I’ve always considered myself a introvert, ever since I first heard that word, I was ten or eleven years old. I like time on my own, I can be proudly diffident about parties, gatherings, invitations to anything with more than one or two people. Holiday dinners, planning meetings, mid-afternoon coffee with your out-of-town friends…maybe I’ll be there, but maybe not!
Suddenly though, with the new restrictions, whereas this should be a perfect time for introverts, free points for just doing what you always do – suddenly things are different. I’ve heard this from other introverts too, which, when you ponder that fact in itself, is a little remarkable. Normally I wouldn’t have heard anything. No – this is not an easy time to claim your solitary hours and those of us who usually spend whole weekends without calling anybody – just working in the studio – suddenly that’s challenging. We are being driven into the open. It’s hard to work alone.
The last couple months I’ve had a reflex to avoid photographing my work and posting anything online – it’s like I want to shelter my work at the moment, if I can’t shelter myself.
At the end of June though I got an invitation to join a few people running a four-day trip down the Colorado River through the famous Westwater Canyon. Hmm, I thought. Can my son come too? Yes.
Well, if it’s such a hard time to disappear into the studio & get anything done…maybe I should just disappear altogether for a few days…
After the usual flurry of coolers & stuffing sleeping bags and tying boats on the truck – and emails – off we went. Can we really turn our phones of for four days? Will the ‘outside’ world still be there when we turn them on again? Am I just neglecting my work, or, taking responsibility for the need to remember what it’s ‘really’ about?
In Westwater Canyon we would encounter, high above as we craned our helmeted heads up, the reddish Wingate sandstone that ranges so freely across the Colorado Plateau — and under it the ragged, green-purple, crumbling and water-furrowed, Chinle formation — naturally this layer is my favorite. You can see the wind and water working with this strata like…clay. And under that — way down below the Great Unconformity, in the dramatic inner gorge of Westwater itself, the metamorphic Vishnu Schist, the precambrian basement rock of the Colorado, visible only here — in Westwater — and in the Grand Canyon. Swirling and ancient as the wind itself but dense, smooth, fluted, plunging straight down into the current. The river rages through the inner gorge, going for miles with no beaches, no place to stop.
The trip would launch July 5th, and we heard about some badlands we could camp in near the put-in so we sped up there on July Fourth, arriving at dusk and rolling out our bags. I tried to take a picture once the full moon had risen – that’s our out-of-focus tent, below – and off to the right, you can’t see them, fireworks are popping a few miles away down by the Colorado itself.
Next day we put on sunscreen. And neoprene. We turned off our phones. Hi, I said bravely, and tried to join the group. Clay, of course, is always an ending and a beginning — it is decomposed rock, it has weathered and ceased being what it is and lost its form. Also it is impressionable, ready, malleable as the first day of a river trip. Nothing is decided – anything could happen.
I felt this as we pushed off from the sticky late-season riverbank, footprints of yesterday’s departing group already like cement above the waterline, hull of my kayak smeared with mud that would take a mile or two to wash clean. I felt the presence of my old self, the ghost of who I was before I was a potter, I used to be a river guide, I was just a kid, mild, sunburned…an introvert. The Book Cliffs, the sand, the bright sun, the dark summer night sky, the great Wingate swaths high above as you floated along.
I didn’t recognize anything as we pulled in to our first camp after our first long day on the water — I must have camped here before…wow that really was a while back.
I glanced up at the Jurassic sandstone.
It was hot. We unloaded our boats and walked upstream and waded in and let the current float us back down.
After that first camp I didn’t take any more pictures till the end, and I won’t tell any stories about the rapids, Skull of course is the most famous, you have to get off the main current and over to the left to avoid the hole, a giant recirculating seam on the right caused by water coursing over the Skull rock itself, a smooth, frowning, nearly river-wide hydraulic that must be avoided. Just about every year people die in Westwater. Also Staircase, Funnel Falls, Big Hummer, Surprise, Last Chance…rapids you lie awake in your sleeping bag looking at the clear desert midnight sky thinking about. True to form it was Last Chance that almost did me in.
I won’t discuss it though, and there are no pictures, and when I was in the canyon I didn’t think about the kiln, or the studio, or those risks to human life that are a present in the ‘outside’ world at the moment, a little less tangible than those on the Colorado. The thing about being an introvert is that you don’t think, you don’t like to think, and if thoughts are composed of words, you’re always trying to get away from them. You like to be carried along in the stream of life and you want to know the Colorado River is there even if thirty years go by between times when you get to float it. You need consistency. Otherwise it’s hard to get anything done. This is a hard time.
I felt my older self on the river, and the selfless time of the river, the continuity & completeness of time on the river, the vertical rock landscape that is now just as it would be had humans never evolved. The wet sand, the hidden hollows and bends, the quiet big pull of the current.
Also I felt just old, and creaky, and I noted how it’s harder to get up from sitting cross-legged around camp. I kept my sandals on — no more bare feet like in the old days. The highest & youngest layers of rock above us in the canyon were put there in the Triassic period two hundred and sixty million years ago, and my son is now the age I was when I first ran Westwater.
On the last morning of the trip we sat around camp just talking, digging our toes into the sand, nobody that eager to re-join the world, and I was grateful to be with other people, proud to be part of this little group which is progress I guess. This is a hard time — maybe it’s a good time too though, for an introvert who needs to evolve a little.
A long drive an many hours of listening together to The National (my son) & Cornell 5/8/77 (me) and we arrive back home. Midsummer crickets are starting up, here in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos, and far away, one state over, the river is flowing and somebody else is probably setting up camp in those badlands near the put-in, ready to wake up and get going. Clay is always an ending and a beginning — just like the studio, just like a river trip.