Aspen Princess: All signs point to family camaraderie on the river

Alison Berkley Margo
The Aspen Princess

I threw a towel over Levi’s face and he fell fast asleep in the bow of the raft, oblivious to the rain, wind and the waves that splattered me with ice cold river water as my body shielded him from the cold.

But that wasn’t the point.

The sound of the motor lulled him to sleep, the motor that (thankfully) carried us 10 miles downriver from our campsite at Black Rock to the takeout at Westwater in wind gusts over 40 mph. Our three boats tied together like a giant barge, teeming with six kids and seven adults all braced against the storm, our hoods up, jackets zipped up over our chins.

I realize motoring down the river isn’t exactly what we had in mind when we decided to go on a “float,” or that a cold, wet day wasn’t exactly what we had in mind when we signed up for a fall river trip to the desert, but that’s not really the point, either.

Earlier that morning, I’d pulled Levi behind a rock wall when the sandstorm blasted him in the eyes and he cried, fists pressed into his sockets and tears running down his ruddy, dust-covered cheeks, and distracted him by taking silly videos of us with my phone.

I had slept on the side of the tent that was closest to the wind, so the sand accumulated on my pillow, finding its way into my ears, teeth and hair so Levi could sleep peacefully between us, exhausted from hours of play. And when it rained during dinner and we had to quickly cover all the food with anything we could find, I’d thrown on his rain coat first so he could run around with the crew of kids who weren’t even remotely fazed by the inconvenience or interruption to our meal.

You guessed it — also not the point.

I sat in awe as I watched Ryan and the other guys put up camp only to break it down again and pack everything into their rafts, a process that took hours and involved more gear than you ever knew existed, from dry boxes and compost barrels to paddleboards and even a portable toilet (or “groover” as they refer to it in river rat speak). It made my head hurt just watching them organize all the stuff and the 500 straps they used to tie it all down. I thought river rafting must be a sport suitable to people who love buying gear and organizing gear and then figuring out the best way to use all that gear.

And that is the last of the points that are so not the point.

The point is pulling up at a sizeable beach of velvet soft sand cradled by red sandstone rock walls that look like giant works of art that curve around the perimeter of your campsite like a cocoon. It’s about watching the kids play for hours climbing on rocks, digging in the dirt and singing silly songs, (which were usually comprised of one verse, sung over and over again), and mooning the passing train, smacking their bare bottoms and carrying on like a bunch of wild coyotes.

It’s about hanging out with your friend’s daughter, the one who you’ve known since the day she was born but never really get to spend any real quality time with. And now that she’s a little older, and she’s a gymnast, you finally have this thing in common with her. And so she finally, after all these years, is looking you in the eye and calling you by name and interested in engaging with you. And the whole trip, you do handstands on the beach and have contests, and it’s just about the best time you’ve had with another person in a really long time.

It’s about paddleboarding down the river with your friend’s soft-spoken husband, spotting bald eagles and big horn sheep and having the kind of easy, natural flow of conversation that typically escapes us as adults but feels more youthful, like when you slept over at a friend’s house and would talk late into the night about nothing for no other reason than because you could.

It’s about laughing with your husband so hard that your sides hurt because even though you’re on vacation, it’s kind of exhausting and you’re both giddy and tired and maybe a little drunk.

It’s about an ’80s dance party complete with costumes, party favors that light up in the dark and watching your friend dance around on the sand in the dark along a remote stretch of river in the middle of nowhere with the kids. She does this because this trip is an annual birthday tradition for her daughter, the one who does gymnastics with you. She does this because she is an amazing mother, and that’s the reason why, you now realize, her daughter is pretty amazing, too.

It’s about watching your child throw down some pretty impressive moves with these glasses that blink crazily as he also dances around outside, in the dark, beneath the kind of stars you can only see in the Utah desert. It’s about seeing him play outside, sleep outside, eat outside and travel 26 miles down a river in three days with five other kids who do this same trip every year.

It’s about how, when you get home, he doesn’t seem to be interested in watching TV and how, during preschool drop off on Monday, he squeezes you extra tight and his eyes are big and round and a little sad because he knows this special uninterrupted time you had together is over.

It’s about the span of a friendship that began with drunken nights and bad boys and somehow led us to the lives we managed to have despite it all, a life it seems we have chosen especially for our precious children.

And that is the point.

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