Wednesday, October 1, 2014

6 – BE HERE NOW -- “Grand Canyon Rafting – A Dozen Little Stories”

By the second day of our eight-day raft trip through the Grand Canyon, I could tell that our guides already were sick of hearing stories about Flyin’ Brian, the beloved young boatman who had guided some of us through the Canyon on two similar float trips more than 20 years earlier.

At the conclusion of the first one back in 1990, I had looked into the video camera and said, “This trip was absolutely perfect. Any other trip we might take will be measured against this one.”
And that’s just what we were doing at the start of our latest raft trip. Those of us who had done it before were reminiscing and comparing – the gear, the food, the availability of ice, the pre-trip hotel, the six-hour bus-ride to the river, the weather, and even the guides.

The first night we camped, to my delight, on a beach where on that first trip I had spent one of the most memorable nights of my life – riding out a colossal thunderstorm with our two swampers high on the cliffs under sheltering ledges, and overlooking the campsite (where everyone else had set up tents) and the river as lightning electrified our view and thunder reverberated through the Canyon. As the storm cleared, the clouds had opened to a nearly full moon illuminating the landscape. 
Having returned years later, I climbed those same cliffs and found the very spot the three of us had huddled, damp and happy. Back on the beach, telling my friends that story gave me an excuse to show them a snapshot I'd brought with me of another place on the river. Flyin’ Brian and I are perched daringly on a rock projecting high into space, the river distant below us. In my mind, I could see myself repeating my pose in that stunt. I asked our boatman, Art, if he knew the spot, but he couldn’t place it. He didn’t roll his eyes, but might as well have. 
It’s not like he had anything against Brian. In fact, it turned out that they had been roommates for a year. Art’s lovely sister, Teresa, had been a swamper for Brian on our second trip, and we were pretty sure she had broken Brian's heart.

It’s just, you know, you’re supposed to be here now, and all that…

“Ok, Art,” I said. “Just one more Brian question and I’ll drop it for good. I know you’re sick of hearing about past history.”
I just had to find out if my memory had played tricks with me over the years, whether how I remembered my scary experience I’d had with Brian was even close to reality. For it’s a memory that still gives me chills after all these years.

I told Art that I thought it happened on Havasu Creek, an idyllic side stream of turquoise water flowing through miles of canyon and over waterfalls of all sizes. I explained how on our first trip, we had hiked to a large pool where you could duck under a short waterfall into a low-ceilinged cavern and look out through the falling water. It was easy and everyone thought it great fun.
We returned to the same spot on our second trip down the river with Brian the following year. By now, he had gotten to know me pretty well, which must have been why he suggested to me, “Want to try something different?”

I listened and swallowed hard and made him go over the instructions one more time. Despite my intense claustrophobia, I knew I’d never have another chance for such an experience. “Let’s do it.”
Brian plunged into the river, dove out of sight, and vanished. I gave him about a minute, as he’d instructed, and then followed. I took the biggest breath I could and dove down, finding the underwater opening in the cliff face, just big enough to swim into, right where he had promised. I kicked into the darkness, reaching the bend that turned right and up. Swimming through the underwater tunnel probably took less than a half-minute, but I remember it seeming longer. At the end, I popped up beside Brian in a tiny opening with barely enough headroom to keep our chins above water. The only light filtered up weakly through our watery escape route. Brian laughed, said we had to get out within a minute or two before we used up all the oxygen, and that’s what we did.

I described to Art how I remembered that little escapade and asked if he knew the place, “not that I’m even remotely suggesting I’d want to do that again.” He knew the place. I asked whether it was anything close to as scary as I remembered. “Worse,” he said. “It’s called The Green Room. I’ve only been there twice.”
I told Art that I couldn’t believe Brian would take me to such a place. Art explained, simply, “He’s crazy.”

Later, I showed the photo of me and Brian to the other guides; one of the swampers, Duffy, recognized the spot. Boatwoman Ann-Marie said the trail up to that overlook had worn away, and they seldom took visitors there. But we’ll see, she said. “Maybe we can get you up there with Art and recreate the shot.”
As it turned out, we did set up camp one night within sight and hiking distance of that picturesque overlook. By then, however, I’d been on The Death March (see next story) and felt fully in the here and now. I concluded it foolish to try and relive past memories. We were creating new ones from new experiences with a new group of people and that was enough. Hiking up that cliff to recreate an old memory wasn’t even a consideration.

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