Wednesday, October 1, 2014

1 – A PERFECT MOMENT -- “Grand Canyon Rafting – A Dozen Little Stories”

We’ve all known perfect moments. Those rare instants in life when the universe gives you certainty that it simply doesn’t get any better than this. But always – sometimes in a flash and sometimes stealing away so quietly we don’t recognize the loss until it’s gone – the perfect moment ends too soon.

Our raft trip down the Grand Canyon was a perfect moment that stretched for eight days. Like a gash in the fabric of time, all sense of normalcy was suspended – no cell phones, no work, no kids. Life was reduced to essentials – sunscreen, hydration, keeping your stuff dry, peeing in the river, and having fun. I’ve never had such an extended experience where everything that could go right, did.
 On two motorized rafts, 28 of us with four guides (a “boatman” and “boatwoman” who drove the rafts, and two “swampers” to assist with everything) floated through 277 miles of the Grand Canyon. Each of us on the trip had but three responsibilities, explained Boatman Art, our indefatigable leader: 

1.     Take care of the Canyon.
2.     Take care of yourself.
3.     Take care of the person near you.
His list served us well (and might be pretty good priorities for life, in general).
Day after day we soaked in “the most sublime spectacle on the earth,” as the very first person on earth to take our Colorado River route, John Wesley Powell, declared after his epic 1869 journey.
Unlike Powell and his rag-tag expedition, barely surviving on wet flour and nasty bacon, we had filet mignon, halibut, fresh salad, Dutch-oven cake, and decent wine. We slept on cots under a pristine sky and searched for meteorites, our biggest worry being whether marauding ring-tailed cats would get into our bags.
Unlike Powell, facing uncertainty and potential death around every bend of the river, we had onboard the experience and Google-like brain of veteran Boatman Art, who has covered Powell’s route nearly 200 times and can answer any question you come up with regarding all things Grand Canyon. Geology, history, river hydraulics, music, weather, Canyon politics, name that wildflower – anything. Art and our second raft’s boatwoman, Ann-Marie, who has been down the river well over 100 times, work for Grand Canyon Expeditions. It’s a company devoted to sharing the Canyon and protecting it for all time.

Boatman Art & Boatwoman Ann-Marie
The company started running river trips 50 years ago, and must have been doing something right from its start. Just four years old, the company outfitted the 1968 National Geographic Society’s Powell Centennial Expedition, featured the following year in National Geographic magazine.

Simply put – I can’t imagine how Grand Canyon Expeditions could do things any better, from the pre-trip logistics and accommodations, to the professionalism of staff, to every element of the rafting – food, equipment, and itinerary.

It’s not to say we confronted no discomforts or dangers on our trip (more on those later). It’s why the company makes you sign a waiver too long to read. Even our chills and thrills, however, added to the fullness of a perfect experience.
Take Day 6, for example. It had been a particularly long one on the river, making up for our shorter river days with side-canyon hikes to waterfalls and Indian pictographs, and our leisurely beach lunches. Late-summer desert monsoon storms had threatened all day as we passed the hours watching infinite variety of Grand Canyon views. As the sun dropped in the west, the cottony clouds above the buttes and pinnacles began morphing into ominous giants. When we finally stopped at a beach to set up camp for the night, for the first time, the tents came out. In twos and ones, everyone rushed to stake their bit of sand and set up the unfamiliar shelters.
Twenty seconds. That’s how much time elapsed from when Eva and I got into our tent and when the sky went mad. Rain fell in torrents, the wind blowing it sideways. (Later, I learned that some in tents out on the open beach lay with feet propped against the nylon walls to hold their place in space.) The howling and the crashing! We were treated to a natural symphony reserved for those few who visit this magical place – lightning flashing and thunder booming and echoing in the depths of the Canyon.
At the height of this wild cacophony, Boatwoman Ann-Marie cheerily strolled by, rain streaming off her hat and raincoat, checking on all her happy campers. “Woo-oo! How you doin’ in there?” she chirped.
We assured her we were loving it. Raising her arms and opening her face to the rain, Ann-Marie declared, “It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it?” She told us that such storms usually blow by in ten to fifteen minutes and that dinner would be ready soon.  


When Swamper Duffy came by a bit later in diminishing rain to announce, “Dinner in five minutes,” I thought he was being ironic.
Ha! again.

The rain ended, the near-full moon emerged over black cliffs, and the cocktails, Chinese shrimp and eggrolls were delicious. As was the birthday cake fresh from the Dutch oven for one of our rafters. How is all that possible on a beach in the dark on the tail of a thunderstorm in the bottom of the Grand Canyon?
* *  *
Everyone on the trip knew at least someone else but, in fact, most of us started as strangers. Here’s what surprised me. Somehow, everyone got along with no grumbling, no complaining, and almost no passive-aggressive snippiness, even from the old married couples.
I’ll admit that early-on I was worried about one thing – some of the men's evening cigars and their noxious odor in camp. “Gary,” I finally said to my old friend who was about to light up. “It’s about your cigars. The smell is really bothering people.”
“Who?” he demanded. “Who’s complaining?”
“Well,” I confessed, “me.” Which was true, at least as far as it went.
Gary stared at me sullenly as his brother-in-law, Larry, quietly headed down to the water’s edge with his own fuming stogie.
“I just thought you’d rather know than not know,” I offered, helpfully.
“Actually, no,” he said, looking down at his unlit tobacco, then back at me without so much as a hint of a smile. “I’d rather have sat right here and smoked and enjoyed this cigar – my first in four months.”
But he didn’t. Later, I approached him again to clear the air, so to speak: “Gary, are you going to be grumpy with me the whole trip over the cigar thing?”
Of course not, he assured me, and that was that, and that was about as close to a bad moment as I witnessed in eight days on the river.
Except maybe this one time toward the end of the trip when my wife seemed uncharacteristically short with me. It wasn’t until the next day during lunch on a shady cliffside that she explained.
“Before the trip, you told people you weren’t going to be fishing this time because it was your third trip and your wife’s first trip and you needed to spend time with her. We haven’t spent 30 minutes together so far.”
I couldn’t really argue since I hadn’t been sitting next to her on the raft since our first day and had been focused on taking video with the GoPro camera she had given me for my birthday. In fact, I'd been intent on getting some particular shot when once I had responded abruptly, “I’m busy,” when she had asked, “Can you hold my cup. I have to go pee.”
In my defense, I suggested that she seemed to be having a perfectly fine time with others, and she agreed that was so. That settled, I declared, “For the rest of the trip, I’m going to be on you like white on rice.”
If memory serves, it was about three minutes later that I finished my lunch and turned around to say something to my new rice-wife, but she had vanished. Off chatting with others. As it should be, so it was. There are all kinds of rice. All good.
Next: 2 – Don’t Let Go! 

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