A Mind at Its Limit
I didn’t sleep much in Miami, Missouri. I hadn’t slept well the last few nights. It was too cold. My sleeping bag didn’t offer much warmth in the single digits, and my thin sleeping pad didn’t provide much protection from the heat sucking snow below me. I shivered away the nights, despite sleeping in every piece of outdoor clothing that I owned. I was paddling about 12 hours a day in harsh conditions; driving my body to complete exhaustion each day. Every part of me—mind, body, and spirit—was beyond depleted.
But I didn’t care. In truth, I liked the suffering. So I loaded my canoe in the dark of the morning and set off, prepared to paddle about 55 miles, set up camp somewhere, and survive another snow storm.
In wilderness medicine, we talk about the onion peeling. Imagine that your brain is an onion, the outermost layer consists of high cognitive functions like critical thinking and the innermost layer includes the essential life functions such as breathing. When there is a problem that affects brain function—like low oxygen, low salt, low sugar, low body temperature, lack of sleep, or a brain injury—a layer peels from the onion that is your brain.
The exhaustion had stripped the first layer from my brain. I knew I was exhausted, but I did not know the depth. Before the next morning, I would find out.
Around mid-day, I paddled past the town of Glasgow, Missouri. It perched silently on the river’s edge. Not a soul appeared on the streets or in the windows of the houses.
“Is this town deserted?” I asked.
The town appeared to me as a miniature Christmas village. But I didn’t see an ice skating rink, carolers, or toy shops. There were no draft horses pulling sleighs filled with men and women covered in wool. In fact, there was no happiness or warmth save for a few wisps of wood smoke rising from a chimney.
Above the town, the bleak, grey sky filled with dark storm clouds. I sighed in resignation at this sight. The world felt hopeless, distant, and surreal.
I continued on my course, the sky ever blackening. Before twilight, I found a campsite a couple of yards above the river and on a partially eroded bank.
The weather called for snow that night. The campsite I selected looked like it could handle a snowstorm. It was in an open area filled with reeds. A low angle slope ran down into the campsite, but I figured that with the snow it wouldn’t matter. Most importantly, there were no trees that the wind could topple onto the tent.
The storm arrived not long after dinner. I had expected snow. Instead, I got rain and lightning.
“Whatever,” I thought dismissively. “I’m getting some sleep.”
Sleep didn’t last long. I awoke in a pool of water. The sides of the tent were flapping around me. A stream flowed through the tent, and the rain was flying in as well.
I now saw that my choice of a campsite was a poor decision. The slight slope fed water right into my tent. The soft, silty soil couldn’t hold the stakes in the strong wind.
I immediately went into damage control. First I needed to deal with the loose rainfly. I went outside where rain poured down and lightning danced across the river. The rainfly was attached to only one stake, and it beat wildly in the wind. I hurriedly put the stakes back into the soft soil and then placed dry bags and water jugs on top of the stakes, bringing the fly tight across the tent frame.
Lightning struck a tree on the bank above me. The clap of thunder instantly filled my ears. For a moment, daylight filled the river valley. And then the dark returned.
After fixing the fly, I had to drain the water from the tent. But, the entire slope above the tent had transformed into a braided network of streams. As soon as I had drained the tent, a stream breached the wall of the tent floor. Once again, I had a flooded tent.
My brain felt fuzzy. I just wanted to sleep. But I couldn’t. I knew that my survival depended on having a passable shelter.
I looked around for a better campsite. The only other location was in the trees where the lightning had struck moments before.
“I guess I’m staying here,” I thought. “It’s going to be a long, wet night.”
I retreated into the tent. My sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and clothes were soaked. The sleeping bag and clothes were synthetic, so they would still provide some insulation. Or at least that is what the outdoor companies tell us. The reality is that wet synthetic sleeping bags and clothes still make for a miserable experience, especially when the mercury is hovering just above freezing.
I looked at the clock. It was 1:30 a.m.
I folded the Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad in half to create an island, crawled back into my sleeping bag, and sat on the island. I wrapped my arms around my legs, shivered in a state of mild-hypothermia, and waited for the morning to come while the rain pelted my $10 tent and the wind tore at the fly.
It was life or death. Whether it is on the river, in the mountains, or at sea, hundreds of micro-decisions must be made, and any can lead to one of these ends. I had made a poor decision, and now I had to battle the consequence.
Sometime later, with the storm still raging outside, the tent door ripped open and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the actor, stormed into my meager shelter. Lightning illuminated his silhouette as rain whipped around him. He wore an impossibly dry, impeccably pressed, black Hugo Boss suit. He was furious.
He began yelling at me, pointing out all the things I had done wrong.
“you need to tie down those corners! look at yourself! move that drybag over there! you can use it to hold down that tent stake! what a mess! you are so incompetent! what are you doing out here?! worthless! why didn’t you put the tent over there?”
I screamed back.
“Shut-up, Phillip! I’m doing the best that I can!”
“Obviously it’s not good enough!”
“I’m the one who has to deal with this, not you! You’re so arrogant! Look at you in that suit! Let’s trade places and see how you do!”
“You know I’m right!”
“Go away, Phillip!”
“You’re a meanie!”
Then Phillip started to cry.
“I hate you, Phillip. get out of my tent, now!”
“I’m just trying to help you!” He cried, tears rolling down his face.
“I don’t need your stupid help! get out! stupid!”
Phillip’s eyes were red with sadness. He sobbed loudly. My words had hurt him. He turned from me and flew away into the storm.
I looked out into the abyss of the storm. The tent door flapped in the wind. Rain pelted me in the face. I realized what I had done.
“I’m sorry, Phillip!” I cried. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings! You’re right! You are right about everything!”
But he didn’t come back.
I felt horrible, as though I had insulted my best friend.
I brooded with my thoughts for the rest of the night. Thunder echoed through the river valley. Lightning flashed across the nylon tent.
I thought of the letter that I would write to Phillip when I finished the journey. I wanted to apologize, to thank him for his suggestions, and to ask if we could repair our friendship.
I knew that Phillip was a hallucination, but he was also so real and tangible. I saw him and talked to him, just as I could see or speak to a real person. How could something so real be a creation of my mind?
Perhaps the vision of Phillip saved me. He made me angry. My blood boiled at his words. In this, he gave me the drive to push on.
I deliriously waited out the night until I could no longer endure the confinement. Two hours before first light, I decided that I had to paddle. I packed up camp and went down to the canoe.
My headlamp shone through the rain and revealed another setback. Water and mud filled the canoe. The river had risen several feet during the storm. For hours now, the storm had dumped rain onto a thick layer of snow. The snow melted, and along with the rain, flooded the river with the equivalent of several storms.
The canoe was close to coming free from its tether. I scrambled to secure the boat and drain the water that was quickly sinking it into the muddy river.
“That’s lucky,” I thought, looking at the near disaster.
I loaded up the canoe, climbed in, and turned on my brightest headlamp. It cast a beam about 20 feet in front of the boat.
“This is going to be scary,” I thought as I paddled into the main channel.
The higher water level meant that the river was moving faster, about twice as fast. And the flooding waters had released into the river huge piles of driftwood that had been safely snagged on wing dikes and riprap.
The river had risen so much that the current pushed many of the buoys under the surface of the water. But sometimes a buoy would catch a soft spot in the current and explode to the surface, making a gut-wrenching explosive sound in the darkness.
A shape emerged from the darkness beside the boat. I bumped into it—a massive driftwood log. It was 75 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. From downriver, I heard the approaching sound of water flowing over a wing dike. If I didn’t get away from the log before we both went over the flooded dike, the log could get tossed by the rapids and crush me. I paddled hard away from the log, into the blackness, and toward the raging sound of water churning over the unseen dike. Twenty feet away and near the end of the dike, a channel marking buoy burst from the water like a missile from a submarine.
“Ahhhh!” I let out a deep, guttural scream of rage and adrenaline as the bow of the canoe dropped over the hidden waterfall on the backside of the wing dike.
I paddled by the senses of touch, motion, and sound. My weak headlamp was worthless for paddling in the night on the swollen river.
My nerves were at the very edge of sanity as I both prayed that a buoy wouldn’t kill me and assumed that a buoy would kill me.
“Why am I out here right now?!” I asked. “This is insane!”
Something deep within told me I had to be on the river. I was horrified, but I had to keep moving. Maybe I needed to move to stay warm. Maybe I needed to move to keep my spirits up. Either way, my inner voice, my intuition, told me to go.
Finally first light and a reprieve for my sanity arrived. I made it another 20 miles before I found a boat ramp where I could wait for some much-needed support.
Everything was soaked, including me. My nerves were trashed. I fell into a pile of large rocks and laid there for hours, fading in and out of sleep. My thoughts were delirious. At one point I took out my harmonica and started singing poorly composed blues riffs.
I got the blues
do da do da
Because of the rain
da da do da
It’s not raining now
do da do da
But it sure was this morning and last night
da da do da
And I don’t know if I want to cry
do da do da
da da do da
Because this bad weather keeps getting me down
do da do da
And draining me of all of my psychological … strength
da da do da
My unstable mind wandered in and out of dreams. But one stuck with me:
I am in the main channel of the river, 200 feet away from the shore. It is quiet and lonely. The water of the winter is different from that of the summer. It is much colder, yes. But there is something else. Its hue—almost greenish—hints at an underlying change in the power of the river. In the summer it gives life. But now it takes life. I see that the water too has its seasons. I aspired to be a participant in this understanding of the river, but participation requires two willing parties, and the river does not care.
Underneath a bleak and overcast sky, I take off my life vest. I set it in the canoe next to my discarded paddle and boots. The wind slowly turns the drifting boat counter to the current.
With an accepted resignation of my insignificance amongst something greater, I roll out of the canoe and into the icy water.
I gasp at the shocking embrace of the river. I jerkingly scream at the pain between gasps. The noises carry across the surface of the water and fade into nothing. My fingers go numb, and I clench my fists. I tread water with my arms and legs, but the cold only spreads faster.
Wind and current rarely agree. The wind takes the canoe on a new course while I drift along in the current on another path.
My breaths come in spasms. Fast at first, they quickly begin to slow. My muscles twitch and quiver—one final act of self-preservation. This effort is wasted in the freezing water. My muscles shut down within minutes of giving myself to the river.
I float along low in the current, through small boils and swirls of water. My mind is numb to the beauty around me. Soon my body accepts what my soul already conceded. To the South, the wind carries my last breath. I slip into the murky depths without a word.
The river kept flowing.