I took a week off from real life. I wandered up and down the bank of the Frio River like a wanderer come home, stepping on the same ground I visit every year. I remembered a game I made up when I was very young: trying to walk as far as possible without touching anything except cypress tree roots. I spent my childhood here, and somehow I managed never to take it for granted. It’s the simplest place in the world, a combination of peaceful and exciting that I needed so much. When did I turn into a grown-up with a life to escape from?
You would love those sprawling cliffs and the deep water below them. When you swim ten feet above the lazy catfish parties, it’s like you’re alone in an aquamarine mystery, and the mystery is more beautiful than the answer. I don’t think there is an answer, and that’s why it’s beautiful. The breeze turns the stillness into contented energy, and little ripples kiss your upper lip again and again like there’s no tomorrow and all we have is now. The past is gone and the future will never come and no one cares. You just swim into the 4 o’clock sun. You see poetry in everything. And for once, you exult in being alone… but then you’re not alone. Because your little sister and your fabulous cousin come and play seals right next to you, and then you exult in being not-alone. And you swim through the ripples to the diving log and pretend it’s a ship. Sometimes you can feel a fresh-water spring under you and it’s so COLD you scream and everyone thinks you saw a snake and then you laugh at them.
Then it’s eleven in the morning on another day and you’re alone again, down by the rope swing without much sunscreen, building a waterfall and channels for three hours. When you’re finished, it’s a quality establishment, and that sunburn on your back? It hardly matters. And your chipped fingernail polish? It doesn’t matter at all.
There’s a big hill from the upper campground to the lower campground, and it’s perfect for riding your bike with no brakes. People talk about throwing precaution to the wind, but I don’t think that’s what happens. I think the wind whooshes around you so fast that it snatches your precaution away from you, whether you’re holding it tightly or not. And I never hold mine tightly on that hill anymore. I’ve been hurtling down it at top speed ever since I was nine years old.
You would love the annual catfish-fry… sitting on rocks with fishing poles all day long, baiting with hot-dogs, naming the fish you catch, and throwing away the “stanleys”. And then at the end of the day, you haul your stringer back up to the cabin and your dad tries to show you how to clean the fish and it’s disgusting but now you’ll be able to survive in the wild. If you had a knife. And matches or flint. And cornmeal and Lowry’s salt and oil to coat the fish with. I fried them this year, and it took forever.
Oh, and then when you feel like it, you can walk up to the office and charge any number of ice-creams to your family’s account.
It was a week of enchantment and detachment. When being alone didn’t ever feel lonely. A week of painted rocks and curious fish and family and hardly any other campers to bring my mind back to the present. I don’t think I took a week off from real life, really. I think I took a week of visiting it. Maybe paradise is what’s really real, and everything else is simply the contrast material.
Scratch the maybe.
Ah, but the contrast material always seems so very contrasting when I come home. When I was a kid, I used to be sad to come home because home wasn’t as fun. But now I’m sad to come home because home is so much less home. It’s so much more complicated. Here is where I have to think about the future and figure out how to deal with the past. Here is where alone always feels lonely. But I tell myself to get a grip and wear a smile, because even while I miss that carefree river, a River of Life is flowing inside of me and I only have to look to the Source to realize that I will never despair and I will never let go. Even when all I want is to fade, there’s colour holding onto me that won’t let me give up. I can’t stay in paradise, but I can carry it with me always. And I will.