by Kevin Fedarko | photographer Kurt Markus
It was early one morning in March of 2003, during the middle of a marathon road trip across the Southwest, that a late-winter blizzard roared out of the Mojave Desert to blanket most of northern Arizona with more than three feet of snow. The storm forced me to take refugee inside a drab steel building on the outskirts of Flagstaff, and it was there I found myself stepping across one of those thresholds with which certain middle-aged men are embarrassingly familiar.
A kind of cosmic fork-in-the-road, it demarcates the moment when a man winds up departing from the path he's been following and, for reasons that often aren't very clear even to himself, he decides to veer off on a route that, for better or worse, will come to define the remainder of his life.
The building I had ducked into on that frozen morning was the boathouse of a Colorado River outfitter, and upon walking through the front door, I found myself staring at a tiny navy of sleek flat-bottomed rowboats whose hulls were graced with the simplest and loveliest lines I'd ever seen. At the time, I had no idea that these craft, originally designed for cod-fishing on the gale-wracked combers off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, had become legendary on the greatest river of the Southwest, where they are renowned not only for their speed and elegance, but also for the skills required to pilot them through seething cauldrons of whitewater without smashing to smithereens.
What I did know was that I was entranced.
My jaw hit the floor, and in an impulse that defied logic and common sense, I decided—right there—that I was going to have to quit my job as a magazine editor in northern New Mexico and somehow find a way to follow those boats into the water-haunted world at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Lots of men my age find themselves falling under the spell of equally hair-brained impulses. Unlike me, however, most of these guys eventually wind up coming to their senses and abandoning their delusions. Upon deeper reflection, they discover the difficulty of getting around the fact that scrapping a respectable career in order to chase after a dream for which one has zero aptitude is downright irresponsible and not all that smart. In fact, it's a rather asinine thing to do. Michael Jordan's baseball. Bob Dylan's acting. Arnold Schwarzenegger's governing. The list is endless. But add me to it.
I'm not sure I can explain why I thought it made sense for me to disregard all this at the time, except to invoke the inconvenient truth that dories are drop-dead gorgeous, and that a man who falls under the spell of such beauty is sometimes apt to toss his responsibility, smarts, and sanity straight out the window. See Eliot Spitzer.
In any case, my budding obsession with whitewater and wooden boats set me up for one of the stranger seasonal rituals of the Intermountain West.
Back when I first laid eyes on those boats, I had no idea that the first step to becoming a dory guide involves a multi-year, unpaid apprenticeship performing one of the less palatable jobs in the world of outdoor adventure—specifically, rowing the "toilet boat." Which, in a nutshell, is how, each spring, I wound up abandoning my home along the foothills of the southern Rockies for the privilege of captaining—for no pay—an ugly rubber raft laden with trash, the components of a portable commode, and other people's poop, down the most sublime desert canyon on earth.
During the past eight years, while my friends in Santa Fe have devoted the months of April and May to cutting turns through the corn snow of the Sangre de Cristos or pounding out the first mountain-bike rides of spring, I have devoted myself to the mission of transporting more than 7,800 pounds of garbage and human excrement a total distance of 3,400 river miles—which is roughly equivalent to rowing an inflatable septic tank from Tijuana, Mexico to Point Barrow, Alaska.
The price I've paid for this distinction has been steep. At the age of 44, I now find myself with no wife, no kids, no dog, and virtually no bank account. (Last year, according to a nationwide survey of incomes across the U.S., I made less money than a part-time donut fryer in Maryland, a hospital clown in New York City, and a pet psychologist in Albuquerque). The most painful sacrifices, however, have less to do with money or status, and more to do with the reasons why people like me have chosen to live in mountain towns.
As any denizen of the Rockies knows in his heart, the magic of spring in the high country is matchless and unrivalled. True, April is often a time when it feels as if the world has turned to mud and the color of human consciousness is brown. But equally true is this: Nothing, anywhere, can surpass the transformation that unfolds amid the muck and the detritus left by winter's departure from the alpine. There is the acid-green debut made by the aspen leaves, and the iridescence those leaves impart to sunlight that grows stronger with each passing week. There are the riotous splashes of color as the alpine meadows are mobbed by successive waves of wildflowers. Above all, perhaps, there is the shimmering alchemy by which a frozen and ice-shrouded landscape finds itself suddenly, unstoppably, fretted and veined with the rush of live water.
It's now been nearly a decade since I last observed this pageant, and my absence as a witness to the spectacle has rendered me a poorer man. But, the trade-offs that come with canyon country seem to have offered up some rich and rather unexpected dividends.
During my time as master-and-commander of a Colorado toilet boat, I have observed thunderstorms send dozens of waterfalls simultaneously plummeting from the rim-rock to the river. I have rowed past bighorn rams battling each other on the cliffs, the sound of their head-knocks echoing off the Muav limestone. I have poked my head into Anasazi granaries stuffed with corn cobs harvested when Saracens were flinging Crusaders from the walls of Jerusalem. I have napped on beds of columbine and hellebore orchids, and gazed on the turquoise waters bubbling from the subterranean pool that the Hopi believe to be the wellspring of life. Once, I even kissed a woman under a redbud tree.
Those moments of simple, unvarnished perfection are wondrous, to be sure. But the most marvelous aspect of my time on the Colorado has less to do with trade-offs that seem to accompany exchanging the mountains for the desert, and more to do with the manner in which the river has offered an expanded definition of both places.
By virtue of my decision each spring to follow the rush of all that water, my life has begun to resemble the Colorado itself—tumbling out of the Rockies, then cutting across the desert before plunging into the great gorge. And with each passing year, I have found it harder to deny my growing certitude that the two worlds I seem to inhabit are one. They are merely different facets of the same gemstone, the jewel that we so gracelessly call the Intermountain West. The small miracle, for me, resides in the fact that all of this terrain—the high, the low, and the in-between—now qualifies as home.
If you go:
[alpine] The Southern Rockies of New Mexico are loaded with small but occasionally great (depending upon snowfall) ski areas like Santa Fe Ski Basin and Flagstaff, but Taos Ski Valley is the king of the southern mountains. By March, the base has built up to frequently obscene levels and the chutes and hike-to faces fluctuate from corn to Sangre de Cristo feather dust. skitaos.org
[guides] You have a choice: You can bop around in a raft with swamp butt, or you can ride in style in a 16-foot river dory complete with passenger benches, hardwood trim, and the ability to cut through the Colorado’s green water with speed and grace. O.A.R.S. runs Grand Canyon dory trips from four to 19 days and offer low guide to client ratios (one to four) and gourmet meals. oars.com
[gear] No Southwestern mountain migration is complete without a stopover in Sedona, Arizona for 200 miles of the best red dirt singletrack and doubletrack a snowbound cyclist could ask for. Sedona Bike & Bean is your one-stop shop for espressos, local knowledge, wrench-work, rentals, and gear. Don’t know where you’re going? They offer road (also superb) and mountain tours through their site or in person over coffee. bike-bean.com
From the Spring 2010 issue. Subscribe today, get the Gallery 2013 issue at the iTunes store, or find Mountain at Whole Foods, Barnes & Noble, Gander Mountain, and other natural foods and outdoor stores.