“Pretty soon you starting hanging back, saying, ‘I can’t run any faster.’ And then the lion gets you.” –Rafter Ray, during a wheezing Day 2 hike, contemplating the reality of our mutual aging.No one had less business being on our raft trip through the Grand Canyon than Fred. His sister, Arlene, tried mightily to talk him out of it. But Fred had been on the trip before; he was a big boy – literally – and knew what he was getting himself into.
Out of shape and overweight, Fred, a retired bail-bondsman from Bullhead City, Arizona, probably should have stayed home. “He told me the trip would give him the incentive to lose 40 pounds,” Arlene explained to me, as if needing to apologize for her brother’s handicap. “Obviously, that didn’t work.”Like aging itself, a Grand Canyon raft trip is not for sissies. You’re on and off the raft many times daily, and no one is holding a ladder.
You ride the river sitting on gear or sprawled on the deck. There are no seat belts; you hang on to any handy strap or rope, which hold the raft and its gear together. You wade in the sometimes mucky river to bathe and to pee. You sleep on cots out in the open and haul your own gear back and forth. You bake in the sun in hundred-degree heat all day long. It’s physical.
It’s also healthy. There’s no fast food, only the precisely planned and deliciously prepared food from the guides. You’re active all the time. I can’t imagine anyone gaining weight on the trip, although the volume of spirits downed might negate some of the healthy lifestyle.The closest to junk food I saw was a trail mix being passed around the raft. Someone asked, “Do the M&M’s melt in your hand?”
Fred immediately volunteered, “Not in my hand.”Snickers.
Fred: “I heard that.”Me: “You said it.”
Someone else: “It’s just, the more you think about it…”At that point, we laughed and changed the subject.
Fred struggled, and as the week progressed he grew more content to relax on the beach while others took hikes. For all his challenges, however, here’s the thing about Fred. Not once did I hear him complain about anything. Not the heat – even though sometimes I pictured his reddening countenance on the raft as a giant kielbasa broiling under the sun. Not the sand, not his frequent falling on his butt when getting on and off the raft. Not even when he came real close to killing himself.
It was Day 3 and we had hiked up the bank of the Little Colorado River. The water ran like chocolate milk, a natural phenomenon after runoff from upstream monsoon storms the prior week. Fred paused on the trail next to some large jagged boulders along the river. From the corner of my eye, I caught his movement, a completely unnatural phenomenon as he lost balance and toppled backwards like a felled tree, ending up stretched out on the rocks with his head down between the rocks and lower than his feet.
Several of us rushed to his aid, including, Eva, a nurse practitioner. Somehow, Fred had protected the back of his head with a hand, and, remarkably, he seemed uninjured. Others with backs stronger than mine pulled Fred’s bulk upright. It was a close call.
As Fred was escorted back to the raft, a few of us hiked farther up the river and lingered until the appointed time to return. On my walk back, I stopped at the spot of Fred’s fall and marveled at how easily a simple slip could have been catastrophic, even deadly. How different our trip would have been.Then I noticed that staring back at me from the same rock where Fred’s head had nearly ended its life was a lizard. Nothing special, just an ordinary lizard. Except for one thing. This one now has a name: Fred’s Lizard.
Next: 9 – Nipple Beers