Selecting Up the Items After Angela Madsen’s Demise on the ‘Row of Life’



I left Moab after a sunrise jaunt with Caroline. She handed me a bundle of wildflowers for protection, which I placed on the dash.

Now climbing from high desert up the backbone of the Rocky Mountains, I bundle up and slow down as a snowstorm swirls around me.

I’m on my way to Boulder to meet Peter at a bookstore on Pearl Street. It’s raining. This is the first time we’re meeting face-to-face after reams of emails and phone calls.

“Any update on Angela’s boat?” he asks, sitting down.

I shake my head.

“The ocean-drift experts said between March and June of this year it might hit the Philippines. It’s May. And, of all places, the Philippines—with its twenty-some-thousand miles of coastline, countless islands, bays, and other uninhabited nooks and crannies. That’s if the boat is even still floating. The boatbuilder said it’s ‘unsinkable.’ There’s no way to really know. And there’s no guarantee any of the cameras or footage will be on board, let alone usable.”

Peter scratches his head.

“Crazy,” he says. “Unfortunately, there’s no real story without that footage. At least, I can’t picture it.”

I nod. I tell him I’ve spent more time thinking about this than anyone can possibly imagine. What I’ve walked away with is that time is the only variable left to tell this story. He agrees.

I want to tell Peter how I’ve felt these last few months: wildly insecure and unfathomably sad about losing a friend and American hero whose extraordinary story deserves to be shared, and about how public and catastrophic the failure of my first film was. I want to tell him that I feel ready to re-engage but don’t know how. That I had it all and then lost it all and I probably shouldn’t be in charge of things anymore. That I would like to be mentored by someone who knows better, and not make documentaries about people who might die in the middle. That maybe he knows better than me—he must know better than me. What should I do next?

But I don’t say any of these things. I don’t want to ask him for anything. I no longer get the feeling that he has those answers.

The moment passes and two days later I wake up early and climb the second Flatiron before a ten-hour drive to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I feel lighter. Faster. Stronger. Better, somehow.

The ferocious winds of southern Wyoming face few obstacles other than my lonely car and the gas-station pump.

I drive through the Wind River reservation, steadily climbing in elevation. Dark clouds roll in and the temperature drops suddenly. I am winding, rolling, rising, alongside the river that pokes in and out of view. In a clearing up ahead, something is crossing the road. I slow down to see.

A wolf. My favorite animal and the first I’ve ever seen in person. It looks at me before darting across the road.

An hour later, in the thick of a snowstorm, I notice bazooka lenses pointed out of half-rolled windows of stopped cars, aiming high into the canopy of trees. I jump out to investigate. Up in the woods, a grizzly bear sits on his bottom, chewing on a branch, unfazed by the audience below.

Onward to Jackson. Hundreds of white-tailed deer and elk dot fields blanketed in fresh white. Red-tailed hawks soar overhead. All these beautiful and strange, wild and lonely things. I don’t know what to say other than there’s a place in me where these things go. The connective tissue between all this and little me, sometimes it feels like too much all at once. It’s nourishment that fills me all the way to the brim.

Which is maybe why when I get to my writer friend’s house where I had planned to have dinner and spend the night I am not hungry anymore. Salmon and potatoes, conversation and couch surfing no longer sound appealing. Maybe the girl before the road, the river, and the wolf would have stayed, but a lot can happen in a few hours, and I don’t feel like it anymore.

I find a motel up the road and crawl into cold sheets. I turn on my headlamp, pull out my notebook, and start to write. A dam busts. I write until I fall asleep. I write when I wake up. I write as I cook myself dinner on the carpet of a cheap motel in Idaho. I write down the stories of heartache I need to let go, ripping pages from my notebook and burning them with the last bit of butane in my camp stove. I write soaking in a hot spring by the Snake River, steam evaporating into thin air while cool rain taps on my bare shoulders. I write down the questions I realize I already know the answers to. I write by the fire in the evening and in the bathtub at night. In the silence, in the evening, it feels good to be alone. I write and I write and I write until, quite simply, I have nothing more to say. And have the courage, finally, to go home.

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