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"With her keen eye and talent for writing about the natural world, Lawrence pays homage to the American West. . . Lawrence is one of those remarkable young women spawned by the American West who are adept at running wild rivers, operating heavy equipment, and building a log home, all evocatively told in this informative book."—Publishers Weekly
"It's messy, this building of houses and relationships, but the experiences give this memoir an existential grace."—Kirkus Reviews
"In her stirring memoir, River House, Sarahlee Lawrence describes a yearning to return to her rural Oregon home that’s every bit as powerful as was her youthful need to escape it. . . Lawrence brings her connection to home alive in the classic Oregon-lit tradition of turning landscape and climate into a beautifully surly character."—Randy Gragg, Portland Monthly
"It's very simple: If you call Oregon your home—not just Portland, but this whole big awkward schizophrenic state—then you need to go to a bookstore and purchase a copy of Sarahlee Lawrence's River House. . . if there's any justice, it'll become an Oregon classic."—Alison Hallet, Portland Mercury
"Astonishing. . . [River House] resonated more deeply with me than anything I've read about Oregon in a long, long time. . . River House pulses with movement."—The Oregonian
"Lawrence writes with remarkable candor about her loved ones; the joys and pitfalls of life in a small community; and the creeping development from upscale Bend 40 miles away. She is in her element writing about nature, and it's a treat to share her journey."
"A memoir narrative that pivots off the worlds of landscape and wild water."
—The Salt Lake Tribune
"It's a sturdy, honest, and direct recounting of the author's audacious life in unusual places, and is a beautifully clear exposition of her relationships with her parents, neighbors, and friends, living and dead."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Lawrence’s voice, like the desert, is beautiful in its simplicity, while she herself embodies the strong womanhood of the American West. Like her many skills, this debut book is versatile—resembling, at intervals, a memoir, nature-adventure writing and easily digestible rural philosophy. Her simple prose makes her adventures in construction, gardening and horse-tending seem as thrilling as Tambopata’s rapids. Lawrence’s writing is honest and, like the river that begins her memoir, raw."
—Salt Lake City Weekly
"More action and grit than soul-searching and pretty writing, this memoir ends up a love note to Central Oregon."
—The Eugene Register-Guard
"Lawrence’s debut book forecasts the beginning of a new career that of a talented writer. Her descriptive prose paints a vivid and respectful portrait of the natural world, which she clearly treasures. . . River House is a rare accomplishment with a narrative that flows and ebbs like the mighty current of life."
"[Sarahlee Lawrence] has crafted a memoir with sentences that draw one’s attention like a firefly buzzing around your head in the heat of summer."
"A transfixing read. . . the end of River House leaves a reader begging for a sequel."—New West
"An engaging piece of literary work about passion, travel, love, and what it means to come home."—Wend
"An exquisite story of personal strength and nature."—Fort-Wayne News-Sentinel
"River House is about rediscovering family and working through the compromises involved in finding your life, the people and days you actually love. It’s tough, smart and eloquently told, a dead on beauty. Enjoy. I surely did."
—William Kittredge, author of Hole in the Sky and The Willow Field
"Log by log, and word by word, Lawrence locates her love and affirms her commitment to her parents, her place, and the natural world. If you love wild water and land, if you value hard work and family, this is the book not to miss."—Phil Condon, author of Clay Center
"In River House, Sarahlee Lawrence tells a story as carefully hewn and crafted, as lovingly rendered, as the log cabin she and her father have built together in the high desert of central Oregon. It’s a story of roots; the pull of the land that calls her back to the heart of her family farm. And it’s the story of wings, the journey of a father and a daughter each coming to terms with a dream."—Judy Blunt, author of Breaking Clean
“Lawrence is a promising voice of nature writing’s next generation as evidence by the rich and poetic language that matches the breath-taking scenery it describes.”—National Book Critics Circle
“Sarahlee Lawrence has experienced more adventure in a couple of decades than most of us can hope for in a lifetime.”—Orion Magazine
"Only once before have I seriously considered calling in sick so I could read nonstop. [River House] made the second time. . . This is not just a book. This is more."—Walla Walla Union-Bulletin
Returning home to build a house and a life proves to be a bittersweet experience for Lawrence, a farmer making her writing debut.
The author was a globetrotting river guide living in Chile when a visit from her father awakened her to something amiss. He worked the family farm in central Oregon and wanted nothing more than to get away from the ranch to surf at the beach. She was living a dream, he reminded her. She hadn't made the effort to learn the language, and she wasn't making the connections. "In fact," her father told her, "you don't even deserve to be here." That stung, for Lawrence both loved her father and held him in high esteem. After some serious reflection, she decided to return home, build a house and establish herself at the ranch and in the community. In limpid, emotional prose, the author writes about constructing her cabin with her father during five mean winter months, during which he taught her about the art of building. "Listen to that saw," he said. "It's talking to you all the time...Tools have their space just like a partner in a dance. The space should be rigid and respected." But as Lawrence gradually melded into place, her father slowly fell away, unhinged by too many years denying his dream of riding long curls off the Mexican coast—and by too many years behind the hash pipe. As this push-pull of father, daughter, mother and place makes its melancholic way, the author sprinkles the story with lovely images: surfing an irrigation canal, seeing a mountain lion at close range, breaking the ice in the horses' troughs, constructing a neighborhood pipeline.
It's messy, this building of houses and relationships, but the experiences give this memoir an existential grace.
Marco and I crouched in a tent, sweating, while rain beat through the fabric. I held the napkin with the map on it. It was a cocktail napkin from a discotheque in downtown Cusco, Peru, meant to go under a rum and Coke. The sketch on the napkin depicted a two-hundred-mile section of the Tambopata River, which runs along the border between Peru and Bolivia. A single line squiggled out of some stick mountains. The single line became a ball of black scribble and had two words next to it: los monstrous, or "the monsters," the rapids in the inner gorge. The map did not explain how to run these. There were only two landmarks. At the top of the squiggle, two streams came in on either side of the ink river, indicating the beginning of the gorge. At the bottom of the scribble a stream came in on the left and there was a giant boulder drawn with a tiny tree on top of it, at which point we could trust the rapids would be done. From there, the single line ran off the bottom of the napkin. I looked at Marco, then out the door of the tent at a raging jungle river and wondered how in the hell we'd come to be here.
It had all begun with an innocent drink at that damn discotheque in Cusco. Marco, an Italian kayaker, was following the river seasons around the world. I, too, was following the seasons, as a raft guide and river advocate. Peru's water was running out, so Marco was headed north, and I was headed to Africa to run the Nile. We had been throwing back rum and Cokes with another guide, Leo, when Marco told me the Tambopata was running. I was curious about the jungle, tired of guiding tourists, and Marco needed someone to go with him, so I told him I'd do it. Heading to the jungle with a man I hardly knew was crazy, but he was dangling in front of me what I loved most: extremely remote, unknown water.
Leo was one of two guides who had been to this particular river. There were many reasons not to go. It was too far, too unpredictable, too hot, too wet; the place will ravage you. Leo had been, though he said he would never go back after the river marooned him in the even less-hospitable jungle. Amused by our persistence, he drew us the map on the cocktail napkin of the three-hundred-kilometer section of the river. With a drink for good luck, Marco and I were headed for a flooding jungle river, spiders, bees, and insane rain, with the napkin as our only direction. We left for the Tambopata at three in the afternoon the next day. Our journey would take us from the high, dry mountains of south-central Peru, down to Lake Titicaca, then between the knuckles of the Andes, just over the divide to where South America drains east.
Gunnysacks disguised our two craft (a cataraft and a kayak), our few worldly possessions, and food for roughly two weeks. We climbed on a lorry truck filled with crates, pipes, concrete, vegetables, and people for the forty-two-hour journey. The pavement lasted about ten minutes, then we endured the endless, potholed, bright orange road. Passing through the last little town of earthen buildings with days to go, I felt that the hours would surely kill us one by one. The truck climbed fifteen thousand feet over the Andes and descended into the cloud forest. I slept periodically on the uneven edges of the barrels, on the oars, the folded raft, and the kayak, but mostly I marveled at how my body shut down, resigned to the journey in that thrashing truck despite creaks and groans, despite cold, wind, and dust. I let my head fall over to look at Marco lying next to me, his icy blue eyes open but focused on nothing. Between the two of us, we'd seen a great deal of the world like this: cold, jostled, comfortless, raw. Often, I had been alone for such endeavors, and though even now my companion was silent, we shared the big white afternoon clouds and glacier-laden peaks tipping across our view until the sky went dark.
Two days later, with hardly a meal or a bathroom stop, the jungle enveloped us. Thick, lush forest rose at a low angle into the clouds, and the air lay thick on my skin. The truck dropped us on the bank of the Tambopata in the only town the river passes through, Putina Punco, a tiny, ramshackle village clutching the steep jungle slope.
We chucked our bags and boats onto the river cobble, moving quickly with the help of the other hitchhikers in the back. Everyone wanted the ride to be over, and some were going far deeper into the jungle from there. Within a few minutes, the truck labored up the rocky track and was gone. I teetered on stones out into the water and I stood ankle-deep in the fabled Tambopata River. Cool water ran over my dirty, sweaty feet, and I smiled at my journey, the past flowing to a single second of presence, everything beyond unknown.
I turned and started helping Marco unwrap our craft. I placed my two blue rubber pontoons parallel to each other on the rocks and grabbed the air pump. Once the boats were inflated, I strapped a metal frame between them and adjusted the seat. Sliding the oars through the locks, I sat in the middle of my cataraft, testing its blades. The whole craft was fourteen feet long and maneuvered from the middle. A mesh floor hung from the frame, and bags would be strapped to the crossbars. It was a small boat for the job, but easy for travel and remarkably stable.
A man with an official look to him, namely a green vest, showed up. "You need a permit," he said with authority.
"Who needs a permit for a river that no one runs?" Marco took over in Spanish while I leaned against my raft. The guy told us that one of us could go one hour upstream to a town where we could pay someone, and he would turn a blind eye—maybe. So Marco climbed on the back of a motorcycle with this "ranger." He looked back at me with that scruffy face and those bright blue eyes as they rode off. The river quickly flowed over the sound of the engine, and in that instant I felt suddenly anxious that I might not see Marco again.
By early afternoon I sat in my cataraft, fully rigged, still waiting for Marco. The Tambopata River rocked the pontoons of my raft while staring locals surrounded me—first hordes of children, then only men. The bank was littered with garbage, and I sat there for nearly four hours watching one person after another come down to defecate in the river. Women did their laundry, bathed their children, and dumped their trash. Flies buzzed around the discarded Coke bottles and cans of condensed milk.
Marco had told me to wait as long as I could, but if he didn't show up by late afternoon, he said, he would meet me on river-left, past the last footbridge a few miles downstream. We had agreed it would be best to camp out of town. The ranger told us the river route to this footbridge was an easy hour of flat water and riffles. Marco never showed, so as the sun disappeared over a jungle ridge, I strapped his kayak to my raft and went alone to wait where he'd told me to.
Breaking the cardinal rule of rafting (never go alone), I pushed off the shore and headed around the bend. Condors circled and landed on the rocks in the river before me. Plain brown birds opened their wings, exposing wild red and orange markings that looked like the eyes of a dragon. River otters played in front of my boat. The air was thick, sweet, and loud with life. What a river, I thought. This was exactly what I had left my Oregon desert home for.
The short, "easy" run to our meeting point turned out to be made up of steep, rocky rapids. I was caught totally off guard and my out-of-control boat wrapped on exposed rocks in the middle of the raging rapid. First, I sat in sheer panic on the high side of my raft, stuck and helpless. The river kicked up and grabbed at my legs. I looked to my left and then my right. Sheer jungle wall, green knots of vegetation clinging to rock cliffs. No road. No people. No ropes. I screamed out, and the river drowned my voice. My mind froze in sudden terror. No one should run alone, especially on an unknown river, no matter what anyone tells you. It went against everything I'd been taught—ever. The river spat in my face and mixed with my tears and snot. I got mad. Turning fear into determination, I stepped off the boat, planted myself on the slick rock my boat was wrapped around, and started heaving on the frame. I pushed and pulled and screamed and cried, slipping off the rock into the tumbling whitewater and pulling myself back up. I didn't even feel the water. I had a death grip on the boat, heaving it back and forth, trying to free it from the rock. Suddenly, the raft let loose. I jumped in and grabbed for the oars, but the river was too fast. I just spun around and wrapped on another rock. I wept and slapped the rubber tube of the raft, then climbed back out to push against the river again.
Hours later, drenched, I pushed to the shore where Marco was supposed to meet me. It was dark, but I could see the footbridge faintly against the night sky. I pulled the boat out of the water and tied it with two ropes to a tree whose trunk was a good fifteen feet in diameter and whose top I could not see. I hoped Marco would come to the water and meet me. My heart pounded with the sudden thought that I was still alone. Clambering up the shore, I scanned for shapes in the field. I called out, then stopped, reluctant to bring attention to myself, and stood there alone in the darkness, terrified.
Gathering myself, I wandered back to my raft. Hoisting my bag out, I slipped in the mud and fell into a mass of leaves and roots. My skin crawling from that touch in the dark, I swatted the leaves away from my face. I rinsed myself in the river and found a flat place in the field. Ravenous, I dug through the kitchen barrel for the stove and something to eat. I found my stove locked up by the humidity and bad gas. I shoved it back into the kitchen barrel and riffled through for anything to eat. I snatched a Snickers bar from where it had fallen between the potatoes. Peeling the wrapper off the candy bar, I took a giant bite and set up my tent. I climbed in and listened to the jungle scream at me. My muddy, sweaty arms and legs stuck to each other, so I didn't move in an effort to ignore the discomfort.
I was wide awake at midnight when I heard a motorcycle buzz up to the edge of the field and Marco's voice speaking with the ranger. Marco's feet dragged as he moved toward the tent.
"Why didn't you fix dinner?" he asked. "Where's my tent?"
"The stove doesn't work. Eat a Snickers. Your tent is on the raft," I responded flatly and rolled over.
The next morning, I woke up to the stink of decomposition and lay there for a moment listening to the rain. I pulled on a T-shirt and shorts, grabbed the napkin map, then climbed out of my tent and unzipped Marco's. He sat up, and I crouched inside next to him. "I don't want to run this river. We can still get back to Cusco from here," I said and handed Marco the napkin.
"No way, Shuggi. We're going to run this river," he said, shaking his head.
I rested my chest on my knees and looked at Marco. I wasn't sure yet if I trusted the guy. I hated the way men called me Shuggi, like "sugar" or "honey" or "babe." We had met three months ago on another river in a different town and had run a few rivers together since. I knew him as well as any of the guys down there, but that didn't say much. I knew he'd rather be sleeping in my tent, but more importantly, I knew this expedition was more than I could fathom. I had always jumped into my life headlong—but I had an inkling that this was different. And I had fought my ego all night to be able to tell Marco I didn't want to run the river.
"You've got to trust me, Shuggi," he said, touching my shoulder. "I'll be there for you from here on out."
I thought about how the day before wouldn't have been nearly as terrifying if Marco had been there. And there was nothing as exhilarating as running into the unknown. I crumbled.
"Well, we need a new stove," I said. "The kerosene clogs mine."
"I'll go to town and get a new one." He unfolded himself and stepped out into the warm rain.
"Get a tarp, too. We can't be cooking in the tents."
Marco made the three-mile trek back to the village while I waited with the gear. Trapped in the white bubble of my tent, I felt the sweat drip down my eyelids and onto my copy of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. My mom had sent me the book when I left Oregon, right after my college graduation. I hadn't been much of a reader, but living in a foreign country for three months, with twelve more to go, made me crave my own language. So she sent Walden. I'm not sure if it was intentional on her part, but there in the dank, skyless snarl, that book filled me with a visceral longing for home.
For the previous four years, I'd been in one river canyon after another, and I'd finally hit some kind of claustrophobia. I was homesick for Oregon and for my family's farm. I wanted the sky that my dad worked against like a red ant, where we watched storms build for hours and flood east over the mountains before swinging north over the fields of fresh-cut hay. It was more than open land that I suddenly craved; I wanted to interact with more of nature's elements than just water. I wanted to get my hands in the earth. I also missed my father and felt remorseful that I'd left him to farm alone. I had always helped, because farming families pull together. But somewhere along the line I had developed the conviction that I needed to get out. I had abandoned my father and my family, and I wondered if I needed to go back.
I ignored these first stirrings of desire for a direction other than downstream. I rolled over in the tent and clutched Walden, letting Thoreau help me to accept going on as better than going back, despite the unknown, if only to "drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms." My mind went numb in the drone of drizzle on the tent fabric, and I ate one bite of bland bread at a time.
The next day, the river braided out around rocky islands, and I found clean lines through easy rapids. I was grateful to have Marco leading in his kayak. He looked down different channels and told me if they were clear and deep enough to run. Then, just as the jungle started to become comfortable, the Rio Colorado, a swollen red tributary on the right, slammed into the left bank of our chattery mountain stream and turned it into a massive red serpent. The river was thick with the crimson clay that is the base of the rainforest, and it was swollen to thirty times its previous size. It became one mighty current, river-wide. The helical flow ricocheting off the banks back to the center of the river obliterated the calm-water eddies that are a boater's refuge. My fourteen-foot raft felt like a pool toy against the amplified wave faces.
I swung out of control, hitting the outside of a right bend, when Marco saw the first break in what had become impervious jungle walls—a beach about the size of our two tents. He signaled too late for me to eddy out, and I missed the asylum. I slammed into the trees below, grabbing madly at their branches. Spiders bigger than my face darted through the limbs. Two of them fell onto my legs and were instantly washed off by the water that surged over the upstream tube of the cataraft. I did not let go.
For an hour, we worked to pull the raft back up through the current, trees, and spiders. The river whipped through dense brush and trees. Marco teetered down to me with a rope, careful not to become a noodle in the strainer. He tied on to the raft and braced so that I could let go of the tree and get onshore. We pulled together, searching for limbs to stand on beneath the muddy water. My feet slipped between cracks, and the current pulled me down repeatedly. We groped for branches and focused on the tiny beach until our feet were planted on solid ground.
The Tambopata flooded on a sunny day, no sight or smell or sound of rain as far as I could see. A sheet of rain came down at dark. Then it rained harder. I could feel the runoff from the forest gush under my tent. The beach felt like it was eroding beneath me, about to drop me into that gaping river. I stripped naked and darted out to dig a trench around the tents, which was cleaved into a two-foot-deep ditch by morning. It sounded like the ocean outside, eating away at our beach. I peered out the plastic window of my tent door into the dark and listened to the waves swat at the beach like big red claws. We were perched at the high-water mark with nowhere to go.
Excerpted from RIVER HOUSE by Sarahlee Lawrence Copyright © 2010 by Sarahlee Lawrence. Excerpted by permission of Tin House Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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