Saturday, October 3, 2009

Running Into Its Embrace

Been indulging myself this week with Ken Burn's latest opus on the National Parks. It's been a slog. Roughly 5 hours too long and reduntant (I think we get that the parks are beautiful, Ken) it's nonetheless filled with historical sideroads that make for moving and fascinating rides. Burns did this in the Civil War where the listing of the items in Lincoln's pockets at the time of his death brought what had been rote gradeschool history to life and made it immediate. Burns has a knack for this, understanding that history is about real people with real lives.

Last nite I slid into the Tivo for an episode from earlier in the week. Dealing primarily with the 1920's, one of the stories offered was of Glen and Bessie Hyde and their honeymoon from hell.

Bessie had been a flighty bohemian who had dabbled in art in San Francisco. She had eagerly sought something different in her life. She met Glen on a cruise and had married him the day after her short-lived marriage to her first husband was finalized in divorce. Glen had been a potato farmer in Idaho and also ran rivers in the Northwest.

Their plan was to raft down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon for their honeymoon, a feat that had been acomplished at that time by fewer than fifty people, none of whom were female. They would document the trip with photographs and copious notes, write a bestselling book, and make a fortune on the vaudeville/lecture circuit.

They set off in October of 1928 in a scow that Glen had built and that, although appropriate for rivers in the Northwest, was not of good design for the more violent Colorado. They packed homecanned vegetables, a rifle for shooting game, a camera, staples, and Bessie's diary. They were warned by many on the river that they should not attempt the run, that it was foolish to not have a larger party and a second boat. But they did not listen and instead used as their inspiration the famed Kolb brothers, who had run the river years before in one boat. The Kolbs however were quite familiar with the river, having spent a good portion of their lives exploring it before they set off. In keeping with a tradition of Northwest river runners Glen saw no need for life preservers - something even the most experienced Colorado River runners used.

Initially, Glen and Bessie had a grand time, slipping idly downstream, camping at night along the banks. It was all too easy. When they finally entered the Grand Canyon they were again warned that what they were attempting was beyond their capabilities, but they ignored the naysayers.

As the riffles became rumbles and the whitewater spilled over the sides of the boat the adventure became more frightening, but they soldiered on. Bessie was swept over the side several times and rescued by Glen. At one point Glen was knocked from the boat. Bessie managed to throw him a line, but that incident had terrified her. She had begun to see the errors of their ways. Glen just laughed at her as he dried off.

They made a stop where Bright Angel trail meets the river and hiked up to the rim where they had a meal at the hotel there and stayed overnight. The next morning they visited the famous Kolb brothers at their photo studio and had their portrait taken. After the portrait one of the Kolb's young daughters came to bid the Hyde's goodbye. According to Burns, Bessie commented on the young girl's shoes and then said wistfully, "I wonder if I will ever wear pretty shoes again."

The Hydes hiked back down to the river, accompanied by a wealthy tourist who had paid them to take him for a day's ride downriver. The following morning they let the tourist off and before they left he snapped another photo of Glen and Bessie. It would be the last taken of them.

6 weeks later a search began in earnest when they did not return home to Idaho. It became a national headline and President Coolidge ordered the Army Air Corps to fly the canyon looking for them. On Christmas Day their scow was found, its bowline snagged in some rocks, but otherwise intact. All their supplies were in the boat - their food, Glen's rifle, clothing, the camera and 6 rolls of film, and Bessie's diary. The last entry was dated November 27th and merely read, "More than 24 rapids today." No sign of the couple could be found. Bessie was 22, Glen, 29.

Over the years the story has popped up. In 1971 an elderly woman taking a commercial raft trip down the Colorado announced she was Bessie Hyde. She said she had stabbed Glen when he had become abusive on the trip and simply disappeared for forty years to avoid prosecution. She later recanted her claim. Remains found in 1972 along the river were originally thought to be Glen's - a bullet wound through the skull - but they were proven not to be.

I spent most of last night haunted by the story. The idealized thrills and get-rich scheme aside, Bessie and Glen struck me as tragically romantic figures: Bessie in her desperate search for something other than a pedestrian life that awaited most women in her day, and Glen in his pursuit of a manly heroism that ultimately took his life and the life of his young bride. Fools with no sense of their own mortality, and a cold, lonely end, gasping their last as their lungs filled with water.

I think of the foolish and dangerous things I did in my youth - many of them in the wilderness. I am reminded of the moments when a slip or a failure to grasp could have ended it for me and the utter disregard I felt for the risks involved. Even after a close call I would laugh as the adrenaline slipped from my system and my heartbeat calmed. It left no lasting sense of what-might-have-been - barely a moment's pause before the next step or leap. Those were things I would never even attempt now, not because my body can no longer do so (though it really can't), but because I know now how closely death hovers, how happily it will welcome you into its embrace, how fragile and tenuous the thread of mortality.

Caution (and cowardice) are distinctly tied to aging, perhaps because the passing of years brings thoughts of death to closer to our waking mind. It's sadly paradoxical because the older one gets the less life one has to lose, the more of it lies behind rather than in front. Logic would dictate caution in youth and recklessness in old age, but that is not the way of things. Instead death only appears real through an ongoing series of encounters with it that slowly and imperceptibly add up until one morning we awaken to know it is real, not just for others but for ourselves as well.

The Hydes never got there, never made that connection. Their first real brush was their last.

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