Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park

A woman was trekking back up the trail I was heading down, so I inquired how the water was. She furled her brow, thought for a moment, and responded that there was a little climbing but that it was a great hike.

Somewhat confused by her response, I continued down the path.

As the Rio Grande came into view, so did the reason for our miscommunication. Six months prior, the river was overflowing, but today it barely trickled.

I felt a little let down. I was fully prepared this time. I wore sandals, had a change of socks and shorts, and despite being a grown man even brought baby wipes. I couldn’t help but think of the contrast between this so-called river and my past experience.

Six months prior, nearby kayakers preparing to venture upstream were struggling to avoid getting swept away to Mexico. Hikers following the trail into Santa Elena canyon were having to remove their shoes, and wade through the thigh-high river using a walking stick or their nearest friend as support.

So there we were, six months prior, with an imposing brown river between us and the rest of the hike. After brief convincing, we began our trail of tears high-stepping through chocolate milk and industrial waste sludge – stumbling and tumbling trying to keep precious electronics held overhead.

It was work. The crossing required zen-like perseverance and the delicate footwork of a ninja. It required mulish determination, and the squishiness of thumbing playdoh. It required grit. It required gusto. It was a classic case of the man vs nature literary struggle.

The not-so-covert SEALs OP continued to the opposite bank, at which point the ordeal became man vs man vs nature.

As people hulked out of the river like newborn swamp things, the slippery mud threatened to turn every exiting hiker into a bowling ball – primed to nail the 8-10 split of people lumbering up behind them. One missed step, and a series of pissed-off dominoes would ensue. Though there were a few tense moments of moonwalking and ice dancing, most everyone made it out unharmed.

Upon finding the safety of higher (and dryer) ground, we had the pleasure of figuring out how to remove the muck that had fused to our legs. Some wiseguys used towels, others sacrificed their socks, and some of us let the mud harden into a bulletproof leather – which I strongly advise if you are a competitive swimmer looking to never shave again.

But the worst was over, and despite being a little dirty and fatigued we continued on a relaxing stroll through the canyon.

Of course, that was all when the river was flooded six months prior. Today the river trickled. Today it was painless. I walked right up to it, sighed at the thought of the unneeded cargo on my back, and half-hopped over the stream to continue on another relaxing stroll through the canyon.

 


 

Before and during the bus trip, we had friends sign their names or leave little sayings and quotes on the walls with (supposedly) dry-erase markers. One good friend wrote “Adventure starts when shit hits the fan.”

Looking back on my experiences generally, but outdoor adventures specifically, the quote couldn’t be truer.

I’ve had a lot of fantastic meals by the campfire, but it’s that one torched pan of Jiffy Pop that’s seared into my memory. Of all the hikes I’ve been on, it’s the ones where I was seizing from dehydration or too exhausted to commit seppuku that I really remember. It’s the fish caught in a flood with a My Little Pony gag gift pole, or the kayak trips where half the gear is drenched and the other half is lost to the river.

It’s the little-too-close animal encounters when you turn a corner and the air leaves your lungs. It’s clipping a tree while snowboarding. It’s capsizing the canoe. It’s trudging through mud.

That’s not to say that the flawless trips aren’t memorable, or the times everything goes right are forgettable. But there’s something about the times when things are less than ideal. Times that, while they may absolutely suck in the moment, have a way of lingering in your mind. Times when shit hits the fan. 

Something about those times makes for the fondest memories.

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