Featured Photography: “Spring Snow Melt” by Heidi Morrell
I was born next to a hungry river. I was swaddled at Reno’s St. Mary’s Hospital on the banks of the Truckee River and bundled across the Virginia Street bridge on the ride home. My childhood best friend Schafer was swaddled at the same hospital and bundled across this same bridge, to a house right down the street from mine. I cross there today, with children of my own, but Schafer never returned from his last trip to the Truckee when we were in high school. He was a child who died in living water.
I never thought of our river as hungry until it swallowed Schafer whole, until he breathed water instead of air. He and some friends doused themselves in Jim Beam and waded into its cold waters on a sun-soaked June day in 1989, as blissfully unburdened by fear as they ever would be. The fear for the rest of us, only sixteen at the time, came after. Always after.
The river stayed true through it all, the coming of age and the coming unglued. It never stopped altering the internal and external landscapes of those of us left in Schafer’s wake. In its inability to make exceptions to natural law it never singled us out. Inside its indifference to the terminal uniqueness of teenagers, we learned about nature the hard way. When it comes to being stupid, you just aren’t that special. Bodies are made to be broken on river rock, lungs to deflate under pressure. Schafer broke and deflated like an accordion in our river, a whiskey-drenched wisp of a boy riding a dollar store inflatable into the next life.
Standing on the banks of the Truckee, decades years later, I grip my youngest daughter’s hand on day one of the 2017 flood while my older children snap photos with their phones. It is January, and we are flooding for the first time in a number of years. The air smells like mud and wet roots, and I can almost taste the dirt in my mouth. The river is crashing below us, and above us, the clouds are unloading the reservoir they carried over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Our desert skies are darkened with the heavy curtains of an atmospheric river, a massive weather system, rich in water vapor, hundreds of miles wide. Between the rain above and the moisture from the Truckee below it is hard to breathe.
The children and I are at Idlewild Park, on a gravel path up relatively high. Even at this distance, I feel the atmospheric river in my bones, keying up memory, strumming my fascia. My children are enchanted with this river and all its force, and I don’t want to take this from them. I keep my stories about river rafts and lost boys to myself. Raindrops patter on my son’s jacket and my older daughter’s glasses, fogging them, making her eyes look like seawater.
That night, children tucked in bed, I dream over and over that the little one slips down the muddy slope and goes under. I dream of jumping in after her, being pulled away from her, of young faces in deep swells. I dream a thousand endings, fighting for one that I can live with. I dream of murky mud and mineral-stained stones, of reeds reaching out like hands of children, holding me only to lose me again. I imagine daughter learning to breathe water instead of air, swimming with fins instead of feet. I see her riding the current, putting tadpoles in the pockets of her jeans, long hair streaming around her like river grass. I dream of saving and losing, of being lost and saved. I dream of Schafer.
My daughter wants to go back again the next day but I just can’t take her. I fought the river too hard the night before, and I fear I don’t have the strength to hold her. I go back alone on day two of the flood to see the coursing waters I have come to admire mark their march on our banks. I watch from the side of the road near the old bridge at Verdi surrounded by the musty smell of wood so damp I can scratch it with my fingers. I wonder how structurally sound the wet bridge is. I wonder how structurally sound I am.
The river is cresting at 13 feet now, a full 7 feet higher than normal. It is the color of a day-old bruise, brown and green and blue, bouncing and boiling over boulders and banks, dragging entire trees downstream to that place of less pressure. The water gushes and hurtles past me, debris beating against anything in its way. I feel its visceral need to escape its banks humming in the rapids.
I have a similar need. I want to hook my toes on the side of the footbridge and feel the atmospheric river at its terminal velocity flow right through the center of me. I am convinced if I could, that I would know something about life and loss that I don’t know now. I am sure it would change my internal atmosphere, my atomic makeup, if I could just hold on. The police are not so persuaded as they blockade bridges and walkways.
I want to know where the river is taking the trees, where they will end their journey. Schafer only made it a few miles past downtown before his body got hung up on a rock, bounced and bruised, waterlogged and inanimate. Flotsam, once loved. Failed river raft captain, bagged and tagged. Would it have made a difference if he had made it past the Carson and Pah Rah Mountain Ranges, or to the Truckee’s final resting place in Pyramid Lake? Would his journey have meant something more? I watch the water leach the blackened soil from the banks for a while longer, eroding what is holding us both in place, and I go home.
There is too much water coming all at once for us after so many days of flooding, and we are drowning in it. We are desert people, and we don’t own enough pumps and bilges to keep our basements and backyards from becoming pools. My own yard is covered in 2 feet of standing water from end to end, and streams flow down either side of the fence. Algae has started to grow already, extraordinarily opportunistic, exponentially replicating cells in a matter of hours. It shimmers on slick rocks that seem so foreign now, green and wooly. A pop-up swimming hole has formed in the gully in front of our cul de sac, made possible by an unrepentant flash mob of raindrops that refuse to disperse on our hardpan soil.
We wade outside in flip flops and scratch our heads in small groups, looking up at the dark clouds. The kids pull out snowboarding gear to dance in the rain, puddles and children matchmaking across the blacktop. They turn their faces up to the sky and open their mouths wide, tasting raindrops, which they tell me don’t taste like anything at all. At first, we marvel at the deluge coming off our houses, then we start to worry about our gutters. Will they hold? The downpour on the metal sounds like a craftsman punching tin. What do gutters really do anyway other than usher lonely desert raindrops in an orderly fashion down the sides of our homes? We are relying on structures that weren’t built for this.
On day three of the flood I go downtown and watch people stacking sandbags against the houses on First Street, and next to the coffee shops and restaurants near the old stone Methodist Church. The bags are heavy, and muscled men strain to move them, stacking one hope-filled bag atop the next. The water rushes in, relentless, pushing against the bags, taking ground as efficiently as darkness.
Even so, it is beautiful to watch the water smooth over all the marks we have left on the land. Footprints and tire tracks, Coke cans and plastic bags, are moved and removed without effort. The ruts where backhoes were working just last week, the remnants of homeless encampments beneath the overpass, all underwater, their relevance made artifact in moments. The river eases up over bridges and roads, over art and essentials, liquid nature coating civilization like a clear confectioner’s sugar. A few more inches, and we will be flies trapped in the Truckee’s resin. Another foot or two, and we will be that village in a snow globe, built to spec, bits of paper and tin and billboard detritus floating under river glass.
The people on Arlington Street are working now with communal energy and a shared sense of purpose that I find warming. I feel more benevolent toward them than I would have just a few days ago. I am rooting for them as our river walls begin to bloat and breach. It is in these moments when nature is so obviously bigger than us we recognize each other as human, you the same as me. We seem more like us when we are up against it, working industriously as ants, riding in big trucks that now look smaller, making big efforts that amount to little. I imaging Schafer as a grown man, moving bags and laughing with the other men, strong and able, and I miss him again. We used to roam these streets, arm in arm, full of youth and life, marking time while we waited for our real lives to begin. I see him in snippets wherever I go, on a park bench where we used to sit, in the hallways of our high school where I take my own children to now, and in my dreams.
It has been decades since I have been this close to our river. While I have marked that time I am sure it does not register that I have been gone. For many years I could not get this close. I would cross the bridges on my visits home to Reno and feel a dark pull, a stripping of veins, an eclipse of agency. I kept my distance. I was supposed to be with Schafer the day he drowned, but I didn’t go with him and our friends. I wonder if I had been there, if I could have held on to him somehow as he slipped off that raft and into past tense, or if he would have eluded my grasp. I wonder if it was me that eluded death that day by some act of conscious or unconscious will, or if I just got lucky. I tell myself I should have been there. I tell myself that it could have been me. In my darkest moments, I wonder if I hold on to Schafer so tight because I’m glad I wasn’t there. I know that time will always fuse us together, even as I struggle now to let go.
As a child, in the aftermath of Shafter’s death, I imagined our river knew I was missing that day, and that it was still hungry for more bones to break on rocks submerged, more air from young lungs. After years of living in so many other states and cities, I finally came home to Reno. I came back because this is where my roots are, deep in this hard rock soil of northern Nevada. I was as hungry for northern Nevada as our river was for Schafer, and we three live here together now, deep in a past far upstream in my childhood and the river of my memory.
People tell me what I feel is survivor’s guilt, but I wonder if instead, Schafer has become my guilty pleasure. I carry him with me always, an easy task, as he is featherweight and ephemeral. In his story, I find convenient reasons to stop changing, to live a life that is small enough to never make the papers, like he did when he drowned. I use his death to avoid trips abroad, adventures at home, and good things that might come my way because I might lose them too. In Schafer, I find the reassurance that life cannot give me, that you will always be just as I imagined you to be, that I will always be just as you imagined me. He is a promise kept, when all others seem so terrestrial and impermanent.
This river is my defining moment, a liquid sundial marking the end of my childhood and the beginning of my adulthood. It is here I learned the almost inconceivable permanence of death, which in turn gave me a passionate reverence for life, in the paradoxical way the cruelty of nature nurtures our humanity. This river is my timescape and my timekeeper, marking the passing of hours and days in the only way it knows, in velocity and meters per second of flow.
For me, this atmospheric river system has made the Truckee swell to fill the space I have always made for it, to embody the existential footprint I see in my mind. Now though, I tell myself that for the Truckee to stop for Schafer would have been as unnatural as young death, and yet another loss that I could not bear.
I get into my car and leave Schafer and my memories where they will always reside, pushing toward Pyramid, pushing into sky. This river isn’t hungry for me anymore, I whisper to myself. I am the hungry one.