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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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.