—ever. The river spit in my face and mixed with my tears and snot. I got mad. Turning fear into determination, I stepped off the boat, planted myself on the slick rock my boat was wrapped around, and started heaving on the frame. I pushed and pulled and screamed and cried, slipping off the rock into the tumbling whitewater and pulling myself back up. I didn’t even feel the water. I had a death grip on the boat, heaving it back and forth, trying to free it from the rock. Suddenly, the raft let loose. I jumped in and grabbed for the oars, but the river was too fast. I just spun around and wrapped on another rock. I wept and slapped the rubber tube of the raft, then climbed back out to push against the river again.
Hours later, drenched, I pushed to the shore where Marco was supposed to meet me. It was dark, but I could see the footbridge faintly against the night sky. I pulled the boat out of the water and tied it with two ropes to a tree whose trunk was a good fifteen feet in diameter and whose top I could not see. I hoped Marco would come to the water and meet me. My heart pounded with the sudden thought that I was still alone. Clambering up the shore, I scanned for shapes in the field. I called out, then stopped, reluctant to bring attention to myself, and stood there alone in the darkness, terrified.
Gathering myself, I wandered back to my raft. Hoisting my bag out, I slipped in the mud and fell into a mass of leaves and roots. My skin crawling from that touch in the dark, I swatted the leaves away from my face. I rinsed myself in the river and found a flat place in the field. Ravenous, I dug through the kitchen barrel for the stove and something to eat. I found my stove locked up by the humidity and bad gas. I shoved it back into the kitchen barrel and riffled through for anything to eat. I snatched a Snickers bar from where it had fallen between the potatoes. Peeling the wrapper off the candy bar, I took a giant bite and set up my tent. I climbed in and listened to the jungle scream at me. My muddy, sweaty body stuck to itself, so I didn’t move in an effort to ignore the discomfort.
I was wide awake at midnight when I heard a motorcycle buzz up to the edge of the field and Marco’s voice speaking with the ranger. Marco’s feet dragged as he moved toward the tent.
“Why didn’t you fix dinner?” he asked. “Where’s my tent?”
“The stove doesn’t work. Eat a Snickers. Your tent is on the raft,” I responded flatly and rolled over.
The next morning, I woke up to the stink of decomposition and lay there for a moment listening to the rain. I pulled on a T-shirt and shorts, grabbed the napkin map, then climbed out of my tent and unzipped Marco’s. He sat up, and I crouched inside next to him. “I don’t want to run this river. We can still get back to Cusco from here,” I said and handed Marco the napkin.
“No way, Shuggi. We’re going to run this river,” he said, shaking his head.
I rested my chest on my knees and looked at Marco. I wasn’t sure yet if I trusted the guy. I hated the way men called me Shuggi, like “sugar” or “honey” or “babe.” We had met three months ago on another river in a different town and had run a few rivers together since. I knew him as well as any of the guys down there, but that didn’t say much. I knew he’d rather be sleeping in my tent, but more importantly, I knew this expedition was more than I could fathom. I had always jumped into my life headlong—but I had an inkling that this was different. And I had fought my ego all night to be able to tell Marco I didn’t want to run the river.
“You’ve got to trust me, Shuggi,” he said, touching my shoulder. “I’ll be there for you from here on out.”
I thought about how the day before wouldn’t have been nearly as terrifying if Marco had been there. And there was nothing as exhilarating as running into the unknown. I crumbled.
“Well, we need a new stove,” I said. “The kerosene clogs mine.”
“I’ll go to town and get a new one.” He unfolded himself and stepped out into the warm rain.
“Get a tarp, too. We can’t be cooking in the tents.”
Marco made the three-mile trek back to the village while I waited with the gear. Trapped in the white bubble of my tent, I felt the sweat drip down my eyelids and onto my copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. My mom had sent me the book when I left Oregon, right after my college graduation. I hadn’t been much of a reader, but living in a foreign country for three months, with twelve more to go, made me crave my own language. So she sent Walden. I’m not sure if it was intentional, but that book initiated a visceral longing for my desert home there in the dank, skyless snarl.
For the previous four years, I’d been in one river canyon after another, and I’d finally hit some kind of claustrophobia. I was homesick for Oregon and for my family’s farm. I wanted the sky that my dad worked against like a red ant, where we watched storms build for hours and flood east over the mountains before swinging north over the fields of fresh-cut hay. It was more than open land that I suddenly craved; I wanted to interact with more of nature’s elements than just water. I wanted to get my hands in the earth. I also missed my father and felt remorseful that I’d left him to farm alone. I had always helped, because farming families pull together. But somewhere along the line I had developed a conviction that I needed to get out. I had abandoned my father and my family, and I wondered if I needed to go back.
I ignored these first stirrings of desire for a direction other than downstream. I rolled over in the tent and clutched Walden, letting Thoreau help me to accept going on as better than going back, despite the unknown, if only to “drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms.” My mind went numb in the drone of drizzle on the tent fabric, and I ate one bite of bland bread at a time.
The next day, the river braided out around rocky islands, and I found clean lines through easy rapids. I was grateful to have Marco leading in his kayak. He looked down different channels and told me if they were clear and deep enough to run. Then, just as the jungle started to become comfortable, the Rio Colorado, a swollen red tributary on the right, slammed into the left bank of our chattery mountain stream and turned it into a massive red serpent. The river was thick with the crimson clay that is the base of the rainforest, and it was swollen to thirty times its previous size. It became one mighty current, river wide. The helical flow ricocheting off the banks back to the center of the river obliterated the calm-water eddies that are a boater’s refuge. My sixteen-foot raft felt like a pool toy against the amplified wave faces.
I swung out of control, hitting the outside of a right bend, when Marco saw the first break in what had become impervious jungle walls—a beach about the size of our two tents. He signaled too late for me to eddy out, and I missed the asylum. I slammed into the trees below, grabbing madly at their branches. Spiders bigger than my face darted through the limbs. Two of them fell onto my legs and were instantly washed off by the water that surged over the upstream tube of the cataraft. I did not let go.
For an hour, we worked to pull the raft back up through the current, trees, and spiders. The river whipped through dense brush and trees. Marco teetered down to me with a rope, careful not to become a noodle in the strainer. He tied on to the raft and braced so that I could let go of the tree and get onshore. We pulled together, searching for limbs to stand on beneath the muddy water. My feet slipped between cracks, and the current pulled me down repeatedly. We groped for branches and focused on the tiny beach until our feet were planted on solid ground.
The Tambopata flooded on a sunny day, no sight or smell or sound of rain as far as I could see. A sheet of rain came down at dark. Then it rained harder. I could feel the runoff from the forest gush under my tent. The beach felt like it was eroding beneath me, about to drop me into that gaping river. I stripped naked and darted out to dig a trench around the tents, which was cleaved into a two-foot-deep ditch by morning. It sounded like the ocean outside, eating away at our beach. I peered out the plastic window of my tent door into the dark and listened to the waves swat at the beach like big red claws. We were perched at the high-water mark with nowhere to go.
I had no reason to be certain that I would get out of the jungle. Ever. How was it that I was scared out of my gourd, but still driven downstream? I picked up my pen and scrawled in my journal: “I have abandoned the minute and taken flight. I left the simple pastoral life of a family ranch on the Oregon high desert because I sought the world. Surrounded now by the stuff of lore, I am flabbergasted at my inclination to go backward, against the trend of mankind.”
I felt splayed as I watched mosquitoes bounce against the tent wall. I had been the kid who fell asleep on the atlas, picturing myself in the world beyond the confines of the valley I grew up in. And now Thoreau had me considering possible sites for a house. In that instant, with the river slapping against my tent, I knew exactly where my house needed to be—on the southern rise of the north forty acres of my family’s ranch, the same distance from my parents’ house as my parents’ house was from my grandparents’ house.
I’d never considered giving up my transient lifestyle, and I hadn’t needed or wanted a “home.” Was it just because the river had me cowed? I lay there, petrified by the water downstream. The forest wailed and closed around my tent. Some bug was eating holes in the netting. I clutched Walden and flipped through the pages. If Thoreau had had a great deal of company in his house with squirrels and small birds, I didn’t know what I had, and if I should be grateful, or if I was right in my terror. Eventually I set the book down, because it had me questioning everything about who I was and where I was headed. Clearly I had enough problems in the moment without thinking beyond that river gorge.
The next morning, misty clouds hung low in the forest, contrasting layers of dense green. The white trunks of the trees sketched across the horizon like pencil lines, marking the skeleton of the canopy. Condors circled down the russet river. Scarlet parrots as big as condors, with tails as long as their wingspans, descended upon a tree in a massive flock. The map on the napkin from the bar in Cusco, drawn over a week before, indicated landmarks of the canyon’s beginning and end, but nothing about what was in between. Having survived the night, we broke camp. I adhered to the familiar and clung to the little things like stuffing my sleeping bag, breaking down my tent, and, especially, rigging my boat. The sediment in the thick water pulled through the net in the floor of my cataraft and slide along the big blue tubes with a constant low hiss.
We blew downstream all day to the last known camp above the canyon. The water was thick and hard to read. I couldn’t see massive pour-overs amid the snarl of waves until I was on top of them. After a long day on the water, we found camp. Our map had marked a beach on the left above two tributaries coming in directly opposite each other. We found a tiny pause in the chaos of the bank and pulled in.
“Thank God we found this place. It’s nearly dark,” I said as I tied up my boat.
Marco just grabbed the machete and began to clear a spot big enough for our two tents. He was intent. It was late, and we were both tired and hungry. Then, as he swung hard at a bamboo cane, the machete’s heavy blade ricocheted off and sliced into his shin. He dropped the knife, speechless, as blood welled slowly to the surface of the three-inch gash. He let himself down into the wet sand, and I elevated his leg over my knee. The moment widened into an endless green mass with us in the center like two tiny flecks, suddenly broken. Marco propped himself back on his elbows, head back, mouth open, no sound coming out. I pulled the cut gently apart with my thumb and forefinger. When I saw a flash of bone, I ripped off my shirt and held it tightly against the cut.
I took his hand and made him apply pressure with the shirt while I ran for a first aid kit. Except we really didn’t have a first aid kit. I grabbed my toiletry kit and dumped it in the sand next to him—antibiotic ointment, a couple of finger Band-Aids, and duct tape. Nothing to bandage or clean the wound with. The only water we had was silty river water that we boiled for drinking. Blood was seeping through the shirt and dripping down Marco’s fingers when I remembered the fifth of vodka I’d packed. I dug in the boat for the bottle and gave Marco a swig while I pulled his hand and my shirt away from his leg. The weight of his calf caused the cut to gape. I took the bottle and doused the wound with the liquor. Marco screamed and threw his head back as the bloody vodka streamed down his leg. I took another shirt from the dry bag and ripped it into strips. Pinching his cut together, I wrapped his leg with the cotton, then bound it with duct tape, ripping it off with my teeth. I used river water to clean the blood off his leg and hand, then went to set up his tent, leaving him groaning in the sand.
I laid out his sleeping bag and dry clothes. When I got back to him, the blood had drenched the cotton, but looked like it was slowing. I gave him several painkillers with another swig of vodka and helped him up. His face twisted as he yelled through his clenched teeth. Carrying the majority of his weight over my shoulder, I lugged him to the tent and let him down into it. I brushed the sand off his butt, hands, and feet and helped him lie back, elevating his leg on a bag. I rushed through all of this, quickly zipping his tent before the mosquitoes, bees, and sand flies swarmed in.
I stood there outside his tent, stunned, listening to him breathe. Then I walked out onto the rocks and watched upstream and down until dark. The river wasn’t more than fifty yards wide there, but who knows how deep it was. With only a sliver of sky to judge from, I tried to predict the weather. The temperature had dropped a good thirty degrees. The rainforest was supposed to be hot and sticky, but I was bundled in my down jacket. Marco’s accident made my thoughts and movements deliberate. The idea of losing him to some kind of infection frightened me. I was glad the wound was on his leg and not his arm—he could still kayak, and we could get out of there. Both of us on one boat was a death sentence. But right now, the water was too high and the wound too fresh. We would wait.
For three days, Marco and I ate pasta with salami, cheese, carrots, garlic, and onions. We drank coca tea with so much sugar we couldn’t sleep. Home was on my mind the entire time. I wrote to my mom and dad, my grandma and aunt, but I didn’t write about the river. I wrote about home. This would be a surprise to them when they finally received the letters, because I’d been talking about rivers forever, and nothing else. When I talked about rivers, it was in a language my family couldn’t understand. My dad and I shared this habit, which drove my mother crazy. He talked about oceans and surfing, about the places he had been and the places he wanted to go. He wasn’t your average hay farmer; he grew up on the California coast and was obsessed with the sea. We would talk back and forth over the dinner table about water. Not to each other, but back and forth.
“Dropping into waves triple overhead, and then that bottom turn at first light. The ocean made me strong. That’s what I really need, to paddle every day,” Dad would say, taking another bite of a homemade dinner. Things like that came out as non sequiturs.
Then it was my turn. “I’ve been doing sets of fifteen pull-ups to get ready for the spring runoff this year. I’m headed to a section of whitewater that could be flowing as high as sixty thousand cubic feet per second. The hydraulics will be massive, and rapids right on top of each other.”
A big picture window framed the dinner table; outside of it, you could see a small garden backed by endless desert. Mom always sat so she could see the view. It was the view she liked best in the world. It was her life’s work. She wasn’t much of a swimmer, even in flat water, and hated to get her head wet. She let us volley back and forth about the other worlds we dreamed of. Never much talk about the ranch or the desert or what we loved about it or what we wanted to do there. We lived there and kept the horses and cattle and dogs and chickens and cats alive, but our minds had wandered off years ago, and they rarely returned. In any case, I wrote about the ranch there in that soggy jungle, inspired by a river that would just as soon drown me.
When Marco’s bandages started to stink, I boiled them and redressed his wound twice a day to fight infection. We talked about rivers. The big ones: the Zambezi, the Futa, the Slave. We reassured ourselves that we’d seen bigger water. The thing we left unsaid was that some rivers carry their water better than others. If large-volume rivers are voluptuous, then the Tambopata was morbidly obese. We held our ground on the thin gray line between the river and the jungle. One night I lay in my tent, naked on top of my sleeping bag. I couldn’t sleep. “Marco?” I whispered through the walls of our tents.
“I want to go home.”
“Just make home wherever you go.”
I rolled over and thought of the old Masai man who said to me once, Melakua ang inchu—“You’re never far from home as long as you’re alive.” He taught me that home is in the heart and mind’s eye. Home is a place, but it is also the strength you take on your peregrinations. It is roots grounded in place; it is wings governed by no place. His father had taught him this when he was young, becoming a lion hunter. Home is never far as long as you’re alive.
By five on the third morning, I sat clutching our napkin with the map on it. That black squiggle of rapids had my attention. The water hadn’t dropped at all. In fact, the river had been on the rise the whole time. I couldn’t sleep through the thunder of massive boulders shifting in the riverbed. The rain hadn’t stopped while we waited, and it did not look like it would break anytime soon. The food that we’d bought two weeks before in Cusco was dwindling. Heading downstream was the only way out. Marco and I decided to go. The understanding that we had only one option terrified me, but also let me step forward with confidence. That, too, was the only option.
I unwrapped Marco’s bandage, and my gut turned at the sight of the yellow, puffed edges of the wound. Still, it was knitting up despite the tropics and the mud. I boiled his bandage again and put it back on wet. It would get wet anyway. He packed his bag and tent while I rigged to flip, pulling the cam straps extra tight, ready for anything. I dragged Marco’s kayak down to the river and helped him in. I tried to remember everything I had ever learned or been told about whitewater, chiefly never to let go of the boat, even if I flipped.
As I climbed into the raft, a tree slammed into the side of my boat, its roots raw and wild, slapping my face. On many rivers you can see driftwood and other deposits high in the trees. We were already high in the trees, and I saw no indication that the river had ever run higher. The water wasn’t held by the banks anymore; it was held by the mountains.
The light was flat, and the forest hung over continuous rapids. A dogged current and walloping waves funneled into a mess of holes and hydraulics the size of buildings. The holes and falls swallowed half the river in places. Out of options, I read the river and ran without hesitation. My life depended on my ability to turn fear into focus. My mind and body had to be quicker than the river.
There were no lines in the rapids. The river sucked my boat into holes and held me there, spinning the raft before spitting me out. I bent my oar and heard the metal frame flex and crack. River waves are usually consistent, but these waves behaved like a stormy sea. Surges lifted me off my path into the meat of the whitewater I was trying to skirt. It was a monster of a river, but easier to negotiate with than the jungle banks. And in between the terror and waves was true pleasure. Dancing with the river was my passion. In the midst of something so massive and out of my control, I could find peace. Peace like nowhere else.
Our precious napkin showed the landmarks that would indicate the end of the gorge and the beginning of the flats, a boulder the size of a two-story American house and a tributary entering there on river-left. As the river screamed around a left bend, I saw it. Our landmark rock stuck out about three feet. It was the first rock we’d seen since the Rio Colorado, and on any other day I might have missed it. I couldn’t believe a rock the size of a two-story house was buried there beneath the water.
The tributary on river-left had blown its banks. I blasted up on the pillow of water piled on the upstream side of the boulder and slid off it to the right. A short while later, the river calmed and flattened out like a fat snake in the sun. I tucked my oars under my knees and looked up for the first time. Marco started to play in his kayak. We talked a little and watched for birds. The canyon was done.
Our camp that night was the flattest one we’d found. I briefly explored the woodland barricade, but found it positively impenetrable. I imagined root balls and bugs overtaking me, leaving nothing but my sunglasses and my copy of Walden sitting there open to a page with a single underlined passage: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach.” All I wanted was to survive what the jungle had to teach, so I could get back to a place I could comprehend.
More and more, I wanted the desert. When Marco asked me why on earth I had left the sky-dominated lands of my home, I didn’t have an answer, but I thought about it. Maybe I just needed the jungle to realize I had a home. For the first time, I wanted to go back. I was ready to explore my own place for once, to live and work each season in an ecosystem as familiar as Sunday breakfast. I stared out at the river, but it wasn’t taking me home. Not yet. I had another ten months planned. First back to Cusco, then to Africa to run a thousand miles of the Blue Nile, then Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru again, Argentina, Chile—rivers, rivers, rivers. Guiding, training, expeditions, advocacy. My new realizations seemed irrelevant.
The fog burned off the next morning, leaving the jungle a vibrant new place. We dried our tents and wet clothes for the first time in eleven days. I scrubbed Marco’s leg with a scarf over my nose, agitated pus dribbling down his calf. I dressed the wound with a fresh shirt, and we pushed downstream onto the glassy water of the plains, down a river with so little gradient that in most places there was no perceptible current. A jaguar stood almost invisible against the texture of the river stones. A two-meter caiman slid off the bank while monkeys with tan faces played in the trees. Somewhere in the fat part of South America, headed to the Atlantic, I tried to conceive of the incomprehensible nature of the Amazon watershed. It was just a matter of endurance at that point. We had another five days of flat water. Marco and I continued to find things to talk about, although there was a lot of comfortable silence. His cut was healing, and I wasn’t worried about him losing his leg anymore, but he still needed the hospital in Cusco. The jungle seemed bigger and more beautifully complex than it had before as I watched at least two dozen different kinds of butterflies land on my boat, every shade of yellow, orange, and red, neon green and iridescent blue.
I helped Marco get up on the raft with his kayak at lunchtime. We floated downstream. I straddled the back tube as if it were a big blue banana and finished reading Walden. Dangling my feet in the water, I allowed the current to play with them where deep rocks disturbed the almost perfect layers of laminar flow. Between chapters, I wiggled my toes and watched the jungle slide by. I wondered when all these rivers would flow toward home instead of endlessly into each other.
For four more days, we erected our placeless home on sandy rises and gravel bars. The jungle sounded like a war zone with frogs that went off like machine guns on rapid fire. The moon rose and lit up my tent as I tried to fall asleep. On the fifth morning, we woke at first light with the birds. There was nothing lyrical about anything that lived in the rainforest, and if that place was awake, so were we. We waited for our tents to dry, because dew in the jungle was like a hard rain in the desert. When we left it was hot and still, and I pushed for only two hours before we came to the Tambopata Research Center and a whole string of motorboats. The people here were the first we’d seen in weeks. Even though motors were prohibited on most of the Tambopata River, we thought we heard the faint buzz of an engine over breakfast. But we dismissed it; we had heard a lot of things in the forest. And the jungle seemed like it would never end.
As we pulled up, a cargo boat was getting ready to launch, and they agreed to give us a ride to the confluence of the Rio Madre de Dios and the town there. We de-rigged in ten minutes. The cataraft tubes were still deflating as the boat pulled away from the dock. The jungle went by like a film. What would have taken us another six days took only six hours in the boat, a dugout from a tree that must have measured eight feet in diameter. Our captain wore only cutoff jeans and aviator sunglasses. He held a beautiful woman in his lap, her long black hair flowing past the left side of his face.
This marked the beginning of many more days of travel ahead of us to get back out of the jungle. Dugout to motorcycle taxi to four-by-four truck to bus with six-foot jungle tires to rickety local bus with normal-size tires: Cusco was even farther than before. I leaned against the rough-sawn innards of the dugout, throwing my arm over the edge into the wake spray, and let a final sense of relief sink in. Each river I ran became more challenging. Each time, my escape narrowed. As we banked around a bend in the river, the sun hit my face, and I thought back to the single rapid that had set me on this course.
1.The central Oregon landscape seems to pull Sarahlee back to her family farm. Do you relate to Sarahlee's sense of place? What sense do you have of your place? How is it similar or different?
2. This is a story of the journeys taken by a father and a daughter each coming to terms with their dreams. Can you identify with their journey?
3. Discuss the problems associated with drug and alcohol use and how it affects the relationships in the book.
4. The author's struggle with the relationship she has with her father is a key theme. Do you think she ever resolves her feelings?
5. Is there an overtone to the book? Do you find it disturbing, uplifting, etc.?
6. Although Sarahlee is relating experiences she had as a child, she is clearly narrating from an adult vantage point. What do Sarahlee’s voice and her way of telling her story suggest about the kind of adult she has become?
7. How would you describe Sarahlee’s childhood relationship with her father? If her father were telling the story instead of Sarahlee, do you think he might characterize their relationship differently? How?
8. If you were to write an epilogue to this story, what do you think would happen to Sarahlee and her family next?
9. Is there a hero in the story? A villain?