HeadwatersIt was hard not to get emotional.

Tibetan prayer flags – despised in my youth as the literal flag of cultural appropriation and liberalism, now the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen – soaring from canyon wall to canyon wall leaving me in awe. Fluttering high and roaring rapids below – the Tibetan holy waters of Za Chu. This is the Mekong River, and it was hard not to get emotional.

It was hard not to get emotional because of what the Mekong means to me. Six years ago I moved to Cambodia and found myself living on the muddy banks of its lower stretches. I will never be able to describe the transformative rapture which these waters swept over me. I will never be able to tell the way this river fused with my soul and captivated me to my core. It was hard not to get emotional.

It was hard not to get emotional when, hitchhiking a ride with a monk, we whipped around a corner and I caught my first glimpse of the headwaters high in Tibet. Hard not to get emotional because this is the image that has haunted dreams and waking thoughts for I-don’t-know how long. Was this the culmination of a year and a half traveling – when I set out only knowing that I didn’t want to fly and that I wanted to trace the Mekong from start to finish – wanting to explore and finally understand the space which has linked my life and destiny to this mighty river? Or does the journey go back further – to the first time I ever dove in and let myself be wrapped in the churning waters? Or was this simply what I was born to walk? It was hard not to get emotional.

It was hard not to get emotional with one of my best friends at my side. Ed had flown out to meet me in Xining, China – knowing how important this river is to me and venturing to join me on my 3,000 mile pilgrimage from source to sea. With him I finally had the one thing I’d been desperately needing these many lonely months: a partner and true friend. Suddenly the miles and miles of constant anxiety facing the road alone evaporated. It was like an enormous load I hadn’t even known I was carrying was lifted and suddenly I could breath again. It was hard not to get emotional.

But mostly it was hard not to get emotional because of what we were doing. Ed had not come out merely to travel together, but rather to help me tell a story. Bringing film equipment and fresh energy, we intend to follow the river not just as tourists and friends but as documentary film makers. And it was hard not to get emotional knowing that downstream of us, 60 million people have their livelihoods directly and intimately tied to the Mekong River. Hard not to get emotional knowing that right now catastrophic dams are under construction which will forever alter the course of history in the Mekong basin. Dams which spell death for countless species, communities and whole ways of life. And so Ed and I set out to document the river as we see it during this pivotal moment in time. Before it’s too late. It was hard not to get emotional.

So here we stood. Two friends, one river, and 3,000 miles ahead of us. We don’t have enough money or time to make it, but somehow we’ll manage. Challenges will come and challenges will be met, but for now we just stand in awe of dark running water high on the Himilayan Platau. Standing and staring. And yes: getting emotional. You can follow our progress through our website at LostontheMekong.com. We probably won’t have fully edited episodes until Ed returns stateside, but there will be regular updates and more pictures/clips than you can shake a stick at.

See you there!

2 thoughts on “Headwaters

  1. Walker, every single one of these entries has been moving and inspirational. If or when you ever find yourself back in Olympia, Washington, I would really love to buy you a beer, or several. Thanks for including me on the list. Adventure on, dude.

  2. Walker, It’s as if you have been on a ‘vision quest’ masquerading as ‘world travel’ that has been underway, up to this point, one and a half years. I see the Mekong as so much more than a river–it’s a dream, the essence of life, a 3000-mile-long mystery. Thank you for showing me that!

    (I am going to be a “bad poster” and take up a bunch os space here!) For some reason this all makes me think of this deep poem about pursuing a river written by Roberta Hill Whiteman, a member of the Oneida nation.

    Cheers and best wishes to you on your travels from Donna & Lilly Road Manders

    Reaching Yellow River
    by Roberta Hill Whiteman

    “It isn’t a game for girls,”
    he said, grabbing a fifth
    with his right hand,
    the wind with his left.

    “For six days
    I raced Jack Daniels.
    He cheated, told jokes.
    Some weren’t even funny.

    That’s how come he won.
    It took a long time
    to reach this Yellow River.
    I’m not yet thirty,

    or is it thirty-one?
    Figured all my years
    carried the same hard thaw.
    Out here, houselights hid

    deep inside the trees.
    For awhile I believed this road
    cut across to Spring Creek
    and I was trucking home.

    I could kid you now,
    say I ran it clean,
    gasping on one lung,
    loaded by a knapsack

    of distrust and hesitation.
    I never got the tone
    in all the talk of cure.
    I sang Honor Songs, crawled

    the railroad bridge to Canada.
    Dizzy from the ties,
    I hung between both worlds.
    Clans of blackbirds circled

    the nearby maple trees.
    The dark heart of me said
    no days more than these.
    As sundown kindled the sumacs,

    stunned by the river’s smile,
    I had no need for heat,
    no need to feel ashamed.
    Inside me then the sound

    of burning leaves. Tell them
    I tumbled through a gap on the horizon.
    No, say I stumbled through a hummock
    and fell in a pit of stars.

    When rain weakened my stride,
    I heard them singing
    in a burl of white ash,
    took a few more days to rave

    at them in this wood.
    Then their appaloosas nickered
    in the dawn and they came
    riding down a close ravine.

    Though the bottle was empty,
    I still hung on. Foxtails beat
    the grimace from my brow
    until I took off my pain

    like a pair of old boots.
    I became a hollow horn filled
    with rain, reflecting everything.
    The wind in my hand

    burned cold as hoarfrost
    when my grandfather nudged me
    and called out
    my Lakota name.”

    In memory of Mato Heholgeca’s grandson
    Roberta Hill Whiteman, “Reaching Yellow River” from Star Quilt. Copyright © 1984 by Roberta Hill Whiteman. Used by permission of Holy Cow! Press, http://www.holycowpress.org.

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