The following post is an abridged version of a longer piece written by Marianne M. Porter, a participant on the Freeflow Institute’s “Stories in Sandstone” course in 2019. As part of the wilderness writing workshop, the participants rafted on the Green River through the sandstone canyons of the Gates of Lodore, part of Dinosaur National Monument. The trip was hosted and taught by renowned award-winning author Pam Houston.  

Marianne Porter lives in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California. Since the mid-‘80s, whitewater rafting has been a favorite summer adventure, as well as camping, hiking, and mountain biking. In the winter, she enjoys cross-country skiing. Year-round she loves photographing wildlife in her yard, road trips, and traveling. In 2014, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College, and is working on a collection of linked short stories with the working title, When the Clock Strikes Five. 


by Marianne M. Porter

Rockslide. noun. – a rapid downward movement of rock fragments that slide over an inclined surface along an area of weakness.

Sound asleep in my tent along the Green River in Utah, I woke to a loud crackling noise that shot me upright. I looked out the screen window of my tent across the river in a narrow stretch of Lodore Canyon, to witness a light show like nothing I had ever seen before in Mother Nature. White twinkles glistened and popped like the tail end of a fireworks display on a 4th of July night at Donner Lake, except this was July 7th, and I was in Dinosaur National Monument on a three-night writing and whitewater raft trip. 

Mesmerized by the magic, wonder, and splendor of what I was witnessing, I stepped onto the sandy beach and stared as rocks crashed from a two-thousand-foot-tall red sandstone wall in Dinosaur National Monument. No one in our group of twenty-four had ever witnessed a nighttime rockslide. A cloud of dust rose across the river as a section of canyon wall tumbled. I wondered if there would be a new rapid across from camp. Darkness from the moon’s first-quarter phase felt unsettling. The rockslide’s sound — intense, confusing, even terrifying — shook me. When the dust settled everyone retreated to their sleeping bags and I tried to nod off. I powered on my iPhone and it read 3:27 a.m. My mind stirred, wide and raging.

Once I started writing, all obstacles disappeared, doubts flattened and a new course formed. I was as free-flowing as the river before me, as the flood of sparks I had witnessed the night before.

This trip called “Stories in the Sandstone” resonated with me the moment I read about it on writer Pam Houston’s website. It melded two loves of mine: writing and river life. My love of rivers awoke in 1988 when I canoed the Green River from Moab, Utah, to Cataract Canyon below the confluence of the Colorado River. We were four couples in four canoes with all our gear in tow. Since that trip I had never traveled on a river without my husband Jim, and close friends Jeanne and Dave. On later trips, my two daughters would join us as soon as they were old enough to follow directions and hold on tight. Now, I was ready to take this trip by myself.

“The rockslide was an unexpected moment of wonder,” Pam said in the first morning circle following the rockslide and after coffee and pancakes with berries. This was a literal example of what she calls glimmers, moments of resonance, things you feel in your gut, things you know are important and will remember. At the time, I didn’t know how significant the startling rockslide metaphor of breaking open, shifting, and letting go would become.

Rockslide. – Rocks may freefall or carom down in an erratic sequence of tumbling, rolling, sliding.

When my lifelong friend Mona and I first visited Colorado in 1979 we were escorted to the Colorado River somewhere along I-70 by her friend Dean who led us to the river’s edge and told us we had to take off our shoes and socks, and dip our feet in the cold water.

Whenever I’m on the river I feel an immediate transformation as I settle into the boat and sense the rhythm of the water. I drop one foot over the side of the raft and let it drag in the current as a ritual of welcome. Glassy reflections of sky and cloud formations on the water’s surface, imposing canyon walls, wide wingspans of ravens, osprey, and eagles, families of hooded mergansers, an occasional great blue heron. All things that mesmerize me and offer peace. For me, river canyons are a slice of heaven. I savor the seclusion. News reports and online chatter disappear, watches get stowed away and are replaced with the sound of oars dipping into and releasing droplets of water.

Form is essential to creating clear, understandable writing, Pam said one afternoon. “You don’t want to alienate your reader with your chaos.” I nodded in agreement.

She gave us an assignment to write a scene or story of 26 sentences each one beginning with a consecutive letter of the alphabet. One sentence had to be one word. One sentence had to be exactly 50 words. Yes, we had to count them. 

The first word I wrote was L-A-R-D-O, in all caps, and from there reminders of my father’s verbal abuse hit the page.  

Continuing on from the letter L, I formed my next sentence beginning with M.

My father called me that from time to time while I was growing up, a real wiseacre he was, throwing out hurtful words without concern for my startled brain unable to believe he really meant it, where did that come from? Was I really fat? I can’t shake that word.

Now, I understand he was bullied…

Over and over again by his older brother or his tough-handed father who left his home in Ireland two years before his family followed to begin a new life in America.

Once I started writing, all obstacles disappeared, doubts flattened and a new course formed. I was as free-flowing as the river before me, as the flood of sparks I had witnessed the night before.

Rockslide. – loss of support from underneath or detachment from a larger rock.

Perhaps if anyone had talked about our family history while I was growing up, I would have understood more about their past hardships. Back to the L word I can’t shake: when I was eight, my Girl Scout leader sewed each girl in my troop a costume to wear for International Day — a celebration in which each of us would represent a different country and perform a dance on stage at my school. I chose Ireland excited to make my father proud. My white dress with green shamrocks on the apron and white puff sleeves transformed me into an Irish step dancer. My father had a 35 mm Kodak camera with an attached brown leather case in which he documented much of my and my brothers’ childhood. I stood proud, erect, happy as I faced the camera for a shot before the performance. He looked through the viewfinder and saw something he didn’t like. He clicked the shutter and puffed a sound of exasperation. “Well, you don’t look like a real Irish step dancer.” He said step dancers are thinner than I was. Too stunned to cry, I stood and stared. I think there’s a slide somewhere in a Kodak carousel tray that shows an eight-year-old girl wearing a distant half-smile, eyes dull with shame. I remember beginning the dance on stage. I remember forgetting some of the steps I had rehearsed. I remember crying because I felt like I failed. I remember being frightened because for that moment I hated him.

Like those falling glimmers of light created by rock bouncing off rock, I broke open my sealed compartment. My writing that day would betray my father and cause me great pain. I had finally shattered a part of my past, and there it was on the page. Just like the river corridor that had changed in the shifting, sculpting, rearranging way it does, I too was changing. My hidden fears, pieces of me that I was uncomfortable accepting, painful words from the past that I wished would erode away, emerged.

Pam acknowledged my feelings and said the exercise on form had worked, even fooled me. In our previous evening’s circle, she explained how form allows the subconscious into the writing process, and that we can’t make art out of our analytical mind. We talked about LARDO, its powerful opening, how my words manifested outside of myself, how this straightforward form allowed it to happen.

Wishing we could have talked. Wishing family matters could be pressed to perfection with smooth, warm, honest words, not harsh explosions.

Yellow. I called my father yellow once to test my 15-year-old power. He slammed his fist on the kitchen table, turned red, warned me to never say that again. I don’t remember why I said that.

“Today,” Pam said, “might be a day when you need to cry a lot. That’s okay. This is your day to do whatever you need.” I wanted to give her a bear hug but hesitated. How many hugs from teary writers can one person take?

On the third day we climbed along a fairly steep trail to the top of a wide, flat bluff called Limestone, a sentinel two-hundred-eighty feet above the river which offered a stunning, commanding view up the Green River corridor. Part of the Lodore Formation, this brownish-white rock became our place of worship. Pam stood near the front of the ledge and raised her arms to breathe in the river. She called out to me: “Marianne. Come here. You need this today.” I did, and I did. In a few seconds, the entire group of writers and a few guides stood, faced the river canyon, and raised arms in praise. A guide captured the moment with a borrowed Canon. It’s one of my favorite photos.

Atop Limestone, I settled into a warm, comfortable patch of rock as Chandra read an excerpt from John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid about environmentalist David Brower’s battle against the Commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, Floyd Dominy. Brower would later succeed in halting construction of a dam in Dinosaur National Monument. 

I leaned back onto my open hands stretched behind me and connected to the vast scene before me: Chandra facing us as she read about the real possibility of almost having lost this magnificent canyon to flooding by a dam. 

Far below, the Green River forged its way right around the corner on its way to the confluence with the Yampa River. Ahead and to my left, higher limestone cliffs rose in layers close to two-thousand feet above where we sat. I felt cocooned in this magnificent rock cathedral. Ravens floated effortlessly on currents. Everyone stilled their bodies to absorb the meditative moment. I felt more wholeness and peacefulness with every breath I took, grateful for this memorable pause in our day. 

The last night on the river I raised my lime green can of Moose Drool ale at the shaded canyon walls and dark sky with uncountable stars. I saw the river current swirl and bend, looked down at my toes in the sand, and thought of my father. I realize you never had an opportunity like this, I thought to myself, and I’m sorry for that. But I do, and I’m very grateful for every minute of it. I suppose in some way he helped make this happen by not stopping me from leaving. I don’t know if he ever would have been able to release his anger and set himself free. He had come from afar. He had worked hard and sometimes his expectations were shot in half. He didn’t understand why I left the East Coast so young, why I never planned to return. My soul belonged in the West. Maybe my baptism in the Colorado River years before had made all the difference, made me realize that I always had to take off my shoes and socks, and dip my feet into the water.

Lots of gratitude to Marianne, for her bravery and beautiful writing. Thanks also to our professional outfitting partner, Dinosaur River Expeditions of Vernal, Utah, who showed us the magic of Gates of Lodore; to Big Sky Brewing who fuels our writing with cold Montana beers; and to Pam Houston, who is an absolute master of her craft and generally spectacular human being.


The following piece was written by Candice Baxter, a participant on Freeflow Institute’s 2019 course “Stories in Sandstone.” As part of the wilderness writing workshop, participants rafted on the Green River through the sandstone canyons of Gates of Lodore, part of Dinosaur National Monument. The trip was hosted by renowned, award-winning writer and teacher Pam Houston

Candice Baxter who was born in Paris, not the French one but Tennessee, tells the truth like it is. She earned a BS in Business and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Memphis where she taught English composition and served on staff for The Pinch. For six years, Baxter taught food writing at a culinary school. Her work has been published inThe Missouri Review, South Carolina Review, Memphis Parent, and others. She currently edits Germantown Magazine while crafting her full-length debut Fly Away Bird: Memoir of Launching a Fearless Daughter. Find more of her work at


By Candice Baxter

The river has its own vernacular, words unknown to a suburban mom out for adventure. Everything is nice. Nice can mean good catch, or stellar job, or way to blow it. My trip down the Green River was so much more than nice.

It was communion in wildness, leaving the terra firma of my life and all I knew to be true about success. It was meeting and making connections with people who love the land and escaping civilization. As individuals we came together and found a river in common, a river measured in cubic feet per second. The rapids run at various water levels recalled an experience that can never be exactly the same again. Nice.

It was merit over makeup and survival over sweetness, arms raised high on the Limestone ledge to welcome the canyon inside me.

It was learning about mountains and layers of geology formed over millions of years. It was constantly looking up in awe of the sandstone, rising and changing from red to beige with veins of purple on the fault line, twisted like a curled staircase to an imagined castle just beyond the jagged point. Nice.

It was rockfall in pitch black across the river from my tent, boulders tumbling to make sparks like lightning and a guttural sound deeper than thunder. Flecks scattered on my rainfly. I lay awake until the morning when the eldest of the group said it happens one in a million chance. Nice.

It was a bouquet of white butterflies found fluttering about the vista, appearing one by one all day long on the trip from the Gates of Lodore to Split Mountain. It was crisp desert nights and damn good words and the brightest stars I’ve ever seen surrounding a half moon. It was camping alone encircled in sage and serenaded by white water. It was Rippling Brook casting spray with a soft gust over the dripping rock ledge, the only shower for days, cold as melted snow. Nice.

It was Pinyons and Ponderosa Pines with bark that smelled like vanilla. It was laughter and chuckling, sarcasm and poked fun. It was finding gear, claiming a tent spot, setting up camp, unpacking only to pack up in the morning and leave no trace. It was clothes in large deep dry bags that made everything smell like rubber bands. Nice.

It was delicious meals aplenty, three a day plus snacks and hors d’oeuvres that I didn’t have to prepare. It was hearty breakfasts, fresh salads, sliced fruit, and the best processed goods like Pringles and Peanut Butter M&M’s. Pour don’t plunge policy, meaning never stick my hand in the bag because it spreads germs. Nice.

It was staring out at the tranquil river beyond the tall grass while taking a shit on the groover. It was washing my hands with river water. It was stillness and majesty and a superhero pose every morning before coffee call. It was loose braids and untamed curls and prickly pigtails pulled back with no mirror.  It was standing up after a splash to let the wind dry my shorts to avoid crotch rot, or what we call swamp twat where I’m from. It was four days commando. Nice.

It was river time without a watch, surrendering schedules and opening up space for patience and appreciation. It was conversation and perspective, questioning everything I thought was prosperity with an estate lot and granite countertops and a fenced backyard. It was merit over makeup and survival over sweetness, arms raised high on the Limestone ledge to welcome the canyon inside me. How will I ever explain when someone back home asks, “How was your trip?”

Lots of gratitude to Candice for sharing her experience. Thanks also to our professional outfitting partner, Dinosaur River Expeditions of Vernal, Utah, who showed us the magic of Gates of Lodore; to Big Sky Brewing who fuels our writing with cold Montana beers; and to Pam Houston, who is an absolute master of her craft and generally spectacular human being.

Pilgrimage on the Yellowstone

Finding friends and inspiration on the river

By Jessianne Castle

Originally published in Explore Big Sky newspaper, Sept. 13, 2019

Hiking through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone / PHOTO JACK HENDERSON

The sky opened up and water fell from the heavens in a high basin tucked away in Paradise Valley. The rain dropped cold upon my neck, but it quickly passed, a cool kiss in the August sun. As rolling thunder and bright lightning jarred my bones, I embraced the heavy smell of damp and living soil.

From some 500 yards, I watched two grizzly bears eat caraway root, despite the downpour; I was as drenched as they were. Even with wet clothes, I didn’t shiver right away; I wasn’t cold at first. It must have been a warmth radiating from within, for my senses were thrumming in this place: The Greater Yellowstone.

It was midway through an immersive week-long field course, an experience that embraced the confluence of writing, adventure and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The course was one of four offered this year by Missoula-based Freeflow Institute, a fledgling organization founded last year in order to give emerging writers, artists and athletes the time, community and inspiration needed for thoughtful, creative work. 

I was one of 11 participants, joined by Freeflow founder Chandra Brown and intern Steph Maltarich, as well as professional journalists and course instructors Alexis Bonogofsky and Elliott Woods. We gathered at Pine Creek Lodge south of Livingston on Aug. 12, a group of strangers hailing from across the state and nation, joined by the common interest of the pen. Many of us were professional journalists, writers and editors. A resident of Shields Valley north of Livingston, I was the only writer venturing into my proverbial backyard.

With the gentle babbling of Pine Creek as a backdrop, we began the course by listening to the weighty words of notable authors Terry Tempest Williams, Rick Bass and Doug Peacock. As the Perseids meteor shower shot sparks across the eastern sky, we were told to be fierce in our passions and embrace writing as a place to come together.

Following in the Freeflow mission—to take the practice of writing outdoors—we spent the following days on an intensive study of the Yellowstone River. Guided by Ashea Mills, a longtime veteran guide in Yellowstone Park, our party sojourned through the Black Canyon of the Yellowstone River, hiking 20 miles over two days in the hot and arid belly of the beast—the very headwaters of the Yellowstone, the last major undammed river in the Lower 48.

While traversing the boulder-strewn slopes and tight cliffs of the Black Canyon, we discussed the decades-old debate over whether to allow paddling on the scenic and treacherous Black Canyon whitewater, while allowing the conversation to flow, ebb and undulate to encompass questions over park visitation, recreational use versus conservation, and the question of what it means for a place to be wild.

Nighttime in the Yellowstone backcountry / PHOTO JACK HENDERSON

Once through the park, we took to rafts and floated from Gardiner to Emigrant, accompanied by river guides Jim Hepburn and Nathan Herring. We made splashes around Yankee Jim’s formidable rapids and took pit stops in Gardiner and Tom Miner Basin, among others.

It was at Tom Miner Basin where we watched the grizzlies feast, accompanied by Daniel Anderson, whose family owns the Anderson Ranch. One of just a handful of landowners in the basin, the Andersons are well versed in the conservation conversation. They are largely a cow-calf operation that partners ranching heritage with sustainable living and are members of the reputed Tom Miner Basin Association that seeks to reduce predator conflict and maintain healthy stewardship of the land.

Daniel, a master’s student at the University of Montana in Missoula, hosted our group at his family home as a part of his larger Common Ground Project, which launched this year. Seeking to provide a platform for intentional, meaningful conversation, Common Ground is a place where groups can come to talk, with conversation framed around building community through learning, storytelling and experiencing a sense of place. The Common Ground ethos is something essential to the question of preserving the Greater Yellowstone.

On the eleventh hour—the last day of our campaign on Aug. 17—we arrived at Chico Hot Springs and the glory of naturally warm mineral hot springs. The warm water was an antidote to river weary soldiers, but it also became an elixir for the mind as we discussed strategies for conservation and a way of going forward. Those who’ve participated in a field course, an experiential learning journey, know the feeling of information overload.

Throughout the trip, Bonogofsky and Woods guided our party of dawning writers. For me, it was a pilgrimage of sorts: within a backdrop of a familiar place I met strangers and came out with friends as well as a deeper sense of place and home and what it means to protect those still wild corners on the map. At one point, Woods said something that remains etched in my mind: “Journalism is the first draft of history.”

It is now that our actions matter. And it is this place—the mountains, the rivers, the sagebrush plains, the hills, the valleys, the brooks and the springs—that needs our full attention. It is now that we must intentionally experience the Greater Yellowstone so that we might choose responsibly and shape what will be the Greater Yellowstone of tomorrow.

The author and fellow course participant enjoy the campfire at The Common Ground Project in Tom Miner Basin / PHOTO JACK HENDERSON

Telling Each Other’s Stories

On the Salmon River Workshop in June, students practiced interviewing and honed their observation skills by writing short profiles of one another.

We love this exercise for how it improves our writing skills and it’s an added bonus that it brings the group closer together. Sharing these profiles around the circle on the last night had more than one of us wiping away tears. Here are a couple of our favorite profile pieces from the exercise.

NATHAN, by Tracy Herring


Nathan whose self-proclaimed nickname at 10 years-old was Harry, which he spelled H-E-R-R-Y and pronounced Herrrrry. During his Herry days, he would visit the neighbors to see if they needed any help fixing things in their houses and he would voluntarily shovel driveways after a snowstorm. He eventually returned to his given name, but continued to find ways to provide service to others. He spent his summers during college taking at-risk youth on transformative multi-day wilderness trips, he facilitated a handful of wilderness rescue missions, and he is currently working towards becoming a nurse, with a potential interest in pursuing wilderness nursing. 

The outdoors are an important thread in Nathan’s life. He thrives in the wilderness, where he loves having “no rules” or “structure.” He explained his various outdoor pursuits have involved unexpected challenges and tragedies, which he shared, help him navigate the inevitable challenges all humans face throughout their lives. 

He shared a recent personal challenge regarding his dog, Powell. Nathan found Powell or maybe Powell found Nathan on a trip in Utah. They found each other when they both were suffering. They nursed each other back to health. They relied on one another. They reached a place of contentment together. That’s why six months ago, when Powell, just six years-old, suddenly stopped eating, and his body started shutting down, and no medical intervention could save his beloved companion, Nathan’s world collapsed. 

He claims his experiences with hardships and unpredictability in the outdoors have been helpful in working through the grief of Powell’s unexpected death. However, I can tell by the way he stares off into the distance while he talks about Powell that this loss still devastates him no matter how many hardships he has faced in the wilderness. 

What makes Nathan so special is that he loves and cares so deeply, be it the neighbors he helped when he was growing up, Powell, his family, his partner, or his friends.  

AMANDA, by Sandra Messick

Amanda, in her happy place / PHOTO ASHLEE LANGHOLZ

She’s chosen to fight a big battle. At times it makes her feel very small. But 29-year-old Amanda Clampitt wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“It’s all because they need white paper.  But who needs white paper anymore?” she asked as we floated down the Salmon River. 

The river was quiet. No need to be on guard. “This is the best moment ever,” she said and a smile spread across her face as she closed her eyes, laced her fingers behind her head, laid back, and stretched her legs out along the side of the big, blue rubber raft. 

We were on a six-day writing workshop put together by the Freeflow Institute. Fourteen people and four crew members making our way down 90 miles of the Salmon River in Idaho. This was our fourth day. 

Amanda is happiest when she’s on a river. “I found white water when I was very lost. I found a family. I found a community that was accepting. The white water healed me.” 

When she was 11-years old, she moved to Eastern Tennessee settling in with family in Appalachia in the small town of Hartford that the 60 people there call home during most of the year. In the summer that changes, growing to about 500 people who come to enjoy the rivers nearby. “It becomes a summer camp for adults,” she said with a laugh.

Amanda is a river guide for Big River Creek Expeditions. She also does marketing for the white- water rafting company. Six days a week she takes up to seven people down the waters of the Ocoee and Pigeon Rivers. She does it for the peace those waters bring her and also because she’s working hard to bring change. 

In 1908, Champion International, acquired by International Paper in 2000, opened a paper mill on the Pigeon River and changed life as they knew it for the entire community. “The waters of the river ran coffee black. Locals will not go in the water.”  Amanda was warned by a friend of hers who runs a sustainable farm and education program nearby that she would shave years off her life by working on the rivers. “It’s still worth it to me,” Amanda said. “Rivers have this healing property.”

She wants this community to get their river back. She wants to help heal the waters as they’ve healed her. “It’s very powerful to be a voice for the voiceless.”

Amanda and her friend her friend Mindy are working on a children’s book together called “A Pigeon’s Tale.” Through Amanda’s story and Mindy’s water color illustrations they share the story of the Pigeon River from pollution to redemption. 

“We want to publish and distribute the book for free. We hope to get it into schools.” She also hopes it will inspire others in her community to get involved by helping her track the dioxins in the river and convince Champion International to close down the mill. 

Amanda’s trip to the Salmon River is a time to help her recharge. And while she says that’s happening, I can see in her face and body that she still has something on her mind. “It’s very disconcerting that a river like this, with the highest government protection, faces similar challenges as the Pigeon. It sucks!” 

Then a smile spread across her face as she closed her eyes, laced her fingers behind her head, laid back, and stretched her legs out along the side of the big, blue rubber raft. “This is the best moment ever!”