United States

Rock Fall

The very last thing Maggie wanted to do was go on a river trip.

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed…”

—Audre Lorde


The very last thing Maggie wanted to do was go on a river trip. She’d been working on the road for weeks, training young PsyDs and MSWs in maximum security prisons all over the Midwest. She was tired of shitty hotel beds and food with too much gluten, but what she was most tired of was being the one in the room who was responsible for broadcasting hope: that their work would make a difference, that they would rehabilitate every lifer, that together they would make a better world.

Public opinion always found the southern prisons most brutal, but Maggie disagreed. In the South, the heat and the bourbon and the crab boils blurred the lines between the jailers and the jailed, the perpetrators and the victims. And since Maggie began all her seminars squarely from the platform of “there but for the grace of God go I,” she found the Midwesterner’ double-barreled shotgun of superiority and denial a tough nut to crack.

What Maggie really wanted was to go home to Colorado, lie on the couch with her cat, and come to terms with the fact the world was not getting better, that things were going to hell in a handbasket at lightning speed, and that nothing she or any of the young people she had spent the last decade of her life training were able to do one thing about it.

But her half-sister Sally had signed her up for four days of Getting Your Groove Back on The Green River. Sally, who lived with her heart surgeon husband in a gated community. Sally, who found climate change a distasteful topic because, duh, she had a new grandbaby. Sally, whose idea of activism was an email signature that included a meme of Garfield snoring, with the thought bubble, “wake me when the Trump presidency is over.” Sally, who was 15 years younger than Maggie and a product of their widowed mother’s do-over husband. Sally, who—as far as Maggie was aware—had never lost her groove to anything.

“I thought rafting was your favorite way to move through space!” Sally said, when Maggie tried to beg off. “I’ve heard you say that a hundred times.”

Neither was Sally the world’s best listener. Maggie’s favorite way to move through space was mushing sled dogs, but she was too tired to argue.

“I liked rafting,” Maggie said, “only when I was in charge of the oars.”


In truth, back in her guiding days, Maggie had loved every single thing about running rivers. Her hands on the solid oak, pushing the boat forward into the rapid. The gradual acceleration as the boat hit the V-slick, her oars feathering just enough to stay centered in the smooth, glassy tongue. The calibrations the river asked of her as she missed one deep hole and then another, even the sudden, boat-spinning grab of the eddy below.

She loved the desert varnish that painted the canyon walls, the layers of sandstone she learned to identify from where on the spectrum of tequila sunrise color they fell, the Kayenta, the Navajo, the Book Cliffs formation, the side canyons that held pools of clear water, sego lilies, sometimes the footprints of mountain lion or desert bighorn. She loved the way her whole day got taken up with the most basic aspects of living, finding a beach wide enough to camp on, making food, getting up with the sun and running some reasonable number of daily miles: 12, 15 or—on a big day—20. None of these 100,000 mile flying years she got these days without even trying, speaking of being implicated in the impending death of the earth.


At a TGI Friday’s too near the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, her last stop before checking in with the gang at the Supermax in Florence on her way home, she received this text from Sally:

Hey Sis. Paul just came home with anniversary (late) tickets to Maui (AYFKMWTS?!) so you are on your own for the river trip. IMHO, more your thing than mine anyhow, BFN, emoji wink, emoji pup tent, emoji palm tree, emoji upside down head.

Maggie seethed over her five-cheese macaroni for a full 10 minutes before realizing this let her off the hook altogether. But every time she started to email Clara, the trip leader and self-identified life strategist, the subject heading of her original email, “Let’s go down the river and talk about how to help,” stayed Maggie’s hand. If Maggie wanted to do one thing with her time left in this hate/rape/gun-driven country, on this abused/exploited/suffocating planet, it was help. Her only fear was that she was getting too old to be of much use to anyone.

If Maggie wanted to do one thing with her time left in this hate/rape/gun-driven country, on this abused/exploited/suffocating planet, it was help.

Also, the Canyon of Lodore was the only major stretch of river in the American West she had never boated when she was a guide. She wanted to float through the towering orange Pre-cambrian Gates of Lodore. She wanted to ride the rapids John Wesley Powell had named Disaster Falls and Hell’s Half Mile. She wanted to join up with the Yampa (a river she had run many times) in Whirlpool Canyon, and—because she would have no oaring duties—jump into the confluence and swirl the two rivers (the greener Green, the browner Yampa) together with her hands.


By the time Maggie left Florence, she had an email from Clara, informing the trip participants that, due to late snow and an unusually cool spring that had burst very suddenly into summer, Dinosaur National Monument was experiencing a Mosquito Event. Although DEET products were normally discouraged on the river, for the next several weeks, they would be allowed. Head nets for evenings in camp were also advised.

Maggie was allergic to mosquitos; every bite blew up to the size of a grape, and too many at one time made her feel dizzy. The cat was going to be royally pissed when she headed out again. And yet there she was, stuffing her sleeping bag into a waterproof sack, digging her guide shorts from the bottom of the summer clothes drawer, making sure the batteries in her head lamp worked.

In the car on the way to Vernal, she made a deal with herself that she could walk away at the last minute for any of the following reasons: if the guides were macho assholes, if Clara was too woo, if any of her fellow passengers were psycho or Pollyanna. But at the pre-trip meeting in the outfitters barn the guides they caught a glimpse of (not necessarily theirs) seemed kind and respectful of the river, and her fellow passengers seemed not only calm but capable, a few former river guides (including Clara) among them. The Mosquito Event email seemed to have knocked down the clientele by, Maggie reckoned, the whinier half.

Midge was the former president of Great Old Broads for Wilderness, and possibly older (even) than Maggie. Jordan was a wilderness ranger from Montana who had just lost her mom and had a side business making outdoor gear out of the recycled sails from the America’s Cup. Joyce and Miranda, newlyweds in their 30s, taught in the environmental studies department at Colorado State, and Toni, the only woman on the trip who looked too delicate to handle the oars herself, played violin in the Utah Symphony Orchestra.

Maggie was always loathe to reveal her line of work—it either killed the conversation or elicited one of five tired jokes about prison wallets, but these women showed genuine interest. Midge especially wanted to engage on the subject of Tim DeChristopher, the environmental activist who’d been jailed at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood for bidding on an oil and gas lease in southern Utah. The longer she spoke to her tripmates, the harder it was to imagine how Sally had found this group in the first place, but Sally always said Maggie didn’t give her enough credit. Maggie thought that was probably true.


In the crappy Vernal hotel room, Maggie packed her river bag tight and small, a habit left over from her guiding days, proof of all the things she didn’t need on the river. At the last minute, she took out half her clothes and subbed out her DEET for the Bert’s Bees natural version and a couple of wrist bands that made her smell like a walking lemon verbena scratch-and-sniff.

Maggie had already beaten cancer twice (albeit at early stages), and she didn’t much want to tangle with it again. The night before she had passed her usual awake time between 3:00 and 4:30 a.m. making a list of all the ways she did not want to die, starting with the worst possible way and ending with the slightly more tolerable.

1. At the hands of her father (this was unlikely since he had been dead for nearly 50 years, though she always knew he could come back in the form of uterine or cervical cancer from the shenanigans he pulled when she was little.)

2. At the hands of Donald Trump, who was so much like her father (in the way he screwed up his face when he said “nasty women,” the way he always turned everything into a monetary equation, the way he was—now that her father was dead—the most insecure man in the world).

3. Cancer (some other kind, unrelated to her lady parts)

4. West Nile Virus

5. Car

6. Airplane

7. Heart Attack

8. Climate-Driven Catastrophe

9. River Rapid/Avalanche/Horse Accident/Exposure

It was, therefore, a little uncanny, when they all tumbled out of the van at the put in to find the boat ramp abuzz with the news that, only a few hours before, a passenger on a commercial trip had died in a tangle of large rocks and logs known as the Birth Canal that takes up most of the left side of the river in a not especially-well-known rapid called Triplet Falls.

Maggie glanced downriver between the giant Lodore Gates as if she might see the body of the dead man just beyond them. She looked back toward the boat ramp where the guides for their trip were loading the last of the food, water and gear and securing the gear nets around it. Three men and one woman, wearing floppy straw hats, Chaco sandals, multiple layers of cotton sarongs and reflector shades. Plus les choses changent…thought Maggie, watching how they moved on their boats, watching how they were handling the news of the fatality, making her decision about in whose boat she would ride.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Maggie. My intuition tells me you have the soul of a poet, and therefore, I’ll be riding in your boat.”

The girl, Daisy, was the obvious choice, but something about her seemed edgeless to Maggie, a little flatlined, too untouched by calamity, maybe, to be safe. Billy, she had learned last night, grew up on the river, had monkey-wrenchers for parents, would know the routes like the back of his hand. But might that make him too cavalier? Toby was Mormon, and a little superior, the latter taking him out of: the running. Milo was—a little obsessively, Maggie thought—tightening and retightening his gear net, positioning and repositioning his oars in the locks. Of all the guides, Maggie could see, he was taking the news of the drowning the hardest. Maggie closed her eyes to try to get a sense of him, and instantly her heart lifted.

“Hi,” she said, “I’m Maggie. My intuition tells me you have the soul of a poet, and therefore, I’ll be riding in your boat.”

His surprised smile told her she was right.


Twenty minutes later, they were moving with the current, about to pass through the towering Gates of Lodore.

“He was a tall guy,” Milo said, out of the river quiet, “Big and tall. I don’t know if that contributed to him losing his balance, you know, if that was why he couldn’t hang on.” Maggie made eye contact but knew better than to speak. “We don’t know much yet because, you know, the rest of them are still on the river. We don’t know if they flipped even, or if he just fell off.”

“What a thing,” Maggie said, “for his family, to have to keep going on.” Milo nodded. “Downriver, I mean,” and Milo nodded again.

“We won’t have any real rapids today,” Milo said, “so we’ll have time to digest the news…but tomorrow we hit all of them early: Disaster, then Triplett, then Hell’s Half Mile.”

“We’ll do fine,” Maggie said. “I have complete faith in you.”


Unlike Disaster Falls, unlike many of the rapids that kept a much younger Maggie sleepless in river camp, Triplet Falls was only rated a class III. But all rapids have potential to get tricky at specific levels, not only when the river is exceptionally high or low. One rock newly exposed—or worse, just under the surface—can send a boat off course, or hang it up just long enough to lose momentum. A guide might misjudge a back wave or pop an oar in a critical moment. Whatever the river was running, conditions weren’t going to change much from the ones that sent the tall man into the Birth Canal.

“They got him out,” Milo said, “after not too much time. They set up a pulley system, just like they train us. I heard they were really efficient.” He squinted skyward just as a golden eagle spun a lazy circle between the canyon walls. “They did CPR on him for like an hour ‘til the helicopter came. It was those guys who pronounced him dead.”

Maggie had had two big wrecks during her guiding days: one in Cataract Canyon, where she flipped a boat in Big Drop Two and her passengers had to run Big Drop Three in nothing but their life jackets, and the other on the Dolores, where she filled her boat (a non-self-bailer) in Snaggletooth and hit the big wall in the S turn below it, cracking her frame in half and sending most of her passengers overboard, all of them pinballing through the rock garden in the lower half of the S. By some form of grace that she maybe didn’t deserve, Maggie had never killed or even injured anyone.

The eagle flew under the sun, casting its own shadow on the surface of the river. “It would be a different day for us tomorrow,” Milo said, “If they hadn’t been able to get his body out.”

Maggie held the silence around Milo as she’d done for 25 years with her inmates. In her river-running days, if you hurt or killed somebody, guide wisdom ordained you went straight back out on the next departure date. Surely the profession had evolved enough to bring counselors in for the guide who wrecked in Triplet. She looked back at Milo’s bright curls and freckles. How fair was it, really, to allow these kids to take all of their lives into their hands?


The boat slipped through the afternoon shadows, winding its way through rocks that had existed for half a billion years. It felt good to be moving at exactly the speed of the river.

After Maggie’s father had broken her femur, her hymen, and every last thing that was innocent inside her, it was the wilderness—maybe the rivers most of all—that had put her back together. She had needed, then, to believe wilderness was endless, that there would always be somewhere she could take herself to heal. She had been aware of the environmental battles of the day, the Clean Air Act and ANWR, the damnation of gorgeous Glen Canyon; she had even done some monkey wrenching of her own when they were paving the road into Island in the Sky. She reasoned, then, that if her immediate wilderness was compromised, there would always be Siberia, the Eastern Canadian Arctic, the Amazon Basin, the Mongolian Steppes.

After Maggie’s father had broken her femur, her hymen, and every last thing that was innocent inside her, it was the wilderness—maybe the rivers most of all—that had put her back together.

But that was long before the country had been taken over by an international crime syndicate, before we knew exactly how many years (8 1/2) our carbon budget was going to last before we saw catastrophic and unstoppable change. Trump was pushing for drilling in all of the National Monuments, including the one they were floating through. Maybe the real reason she had resisted the trip was that she didn’t know how to be back in the canyons holding all that grief in her heart.


They beached the boats and camped in Buster Basin, stringing their tents along the river, its jeweled surface emerald green in the rich afternoon light. During the “how to help” talk around the campfire, Joyce made a case for giving to the NRDC, and Jordan talked about how voluntary veganism by 25 percent of Americans would buy us time to perfect the technology that would suck half of our carbon straight out of the sky.

Maggie talked about systemic racism and voter purges, the school-to-prison pipeline as perfect metaphor for the corporate machine’s determination to make and keep us sick. “None of my guys had one single chance at ending up anywhere but incarcerated. At first, you think it’s a different category from a rapist Supreme Court judge and the end of the Endangered Species Act, until you realize it is absolutely not.”

When Trump had coursed around the stage behind Hillary at the second debate, something very young inside Maggie had curled into the fetal position, and now, nearly three years later, it had not even begun to release. Maggie had gotten out of her father’s house, gotten free, and built a life out of her own wreckage that she was proud of. She wasn’t happy, exactly, but she didn’t think the point of life was to be happy. The point of life was to get yourself into a position of stability so you could reach over the ledge and pull somebody else up. Which is why she had given her life to the inmates: because nobody, nobody, was better at making a life out of wreckage than them.

But now her father was back, in the form of this second-tier mafia Don with nuclear warheads at his disposal. Maggie’s biggest fear now was that she was getting too old to run.

Billy and Toby played rummy on Billy’s boat during the conversation, but Milo and Daisy sat on the edge of the circle, participating occasionally, taking in every word. Maggie had thought it would drive her crazy not to be rowing, but it felt surprisingly good to put her faith in Milo. Watching him lean over to say something quietly to Daisy, Maggie thought this generation had a real shot at making a better world, if the world held together long enough to let them try.


Maggie woke at her usual 3 a.m. with the strong urge to pee. The wind had quieted, and the mosquitos were thick on the netting that comprised the roof of her tent. If she went outside, she’d bring a thousand back in with her. She willed herself back to sleep, only to wake 15 minutes later.

She’d been dreaming about Sally: a scene from Sally’s high school graduation, an event that Maggie had flown across the country to attend in real life, though Sally had been too busy with her friends to care. In the dream, Sally had fallen in her graduation gown into the Birth Canal, which had been much more anatomically correct than anything they were going to see tomorrow. Sally had been crying, her mascara making deep, dark sockets out of her eyes, but her head was still above the water. “Maggie,” she said, “You know this. It happens to all of us.” And then, the water sucked her under and Maggie tried to scream, but in a moment, Sally was out the other side and kicking to the surface, breast stroking downriver to Hell’s Half Mile.

Maggie was trying to memorize every detail of the dream when she heard what sounded like a roar from the direction of the river. Her first thought was nuclear strike, until the sound defined itself as rock scraping rock and she saw sparks light the sky, a second-tier fireworks display where the lights come all at once and the same color. The crashing and crumbling got louder for the count of one…two…three…four, and then everything went quiet again.

It was only the second time in her life she had been in a canyon during a rock fall. If her ears weren’t lying, it had happened on the other side, and just down river. Terrific, Maggie thought; we’ll have a brand new rapid to run.


Disaster Falls is a big rapid with—at this level—an obvious run, and after a lengthy scout, all four boats ran it without a bobble. At the Triplet scout, Tobi tried a joke but got stared down by both Milo and Billy. Daisy, Maggie noticed, was off by herself, just beyond the normal scouting point, staring at the Birth Canal from slightly downriver.

Maggie had been the only female guide on more trips than she hadn’t, and she didn’t always see the same line the boys did. No matter how well a female guide could read water, no matter how much experience she had, most men had the upper body strength to make up for a mistake even as they were still making it. Maggie knew Daisy had to be perfect from the top of the rapid all the way down.

“You ready?” Milo called out to Daisy before he turned back to where the boats were tied just upstream of the rapid.

“Let’s go boating,” she said, and gave him a somber high five.


Milo said his plan was to kiss the rock at the top of the rapid on the left-hand side. There was a small rock garden on the extreme left that would be nice to avoid, but missing it wasn’t worth risking getting pushed into the hole below the entry rock and shot out too far to the right.

“I’m just saying right now: we’re going waaaay left of the Birth Canal,” he said, because sometimes on the river, saying a thing made it so.

Maggie watched Toby’s boat kiss the rock and head right down the V slick, missing the Canal mess narrowly, but decisively. In the eddy below, he stood up and took a bow.

“That’s the run,” Maggie said. “That was just about perfect.”

“We don’t care about perfect,” Milo said, a little sharp with her for the first time all trip, “we might go in even a little left of that.”

And with that, they were moving toward the rapid. Milo hit the V slick, spun the boat around the entry rock and pulled so hard to the left, his big wooden oars groaned against the oar locks. The boat shot hard away from the Birth Canal, straight into the rock garden on river left, got hung up for a minute, then started bumping rock to rock to the bottom of the rapid.

Maggie let out her held breath. They might tear the bottom and swamp, but nobody was going to die.

“They are going to rename these Milo’s rocks in a future edition of the guidebook,” he said, grinning and prying the boat out from between two flat topped rocks where it had again come to rest. “I really like the view from over here.”

Billy was next. He caught the submerged edge of the entry rock and got held up for a couple of seconds. Maggie heard Milo say shit under his breath, but this was when being born on the river paid off, and they all got to watch Billy put on a clinic in making the best of a bad situation, boomeranging his boat from hole to hole and still come out smiling on the other side.

After three runs, two of them imperfect and nothing that even looked like a close call, Maggie was finding it hard to imagine how any guide could get tangled up in the Birth Canal at this level. But nobody really knew anything about a rapid until they’d held the oars in their hands.

Daisy pulled away from shore, and even though her entry looked perfect, she was suddenly mid-rapid and pulling with everything she had, still heading straight for the Birth Canal.

“No! No! No! No! No!” Maggie heard Toby say, just before the boat smacked the rock river-right of the Canal, and she saw—but couldn’t hear over the roar of the river—Daisy yell “hang on tight” to Jordan and Toni. The front of Daisy’s boat folded momentarily against the rock, and she got a decent bounce, but she was still too close to the debris to get both oars into the water. Then, the right side of the boat went low and started taking on water, and Milo and Tobi and Clara all yelled high side! at the top of their lungs and both Jordan and Toni jumped across the raft, all but into the gaping maw of the Birth Canal, and that allowed Daisy to get both oars in the water. She pulled away from the mess and spun and spun her boat into the eddy with a kind of broken smile on her face.

Milo undid his straps, popped the lid on his dry box, and pulled out a bottle of bourbon. “One for the river,” he said, pouring a shot’s worth overboard. Then, he passed the bottle to Daisy.


That night in camp at Lower Rippling Brook, the wind died and the Mosquito Event was on, but nobody really cared because Triplet was behind them.

Clara asked them each to tell something they had never told before.

“I stole my mother’s favorite gold bracelet,” Toni said, touching her own wrist as if she might find it there after all these years, “and sold it at a pawn shop for a tenth of its value, just so I could go see my drug dealer boyfriend.”

“Been there,” Midge said, and she and Clara high fived.

Miranda took Joyce’s hand before speaking, “I spent my daughter’s whole first year of life trying not to put her in the microwave.”

All the women were careful, Maggie noticed, to keep their faces neutral. Finally, Joyce said, “tell them all of it sweetheart.”

“They call it postpartum psychosis,” Miranda said, “but I call it a guilt trip for the rest of my life.”

“And now you have a seven-year-old who loves you to death.” Joyce said.

“It’s Miranda’s story,” Clara reminded her, gently.

Maggie looked deep into the fire before she started speaking. “Two nights before my father drove his car—blind drunk—through the guard rail and over the side of the Tappan Zee bridge, plunging to his death in the Hudson River, I’d sat on the floor in the middle of my bedroom and wished him dead with all my might.”

Midge reached her foot over, put it down on top of Maggie’s.

“And just this last January,” Maggie went on, “when they blew that bridge up, I watched it fall into the water on YouTube maybe 300,000 times.”

A slight breeze, the first of the evening, entered their circle a bit like a prayer.

“I have one,” Daisy said, from the shadows. All the women scooted out their chairs to let her in. “You know the guide whose boat the guy fell out of yesterday?” A bigger wind came now, rustling the riverside cottonwoods, and I saw Milo shoot Billy a look of concern. “It was my sister.” Daisy smiled in that same broken way she had in the eddy at the bottom of Triplet, and then they were all on their feet and moving towards her.


The next morning, Daisy led them on a hike 500 feet up a drainage called Limestone to a place where the trail doubles back on itself out onto a huge slab of white rock, overlooking at least five miles of river in each direction. “Do this with me,” Daisy said to all of them, and she stood on the edge with her arms spread wide to the sky. “Ask the sky to come into your chest,” she said. “Ask her if you can borrow her power.”

Maggie wasn’t crazy about heights anymore, but she stepped to the edge and opened her arms. “You can feel it, can’t you?” Daisy said, and Maggie could hear in her voice that Daisy was finally crying. “I can,” Maggie said, because it was true.


There is more power, Maggie will think, in the little toe of any one of these women than there was in her father’s whole body.

In a few hours, they would all enter Whirlpool Canyon, and at the end of the great sandstone slab known as Steamboat rock, the Yampa River will enter the Green. Clara will shout “Now!” and all seven of them will jump into the place where the colors start to swirl together. The cold will take Maggie’s breath for a minute, grab at her heart, but then she will see Midge, dog paddling beside her, and she will feel her own arms and legs, strong and suddenly capable.

There is more power, Maggie will think, in the little toe of any one of these women than there was in her father’s whole body. She will wish Sally were right there, swimming beside her. She will vow to sign them up for a trip down the Yampa next year and will not let Sally get out of it. Maybe Daisy could be their guide, or maybe even Daisy’s sister. She will look back at Daisy then, strong on the oars beside them and think, no woman ever gets out of here without an edge, and that might be the best news possible.


Pam Houston

Pam Houston is the author of five books. Her stories have appeared in The O. Henry Awards, The Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is Professor of English at UC Davis and co-founder of the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers.

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