Patricia McCairen was the first woman to raft the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon solo and this is her account of that trip. While her descriptions of the trip itself – the act of rafting, the river, the rapids, the canyon – paint a vivid picture of what rafting through the Grand Canyon would be like, what I enjoyed the most was her internal journey. She could be everywoman on this adventure: struggling with fear, what it means to be alone, and society’s expectations.
McCairen used to have a corporate job, but after one short trip on the Colorado River, she gave up everything to make rafting her life. While running rivers, she escapes into an identity called “Patch,” where she is free to do as she pleases instead of pleasing others. She wins a coveted private permit to raft the Grand Canyon in their lottery system, and when no one is able to join her, makes the decision to go it alone. She saw a few other people in the canyon during her month on the water, but spent the majority of her time solo, making her own choices and accepting all risks.
Fear erupts like the exploding waves in a rapid; rowing Crystal is suddenly unthinkable. My shoes are lead weights, affixed to this rock I’m standing on. Stuck once again. What difference does it make where it happens or what causes it? Fear is a prison door waiting to confine me when I give in to it. All my fears congregate, each one clamoring for attention. Fear of being confined and losing my freedom. Fear of loving, fear of being intimate and exposing myself to another. Fear of rejection. Fear of being dependent on another. Fear of leaving a job I hate because it provides security. Fears that cause me to create excuses for my contradictory behavior, to spend months searching for an ideal, then run from it as soon as it is within my grasp.
I’ve tried burying my fears in the sand and writing them on a piece of paper to be thrown into a fire. These symbolic acts struck me as a beautiful way to rid myself of my fears so I could be free. But my fears returned, stronger than they were before. All the running and burying and denying and excuses have not worked. Once again I’m plagued with fear and self-doubt as I stand above Crystal.
A sensible side of myself provides an excuse. A certain amount of fear can serve a purpose, honing me to a razor’s edge so that I am keen and sharp and able to make fast, decisive moves. The secret is knowing whether I have crossed the thin line between having just enough apprehension to see danger clearly and being so overwhelmed by fear that I’m paralyzed. I think back to the first time I rowed Lava Falls. I was overcome with fear, until a friend told me to turn my negative energy positive by putting my fear into the river and not allowing it to disarm me of my power. My run through Lava that day was excellent.
On adventuring solo:
But my loneliness has nothing to do with solitude. In solitude, especially the solitude of nature, I am complete. Rivers, lakes, trees, rocks and grand vistas of mountains or deserts, plains or sea, fill me with abundance. No, my loneliness always grows from disconnection: feeling like an outsider in a group I’d like to join, feeling undesirable or unwanted by a man I desire, feeling out of place in a particular environment, or feeling inadequate in some incomprehensible way that reminds me of my emotional vulnerability.
With sudden clarity, I realize that loneliness is the absence of love in one’s life. Not idealized love, but loving oneself. I’m lonely when I’m out of harmony with myself. I look back over the days that have passed and the hints I’ve received about the nature of my loneliness: choosing it because I’m frightened of love, not making commitments so I can be free to follow someone else’s lead, or living in a place because it is considered ideal by others. One’s habitat needs to fit like a comfortable pair of shoes. Try hiking in boots that pinch or rub, and your feet will be covered with blisters; try living in a place that doesn’t fit, and you’ll sink into depression. Unfortunately, choosing the right place to live is a lot harder than choosing the right boot. It’s easy to become enamored with a place’s beauty or prominence. But making choices based on another’s priorities robs you of your fundamental sense of self. I’ve been doing that, and I have neither the companionship I crave nor the freedom I seek. I go back and forth between isolation and gregariousness, briefly content with both, interminably dissatisfied with everything.
My canyon solitude has dissolved most of my loneliness. Loneliness hasn’t stalked me; I haven’t spent day after day longing for someone to be here with me. In the outside world, I drift through life feeling out of control, like I’m going into a rapid without oars. But here, with Mother River and Father Canyon, I am living the natural life I love. I am forced to meet my own needs. By coming here alone, I have refused to wait for someone else to do it for me. Each day I live with my own decisions, my own plan, even arguments with myself, without crumbling into nothingness. In the canyon I am powerful and autonomous, loving myself as I have never attempted to do before.
On finding yourself:
Sometimes we crave things that are detrimental to our well-being. It is a peculiarly human perversity to desire a lover, a place or a job that is totally unsuited to us. We are willing to forego our very nature in order to gain what we want. Like trying to be an Afghan when we’re actually a Golden Retriever. Can you imagine a lion wanting to be a cheetah, or a chimp hanging out with gorillas? Of course not. But we humans do it all the time. We do it to gain beauty, prestige, power or some other quality that is universally attractive. We think that by taking this person as our lover, or being hired for that job, or living in this place, we will be enhanced in some way. We will gain stature.
But intense longing also diminishes judgment and camouflages the flaws of an idea, person or job. What we desire has no imperfections; it is an impressionist painting with muted tones and soft edges. The hard lines revealing the truth are missing.
And one last truth:
A fire, hot food, a cozy tent and a warm bed – this is my home for the night. River runners, backpackers, adventurers of all types know how to create an instant home, as snug and restful as any permanent structure. All true wanderers can quickly set up lodging that reflects both their personality and their familiarity with a wilderness setting. Though we may have a dwelling elsewhere to contain our everyday life, this is the home of our soul.