Sorting order - Descending by age
Mississippi River, Louisiana
600,000 cubic feet per second median flow
I was born in New Orleans, the oldest of three brothers. My father is a professor of mechanical engineering and mother is a microbiologist. My mother's theory of what went wrong with my brother Duplex and me is that our uterine environments were based on New Orleans tapwater, this tapwater containing significant concentrations of every flavor of toxic effluvia represented in the Mississippi watershed. Mother: "New Orleans is downstream of everything. Anything they dumped into that river wound up in that drinking water. And it was fluoridated."
My youngest brother Jupiter's uterine environment was composed of Connecticut wellwater, this preternaturally pure water deposited into a limestone aquifer by the last ice age. Jupiter is very handsome, six feet five inches in height, and now works as an aide in the United States Senate.
Brandywine River, Pennsylvania
700 cubic feet per second median flow
I learned to canoe and flyfish here, taught by my father. We would put our canoe in by this bridge and then Mom would pick us up in the station wagon in the parking lot of the Brandywine Museum, which almost exclusively housed artwork created by the Wyeth family. Andrew Wyeth apparently lived just up the road from us. It was during this period that he secretly created his "Helga" pictures with Helga Testorf, his neighbor.
Years later, when the Helga pictures were released, I had a very clear memory of her waving to me from the banks of the river, her hair in braids. This memory is almost certainly fabricated.
New River, Virginia
3,600 cubic feet per second median flow
The New River is the second oldest river in the world, and one of only two worldwide that float northwards. As teenagers, my friends and I would drink beer along the river then throw the empties into the water and shoot them with a .22 rifle until they sank. This isn't necessarily something I'd do now, but I'll confess it was an awful good time.
Our section of the river was the home of the Radford Arsenal, the largest munitions manufactory in North America. The Arsenal would explode on occasion - someone would come to work stoned and drive a fork lift of raw destabilized nitroglycerine into a wall. We lived twenty miles away on top of Brush Mountain, but the shockwave would blow every door in the house open. The river flowed directly through the Arsenal. The military had a 200-foot long chain-link gate that could be lowered across the entire river, presumably to secure the facility against amphibious attack. Along the banks, situated among limestone cliffs and sandbars were signs that read:
IN CASE OF EXPLOSION, REMAIN UNDERWATER UNTIL GLOW RECEDES FROM SURFACE.
Tar River, North Carolina
960 cubic feet per second median flow
One summer during college, I worked as a nature counselor for the Boys and Girls Club of Raleigh. Our summer camp was an abandoned golf course along the Tar River, surrounded by tobacco fields. During a thermal inversion, everything smelled of tobacco. It was like working inside a humidor. Every morning, when the bus would arrive at the camp, I would exit first and collect the dozen or so rat snakes and water moccasins that would be sunning themselves outside the bus.
I felt the campers, being from in the inner city, needed an experiential exposure to the natural world, so I would walk them down to the Tar and get them into the water, once I ran off the snakes, a sort of secular baptism. Of course, I didn't realize it at the time, but in 1990 the Tar was considered by the EPA to be the most polluted river in America. The river's watershed was lined with the waste lagoons of pork farms. The banks of the river were lined with poison ivy.
I developed some serious poison ivy. I had a theory that my body would eventually cultivate a resistance to the plant's irritant, urushiol. My legs started to swell. I fell into a fever state. I had a religious experience, during which I was visited by a celestial creature that suffused me with a sense of well being. The next visitor was my dead grandmother, who told me it was very important to call my father. Shouting over the phone, Dad told me to go to the doctor. It seems my chronic poison ivy, in combination with the most polluted river water in the nation, had matured into gangrene. The doctor couldn't believe it. He double checked with a reference book and a colleague who did her residency in Mexico and was familiar with "tropical pathologies."
I had been reading a lot of 19th-century exploration narratives at the time.
Colorado River, Texas
126,000 cubic feet per second median flow
I was walking down Guadalupe Street, the main drag next to the University of Texas in Austin - attending the South by Southwest Film Festival as the screenwriter of The Delicate Art of the Rifle. An independently produced feature film, Rifle is loosely based on the 1966 Charles Whitman "Texas Tower" shooting incident, which took place in Austin. Delta, the director of the film, was walking next to me. We were trying to make a midnight showing of this Japanese film with a Brian Eno soundtrack. I had never been to Austin before.
I saw a guy in a Bronco with loud, freeflow pipes look directly at me through his passenger window as he drove past. He pointed something at me. There was a bang. I thought it sounded like a .22, having spent many sweet hours in the company of the caliber. Despite this, I wasn't able to immediately connect the sound with the fact that I was slowly spinning down to the sidewalk. I had just been shot by the gentleman in the Bronco with the loud, freeflow pipes. Five other people were shot during the incident. The bullet bounced off my left hip, leaving behind a long cut and a bruise the size of a flapjack. Three of the other victims were rushed to the hospital. I got up off the sidewalk and walked to the movie.
In "The Delicate Art of the Rifle," I play the sniper, Walt Whitman. I got the idea for the short story, because my film professor had told me I bore a resemblance to Charles Whitman, and because Whitman and I were both Eagle Scouts. My first trip to Austin finds me the random victim of a mass shooting, with the Texas Tower directly over my shoulder.
Charles Whitman and I have the same birthday - June 23rd.
Hudson River, New York
350,000 cubic feet per second median flow
I was in New York to talk about the film. After the opening screening, there was a college TV crew there from Columbia's journalism school. The film was going to be there all week, I'd never been interviewed for television, the gal doing the interview looked like Tinkerbell. I rattled on for ten minutes that would be cut down to two and a half. When it was over, Broadcast Journalism Major Tinkerbell asked me if she could buy me a drink and ask me some personal questions. I said sure.
She bought me the drink and started to talk. She talked for two hours. Tink had gone to an exclusive east coast liberal arts college. Her ex-boyfriend became mentally unbalanced and decided to kill her. He collected guns, so he was very well armed. He tracked her all over campus, but she was sick and in the infirmary and he couldn't find her. The ex-boyfriend found Tink's roommate and killed her instead. He barricaded himself in Tink's dorm room with her dead roommate, where he was finally killed by a police sharpshooter.
Tink no longer looked like Tinkerbell. Tink's face had become the emotionless mask of a blonde, pixie-haired Christine Amanpour reporting from the war-torn Big Nowhere. Tink asked me how I could write a comedy about a tragedy. Tink wondered if I could explain how someone could become capable of taking a human life.
I fumbled like a moron for 45 minutes to her two hours. There was no escape. The bill for the story had come due.
I said that comedy might be the only appropriate response to tragedy.
Tink sat in judgement as a porcelain-faced cipher.
I said that the narrative was more psychological than literal.
Tink sat in judgment of my weak self-justification.
I said some mushmouthed litcrit garbage about the postmodern condition.
Tink sat there as a representative of the dead, the dead who had appointed her as their mannequin-like revenant proxy with machine gunner's eyes. She had been appointed to demand an explanation.
I owned up. It was a confession. I said that the narrative was pathological. I had a pathological preoccupation with Charles Whitman, and that my adolescence had been eaten up with revenge fantasies and dreams of violence, and that maybe the whole damn narrative was more a symptom than a story and that I was just another white male hillbilly dipshit fixated on the cinematic death fantasy of going out in a clash-with-authority hail of bullets.
Tink looked me in the eyes and smiled. It was like the lights being turned back on. She told me that she loved the movie. She thanked me for making it. She thanked me for talking with her, and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
Tinkerbell sits in judgment over all of us.
Los Angeles River, California
120 cubic feet per second median flow
The Los Angeles River used to be a river, but is now an Army Corp of Engineers project built out of concrete raceways and levees that run fifty-three miles from the head of the San Fernando Valley to the Port of Long Beach, where it issues to the Pacific surrounded by container ships.
At the foot of the hill where my house is situated are the Glendale Narrows. They are the only part of the river that runs year round, because the sandstone floor of the San Fernando Aquifer rises to just inches below the surface, forming a saddle as it spans the gap between Mount Washington and the far eastern edge of the Santa Monica Mountains. For this very reason, this area of the Los Angeles Basin has been inhabited for over twenty-thousand years.
Laid off from my day job, I spend a lot of time down by the river, where the trabajadores pitch their hammocks in the reeds. The Glendale Narrows are filled with long sandbars of round white monzogranite and sandstone arroyo rocks. The river's flow sorts these rocks by size. Some of these rocks are the size of golf carts, some the size of grapefruit. Then come marbles tapering off into rough sand. I get the idea to send people these rocks in the mail.
I post an offer to a website. Send me a postcard and I will send you an arroyo rock - your arroyo rock. I get cards from all over the country. It takes me several days to locate all the rocks. I photograph them, mark their positions with my GPS, then carefully wash and package them.
At the post office, the postal clerk wants to know what's in the boxes. I tell him geological samples. He asks if I'm a geologist. I tell him no, these are rocks from the Los Angeles River.
He asks, "Why anyone would want a rock from the Los Angeles River?"
I honestly don't know.
Tug Fork River, West Virginia
1,300 cubic feet per second median flow
Last summer, my brother Jupiter and I drove from our hometown of Blacksburg, Virginia to the town of Matewan, West Virginia, in Mingo County. Matewan was the site of the gun battle between striking coal miners and a gang of corporate mercenaries from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, the opening clash of the 1920 Coal War. My brother and I had been reading about the war for years and finally had a chance to visit.
The drive from Blacksburg took hours longer than we expected. The area had been hard hit by the worst flooding in one hundred years. Hydrologists suspect it may have been caused by mountain top removal mining. The practice is just what it sounds like: high explosives are used to blast the top off a mountain and expose the coal beneath. The rock and trees that were once the mountaintop are referred to as "overage." This overage is dumped into the nearby draws and hollows, disrupting and congesting them. The locals were pretty sure this is what made the flooding so bad. Every house we drove past in the deep valley had safety orange FEMA numbers spray painted on the side - condemned as part of the disaster zone, these homes were being purchased by the federal government. The people there weren't sentimental. The flood had answered a lot of prayers. Uncle Sam was going to pay them to leave Mingo County.
The Red Cross was set up downtown, and I decided to donate blood. The phlebotomist hooked me up, and I began to exsanguinate into the plastic pint bag. My brother Jupiter headed up Main Street to find us some lunch.
Things transitioned. Suddenly I was back in the car and everything was glowing golden. There were trees everywhere, big oaks and elms and maples, all the deciduous favorites I had been missing in California, and they were throwing off a yellow glow that irradiated everything with warmth. There was sunlight playing on the limestone blue-green water of the river, and I felt great - free and at peace. Jupiter was at the wheel and he looked over to smile at me, and it seemed totally correct that he should be driving me to my destination. We were coming up on a brilliant green bridge that was going to take us over to the other shore, towards the valley I knew was just the other side of the gap, filled up with the light of the sun.
When I came to, I was staring up at white lights and white coats. I was very disoriented, and asked what state I was in. Was I in California? Was I in Virginia? The doctor spoke.
"Forget about California, we need you here. Come on back to us, son. Come on back. We need you here in West Virginia now. You ain't done yet."