The author pondering her marriage on the Green River, Utah
The author pondering her marriage on the Green River, Utah
The author on Utah’s Green River, pondering her marriage (Photo: Florence Williams)

He Divorced Me on Land—but I Left My Marriage on the River

Reeling from her husband’s request to divorce after 25 years of marriage and two kids, Florence Williams was experiencing debilitating grief. An accomplished reporter, she decided to explore the science of heartache to see if she could find a cure. In this excerpt from her new book, ‘Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey,’ she heads out for a 120-mile solo paddle on Utah’s Green River, with a too heavy portable toilet and a shattered heart.

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Heartbreak is the February pick for the Outside Book Club. You can learn more about the book club here, or join us on Facebook to discuss the book.

My biggest problem at the moment was the portable toilet. It was just too heavy. It was weighing down the bow of my canoe, which was already loaded with 80 pounds of water and a double-walled cooler filled with fairly ridiculous items like coconut milk, rib-eye steaks, and cage-free liquid whole eggs. Also, I’d brought a fetching beach parasol. But why does something you shit in in the desert have to be made of ammunition-grade 20-millimeter steel? It doesn’t! I just needed some sturdy plastic bags. The ill-conceived toilet was one of many small and giant mistakes that had led me to this moment, cursing alone in the wilderness. There were the mistakes in my marriage, the cosmic mistake (to my mind) of the divorce, the wrong men I’d fallen for in the year since my separation, the friendships I’d overburdened. All of these were, yes, weighing me down. If I thought about the heavy-shit metaphors too long, my head hurt.

Most recently, there was the poor decision, made because I was possibly having a hot flash, to launch this leg of my journey a day early, at 7 P.M., in fading light, just above a small rapid, in a canoe that felt like it weighed a thousand pounds. Then again, it was August and it was 97 degrees in Green River, Utah. Even a teenage boy would be having a hot flash. Camping at the shadeless town park was an unbearable option. Running a desert river for a month in the height of summer was probably another bad decision. But here I was. An outfitter named Craig had rented me the 15-foot canoe with a broken thwart, splintering gunwales, and the tanker toilet. The boat was the color of lipstick you wear when you’re trying too hard. It did, however, match the parasol.

“Just remember,” he’d said, “if you don’t know knots, make lots!” He laughed, snapped a picture of me surrounded by my gear, and drove off in his air-conditioned pickup.

To be clear, I do know how to tie knots, and I generally know what I’m doing in the wilderness. But my own canoe lay upside down in Washington, D.C., where it petulantly awaited better days and where, for much of the last year, I also petulantly lay, often right side down, after my husband decided to leave our 25-year marriage because, among other things, he said he needed to go find his soul mate. Still, nothing in my prior canoeing experience had fully prepared me for the reality that I could barely alter the trajectory of this boat once I got it into the river. Only a few small inches of freeboard lay between the water and the top of my gunwales. I stared at the approaching shoals. I glared at the toilet, glinting like a smug brigadier in the twilight.

That first night alone by the interstate after nearly tipping over was filled with dread and self-recrimination. What was I doing out here, by myself, in the desert in August, with a freighter for a canoe?

The river split into two channels. I chose the one on the right, but the current grew fast, shallow, and bumpy. The canoe scraped over some rocks, then some more, and started to list sideways. I pushed my feet back into my river shoes and hopped out into the shin-deep water, figuring I’d have an easier time keeping the boat upright and off the rocks if I were outside it. My heart was beating fast, and I chastised myself for not tying down my gear better. The boat bumped along, upright, and I jumped back in. I knew I needed to pull over and camp, soon, before it got any darker. I grounded the boat onto the first available scruffy gravel bar. For my first night ever spent alone in the wilderness, I’d be camping within sight and earshot of the interstate.

I spent the night awake, berating myself for existing in the first place, then berating my ex, and then scheming about how to jettison the toilet, because there was no way I was hauling that thing for the next two weeks.

Florence selfie in hat
Williams went in search of ways to let go of her marriage. (Florence Williams)

“Remind me why it’s good for me to be alone?” I had asked my therapist some months earlier, for maybe the third time.

“Being alone is like a muscle,” said Julia. “One should exercise it, because you never know when you’ll need it, and you want it to be working.”

Right. But. Plenty of people marry young and stay married and don’t really ever exercise this muscle. Must I? Apparently yes, because I wasn’t one of those people anymore. I needed practice.

As David Sbarra, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, had explained to me: “We start feeling better after breakups as we start rediscovering our sense of self. This is a core engine of recovery. A separation experience violates your meaning systems and the expectations you have for life, so how do you get things sorted out? How do you narrate the experience?”

I told him that a few months out from the split, I was still having trouble making sense of what had happened and what was going on. I mentioned I was forming plans for a big wilderness river trip, and he approved. Then again, he lives out west, and he understands the compulsion to seek solace in wild places.

“Being in nature is about expansion and getting outside of yourself,” he said. “The doing is the key. The ones who shut down and withdraw, these are the people with difficulty navigating the end of marriage.”

According to neuroscientist Shane O’Mara at the University of Dublin, the phrase “walking it off” is a real phenomenon. The author of In Praise of Walking, he explained that moving around can help prevent depression, as well as a host of arterial and metabolic woes. As blood pumps and new neuronal growth factors flow, we become more creative, more self-aware, more ourselves. “A simple, collateral effect of rising and moving,” he writes, “is that activity spreads across more distant brain regions—increasing the likelihood that half-thoughts and quarter-ideas, sitting below consciousness, can come together in new combinations.”

I’d been walking a lot—four or five miles a day—but figured the idea should also apply to paddling, another long-distance, rhythmic, bilateral motion. This was not a conscious goal while planning my trip—I just craved the activity. I had to move.

As plans for a long wilderness trip formed in my head, I reached out to Dave Strayer. A cognitive neuroscientist and professor at the University of Utah, he is a powerhouse in his field, but he’s most content when camping out in the desert. A proponent of the so-called three-day effect I’d written about before—the idea that three days in nature can jump-start our creativity and soothe our city-addled souls—he was someone I knew would be supportive. As a river runner, he would also, I knew, offer some practical advice.

I told him I wanted to find a river long enough to sustain many weeks of paddling, some with friends and some all by myself.

He raised his eyes.

“A solo?”

“Yes.” I’d been thinking hard about this, about the need to find courage, to learn self-reliance, and to confront my dread of being alone. After decades of marriage and many springs and summers paddling with either my father or my husband, I needed to learn, both literally and metaphorically, how to paddle my own boat.

“Interesting,” mused Dave.

We discussed the pros and cons of rivers we both knew and had run before in Utah, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho. “Do you want to look inward or do you want to look outward?” he asked, almost rhetorically.

“Um, inward?” But I also wanted adventure. I wanted comfortable adventure, if that wasn’t too much of an oxymoron.

“Oh, if you’re alone, you’ll have adventure,” he said. He confessed he’d spent only one night alone in the wilderness. “That was enough,” he laughed. And he was a Boy Scout leader. I had never been out alone.

I wanted to learn how to take care of myself and learn how to be alone. I wanted to cultivate beauty and experience and awe. I wanted, finally, to say goodbye to my marriage.

The Green is the largest tributary of the Colorado River. It starts as a trickle in the snowmelt of western Wyoming, but gathers plenty of force as it carves its way through canyons in northwestern Colorado and then makes a long, lonely descent south through most of Utah before merging with the larger river a ways above the Grand Canyon. I’d run parts of it before—the broiling, fun Lodore Canyon, which takes about four days to paddle, and Desolation Canyon, a weeklong trip I first canoed with my father. But I’d never ventured south of that, and Dave had.

To start in Wyoming and paddle most of the river would take at least a month, he said. It would make the most sense to run the more challenging whitewater stretches with other people, both for reasons of safety and to help me carry supplies so I could paddle a light, small boat. But for the last two weeks, the river slows considerably as it flows through two spectacular canyons above the confluence with the Colorado River. I could switch to a solo canoe big enough to carry all my own water, food, and gear.

I spent many hours over the winter and spring talking to river people, poring over maps, and cajoling friends and family members, both with and without their own boats, to join me at various points. I started thinking about food, equipment, and the various risks of going into a roadless wilderness.

And then there was the solo piece. How would that be, alone in the desert, for weeks? I had no clue. I called rock climber Aleya Littleton, one of the adventure therapists I’d met on a story I had reported about trafficking survivors.

She said, wisely, that undertaking a solo is not the same thing as being alone, because—ideally—you feel accompanied by the love and support of friends and family, as well as by the lively presence of the natural world. I would have a loose ground team; I’d make friends, in a sense, with some new creatures—mammals and birds—and I would have the time to enjoy them.

And yet, the solo piece would be significant. “All your mistakes and your accomplishments out there are your own,” she said. “You can’t blame or credit anyone else. It’s a reminder or a reacquaintance of what it is to be you.”

A few days before traveling to Utah, back in D.C., my husband had come by to talk over some final points in the divorce agreement. I asked his advice about fishing. Our 16-year-old son would be joining me for the first leg of the trip and wanted to fish the clear waters below Flaming Gorge dam. Which rods, which leaders, which flies? Our family gear was still mostly jumbled together, and I was sorting it out. I had my own rod, but I’d used it on small Montana rivers, and the Green would likely demand something sturdier. As with the kids and the dog and the pickup truck, we’d decided to share custody of our raft and most of the essential river gear, which we keep stored in my brother Berkeley’s garage in Colorado in exchange for use of it. Ironically, perhaps, the raft and the oars had been a wedding present, so it was communal property in the purest sense. My ex was helpful and matter-of-fact. He even tied a special leader onto the fishing line.

“It feels weird doing a river trip without you,” I said, zipping the rod cases back up.

“Yeah, that’s why I want to help with the rods,” he said, “and Berkeley knows the boat.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean our divorce. It still feels strange and wrong. It’s just such a nuclear option.” It was too late to be dragging this out again, but it wanted to be said among the jumble of shared waders, duffels, and sad dry flies.

He nodded and shrugged and got into his car in the rain. He was driving to his girlfriend’s house for the weekend.

The author soaking up solitude on the Green River
The author soaking up solitude on the Green River (Florence Williams)

What did I really want to do on the Green River? I wanted, of course, to be fixed—to transform into a woman ready to take on the rest of her life, to launch my boat as a means of launching myself into a better future. I wanted to individuate away from my moribund, fossilized identity as part of a couple. To do that, I wanted to access my bravery, something women of my generation aren’t often taught. I wanted to transmute my fear into something else, something like what I had glimpsed in the first part of the river trip with family and friends while paddling through the biggest rapids of Lodore and Desolation Canyons: momentum, power, agency. I wanted to learn how to take care of myself and learn how to be alone. I wanted to cultivate beauty and experience awe. I wanted, finally, to say goodbye to my marriage.

That first night alone by the interstate after nearly tipping over was filled with dread and self-recrimination. What was I doing out here, by myself, in the desert in August, with a freighter for a canoe? Even in gentle riffles, a canoe could capsize, and it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to swim this beast to shore by myself. Flipping was not an option. But now, acknowledging the possibility, I saw I would need to keep the emergency beacon I’d brought along on my body constantly, along with some food and tablets for purifying water. Being alone, I was realizing, was more than anything about not fucking up. I would have to tie the gear down at all times, secure the boat perfectly at night, camp away from washes where flash floods could appear with no warning, not cut myself, not break a limb, not light the beach on fire.

It was clear that while I might find moments of peace, I needed to be fully alert all the time. Hypervigilance is, I remembered, the physical state of loneliness. Now I was learning the literal, evolved reason for it: survival. We weren’t supposed to be alone in the wilderness, and if we were, we needed every sense turned on high, every task list made, followed, and double-checked. I’d been wanting to reinhabit myself by experiencing solitude, to turn my loneliness and grief into something more generative.

But now I was worried that the opposite was more likely: turning solitude into loneliness. That night by the highway, about to enter Labyrinth Canyon, I was feeling more vulnerable, not less.

I managed to get rid of the toilet when I came upon a shuttle driver the next day at a private boat ramp. I had wag bags, and those would do. With the canoe lighter, I felt better. I started to make good time in the mornings, resting sometimes to glide along in the slivers of shade against the shiny red cliffs, sip my green tea from my thermos, talk to a heron I’d named Gabby, or some other Gabby, when she appeared. Che cosa, Gabriella?

I was encountering plenty of awe: sunrises, the flitting dance of wrens, the striations of Triassic rock. The third morning, a beaver swam around me and slapped his tail five times. The sounds cracked like gunshots. Was he issuing a warning? Wanting a call-and-response? Beavers are ornery little characters. But I admired them for their resurgence. Once nearly wiped out from North American waters by trappers and then ranchers, they are finally now appreciated for their industriousness, utility, and charm. They were, I decided, worthy role models.

I found it a surprising relief not to talk to anyone. How much time we spend in social grooming! There was now no gossip, no small talk, no assuring, contriving, negotiating, coercing, managing, mollifying, texting, sexting, posting, replying, forwarding, liking.

After making 12 or 15 miles by early afternoon, I’d scout for any tree. Most days, I got lucky and found one or two where I could string up my hammock. I’d swim in the lukewarm river, and by 3 P.M. I’d become a bat, hanging lifeless. I drank a lot of water. I was finally learning to meditate. It was so quiet I could hear the inside of my head, literally, a subtle high-pitched whirring. Was this the normal sound of a human head? I’d never heard it before.

I found it a surprising relief not to talk to anyone. How much time we spend in social grooming! There was now no gossip, no small talk, no assuring, contriving, negotiating, coercing, managing, mollifying, texting, sexting, posting, replying, forwarding, liking. How much endless space there was in the day, suddenly. I started feeling less clenched by fear, though not unguarded. The human female’s main predator is the human male. But with no roads here, I wasn’t worried about that. In camp, I swam and lay about mostly unclothed, talking to myself, picking the silt out of my belly button. I liked it.

In a country that valorizes the lone hero and ascribes to self-reliance the highest virtues and achievements (looking at you, Emerson), the woman-alone-in-the-wilderness narrative is shockingly new. It is, perhaps rightly, the next frontier in female power. In most parts of the world, still, to be a woman traveling alone across remote country is to invite peril.

Thanks to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, there were now all sorts of women self-actualizing in nature. It has become almost as predictable a trope as the male version. But for my generation, it wasn’t predictable at all. We grew up reading The Right Stuff, which is about a bunch of dudes carousing, breaking the sound barrier, and then blasting off into space. To venture safely alone as a woman remains the rarest of privileges.

“Let yourself fall apart,” my sister-in-law Lisa had said before I left.

“Spend time out there thinking about what really went wrong,” said my therapist.

“But isn’t that ruminating?” I’d responded, already resisting it. “The same agonizing thoughts over and over?”

“It’s not ruminating if you can find new insights,” she pushed back.

“I don’t trust my insights.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” she said.

It was homework, and I needed to get on with it. I was dreaming about my ex-husband every night. He was waiting to be reckoned with.

Williams’ canoe, ready for action
Williams’s canoe, ready for action (Florence Williams)

Near the midpoint of my trip, I was aiming for a campsite my map said had trees. Because the tall cottonwoods are so rare in these canyons, they make camp easy to find. Paddling in, I noticed that across the river a giant slab of rock had flaked off the tall cliff and landed in the shape of a perfect heart, mottled and fractured around the edges. Bird poop dribbled over the top, but it was solid and intact, flashing like a neon sign over the water. I was delighted no one else had claimed the spot.

There weren’t many groups on the river. I’d seen a few, including some Boy Scouts who’d passed me earlier. I set up my hammock, meditated, and read C. S. Lewis on grief, written after his wife died. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” he wrote. “I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning.”

If I couldn’t find some measure of stillness here, I’d never find it. At this mottled-heart camp, I was beginning to inhabit the quiet. The heat and silence, the weight of ancient rock, the very slow river. I was stripped of disguises, clean as a bone. There was no place to hide from my memories.

Why was it so hard to confront my marriage? That evening, per a friend’s suggestion, I wrote my ex a goodbye letter and thanked him for the many things I’d learned with him and the things we shared and the good ways we’d loved. I wrote about the ways I felt hurt and apologized for the things I’d done wrong. Sitting on a rock outcrop high above the river, I burned it in a frying pan: a marriage crisping like a slice of bacon.

Crying, I cast the smoldering ash into the current. One blackened scrap flitted back to me. It contained just one word: sweet.

I found myself resisting saying goodbye to the marriage, to him, to the life I’d enjoyed. I opened a notebook. I made a list of all the things I loved about him, and then I wrote down all the things I didn’t love about him. What I admired: his apparent ease, his sunniness, his competence, his enthusiasm for adventure. I loved our family unit, that these kind, tall, lanky humans were all my people, and I loved the happy delusion—such a delusion—that we were surrounded by a special force field of safety and fine weather. What I didn’t admire: I won’t enumerate his failings here except to say the biggest—the one I didn’t miss at all—was his ability to make me feel that I wasn’t quite worthy of him. That was bad enough, but the bigger problem was that I had started believing it. And as long as I still believed it, the worse my life looked alone.

In a country that valorizes the lone hero and ascribes to self-reliance the highest virtues and achievements (looking at you, Emerson), the woman-alone-in-the-wilderness narrative is shockingly new. It is, perhaps rightly, the next frontier in female power.

It didn’t help that my main work, per Julia, was supposed to be examining my role in the marriage’s troubles. At camp, I probed deeply into my flaws, my failings, my resentments, and my neuroses. There were so many. I’d been impatient with his needs and incapable of effectively conveying my own. I was tired, tightly wound, always busy, not spontaneous enough. If he couldn’t love me, maybe no else could either. My mood found reflection in the landscape, as it often does. What I saw, perched alone on a small ledge at the bottom of a cavernous Triassic bathtub, was a brittle emptiness.

In cataloging my failings, I’d missed an important step, although I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t yet realize it was OK to be broken, that it was even, perhaps, essential to becoming a more porous animal capable of far more real love than I had known was possible. It would still take some time for me to learn that our flaws are not the problem; rather, it is the failure to forgive them—in ourselves and in others—that trips up our hearts.

One warm morning, a sinuous white-sand beach in the shade called out. I pulled over for some naked stretching and a swim. A raven became very voluble overhead. Its aria echoed through the rock walls upriver. CAW caw caw caw CAW caw caw caw. I lay face down on a towel, mesmerized, heart to heart with the cool core of the canyon.

On this river I had laughed out loud often, watching the lizards scamper around and the beavers dart under the water and waking one rainy morning to find the river had turned a brilliant and wholly unexpected shade of red in the night. I would miss these rhythms and surprises, but I found myself leaning toward home. I remembered one night on Lodore when I’d tried to sleep outside alone on the tarp while my daughter, who had joined for an earlier section of the trip, stayed in the tent. It grew windy. Sand was blowing everywhere. I’d felt agitated. Anxious about the upcoming solo and with my hair full of grit, I gathered up my stuff and trudged into the tent. I nestled in next to my daughter and slept hard.

I’d come here to find some time for hard reflection, and I’d done that. But I was ready for my dear ones.

After two weeks and 120 miles, the last morning I woke up early to paddle a short stretch to the Green’s confluence with the Colorado, my pickup spot. With one water taxi showing up every few days and the water level dropping, this wasn’t a day to sleep in. Today the river was swollen with new rain, so there would be no problem with the jet boat getting in. Marveling at the water’s new deep-red shade, I was startled by how soon the confluence came up. I gasped. And then, naturally, cried. Two of the mightiest rivers in the West slowly twisted together like lovers from different directions.

I had seen it once before, from a mountain bike on an old canyon road up high on a butte, years ago with friends, in Canyonlands National Park. Now I was in the middle of it, baptized, washed through, birthed out. I paused for a long moment in the merging currents in what felt like the pulsing power spot of the universe. The rivers seemed particularly badly named—the Green River was running the color of raw salmon, while the Colorado, coming in from the east, flowed green. It was easy to feel the dynamism of the landscape, the sense that these rivers and their basin are always changing, whether over millions of years or the course of 24 hours.

Life here is literally fluid. Another lesson from the river. Nothing stays the same for very long, and sometimes things change suddenly when we least expect it.

This is an excerpt from Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey, by Florence Williams (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.).

Lead Photo: Florence Williams

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