Friday, October 17, 2014

10 – IT DOESN’T WASH OFF -- “Grand Canyon Rafting – A Dozen Little Stories”

Can it be true that beautiful places produce beautiful people? Like the way great events produce great leaders?

It seems that way to me, based on what I’ve seen of the Grand Canyon’s river guides. They are rooted to the place as strongly as Native Americans who peopled the Canyon throughout the past hundred centuries. They’ve created a soulful culture that’s now a natural part of the Canyon itself. They are beautiful. 

"These boat captains surely know how to relax when they have a moment or two and they just can't help but reflect all that immense beauty they live in." --Rafter Ray

These aren’t kids on summer vacation guiding tourists on a faux-scary boat ride. There’s no rote recitation of “and on your left coming up you’ll see…” The river guides of the Grand Canyon are serious people who love the Canyon as much as it’s possible to love anything. They speak from their hearts about that love.
Many of them, like the guides on our trip, have grown up on the Colorado River. Their lives – families and friends and work and play – are connected to the river. Babies float white-water rapids before they leave the cradle. Imagine if the Colorado River’s roar and the gurgle of side-canyon waterfalls and the songs of canyon wrens were among your first sounds of life to hear. These people are of the Canyon.

Our boatman, Art, grew up on the river. His father, Paul, was a long-time river guide who could never get enough of the Canyon. One day Paul will become, literally, of the Canyon. On his mantle at home is an urn adorned with scenes of the Grand Canyon. It’s intended for his ashes one day, and he’s given explicit instructions on how he wants them distributed among his favorite rapids of the Canyon. It seems a common desire with those who’ve spent their lives boating and hiking the Canyon.
Paul’s son, Art, is nearly 40 years old and has become something of a river elder. You could see it in the deference paid to him by other guides when we crossed river paths during our trip. It’s a deserved respect, hard-earned over Art’s lifetime and nearly 200 trips through the Canyon.

At the end of our raft trip, utterly exhausted, we boarded an air-conditioned bus back to Las Vegas for hot showers and real beds. Art, however, after packing up his leaky raft and dealing with our shit from eight days on the river, was heading back to Lee’s Ferry to start all over again.
 “You guys are just immersed in this place,” I said to him.

“Yeah, it doesn’t wash off very easy,” Art conceded.

Boatman Art

Our boatwoman, Ann-Marie, is also branded by the Canyon. Her father, O’C, came to work the Grand Canyon as a river guide after getting shot in Vietnam in 1969 at the peak of that tragic war. The river captured O’C, salved his bitterness, and probably saved his life. But not his marriage. I asked Art if it was the river or the war that ruined O’C’s marriage and he said he wasn’t sure. That the river guides and their families suffer with the same challenges as everyone else is merely to say they are human. 

Boatwoman Ann-Marie

They work hard, these river guides, and none of them look like they’re getting rich. At least, not in the normal sense of the word. But I ask you, how many people have jobs that regularly include long minutes of contentment gazing at the grandest landscape on earth? 

Swamper Duffy.
"Can you believe the light in that smile?" --Rafter Ray

After 25 trips through the Grand Canyon, then 50, then 100 and more, how could you not be changed by it? After years of burning under the Canyon’s sun, breathing its air, and drinking its water, how could the Canyon’s power and beauty not seep into your bones?

"That gorgeous little Swamper Den, who is actually really strong but who is so sweet and beautiful that you can't believe her amazing endurance." --Rafter Ray
The Canyon has inspired untold romances among the guides. Art confessed one evening that a big mistake he learned the hard way had been once having a girlfriend as swamper on his raft. Giving orders got complicated, he said, with what I considered masterful understatement.
“Art,” I laughed, “How on earth did you let yourself get into that situation?”

Art just shook his head.

Let’s face it – sexual allure was part of it all on our raft trip, enhancing even the beauty of the Grand Canyon.

One female rafter late one night, after considerable hydration, gazed long at Art. Then she turned to Eva. What she said next surely reflected the thoughts of more than a few of the women on our trip.
Her: “Don’t you just want to take him out there and fuck his brains out?”

Eva: “Uhhhh.”
Her: “And this is what got me in trouble last night, I think.”

Canyon cheesecake (Boatman Art & Swamper Den).

Next: 11 – Just One Word

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