The River… It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord! the times we’ve had together!”
Three o’clock in the morning, banging on his mom’s door. He wanted but two things: money for drugs and drugs. He lied to her— he owed someone money. He was in trouble. They were after him. He needed money now.
She slammed the door.
“Black tar was the last hurrah…I looked over to my right, in the window. Both my sisters were looking at me. And I just lost it. I curled up in the fetal position right by the door, and I just started bawling. And I gave up that night. To see my sisters eyes? And to see the pain? The sorrow? That’s what it took.”
“That’s what it took.”
Twenty-six years old. He checked himself into a rehab center for six months. Stayed twelve.
“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.”
“I wanted to run through the grass again. Barefoot. I wanted to get dirty again. Work in the garden like my grandma did. I was constantly moving, moving. I wanted to plant roots. I wanted to grow. My grandmother’s garden? We’d grab handfuls of cherry tomatoes and eat ‘em hot. As a kid, I’d rip off all my clothes. In the pitch black of night. And I’d run across the grass. I skinny dipped. Just a kid, a kid bein’ free,” he smiles, body relaxed, a foot on his knee, beer in hand.
“I care about the planet. I care about the environment. I care about myself. I’m not a hundred percent conscious about everything. But I’m learning.”
Earlier in the day, he had taken me to one of his favorite spots on the river, to fish. To talk. As his truck rolled slowly across the valley floor, wheels crunched quietly on gravel. We paused. Lowering his tinted window more, he pointed to an osprey on a power pole. The body of large trout arced across the top of the pole. I watched its flesh bounce and shiver as the osprey’s beak ripped at it from time to time. Sustenance. Its nest was a few hundred yards to the east. Within, its mate sat in stillness, head and eyes darting. Around us, summer tousled the waves of emerald grass gone to golden seed. Clumsy grasshopper wings clacked, perforating the hot afternoon. Along the opposite bank, a blue heron rose, gathering dignity about its broad shoulders, and ghosting low up the river. This. So real. So peaceful, this wild life on a river.
“Home! That was what they meant, those caressing appeals, those soft touches wafted through the air, those invisible little hands pulling and tugging, all one way.”
Home had never been peaceful. His Cherokee mother left him at two years old, and his six-month-old baby brother, to find herself, to save herself. To Become, so she could be a mother. What does that do to wee ones, young enough for the breast still?
A virulent stepmother filled her space. (“She had a mouth on her!”) She became the doctor’s wife. Assumed the country club life. She of Choctaw blood— Indian blood— took issue with his own Cherokee roots.
“Growing up, my stepmom always denied it, that it was ‘never true, you can’t prove it, you don’t have a card!’ But she does. She has a card.”
Cherokee, Choctaw, Anglo. He hated the fighting.
“I still call her ‘mom’, from two years old. But why? Is it because I want something?”
Growing up, he hated Oklahoma City, hated their life. He wanted out.
“I just couldn’t live there anymore; the dynamics of everything. The snobs. The super conservatives. There was a bubble protecting everybody. But I was young. I didn’t have money. Didn’t have my own place. I was living with my parents. This was what we did. I never wanted to go back. I always wanted to stay with my mom. So I tried and tried. It worked out. I lived with her. A little bit.”
Ley lines in Scotland. Studies with Maori in New Zealand. Plant medicine in Mexico. Native ceremony in Tahlequah, the heart of Cherokee country. As his mother grew wings, she shared her experiences and insight with him, to strengthen him. He did his first past-life regression at fourteen, expanding mind, sense of self.
“She was also a Reiki master by then and working on me. Hands-off stuff, and I could feel it.”
As his mother grew in her power, she worked to empower him.
“We’d walk on fire. We’d have big pow wows. We’d start a big bonfire. Spread it all out, about twenty feet, ten feet wide. We’d walk on fire, my whole family. Multiple people did this. Some people burnt themselves. Some people rationalize the walking, ‘It’s because you have calloused feet.’ Some people say, ‘It’s just a mindset.’ My mom and her friends introduced me to Native American sweats, a powerful purification process that I came to really enjoy.”
By his twenties, with training, he’d become a Fire Tender.
“I understood that everything was connected. I understood good and evil, light and dark. I lived it. I experimented. I’m the guy that pokes stuff— take it apart, put it back together— it’s what I do, still, today. I just hatched a bunch of long-horned beetle larvae to see the change, the metamorphosis. Because I wanted to see. And I can relate that with life itself.”
He scrolls through a series of photos in his iPhone.
“Isn’t that awesome?” he chuckles, still fascinated by the beetles. “I pushed the limits, growing up. I was curious. I wanted to see what’s out there. I always wanted to be like St. Francis of Assisi. Animals coming to me. Having that understanding.”
“The river of truth is always splitting up into arms that reunite. Islanded between them, the inhabitants argue for a lifetime as to which is the mainstream.”
He was stuck, astride a cultural gulf, a foot in two worlds: the spirit world with his mom and what had turned into “Fuck you, world!” at home, with his stepmom and what he felt to be a superficial way of living and being. The dissonance in his bifurcated life would not be without consequence.
“I was ornery growing up. I lit fires. Just to see.”
Where was peace? Where was beauty?
“Today, to him gazing south with a newborn need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; today, the unseen was everything. The unknown, the only real fact of life.”
He’d fished Oklahoma lakes and ponds with his paternal grandad long as he can remember. He grew up hearing wild stories from the family about his grandad’s fishing lodges in the Amazon and northern Saskatchewan.
“I think I was around seven when I started going with my mom and cousins.”
Fishing became the lifeline.
Desperate to get out of the city, to get away from the conflict, away from the failures of his first few decades, he moved to the source, the Colorado Rockies, where rivers start and trout swim and lucrative pay in the oil fields could buy freedom.
“I don’t even want to say it, ‘drilling rig’. ‘The oil fields’. I cannot stand it. And a lot of people can’t. I’m completely 100% against it. Everything about it. And I always have been. It was about the money.”
He worked with rough necks who treated themselves as poorly as they treated the land. Working as a mechanic, he pushed the reality of his own participation to a dark corner, where it lurked, weighing heavily on heart and soul. And like his life back home, he was again torn in two directions.
In an industry rampant with drug abuse, he was assigned as safety coordinator.
“I administered the hair follicle tests, UAs, breathalyzers. But I was a mechanic, too: they hate this guy, but they love this guy,” he says, holding each hand up. “They ’re gonna lie to this guy, but their not gonna lie to this guy. They would hide from this guy.”
“It created a lot of stress. Nobody wanted to be found out. Everyone wanted to make big money, drive nice cars, party. And I wasn’t about that anymore. I wanted to live healthier and the majority of people in the oil field do not live healthy. At all. I mean, we’re talking big dudes, sittin’ there chain smoking, just not happy. Money hungry. Money and power, really.”
Working on rotation, he lived for river time, pretty much fishing half the year.
“On my days off? The fishing— and everything that had to deal with that— consumed me. The Colorado, Roaring Fork, the Frying Pan. I’d be the first one up on the Pan, driving from Rifle. I was there, every day. I was hitting everything, hard. I’d get stuck up there in the winter time. By myself.”
Moving with the drilling camps to the Dakotas, he found himself walking the landscape of the Battle at Killdeer, known as “largest [expedition] ever carried out by the U.S. army against Indians”. Sixteen hundred indigenous chased from their land; women and children left behind, massacred; teepees and food-stores burned; 3,00+ dogs, slaughtered.
Contemplating the horror, feeling spirit through the land, he was overcome with emotion. In the retelling, he moves in and out of first- and third-person, staccato, reliving it.
“This is not where I want to be. In the oil field. Here. On this mountain. This is powerful. There’s something to be said here— a lot of history. A lot of misery. It took me over the edge. Things like that added up. It got frustrating. This is a cluster fuck. I’m out of here.”
As he shares this memory of leaving 13 years in the oil fields, it is now early evening. Here, in our moment, in contrast, finches flit delicately from sunflower to sunflower, seed tops bent with the fullness of sun, earth, water. The evening’s last bees bumble about in the poppies and borage. A sprinkler sends its arc of life in the distance.
“It was raping the earth,” he says. Voice flat, distant. “It was dirty. People hid things. It wasn’t healthy.”
He wanted the beauty in the world. The dignity of a life lived simply and well, on his own terms. And so he turned to the woman who had given him life, the woman who empowered him, bestowed roots and heritage. He reached out to his guide. His mom.
“The river moves, but it follows a path. When it tires of one journey, it rubs through some rock to forge a new way. Hard work, but that’s its nature.”
He needed to journey, to expand his heart, to wrap self-worth in harmony. Together, they met with Dr. Octavio Rettig Hinojosa in Mexico, where he is pioneering the use of Bufo alvarius venom for healing. Collected from the Sonoran Desert Toad by milking the parotoid gland, bufo venom contains the psychotropic hallucinogen 5-MeO-DMT. The venom is dried and then smoked under guidance.
“My mom was involved in a treatment center in San Miguel where they implement this stuff for severely addictive cases— pretty much shocking their systems to get them out of it. That’s pretty damn cool.”
And he went for it.
“I wiped expectation; I was nervous. I was going with the flow. I watched four people do it before me. It was different for everyone. One woman had an orgasm right there, just right there. One guy was crying. One guy froze up the entire time. I didn’t know this Octavio guy— he was younger than me! But my mom was there.”
Unbeknownst to him, his experience was filmed. His mother wanted him to see himself. Riddled with self-consciousness, he watched himself raising his arms, deflecting, moaning. “I was fighting this thing so much, I was flexing,” he chuckles with disbelief. “I was in poses and stuff! My mom wanted me to watch…I didn’t want to watch it!”
“Dr. Octavio put me through it one more time after that and I finally got it: smoked it once— resistance. But that second time? It got to the point where I was in lotus position at the end. I was like, ‘Ahhhhh.’ I was done. I shed my skin.”
While his journey lasted but minutes, the after effects lasted months.
“You find yourself in that hum, a vibration. There was no separation, days and days after that.”
Heart at last blown open, he looked at his reality, without the lying or hiding we do with ourselves. He became immediately aware of sources of unhappiness in his own life. He ended an intimate relationship. He was able to face the Bigger Picture, as well, beyond his own personal suffering: he let the suffering of the world in and allowed it to move him.
“I’ll be straight with you— that was the turning point in my life. It reset my life.”
“The old river in its broad reach rested unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service done to the race that peopled its banks, spread out in the tranquil dignity of a waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth.”
“After, it turned into a depression, really, for a little bit. I felt ‘good’,” he qualifies with air quotes. “I felt centered and grounded, one with everything. And then I was getting these visions of— storm, coming in fast,” he bursts. Hard and fast, rapid-fire words, shocked. “Black clouds, dark. Cobblestone streets. Curbs, high. People slamming the door on me, slamming the door on me! And that was ‘me’, my old— what I was programmed to do and be. I was being, like ‘Oh, this is how it has to be,’ and ‘How dare you, I’m an American! I’m privileged!’ kinda thing. I see that all the time, with Americans in Mexico. Just complete assholes. Disrespectful. Even in our own country. That’s just how it is. That’s what I don’t want. I don’t like it all. I was like, ‘Mom, what does this mean?’ I mean, old ladies, short ladies with skirts, in— flowers— with white—”
He’s so caught up in remembering he sounds like any of us— incoherent, trying to describe an uncapturable nightmare.
“My mom told me, ‘You’re starting another chapter in your life. You’re growing, Son. Growing.”
He’s been a fly fishing guide for five or six years now. Fishing earlier this afternoon, he shared that world. He knew the osprey would be there because that stretch of river is a favorite of his. He knows the river, its cycles, the life along its banks, under its stones, in its seams and riffles. He pointed out the nest to me, again sharing; he marveled at its mate, still— a veritable Circle of Life before us.
Helping me wade a thick, thigh-deep current sweeping along a massive, fallen cottonwood, he showed me a river-worn knot hole on its side. Within this tiny pocket grew moss, velvety green, miniature blades of grass and the start of a dogwood seedling, carmine in contrast to the silver and green. Another circle of life; from the grandest scale to a microcosm. He absorbs it all, treasures it all, reverent.
We stood in the river together, that afternoon, me asking one million questions, seeking understanding. He’s no longer pissed off. No longer fighting. I’m no longer wary of him, with some understanding now.
When he returns home each evening from a life lived in flow, it’s to a dog over-joyed to see him. A place that feels like home. Kale he grows and that he shares with the deer. As the sun takes its golden light with her, and the moon drags her cloak of dark and starlight across the night, Coleman Walker steps his bare feet in the grass, sips a beer. Gets high. And he dances.
“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there someday.”
A. A. Milne