In the dark vortex of the urban-rural, blue-red, vaxxeed-unvaxxed chaos that is America right now, Dusty Jensen stands as a tall, burly, good-natured unicorn.
He’s a man who isn’t afraid to admit he’s changed his mind.
I met him in a remote place at the end of a gnarly dirt road. It was the campground at the Sand Wash launch site on Green River in Utah. He was there to deliver a raft we had rented from his company, River Access and Transport Services, but he happily took the opportunity to talk.
Jensen, 42, is justifiably proud of his business. The former airplane mechanic, plumber, handyman, welder, florist, photographer, rafting guide and AT&T employee found himself adrift a few years ago. He was a divorced father of two, still searching for a stable career. He’d always had decent jobs, but something kept holding him back from seizing the moment.
Finally, he decided he couldn’t just sit around being depressed anymore and sought help from a therapist.
“She told me that I wasn’t clinically depressed, that it was all situational,” he said. “She said, ‘Dusty, you already know what you need to do.’ ”
The guy who learned to navigate whitewater when he was 12 and commanded his first raft through the canyons when he was 14 took the plunge and launched his rafting service in 2020.
“I jumped in with both feet,” he said, and in the midst of the pandemic, he “just kept swimming.”
Sure, COVID created some challenges, but when folks realized that vacations in the wilderness were a whole lot safer than summer vacations abroad during a pandemic, the appeal of floating through nearby Desolation and Gray canyons only grew stronger.
By August 2021, Jensen’s business was thriving. He had 12 sweet tricked-out whitewater rafts to rent and several drivers working for him to shuttle clients’ cars from rafting launch sites to their destinations miles away.
“I had great people behind me who believed in me,” Jensen said. “That was a big part of it. But I also tried to make the experience enjoyable for everybody. I tried to take care of my customers any way I could.”
He also tried to take care of his employees, so in early August, they set off on a float trip on the Green River for a staff barbecue.
Two of his drivers had what they thought were colds, but nobody was worried until they ended up testing positive for COVID a few days later.
“We all got it,” Jensen said.
Some had minor symptoms and recovered quickly, but one was hospitalized with kidney failure (she recovered) and Jensen developed severe bronchitis and pneumonia. Even on oxygen support, his blood oxygen level dropped to 85% (normal is 95 to 100%), so he had to break down and spend a night in the hospital, which was crowded with COVID patients when he arrived.
He struggled for eight days to get his oxygen levels closer to normal. His energy level waned and he couldn’t taste or smell anything.
“A buddy who had COVID asked me if I’d lost my sense of smell and I realized that I’d cleaned eight groovers (portable backcountry toilets) that day and didn’t even notice the smell,” he said, laughing. “I realized I’d eaten a hamburger and couldn’t taste it.”
He lost 30 pounds in three weeks.
Jensen said it was his own fault he got so sick. His father had been urging him to get vaccinated for months, but he resisted.
“My dad kept saying, ‘Go get the vaccine,’” Jensen said, “but I thought it was all just political.”
The media, particularly social media, “misconstrued what’s real and what isn’t about COVID and the vaccines,” Jensen said, and he bought into it all. “I thought there was an agenda behind it.”
People around him at his home in Duchesne County, Utah, seemed to share that skeptical point of view. Vaccination rates there are low — even for Utah.
“But COVID is the real deal,” Jensen said. “I firmly believe that.”
It’s a message he’s willing to spread far and wide, even to a bunch of total strangers standing around in the dark at a campground at Sand Wash.
These days, Jensen is eager to get vaccinated, talking to doctors about the timing and which vaccine might be best.
Most important, he’s proud of the man he’s become after overcoming depression, COVID and the obstacles that for so long seemed to stand in the way of his happiness and success.
“I feel much better about myself,” he said. “I always knew rafting was a good place for me.
“I learned all about how to row and how to read a river one-on-one with a scout leader. It’s about knowing what the dangers are and what to do.
“When you’re on the river, you don’t have electronics. There are no distractions. You focus. You worry about where to camp, setting your tent up, taking care of yourself and others.”
Growing up, he and his buddies always took their girlfriends on river trips to see how they reacted amid the blazing sun, the cold rain, the rapids, the groovers.
“Things come out on the river. You get to know them, that’s for sure.”
As an adult and a father, rafting remained a big part of his life.
“You can be a kid again on the river,” he said. “It’s the only time you can get away from everything and be yourself. You don’t stare at your phone. You open your mouth and talk to each other. You communicate.
“On the river, you realize your life depends on those around you and theirs depend on you.”
Jensen said he’s “in a whole different place” now than he was even a year ago, when he was working hard to start his business and arguing with his dad about whether COVID was even a thing.
“Every night I go to bed and I feel like I’ve done a good job,” he said. “I feel good about myself now. After what I’ve been through, I know I can make this work no matter what.”
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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