My body feels confident when I climb river rocks. I inhabit my limbs the way I want to. Weight shifts with each step and I can predict where it will fall, where the momentum will push me. Light sweat on my shoulders as I crouch to watch the bubble shadows cast by river skeeters’ feet. The insects dart across the surface and their expanded silhouettes glide along the grey-green algae at the bottom of two feet of clear water. Each round, dark shadow is ringed by a thin yellow halo of sunshine.
When I was about ten my dad taught me how to climb river rocks along the Tuolumne River. We scrambled over boulders, watching the water. He told me, “Three limbs on the rock, always.” This principle is called “three-point contact”. His lessons stuck in my head: Test your handholds. Don’t commit your weight before you’re sure that the rock is solid. Dad also counselled, “Never turn your back on the ocean,” but that was another time.
Nature doesn’t care. We personify this amalgamation of thermodynamic forces and biological phenomena, but actually what we call “nature” is too vast and complex to have predictable moods. Sure, the patterns are measurable, but a day-hiker can’t guess when the old tree across the stream will crack — not without particularly astute intuition. Nature has power beyond your imagining, and you have to maintain the kind of respect entails a lot of fear.
Even when I feel most in control of my physical self, scaling dusty boulders on the way to a waterfall, I’m scared because I know how much it would hurt to fall. I remove my shoes right away; I need to feel where I’m stepping and grip with my toes. I pay close attention. Avoid the wet rocks, slick with algae slime. Otherwise I could break my neck — or my collarbone, or my ankle. Any of those would be excruciating.
Of course, the risk must be what makes the river exciting. Would I be able to relish the feeling of bodily mastery if I wasn’t also contemplating the loss of it? It’s impossible to see without contrasts. You can’t distinguish anything.
River hikes are on my mind because I’m vacationing with my family on the edge of Fallen Leaf Lake, near Lake Tahoe. The area is beautiful — much more lovely than the photo above, despite the hyper-saturated sunset. You can’t imagine how many trees are here (unless you live in a similarly forest-adjacent area). The air smells piney — it makes me want to quit the city. I suppose that’s how you always feel until you get back home to reliable internet and urban debauchery.