As I float down the mighty Buffalo Bayou in a gray aluminum canoe on a sweltering August Saturday morning, I feel I have conquered Houston at last. I am a character in a James Dickey novel, surveying the backyards of River Oaks mansions through yellow-tinted sunglasses and welcoming the drenching heat of the Houston bayou.
This is what passes for outdoor adventure in Houston – a trip down a muddy bayou that most Houstonians wouldn’t dare dip their fingers in, let alone consider for outdoor recreational activities that could potentially lead to capsizing and accidental swimming.
Yet as we float down Buffalo Bayou, I am surprised into silent awe by the natural beauty hidden in the backyards of Houston’s wealthy River Oaks and Memorial neighborhoods. Herons perch in sycamore and swamped elm trees, while the small heads of turtles break ripples in the surface of the water. Mosquitoes are surprisingly few.
At several points, we must bend our bodies backward in the canoes to navigate under fallen deadwoods. Despite such difficulties, as we float toward the Houston Ship Channel, I can see the allure this waterway must have had for the Allen Brothers so many years ago.
Rivers, in novels and stories like Deliverance and Huckleberry Finn, serve as natural metaphors for change and growth, the central conduit on life’s journey into maturity. When you’re floating on a river in a canoe, it often seems as if the canoe itself stands still, while the scenery passes on both sides like a magic lantern show.
That’s one reason river canoeists call it a “float” instead of a “paddle.” After the canoe is in the water, the canoeist doesn’t exert himself too much, having only to steer the canoe away from rocks and hanging tangles of tree branches. Mostly, though, the canoeist only sits and watches as the banks change around him. The world changes, and the canoeist keeps moving forward into the world.
You can’t struggle against the current; you can only let yourself be carried forward by it. And so I’ve found the river does flow, and I’ve stopped trying to paddle upstream or otherwise let thinking get in the way of the moving.
Just a year before, I had spent days on end lying in bed, suffering from acute depression and struggling against my inner demons, monotone voices that told me there was little point in getting out of bed and even less reason for living. Instead of participating in the world or even in just watching it go by, I spent days and nights staring at the blinking red numerals of my alarm clock in the dark, wondering how time could go by so slowly. Each moment just led to another moment of quiet desperation.
But now, thanks to some medical assistance and a few other turns of luck, I am out of that bed. I am floating on a bayou.
I am floating down the river, floating through life, watching the view in front of me, as it constantly changes with every turn, every face that speaks to me. Like the bushes and trees that disappear around the bend, I know the faces will disappear some day, one way or another, so I value them even more, taking in every contour, every word, every amazing imperfection.
As I turn my paddle smoothly in the water, a lone passenger and sole pilot in my own canoe, I feel the current of the bayou in my bones, pushing me around the next bend and into the next uncertain moment.
Whatever gnarled branches or poisonous grasses I might encounter, I know I will also see things of great beauty and inspiration. I believe the sublime pleasure of seeing with all the senses makes the journey worthwhile, and I believe discovering the river that flows beneath the surface of a chocolate-brown bayou is as simple opening one’s eyes.
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