Riparian Hippies Before and After

A scene from Robb Moss' Riverdogs
Riparian Hippies Before and After

By Steven G. Kellman

Robb Moss revisits his 'Riverdogs'

If, as Heraclitus famously observed, you cannot step in the same river twice, you can either go with the flow, cherishing impermanence, or else try to stay dry by watching from the banks. In the summer of 1978, Robb Moss and 16 friends spent 35 days in and out of the Colorado River, navigating by kayak, raft, and rowboat through the Grand Canyon. Moss recorded the experience in a film called Riverdogs that, more than 25 years later, is a relic of innocent exuberance, of young riparian hippies who whiled away a precious summer mostly stoned and naked.

The Same River Twice examines what middle age has made of five of Moss' young adventurers. A longitudinal study of personal development, it resembles Michael Apted's 7 Up series, except that Moss' subjects are upper-middle class, the kind of privileged baby boomers whose private crises are likely to irritate more than fascinate viewers for whom The Big Chill ignited a small fire of resentment against self-indulgence. Moss shows clips from Riverdogs to his five friends and cuts to what life is like for each today. "We had nothing but time," says Danny, viewing images of her earlier self. Time is currently catching up with Danny, who runs her own aerobics business in Santa Fe and had the first of her two children at 41. It is ravaging Barry, a father of three who, shortly before his 50th birthday, is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Although the riverdogs of 1978 felt accountable to nothing but the moment, most have since accepted social and family responsibilities. Barry has served as mayor of Placerville, California, Cathy as mayor of Ashland, Oregon, and Jeff - Cathy's ex - as a county commissioner in Oregon.

The Same River Twice

Dir. Robb Moss (NR)
The one exception is Jim, the leader of the pack in 1978 whom Danny, a former lover, describes as "a river deity." He is the grasshopper to the industrious ants that Barry, Cathy, Jeff, and Danny have become. "There was no one like him on the river," notes Danny, and he is still at it, and inimitable. Except for six months in which he made a stab at becoming a dentist, Jim alone has remained faithful to the life of floating. He continues to spend summers as a river guide and winters squatting on undeveloped land in northern California. Although he plans to build a cottage there, Jim is so laid back about the project, and everything else, that it takes him a year just to pour concrete for its foundation.

A meditation on earthly evanescence and the wisdom of accepting the cycles of life, The Same River Twice should be more affecting than it actually is. Part of the problem is that the clips from Riverdogs are so brief and superficial that we never develop a full sense of who these people were in the glory of their unclothed youth. And, except for Barry, each of them still seems something of an abstraction, an amalgam of roles - parent, author, talk-show host, entrepreneur, politician - more than a personality we come to care about. Barry has stared at the prospect of death, the others merely at clips from an old home movie. •


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