A retelling of proposing to Carrie in the tongue of Crystal Rapids!
The Turbulence of Blood and Water
By: Jeffe Aronson
Once again, here I am at the scout for Crystal rapids, scared shitless. But this time, it aint because of the affairs of the river.
Or is it?
Bottom of the Grand Canyon. How on earth did water do this? Water is so sensual, quenching inner thirsts, but it can also move mountains of solid rock thousands of miles to the sea. Water can trickle down a fern-strewn cavern, or it can cartwheel mud so thick it floats boulders the size of houses, creating new obstacles for a river, and boatmen, to foam and crash and dance over. We come along in our fragile craft, suspended on our lifeblood that has been patiently sculpting the neighborhood for millions of years, and can only just barely feel the power. And yet even just that much knocks us off our feet.
Just minutes ago, floating along in the calm mile above, having survived Granite Falls and Hermit Rapids, I was, for the hundredth time, trying to look interested in client banter while making a feeble attempt to secretly keep the bile down.
That’s all behind us now, and here I am, striding head down and trying to look cheerful at one of my least-favorite places on earth.
We arrive at the panoramic viewpoint, and anyone who’s ever been there needs no description–anyone who’s never been, cannot imagine the turbulence, the thump of water and blood.
There’s this pink rock stuck in the gravel like a diving board right at the brink of the scout bench, worn by thousands of flip-flops. Its foundation is somewhat tentative, thus it is the perfect perch. The roar slaps us in the face as we top the rise. Black, greasy schist rises vertical on the far shore, a dominant and somber setting for what we really came to chew on, rolling and spitting at its base. The familiar pink granite dike comes into view, rising out of the water to split this black cliff. It is one of dozens in this section of river, which beautifully interlace the ancient schist and whorled gneiss like a delicate latticework. Only this one is special: it marks the point of no return.
Various cacti are scattered about, along with the occasional lizard, Mormon tea, and desert trumpet. We see none of it. Our gazes are consumed by that band of river. The signs come to those of us who have been initiated: the leading diagonals off the right shore that shoot the luckless and doomed into the maw of hell. The maw itself, the “New Wave”, a place nobody ever wants to be, but most of us have been. Or will be, sooner or later. I like to say I’m “in between flips”.
River bank tamarisk and willow obscure the next little section, but we know this place without seeing it. It is here that the second set–and perhaps the most critical–of moves must be made. That is of course assuming we’re still upright and have our oars (paddles, throttles) in hand, or are frantically trying to get them back where they belong. Not done yet… no. A little further on is Big Red and the rest of the rock island, which, like a bad relationship I once had, always seems to be sucking you into a place you really don’t want to be.
Yup, scared shitless. Visibly trembling. All broke out in a sweat, mirrored sunglasses unable to hide my thousand-yard stare, damn near peeing my pink-flowered shorts.
I feel a tap on my shoulder, and come to with a start.
“Huh? Me? Yeah, sure, I’m fine. Why?”
“Well, you look like you’re about to throw up, is all.”
“I do? Um, sorry. No, really, I’m fine. I’m FINE.”
But its not that familiar bastard of a rapid roaring out there that’s got hold of me. Its because, once again, I’ve chosen to do something delightfully stupid but reasonably tantalizing, in a roguish sort of way. My mind drifts to Grapevine camp, two sleeps ago, sharing the surrounding starlit glory with my little dram of highland single malt, watching what I swear is the finest sunset in the universe observed and appreciated from the finest location in the universe, which is pretty much always my boat. I’m fondling this little silver ring set with turquoise in my pocket like a rosary.
She’s hikin’ in tomorrow. Better make your mind up. Now or never.
Said she would see us with bells on.
Yep, I’m gonna do it. But how? Where? Can’t kneel in some sappy restaurant, or in front of some marble fountain. Can’t get ahold of a bouquet of roses way the hell out here. Is this a guy thing, needing to be adolescent when maturity is required? The gals want romance, something really special from their man. Which is just the moment we turn into schoolboys dipping pigtails into inkwells. Or maybe its just me.
If you’re lucky enough to have been down here, felt and smelled and absorbed this, you know that once you’re well and truly into The Gorge, thoughts inherently meander downstream to your current nemesis. Is it Hance or Horn Creek? Hell, maybe you recently got a tad too complacent and now you’re getting all balled up over Sapphire. Or maybe you’re rowing one of those stupid but hopelessly romantic wood and glass boats, and its rock-strewn Bedrock that’s making you squirm.
Whether or not any or all of those others stick in your craw, even though you may never have the cajones to admit it–there’s always gonna be Crystal back there in your brain stem, churning its way through your bowels, and you there trying to shove it out of your mind every time it rears its ugly head. Oh, lovely and dangerous Crystal.
What better place, I ask myself, to commit totally. To lovely and dangerous Carrie.
What dumber place, comes the reply from my inner buzzfly.
So, the plan is hatched that evening over pineapple upside-down cake (an omen?). When Carrie hikes in at Phantom, I’ll tell her that I’ve been having crummy runs, don’t feel right about taking some of the physically disabled folks on this specialty trip through Crystal. She can “garbo” in Crystal for me (lean over the front tube with all hundred pounds of her “intelligent weight”, high-siding the hell out of the big ones), and if we have trouble, its only the two of us to worry about. If we do okay, everyone else can come through and we’ll spot for them in Thank-God eddy.
Meanwhile, Ann will take photos of the episode from shore, and I’ll wing it, as usual. The customary half-planned, half-assed sort of thing that one might expect from me.
We drink to it, the Grand Canyon, and life in general, my pards and I.
Coming out of my little reverie and solidly back at Crystal, I wander off along the dry bench to pick a straggle of desiccated desert flowers for a posy, stuff it into my shorts pocket, and we’re off. Carrie can’t figure out what’s wrong with me, having only known me for a year, and having a singularly undeserved awe of my river skills. I’m not about to confess my shortcomings at the moment. We don our life jackets, I untie and coil the bow line, and shove into the deceptively calm river. Carrie clambers over the wheelchair tied onto the stern load, steps into the front bilge, grabs the “OS” (for “Oh Shit”) line out front, and gazes downstream. Ready for whatever comes, as always.
I stumble my way onto the boatman’s seat, grab the oars, and fancy that I’m supposed to be thinking about something profound to say, totally overlooking the humungous cataract dead ahead.
Carrie knows me fairly well by now, and thus knows to keep her mouth shut when I’m trying to concentrate above a big rapid. She listen’s silently as I take my customary deep breath, dip the oars, never turning round to see my ashen face.
And its time. I drop the oars, and gracefully leap beside her, tripping over the frame on the way. She turns to me, shocked, and asks “What? What’s wrong? What do you want me to do?”
And I kneel in the wet, cold bilge, looking up into her eyes (totally forgetting to remove my full-wrap sunglasses), and tell her what she means to me. How I’ve never felt like this before. That I want her to be by my side forever, sharing laughter and tears, struggles and triumphs, hauling my dry-bags when I’m kayaking. Recollecting a bit late, I shove my paw in my pocket, crushing then presenting said crushed posy.
I then mention, as we’re floating by the pink granite dike that signals Crystal’s tongue, that unless she agrees to marry me, I’m not getting back on the oars.
“Well, of COURSE I’ll marry you!” echoes off the schist, in that unmistakable Queensland-tinged Cockney-inflected, delightful Aussie accent of hers. We embrace, and kiss, and Carrie pulls away.
“Now get back on the Goddamn oars!”
And, after a gesture of triumph towards the motley assemblage on shore, some leaning on crutches, some in wheelchairs, which responds with a collective “HOORAY”, I recollect where we are.
And as I crab-crawl at speed back to my post, I hear Carrie say “Did everyone on this bloody trip know you were going to do that?”
I manage a sheepish “Uh, huh”, whilst gazing over her hat to see what we’re in for, pivot-stroking the hell out of my oars to straighten us up.
As fate would have it, we were in the perfect spot. No fault of mine. All I had to do was spin her and hold her, both of us emerging at the other end looking for all the world like a pair of thoroughly drenched, blissed-out rats.
After we sweep into Thank God eddy, I manage to remember the ring.
Nowadays, twenty years later, I smile every time I arrive at the Crystal scout–one of my most favoritest places on earth. One bell from Carrie’s hike-in anklet remains, sewed with dental floss to my ratty, holed Stetson hanging up in the shed.
Jeffe Cremation of Sam McGee - YouTube
River guides are a band of brothers & sisters. An eclectic bunch of "talented misfits", anti-authoritarian and craving adventure. Often, our clients only see our professional sides, poised in the face of the storm. Thus, the moniker "River Gods".
We know better. The stories in River God show who we really are, our fears, frailties, and failures.
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About the author
I row Dories in Grand Canyon. Best job in the world. Best damn river trip on earth.
I escaped my Chicago Jewish neighborhood young, rebellious and lost, frantic to leave “civilized” far behind. Rivers saved my soul, specifically the one that carved the Grand Canyon: The Mighty Colorado.
My love of rivers, spiced with evocative descriptions of the wild places I've been and a rather wobbly tightrope of life and death, will grip you. Whether you're sitting around a campfire or sitting on your couch–get lost with me in River God.
A riveting collection of adventure narratives
River God reveals Nature at her wildest, which, like a woman, is when she is most beautiful. Follow along on a search for the essence of things, a new tribe. Perhaps, like me, you will feel the beating of your heart through wilderness.
“Jeffe's stories take readers places they yearn to glimpse, but dare not go. Hell, you can die out there.”
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