The Great Unknown by Samuel Chamberlain

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

dried up mud

They call these divorce boats, Jim says from the passenger seat, referring to the canoe strapped to the car’s roof.

We haven’t been in the same boat for a while, my wife says, buried in the back of our rental car. I know she’s talking about sea kayaks, boats with a two-paddler option. I navigate the small sedan around the tight turns of the Chisos Mountains in the Chihuahan Desert. It’s our Christmas vacation and my wife is crammed in back with gear: dry bags full of nearly two weeks worth of food, potable water, a tub of camping equipment, a rusty fire pan and two life jackets. Canoe paddles slice the seats between Jim and I. My wife explains how we usually persuade our friends to go tandem, because they’re broader, more stable boats, even though we always take the singles.

Jim is our shuttle driver and will pick us up in eleven days, a hundred and twenty miles down the Rio Grande. As we cut through Big Bend he talks about living out here, moving from Pittsburgh to West Texas. Long, curly, grey hair. Soul patch beneath his bottom lip. A lifetime bachelor, he talks of drifting from job to job: river guide, carpenter, mechanic. He asks if we have any kids.

No, I tell him.

Not yet, my wife says.

Well, Jim says. The Great Unknown is a perfect stretch of country if you don’t want to see another soul.

We’re left in a vacant parking lot, midday sun in our eyes as we lug all the gear down a ramp to the river’s bank. Using rope and webbing we strap eleven days of junk in the boat. My wife can’t tie knots and I rush to do most of the work myself. She retreats to shade and lathers more sunscreen. Once we start the float I criticize the way she holds her paddle, the way she carelessly pulls it through the murky water, bending her wrist and using her elbows, the aluminum shaft clanking on the canoe’s gunnel. Sending back a splash when the tip slaps the current. I try to teach her a more efficient way: how to hold the T-grip; how to use her body’s core, rock and putt a full range of controlled, graceful motion into each stroke; how not to twist and tire out her arms. But from my seat at the stern, a few feet away, I can’t stop watching the way she paddles.


+    +    +


Isn’t creation amazing, she says, head bent back, gazing up the continuous Santa Elana cliffs, all the Mexican side walled off, sheer rock. A sleek red-tail hawk glides on thermals radiated from December’s desert, a silhouette against the blue diamond sky beyond. And the shore, lined with reeds tall enough to block all other geography, as if we’re in a canyon of verdure, a Holy Land.

I let the boat drift, the current pulling us laterally down the Rio Grande. My wife dips her paddle and eases the boat the other way, practicing what I showed her. This season she and I share a hedonistic yearning to be alone over the holidays, resisting the inherent draw to do what everyone else does this month.

A weak breeze tries to blow us upstream but it’s overcome with a single stroke. After several hours on the river we begin to look for camp—a break in the vegetation, maybe a sandy shore or pebble beach to avoid the silty mud everywhere. We opt to drift a little further, trusting the best spot is still ahead. It gets dusky and I worry we’ve already passed it, if continuing to search for something better has denied us a decent enough site before nightfall. Each time we say no to one spot, we glance at each other with a knowing hope—a faith that the best is still ahead.


+    +    +


The days go by like this, floating then camping in my navy blue Boy Scout tent, two decades old and roomy enough for three. The first time we spent an entire night together was in this tent, college seniors, a heavy spring dew saturating the rainfly, we cuddled all morning until the sun dried everything out. Back then she never let me stay over at her apartment for fear in a weaker moment we’d do something that’s better saved for marriage, though sharing a tent was somehow different. I tried to take her camping as much as possible.

This trip is our greatest expedition yet. The longest she’s ever gone without a shower. The longest either of us has been together without others. Not that that scares us, though we know many couples who cringe at the thought of no other company around for that long. We don’t get sick of each other. And despite struggling with depression and discontent the past few years, I strive to think of each day as an opportunity. It’s still hard, but having her here lends a sense of responsibility that’s good for me.


+    +    +


Our fourth night, while lying in the tent, enough twilight to see without lamp, she says she feels sinful for still taking birth control. She says that because we’ve been married so long it’s wrong to be on the pill.

In my mind I accuse her of finding another way to say she wants a child because I know she’s wanted one for a while. It’s an idea that’s remained just an idea the last couple years, my unwillingness and hesitation a scoff that kills the conversation. My fears manifest into excuses: careers, finances. I argued we didn’t need a bloodline to do the work of God.

We both stare at the shadowy roof of the tent and our shoulders touch through the downy fluff of separate sleeping bags. She feels far away.

Babies are a blessing, she says.

I agree with her and say that change can be a blessing, but change isn’t always good. I tell her there are lots of kinds of blessings. But don’t tell her I’m afraid of this blessing. I don’t tell her that I’m afraid of the way a baby will unify us with a responsibility that will force us to remain together no matter what. I don’t tell her that there was a time when I wanted to be alone. She doesn’t know I browsed the Internet for divorce lawyers and decided what property I’d take. Made a list of what mattered most: the truck, my books, our dog. I feared that with her and a baby we couldn’t do things like float desolate rivers over busy holidays. I thought a lot about change. I worried that my depression, possibly a consequence of fighting for fifteen months in the Iraq War, would become something that makes me vulnerable, weak, less of a father.

She says she wants to leave it up to God and I know I can’t argue with God. I know that I can make my own bad decisions, that He’ll let us make bad decisions. I tell her this but feel greedy after saying it—greedy that my not wanting gets in the way of her wanting.

I finish zipping my sleeping bag and roll away from her, conflicted over the ways I make my wife sin. I wonder what it would be like to be a father. I fall asleep thinking that all the stuff we’ve shared will be arbitrary after we share a child together. Drifting under, I secretly wish for sterility.

I don’t dream. When I wake I think of wedding covenants and I feel convictions. But come morning I still don’t agree that being on birth control after nine years is wrong. I know I can’t make her un-think that and I remember a purpose of the marriage vows is to help one another slay sin, a responsibility to hold each other accountable.

I wake first and crawl from the tent, chase both zippers shut behind me and leave my wife nestling deeper into her sleeping bag, only her red hair visible in the hood. Winter mornings in the desert are cold. We wear nearly every layer until the sun breaks the hills and canyons above the river. I find our yellow, red and blue vinyl dry bags stashed a couple hundred yards from the tent. I boil water for coffee. I sort through a bag of food for breakfast that she’ll want as soon as she emerges. I wonder how she’ll look this morning. If she’ll wear her ponytail a little tighter and if she’ll still smile as often as she normally does. If she’ll do her share of the paddling. I wonder if she’ll think about unborn babies as we float, the consequences of our transgression.

While going for my toothbrush and baking soda paste in our ditty bag, I see her toiletries and think about last night. I rifle through her stuff and find the rectangular case containing white and yellow pills lined up in four rows like a calendar. With my left thumb I depress all that are there, crushing the clear plastic domes, pushing each pill one by one into my right palm. The tiny contraceptives pile in my half open hand. I close my fist and drop the empty case back into her bag. Then I walk towards the river.

The shores of the Rio Grande, like our campsite, are still in shadow. I walk to the bank near where our canoe was pulled from the water. The current is not visible in this stretch. There is little texture to the flowing river, no riffles, only a quiet surface. I give the pills a brief last look then fling them all mid-stream. I don’t see where they splash but they are gone.

By the time my wife wakes I’m halfway through my first cup of coffee. She hugs me and kisses my cheek as every other morning. We watch the sun crest a ridge south of the river and see it illuminate the north side, slowly creeping down the slope beyond our tent, imagining warmth from new light. She goes through the dry bags and discovers something missing. She asks me if I did this and I tell her yes. When she asks me what this means I say I don’t really know.

On the map our campsite north of the Mariscal Canyon is called Solis after a family of cattle ranchers. I assume it’s pronounced Solace—consolation in a time of distress, comfort in sadness.


+    +    +


The next day’s gusts begin to blow and blew stronger each day for several more. White caps splash our bow and we joke it looks like the wind caused the river to reverse directions. It makes for hard paddling, with little respite, and requires both of us working to overcome it if we’re to continue our journey downstream.

samuel chamberlain in boat in canyonSamuel Chamberlain served as a combat engineer in the Iraq War, has an MFA in writing from Pacific University and is studying Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His work has appeared in Gravel, Verdad, Stone Canoe and in the anthology Incoming: Veteran Writers on Coming Home from So Say We All.




  2 comments for “The Great Unknown by Samuel Chamberlain

Share a Comment