In the spring of 1869, John Wesley Powe,, a 35-year-old, one-armed Civil War veteran and self-taught scientist/explorer, led an expedition of 10 men down the Green River in what is today southwestern Wyoming and eastern Utah- the waters that feed into the Grand Canyon. His account of the trip- “The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons” – is a fabled story of hardships, dangers and deprivation. In the spirit of Major Powell’s adventure, I went down the Green River a few years ago with a group of a different sort. The big difference between our trip and the major’s was that we brought along a vast cache of good wine and gourmet food, and for our listening pleasure, we toted a string quartet of symphony musicians, four young women. Servants outnumbered adventurers on our voyage into the unknown. We were not attempting historical accuracy. (Three of Powell’s comrades were killed by Indians. The worst that happened to us was sunburn and mosquito bites.)
We began in Grand Junction, Colo., where 12 passengers boarded Redtail Aviation planes for a one-hour flight to the top of a barren mesa in Utah. One of those passengers was a cello. (When you travel with a cello, you buy the cello a seat.) The cello had been rented from an unsuspecting Denver music store that could not have had any idea that the fresh-faced young woman who wanted it was planning on hauling it on a 100-mile white-water rafting trip on Utah’s Green River, one of the most remote and inaccessible places in the continental United States. It cost $35 to rent a cello for the week and while it wasn’t much of a cello, it was the perfect one to take into the backcountry in an inflatable raft.
This was all Bill Dvorak’s idea. Dvorak, a wilderness outfitter who runs a rafting and kayaking operation in Colorado, describes himself as composer Antonin Dvorak’s fifth cousin, a fact that is difficult, and perhaps unnecessary, to verify. Although he’s got parties of rafters and 35 guides strung out over half a dozen states, every year he takes a string quartet rafting down the Green River for his own musical diversion and for the pleasure of select customers.
Dvorak hit on the idea of taking musicians through the Desolation and Gray canyons nearly two decades ago after he heard someone playing a harmonica up in a box canyon. The sound was so riveting- the acoustics in these natural concert halls so perfect, the tone so clear and sharp- that it gave Dvorak the idea of bringing along serious musicians to play for his clients. (It was about this time he recollected his fifth cousin, Antonin, too.) Dvorak started with one musician from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and things just took off from there.
The problem with taking a cello (even more than a whole string quartet) white-water rafting is that a cello is not only a musical instrument, it’s a piece of furniture. For the purposes of this annual exploit, Dvorak built a “music box”- a giant watertight steamer trunk into which were packed the rented cello, two violins, a viola, four folding chairs, four music stands and a small library of sheet music. Travelers in the wilds of Utah expect amazing sights in the timeless landscape carved out of sandstone by water and wind. But none of the rafters and kayakers hunkered on the muddy banks of the Green at Sand Wash on the hot summer morning we arrived expected to see Bill Dvorak rowing his huge music box lashed onto a 16-foot raft all its own. Imagine a cross between the Marlboro Man and a surfer dude (cowboy hat, Tevas, bathing suit) and you get the right idea about Bill Dvorak. He has been rafting these canyons for more than 40 years.
Every evening the rafting party made camp at a spot that was declared insect-free and acoustically suitable. Then the great music box would be opened and out would come the instruments and the music stands and four honest-to-God folding metal chairs right out of a church basement and reams of sheet music. The guides quickly assembled our campsite as they always did, with tents and tarps and an elaborate portable kitchen.
The Powell party lived on flour biscuits and black coffee, and nearly starved to death. We were carrying enough Merlot to float a kayak, enough Jose Cuervo Gold for a half-dozen Cinco de Mayos and a larder of grub that included fresh salmon, steaks, shrimp, smoked oysters, clams, fresh brie. We ate lumberjack breakfasts, enormous picnic lunches. We ate all the time. The only complaint about the food was that if we lived to tell the tale of this trip it might be at Weight Watchers.
Our first night out, while two enormous salmon (Dvorak claimed he’d caught them himself, which drew a big laugh) were grilling over an open fire and a spirited but civilized cocktail hour was in progress, we settled down to hear for the first time what I came to know as Bill Dvorak’s All-Girl String Quartet. (Dvorak is the most politically incorrect person you can imagine.) The sky was a clear Western azure and there was a soft evening breeze, ideal for keeping away the insects. Here, under Wishbone Wall, a million-yearold sheet of sandstone carved over the eons by the elements, we gathered for our first concert.
The first request was Pachelbel’s Canon. Pachelbel’s Canon! The scourge of classical musicians everywhere! It was like asking a torch singer to do “Feelings.” Bill Dvorak’s All-Girl String Quartet, experiencing the first awkward twinges of playing together in its debut, nearly did a synchronized double take. But, seasoned by years of weddings and receptions, the quartet rallied. And the first, so-familiar notes of music rose up and reverberated through those lonely, barren canyons. Never did Pachelbel’s Canon sound so sweet. Dvorak had been right about the acoustics. The music was so moving and eerie in a setting that was like a natural cathedral that we in no time became comfortable with the extraordinary incongruity. Far from a symphony hall or Tanglewood or even Wolf Trap, we were in the middle of a stretch of government and Uintah-Ouray Indian Reservation land that is terra incognita on even the most detailed maps. But after the initial oddity of the performance wore off, the wilderness itself, the awesome and sobering landscape of the river, began to upstage our musicians.
None of Dvorak’s clients on the “Classical Music River Journey” was a declared aesthete. We were plainly faithful listen- ers of classical FM stations and occasional concertgoers, but this was no highbrow crew. In truth, a love of classical music was an asset for a trip down the Green River, but the aficionado also had to be a bit hardier than the usual concert patron. Daytime temperatures at these altitudes could easily soar above 100 degrees, and in the evening, when the sun dipped below the edge of the canyon walls, it could be chilly. Every evening, usually before dinner, we would assemble under a big cottonwood tree or in a natural amphitheater of sandstone and listen to our quartet. The sounds of Bach and Beethoven and Mozart would rise magnificently in these wild places. In the morning, Dvorak would get up and build a fire and put the water on in a big old black coffeepot and then when it was boiling he’d just throw the coffee grounds into the water – “cowboy coffee,” he called it. And then there were the wonderful morning smells of bacon frying outdoors and potatoes simmering on the grill and the Dutch oven piled with coals baking an apple coffee cake. The light at that early hour was soft and clear, the sun just touching the tips of the canyon walls thousands of feet above us. Our cellist would commence a sweet sunrise solo that would drift up to join the other earlymorning sounds of birds singing and the Green River rumbling past. Bach was the favored composer for our morning concert.
We were never in a hurry. Several days of the eight-day journey we simply stayed put and explored the countryside on foot. Dvorak knew the territory intimately and took us up long, narrow box canyons to see pictographs and petroglyphs- timeless, ancient etchings scratched or painted on the sandstone. One afternoon we climbed the side of a steep canyon to see a moonshiner’s cabin, long abandoned but still intact. And we saw, too, the ghostly remains of ranches built in the 19th century, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid really lived in Desolation Canyon.
After we left the Green River, we knew that we would go back into the world and hear Bach and Beethoven played in other places, and maybe played better. But when we were camped in Lion’s Creek in a natural sandstone amphitheater, we knew we would never hear music played in a finer place.
Dvorak Expedition’s “Classical Music River Journey” down the Green River runs this year from July 22 to 29. Cost, including all meals, is $1,975. 800- 824-3795, http://www.dvorakexpeditions.com