Cisco, Utah is a ghost town. A city created at the peak of our country’s locomotive ingenuity, it was deserted in favor of economic opportunity elsewhere. What remains is a deteriorated history of what was — houses and vehicles left to disintegrate from years of exposure from the state’s brutal seasons. And yet, Cisco holds a gem: an access point to one of the most expansive natural structures in the country, the Westwater Canyon of the Colorado River.
We pull into the parking lot of Cisco’s drop-in point and pile out of the cars, equipment carefully stuffed and sunscreen generously lathered. It’s not yet 10 and the sun has already made its presence felt.
José greets us, a man boasting a healthy gray beard, sun-baked skin, and a belly that implies Buddha-like wisdom. He walks undeterred towards the group and his deep, welcoming voice spurs a retraction from the packs in our hands. He is our guide down the Colorado and he has our attention. Dry bags are dispersed and quickly filled with sleeping bags, tents, chairs and all the amenities we think we’ll need for two days along the river. Phones are left; there are no bars where we are headed.
Wednesday’s trip is an easy one, a five-mile crawl along a slow portion of Westwater. Accompanying José as guides on our trip are Tabs (short for Tabitha) and Jarvis. Dressed in their river-guide garb (shorts, shirt, hat and Chaco sandals), they’re friendly and anxious to get on the water. The rafts are carefully packed with our gear, and we pile in.
Westwater is a beloved portion of the Colorado River. It’s home to world-class rapids, the walls mimic the red and orange hues of Canyonlands and the views offers glimpses at earth’s oldest rock, precambrian granite. It’s protected and cherished, despite being highly trafficked during the summer months.
As the rafts bask in the exposed sun, it doesn’t take long for beers to be passed and dialogue to begin. A transplant from the Bronx, José has spent the last 32 years in Moab running the rivers as a guide for Sheri Griffith Expeditions. As one of the state’s most recommended rafting experiences, José has floated with the likes of Bill Gates and Ben Stiller. The river, he tells us, is running 13, which means it’s running “mean”. He’s well versed in all things river, from its initial creation, its wildlife, record highs, record lows and the laws, permits and governing bodies that fight for its preservation. “I could live with a little less Fed,” he admits, slowly turning the oars and letting the current do most of the work.
The river runs generously through the iconic red wingate sandstone. Each curve, crux and polished boulder is millions of years in the making, and the rich reds, oranges and blacks of the stone have only deepened with time. The sun reaches its apex as we arrive at our campsite — a discrete inlet along the bank and a stone’s throw from the first rapid.
Tents are dispersed throughout the short grass as preliminary whispers of sleeping under the stars start to circulate through the group. In a place like this, it would be unwise to consider anything else. Closer to the bank, dinner preparations have begun as José and crew methodically prepare a pop-up kitchen in the sand. Steak, potatoes and sweet corn are on the menu. Being pampered in the wild is an uncommon experience, but there is no opposition.
With time to kill and the sun still high, we hedge our way inland, carefully navigating the gentle desert ecosystem. Postcard views light in every direction, and as we breach the highlands under an outcrop of weathered stone, the expanse of the river comes into view. It’s this that makes going deep off the grid worth every bit of effort. As the light descended behind the canyons, the clouds brought pockets of light rain.
Before calling it a night, we are given the low down for the day ahead. In stark contrast to the water we experienced earlier, the next part of the river is all business. Words like “Skull”, “Room of Doom”, “Shocka Rock” and “Last Chance” are lightheartedly used to describe rapids we’ll be visiting early the next morning. Jokes are shared to keep the mood light, but we all knew that those names exist for a reason.
The morning comes quick as we gingerly shake off the sleeping haze. With a full plate of French toast, and a cup of coffee, I sit content. The conversation returns to the river, as a necessary safety briefing commences. If we find ourselves in the water, we have two options, José explains. We can be either a “short swimmer” or a “long swimmer”. The first meaning you’re able to quickly return the to boat, the latter would involve a solo swim through a rapid or two. “Look to where we are pointing,” he says emphatically. “We are pointing you away from danger.”
Forever unforgiving, the river showed its teeth, but not all its bite.
Drawing straws for which raft we’ll take, our second day on the river has a different atmosphere. Unpredictable water moving fast has a way of affecting things. As soon as we push off from shore, we are in the first rapid, “Little D”, in seconds. Easily maneuvered by the trusted strokes of Tabs, we are still met by cold waves of river. In quick succession, we enter each tactical wave with an exciting uncertainty. Traveling through each eddie, boil, and bend in the river I’m left wondering which one might have the strength to turn us into rags within the washing machine of water. As then, as quickly as they began, the rapids are over. Soaked, and smiling, we are happy to have remained upright. The guides, in particular, sit relieved, knowing full well the dangers they safely navigated. Forever unforgiving, the river showed its teeth, but not all of its bite.
In Westwater, there’s natural beauty and raw power. There are physical dangers and a fragile ecological balance. And, there’s the opportunity, in a rafting expedition, to be both a part of this world and subject to it. Alone, there’d be the struggle to survive and to sustain oneself. But in the able hands of experienced guides with trusty gear, the risks are limited and the balance shifts from satisfying physiological and survival needs and leaves space for higher needs — self-reflection, self-actualization. And, in canyons, slowly carved away by rushing waters and skies packed with stars, those mental pursuits reveal that this free-flowing land, despite its jagged rock rapids, is not here to teach us about death, but rather the expansiveness of life, how infinite things can seem, how large the world actually is, and how lucky one is to be a part of this, in whatever small way that is. Out there, you’re quick to reframe life — and all it takes is a two-day trip downriver.