It is a river of shoes, hundreds of them washed up, leather curled into brittle tongues, soles peeled of in layers, rusty little cobbler nails showing through. Shoes bob in eddies, trapped in driftwood dams. I could understand a shoe here or there, but the sheer number of them seems a statistical aberration. Were these shoes of the dead, or were they some ritual, like at a wedding, come on everyone, let's throw a shoe in the river
I asked Chang Dak if he could help me find an answer. It was one morning just before putting on the river. He was sitting on hummocky grass with a circle of Tibetan men from a nearby village. I asked if he could ask them about the shoes. Chang Dak frowned at me in the smiling what the Tibetan Buddhists frown. He was smoking a cigarette, probably relieved to be away from our gang of manic American boaters, slipped off to impress the locals with his tales of adventure. Finally, he translated my question. Then men began laughing. Chang Dak inhaled his smoke while I stupidly grinned.
"What did they say?" I asked.
Chang Dak shrugged. "They don't know."
"That's what they said?"
"They don't know."
"Why did they laugh?"
Chang Dak did not want to answer me. He glanced away and then back. "I don't know, they think it's a funny question."
I smiled at everyone. They looked back at me like I was a fool. What had he said to them?
Well, I was a fool, dressed for the morning in a bunker of a life vest and a day-glo drysuit. I was all loops and buckles and straps, a creature from the future with my head sticking out of a rubber gasket.
"But why is it funny?" I asked.
Chang Dak tugged at his belt, looking toward the woods, universal signal for I gotta pee. He sped away and did not return, leaving me in a circle of Tibetan men who could hardly contain their laughter each time I looked at them.
I never got an answer about the shoes. Even in remote gorges, the river splitting through mountains where a human would be hard-pressed to ever reach, I found shoes. They say, this is not undiscovered country. Whatever purpose they are intended to serve, for me they are little pieces of communication. They say, we live upstream, we walk the earth, and here are our shoes to prove it.
(Photo: Craig Childs)