Excerpt from Life on the Loose by Cari Taylor-Carlson
(And there’s a giveaway!)

“Everything changes when you’re at the edge, ready to slide into a river that will take you into the abyss, the unknown.” ~ from Life on the Loose: My Journey from Suburban Housewife to Outdoor Guide

Christi here. I have two visions of myself: Christi Imagined and The Real Me. Christi Imagined loves to hike the narrow trail, camps with ease, and packs only one bag of absolute necessities. The Real Me marks the map for the nearest ER, stocks up on meals, snacks, water, meds, books to read (who can take just one?), a journal & pens (of varying thickness–fine, medium, BOLD!), too many clothes, an extra pair of shoes, chapstick…wait, make it my fave: Burt’s Bees lip shimmer, two colors (I want to look good in the woods). That “one bag” bit? I have a lot to learn.

Cari Taylor-Carlson, author of Life on the Loose: My Journey from Suburban Housewife to Outdoor Guide, can teach me plenty. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter of her book, a quick view into her story of outdoor guide experiences learned first-hand, sometimes the hard way. Eric Hansen (Hiking Wisconsin) calls this a “nonstop action” memoir; Robert Vaughan (Funhouse) says “Taylor-Carlson maintains composure, grit, integrity, all in the throes of arduous adventures in nature that many of us won’t even dare to take.” So when you reach the end of this excerpt and find yourself wanting more, ENTER THE GIVEAWAY for a chance to win your own copy of her book! Deadline: Tuesday, Sept. 5th.

Now on to a sneak peek at Cari Taylor-Carlson’s Life on the Loose!

Solo on the Green

“You’re the only person on the river this week,” Dirk said as he helped load my canoe. “Oh, you’re traveling light.  Do you have enough food, warm clothes?” His muscles bulged from hauling canoes. “Most people we put in fill the canoe.” He should know, as one of the three brothers who owned Tex’s Riverways, my canoe outfitter. They launched hundreds of canoes each season. Good thing he couldn’t hear my heart slam against my chest.

I had brought two duffels, stuffed with clothes, food, and gear. Six gallons of water, a Coleman stove, and those duffels didn’t take up much space in an eighteen-foot aluminum canoe. It looked as empty as I felt. The breakfast cheese omelet and hash brown potatoes at the Westerner Cafe couldn’t fill the scared hole in my belly.

Dirk added to my growing panic when he said in a flat voice, “You know my concern for your safety requires me to tell you what you’re doing is dangerous. This is off-season.” He walked to the bank where I sat in the canoe, and put his hand in the water as if to judge the current. “Ordinarily, we tell people if they run into trouble, another canoe will come along within an hour. For you, no such luck.” He looked smug, as if confident in some secret knowledge of pitfalls looming ahead of me on the river.

When I planned this trip down the Green River in Utah, I’d arrived at a midlife junction. It was time to start the business I had dreamed about for many years, adventure travel guide. I loved the symbolism: launch a canoe, launch a new life. Ten, fifteen miles a day in a mild current would be about right for an experienced paddler checking out an adventure for her soon-to-be clients. I envisioned warm sunny days, sixty to seventy degrees, with a slight chill at night, spectacular canyon scenery, and around every bend, convenient campsites on sandbars. It added up to a dream wilderness trip in my favorite Western state. What could go wrong? I relished the challenge, a chance to prove to myself that I could be an intrepid adventurer.

At breakfast, a man at an adjacent table announced in a loud voice, “The dog’s water froze last night.  It was twenty-three when I went to bed at ten.” He slung a winter jacket on a chair, gulped his coffee, and took off his gloves. “Feels nice and warm in here.” He looked at me as if he could read my mind. How could he know?

In exactly thirty minutes I would leave for the river and five nights in a tent. Did I have to do this? Yes, if I wanted to reinvent myself as an outdoor guide. Thanks to lack of weather foresight and a habit of traveling light, my wardrobe included neither a fleece jacket nor long underwear. I knew better, but packed for Utah, not Montana. To my credit, I brought a rain jacket and rain pants that came in handy for warmth at night when I needed to wear everything I’d packed.

Food had been my primary concern, not my wardrobe. I had planned meals down to the cheese sauce for the Pasta Alfredo, fresh garlic, and the curry powder for the chicken. I would eat well.

As I stood by the river, strong, confident, free dissolved into small, insignificant, scared.  At home, the Green River was a cute little wiggly blue line on a map.  Now those fifty-five miles from Ruby Ranch to Mineral Bottoms looked more like a Lewis and Clark expedition than a casual six day outing. At least I was going downstream, not up. I should have done some research, made a plan that more closely matched the risks of this solo voyage. As an experienced outdoors person, I should have known to bring fleece, even to Utah in early November.

Would I find campsites? Did I have enough food, water, fuel, and what if my stove broke down?

Then Dirk said, “When it’s time to come off the river, you’ll come around a bend and see a cottonwood on the left bank. It’s a big tree.” He walked to the bank and started to slide the canoe into the river.  “You can’t miss it.  Get ready to pull out there.”

“That’s it? You want me to watch for one tree? Anything else I should look for?”  Now I felt the fear that would obsess me all day, every day, until I found that cottonwood.  That fear sucked the joy out of the trip. Of course I could miss it. Could I watch both sides of the river at the same time in a current that whipped me around every bend?

“Oh, you’ll recognize the tree. It’s at Mineral Bottoms, right in front of you.” When he said this, his voice a monotone, he wouldn’t look me in the eye, just stared at the river.  I knew what he thought.  This middle-aged woman is crazy. His disdain for my adventure eroded every remaining fragment of my fragile confidence. Damn Dirk. Damn the river.  Damn my confident plan back in Milwaukee.

If I got myself into a jam, there was no one to lend a hand.  The Green flowed through a wilderness canyon. I had choices; let go of the dream and stay the course in suburbia, or turn off the monkey-babble in my head, get in the canoe, and paddle.

“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.” He didn’t ask about a cell phone. I didn’t have one, but even if I did, it would have been useless in the canyon.  Would I admit to Dirk that I was scared? Never. Just in case, we made a plan, because this mother of four wasn’t ready to feed a turkey vulture in the desert.

“If you’re more than a day late,” he said, “I’ll send a helicopter to search for you.”

Dirk didn’t know I would swim miles in the murky Green, before I’d flag down a helicopter, nor pay hundreds of dollars for a rescue. There would be a way out of that canyon even if I had to crawl naked and bloody over prickly pear cactus all the way. Still, it was comforting to know we had a plan.

Everything changes when you’re at the edge, ready to slide into a river that will take you into the abyss, the unknown. Could I flip a switch, let go of my predictable life? A tree branch floated downriver and disappeared, and finally, tentatively, I let go of the root that bound me to the riverbank. The current caught the bow of my canoe, and in thirty seconds, I was three hundred yards downriver. I wouldn’t need to paddle, the Green would do the work. There was no turning back.


Cari Taylor-Carlson (right), ran her own business, Venture West-guided outdoor adventures, for 32 years and was the founder of the “Milwaukee Walking and Eating Society.” She is best known as a food writer and is the author of several books on the city’s dining scene, including Milwaukee Eats, Milwaukee’s Best Cheap Eats, and The Food Lover’s Guide to Milwaukee. She also wrote about restaurants for 18 years for M Magazine and has been a regular contributor to WUWW-FM’s “Lake Effect.” Visit her website: lifeontheloose.com

ABOUT THE BOOK: Life on the Loose: My Journey from Suburban Housewife to Outdoor Guide explores Cari Taylor-Carlson’s thirty-two year adventure with Venture West as she and her customers traveled the world with backpacks, canoes and kayaks. In the beginning, a painful divorce led Cari Taylor-Carlson to recognize her need for wilderness, her safe place. The book, then, takes us on two journeys–the internal angst of the guide and the external beauty of the places she traveled.


for a chance to win a copy of Life on the Loose!

About Christi Craig

Christi Craig is a native Texan living in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer, teacher, and editor. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Family Matters Contest, 2010. You can send comments or questions via her contact page.
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