“Hey, Reeg,” I say, watching him wading chest deep, offshore in the frigid river, well past sundown, when most normal river guides should be sipping scotch (as I happen to be). He is sponging off the scum line from his handmade dory, the Escalante, his beauty and dream.
He looks up at my quizzical smile, offering up all I will get: his characteristically inscrutable look through a knowing gray beard and nothing more.
He doesn’t talk much anyway, though I must admit he himself is probably expecting a typically smart-aleck comment from me. I must, of course, oblige. Over the years I’ve been observing, and finally have been drawn into participating in this little pre-Lava ceremony since I came to the Dories.
“So, Regan, is that a ritual? Tradition? Superstition?”
“Tradition,” is all he says and gets back to work. He doesn’t want to get into a long-winded conversation about it, partly because he’s the near-naked, sopping wet freezing one, partly because that’s just who he is, anyway.
“Superstition,” mutters a client sideways, wandering by along the beach.
I smile and watch Regan for a while, then the conch shell blows and it’s time to eat and entertain before wandering off to my dory’s deck to watch the stars wheel within our exquisite little band of sky. As I drift off to sleep on my deck, listening to the riffle’s whoosh and as naked as my soul will be just thirteen miles downstream, that little exchange won’t let me be. And so, giving in, I secretly slip over the side into the gentle eddy current, ever-present dory sponge in hand, to wash off my own craft’s scum line. Tonight, a glistening Sam McGee. Tomorrow, Lava Falls.
Sliding slowly into the tongue of liquid silk which conveys one into the maelstrom known as Granite Falls, I wink and tell my clients to hold on, high-side the shit out of this one, and watch Dr. Dre (a.k.a. Andre Potochnick, our trip leader), who is piloting his graceful but insubstantial Black Canyon in front of us. I know without question he is about to initiate his own little ritual. As if on cue, he rises to his feet in his boatman’s footwell, nonchalantly hitches up his worn, stained Patagonia red knickers, stretches his arms high above, then clasps them behind his head, and adjusts his sombrero, all the while contemplating the insane path he has once again chosen.
Red lipstick, colorful ribbons plaited in the hair. Old fingerless gloves, or my dead friend Ray Interpreter Junior’s keening howl. Wesley’s bubble bath in the footwells whilst the nervous boatmen were busy scouting Lava. Go ahead and call it what you like. At the heart it’s really about respect. Respect for the thin ribbon between life and death. Respect for the power of a River, which, perhaps with the same ever-increasing speed with which old age comes, or maybe with the slow eternity it takes for our first kiss to get here already, is still always taking you somewhere. I know I’m small. Please let me through.
Yeah. Heroes. Keeping our craft upright, our clients safe, and our egos and boats unbashed. Not to mention slicing the tomatoes no more than 3 millimeters thick, tearing down La Pooperia, leading hikes to waterfalls and overlooks we’ve seen a hundred times and pray we get to see another hundred.
Human, more like. Ibuprofen popping, mostly hard drinking (never to the point of drunkenness or hangover, of course), watching our bodies age and skin develop scary little black things, quivering masses of… what did a friend call us?… “talented misfits.” Why we’re here is as much about not ever being able to quite fit into the man-made, rule-infested, badge-wielding, follow-the-leader world as it is about pretending to be some sort of demigod. It is no more about that illusion now than it was a thousand years ago, when some lucky bastard tripped just before the arrow hit him, and a legend was born. We boatmen cope by stumbling our way through a world that wallops us daily in the backside with its unwillingness to be controlled, its fierce independence and wild beauty, its absolute acceptance.
For me, its dipping into the river like a holy baptism in the Church of Get Up and Do It, in the scout eddy just upstream of whichever rapid has its hold on me that particular year, which eternally seems to include Hance, Crystal, and Lava Falls. ALWAYS Hance. Crystal, and Lava Falls. And a ragged print shirt. I can’t tell you which one, having worn through so many over nearly forty years. Suffice to say, it’s whatever piece of gaily colored cotton or rayon that is my current treasure and solace. It used to be my trusty hat: straw in the early hippie years, now an off-white, Stetson, beaver-felt cowboy hat called the “Gus” with three ventilation holes on either, side and a “stampede” strap to keep it put. Holds the nice cold water a long time in that there hot stinkin’ desert. Nowadays, however, what with all the dang rule-makers busy as little beavers up there on the rim, I gotta wear a helmet in the biguns.
A helmet, for crissakes. Most of us that came down here did so because, well, let’s just be nice and say we’re iconoclasts by nature. Anti-authoritarian. Individualistic. You’d trust me with your life, but dollars to doughnuts you wouldn’t hire me to run your business. No worries. I wouldn’t want to, anyway.
And always, everyone, raft or dory or kayak, motor or oar, commercial or private trip, friend or stranger – always, just as we push off to go run it, this exultant shout of joy and release, ecstasy and tension. A bellow of freedom given without reservation to all comrades within earshot, including whatever spirits happen to be winging in, watching the show. Echoed above the thunder and held aloft by the blazing air, soaring ever higher, eyes clear, hearts vulnerable yet stout, body as ready as worn shoulders, wrists and backs allow:
“Have a great run!”
After all, these are your pards. They have your behind and you have theirs. They’re going through just exactly the same belly-groaning joy you are. The clients cannot help but notice, are keen to join in. It’s all about the camaraderie. Sure, we love our river. Our canyon. Our desert. We’re the luckiest bastards alive. But without each other, what are we? Without these things, how else do we gird our loins for battle or dance?
Our rituals hold us and place us just so, in the right spot on the earth, remind us we are not the first or the last. They help us pay tribute to some higher power I cannot name but plainly feel with every step I take down there. Try, and often fail, to remind myself of up here.
Which is why I keep going back.
In my garage, I have scrawled a note and pinned it to the wall. My wife understands, even as it makes her ache a little:
“Anywhere else, I am something less.”