As I interview graduating high school students for the newspaper, dutifully writing their stories, my own memories wash ashore in the back of my mind.
The summer after my senior year at Glenwood Springs High School was a formative one. There was a Yosemite climbing trip with Dad — and then the Alaska river trip with Mom and my best friend at the time.
Six of us were set to raft the Tatshenshini River for two weeks, from its headwaters to its inlet on the Pacific Ocean, Dry Bay. My friend and I left in early July. Everyone’s gear was strapped to his dad’s giant truck. The rest of the crew would fly north and rendezvous with us a week later.
MD and I set off on a sunny morning. The aluminum raft frames sparkled atop the silver pickup. We hopped in the cab, fresh and eager.
Twenty-four hours later, Canadian pines whizzed by. We turned west off the paved highway and rumbled up the Cassiar, which is little more than a dirt logging road that parallels the Pacific coast for a thousand miles (it is technically only 450 miles but it is closer to 1,000 when the entire route to Whitehorse, Yukon, is accounted for). Black bears and moose were more common than people. In one spot we stopped and counted eight bears.
By then, MD and I already had a run-in with police, after we tried to sleep in a parking lot for a few hours, and we’d discovered that the drinking age in British Columbia is 18.
The mosquitoes on the Cassiar were as thick as the trees. I called Mom from a pay phone at an isolated gas station. The needle-noses penetrated layers of shirts, and I danced at the phone.
Later that night, MD and I polished off a six-pack before going to bed in the cab of the truck. The drone of the insects was audible from inside, and we decided we would rather turn in with full bladders than risk opening the doors and letting the blood suckers swarm our sanctuary. Hours later, we awoke to a cab full of mosquitoes – they were crawling in through the air vents! So we drove through the night under the eternal summer sun.
There are enough stories from that trip alone to fill a book. My Mom almost died of hypothermia on the river, after a raft flipped unexpectedly in the cold water. What haunts me most about that trip, however, is how even the best relationships can grow apart.
MD and I remained in contact as I went away to college and long after that. I rented a basement apartment from him in the summer of 2009. There was a misunderstanding one evening as we sat on the porch sipping beer. His 4-year-old spit in my face after I’d told him not to; I tried to grab the kid’s arm as he ran away, causing him to fall backwards against the concrete steps. The next memory is MD standing eye-to-eye with me on his front lawn.
“If you weren’t my best friend, I’d kill you right now,” he said. His chest puffed out, his hands balled into fists.
The words echo like the crashing foam of a standing river wave. I see MD around town and still love him as a friend, but from a distance. I’m never quite able to feel at ease in his presence anymore. I don’t know what might fix it. I wish I could, and I think he does, too, but somehow that’s not enough. How do you take the dent out of emotional damage?
As I listen to the latest crop of high school grads eagerly moving forward, determined confidence in all their manners, I admire how much they’ve learned — and secretly wish them luck for the untold hardships and heartbreaks that are bound to slash their innocence, their ideals.
I wouldn’t tell them they are in the best years of their lives. No. Who is to say anything like that? But things are clearer from where they are now; it’s as easy for them to discern the path ahead as it ever will be. From the top of one peak, looking across the valley, a person sees his next goal plain as day. Then his orientation gets muddled down in the forest. It always does, and emotional scars are bound to happen along the way.
So here I tell them this: Now is the time to take stock of where you are and where you want to go. Seal it in your heart. Don’t let anything but love touch it and it will guide you through the wilderness.
Brace for blood-suckers. Appreciate those next to you. Embrace the bumpy ride.
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of the month. Derek Franz writes for the Eagle Valley Enterprise and lives in Carbondale. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.