At the beginning of June we went home to visit my roots. We drove the four hours from here to Northern California. I didn’t just see my dad, but I revisited the land that, in some respects, raised me. The waters that taught me how to swim. The trees that taught me how to climb. The land that taught me how to respect it. Or at least, how to see it. How to listen.
Autumn and I spent one sunny morning away from the campsite and on the sandy banks of the Smith River. Usually extremely cold in early June, the water was fine. The deep jade pools were manageable to swim in wetsuit-less, because the snow melt had been so little. I wasn’t expecting it, but I’d worn my blue one-piece Speedo just in case. I also brought along my mask and goggles. Plus one extra pair. The others stayed with the children on the shore, while my friend Alice (we’d worked together at the Oregon Caves) and I swam and snorkeled.
We traversed the widest part of the river. A front-stroke and dive ever so often to catch a glimpse underneath the glasslike water. We took our time. Reaching the other side, sea-lioned atop two slabs of rock, we waved big mama waves to our little ones–who now appeared even smaller–on the sandy shore. They waved back.
We leisurely swam up stream, underneath Second Bridge, and my body pointed–briefly–in the direction of home. My true north. Alice didn’t know it, but a roaring gorge was further up the canyon. An impassable part of the river for most, and certainly for me. A passage that a male cousin of mine rafted down once, and swore he’d never do again. A passage that Dad ran on an inflatable air mattress. So many stories. So many laughs. So many dives this life of mine has taken.
I dove to the bottom of the river and dug my palms into the satiny sand. Eyelids safe inside my airtight mask, I let the sand sift through my fingers, certain that no other person had touched this exact pile of sand before. My feet rested on the bottom. I briefly wondered if Alice might want to play underwater tea-party, like us kids did when we were young, in this very river.
But Alice was floating on her back under the bridge. And in a few short weeks she’d be flying back to Germany.
The river back home, near our farm, was shoulder high and a little murky.
I pushed up from the riverbottom with my right foot, darting toward the surface, light filtering through the water the same way it did in nearby redwood groves. Coming up, I blew hard on the snorkel, and water blasted toward the blue sky. I was a little out-of-practice, but it was coming back already. The snorkeling.
(I was a fish. I’d almost forgotten.)
Back on the shore, Alice and I nursed the little ones, and dug our legs into the almost-hot sand. Satisfied smiles rested on our faces. A man and two women around our age showed up. They shook their towels out on the sand and pulled out their phones.
We had our phones too, of course. We had all snapped a few photos together, snorkel on my head, dry hair. I’d taken a few photos of Autumn exploring the shoreline. The same shoreline I’d first dipped my toes into.
We politely tried not to notice as the two women, probably our age, took off their layers and walked to the edge of the shore. Tip toeing on the river rocks, they held their phones in their hands. “Jump in!” Their companion hollered. “It’s not cold when you get in. It’s cold when you get out.”
I shivered, thinking: he’s totally right.
The women waded into the river carefully, up to their waists. They could have been locals. I’m sure they loved this river. Who was I to judge. Then one of the women tipped back her head just enough to wet her hair up to her hairline. She motioned for her friend to take her photo. They wanted, we all gathered from the shore, to capture that slicked-back, wet “look.”
The background was striking: deep pools of emerald-teal water. But from this vantage point, having just come from that same water, I worried that the women were missing something. Not seeing. Not hearing.
It wasn’t long before they got out of the water and huddled together on their towels, noses in their phones. I’m not saying I don’t relate to them, I do. I do relate to them, and that’s what I’m saying.
Just not on this day.
On this day the snapshot I took was scooping two handfuls of silky sand into my palms, and letting my past filter through my fingertips.
On this day the snapshot I took was my inhale/exhale through the snorkel as my body cut through the surface of the water.
So the contrast of these two things: the realness of that, of what I’d just experienced, and the falseness of a pretty photo, well, it got me thinking. Doing it for the ‘Gram is fine. But doing it for yourself is 100% better. It’s something I’ve always known, and now I feel compelled to share. Whatever it is, I’m in it for the realness of it. A pretty picture is just a bonus.