Authors: Elisabeth Hyde
“And where’s the nearest emergency room?” the mother asked.
“Are there rattlesnakes down here?” asked Matthew, the brother.
“Yup. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.”
“Yup. Shake your clothes out in the morning.”
“How about West Nile?” asked the boys’ father.
JT held up his hands. “Whoa. Let’s be positive, folks. You’re probably more likely to get in a car accident on the way to the grocery store than get bitten by a snake.”
“How hot does it get down here?” This came from a woman who looked to be in her early fifties, with a bowl-shaped haircut and no neck to speak of, what with her shirt buttoned up to her chin.
“And you are?”
“Ain’t gonna lie, Evelyn. It gets pretty darn hot. And this trip’ll be no exception. One fourteen at Phantom yesterday, I heard. But there’s always the river for cooling off. Know what I say about the heat?”
The group waited.
JT raised an eyebrow. “If you’re hot, you’re stupid.”
“What are the water levels running at, if I may ask?” said Mitchell.
“Lows are twelve, thirteen,” said JT. “And for those of you unfamiliar with Bureau of Reclamation measurements, that means twelve thousand cubic feet of water are running past you every second. Highs are eighteen to twenty.”
“Why the variance?” Mark asked, and JT explained that the operators of the Glen Canyon Dam released more water at certain times to satisfy the power demands of Phoenix.
“Kind of like tides,” he said. “Not a big deal.”
“How’s the food?” Peter asked.
“Let me put it this way,” JT said. “This isn’t a weight-loss trip. We’ll feed you well. Speaking of which, I want to get in a few miles before lunch, so let’s get moving.”
He tucked the map into its waterproof sleeve and told the group to make sure their water bottles were full, their hats secured. In response to his directions, the group filed out of the shade into the hot, bright desert sun. Last in the group was the teenage girl. She’d been standing in the back, and he got another look at her and realized she wasn’t just big; she was huge. She was wearing an oversized green T-shirt from Jamba Juice, with gray athletic shorts that hung to the top of vast, dimpled knees. Her dark hair was parted in the middle and pulled back in a low, unflattering ponytail.
She hesitated, and JT noticed that her life jacket didn’t buckle at the bottom.
“Let me adjust that for you,” he said cheerfully.
Shyly she held her arms out and glanced to the side as JT tugged at the straps to free up a few more inches. Still the bottom buckle wouldn’t clip. He checked to make sure the jacket was a size large. It was. He worked at the straps some more, and by squeezing tightly, he finally managed to clip the buckle shut. The girl winced.
“Too tight?” he asked, glancing up.
She wrinkled her nose.
JT frowned. “Well, you really need to have it buckled,” he said. “Park regs. Put your arms down and lets see.”
She lowered her arms. As soon as she inhaled, the buckle popped open. Instantly tears filled her eyes.
JT scratched the back of his neck. Regulations were regulations. If anything happened to her, it would be his fault. “What’s your name?”
“Hey, Amy. Some of these life jackets have a little more give to them. We’ll find you another one.” He led her back to the pile, and they picked through the life jackets until they found one that buckled. Her arms stuck out cartoonishly, like penguin wings.
“I think a lot of it’s just water weight,” she offered. “My mother says it’s from the altitude. My ankles are swollen too.”
JT nodded, though he doubted her diagnosis. “Let’s find you a good spot on one of the boats. Want to ride with me?”
“Okay,” she said timidly.
“Come on, then,” said JT, heading toward the boats. “You like the front or the back?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, in the front, you might get splashed a little more.”
Amy smiled. “Front, then.”
He immediately realized that with her weight, the front of the boat was just where she
be. But he wasn’t about to spoil the mood right now.
“Front it is,” he said. “Come on. Mine’s the boat with the flag. Where are you from, Amy? Wisconsin, isn’t it? My gramma grew up in Wisconsin. You want some gum?”
“Thanks,” said Amy.
“Welcome to the ditch,” said JT.
s the bus rocked its way down the gravel road to Lee’s Ferry, Peter Kramer finished off the last of the watermelon he’d swiped from the breakfast buffet that morning. Peter had read in his sister’s
that watermelon made your sperm taste better. He didn’t know if he was going to get any blow jobs on this trip, but figured a quick adjustment to his own personal sugar levels wouldn’t hurt.
Not that he had many hopes, after meeting his fellow passengers at the orientation session last night. There was a nuclear family with a clean-cut dad and weary-looking mom and two squabbling boys. A boxy, middle-aged woman, obsessing over whether she should bring her rain pants. A geriatric couple glued at the hip. A blowhard cowboy and his midget wife, both carrying large iced-coffee drinks. Last to arrive was a trim, stylish woman whose blunt-cut blond hair and wispy bangs gave her an ethereal Scandinavian look—but she came with her daughter, who was quite possibly the most obese girl Peter had ever seen.
Which had worried him: didn’t they have weight limits, for safety reasons? What kind of an organization was this?
The trip had not been Peter’s idea. Back in Cincinnati, he’d been moping for weeks, complaining to his sister that their mother was going to spend another entire SUMMER asking him to come over and water her PEONIES every other night and he needed a fucking BREAK from that woman. Just because he was out of work and just because Miss Ohio dumped him a year ago didn’t mean he was available to step in as his mother’s gardener.
Finally his sister got sick of listening to him complain, and she booked a last-minute spot with Coconino Explorations. She’d gone on
a river trip with them the year before and loved it, and now wanted the whole world to go. Peter reminded her that he couldn’t swim, that he didn’t trust sunscreen, and that he was allergic to organized trips where you had to hold hands every time you crossed the street. Plus, canyons made him claustrophobic. Plus, he was trying to quit smoking.
“Peter. Stop. It’s paid for,” said his sister. “And it’s really, really beautiful, and you’ll come back a changed person, and some big map company will offer you a cushy job.”
And so Peter got on that plane to Phoenix, if only to escape his mother for two weeks. He trusted his sister when she told him that the guides made everyone wear a life jacket, that his chances of falling into the water were slim. He told himself that Miss Ohio would hear about this and realize how adventurous he was and regret her decision to marry someone else. He was even all set to allow that perhaps he’d meet someone hot on the trip—until he walked into the orientation meeting and realized he’d committed himself to two weeks of forced group therapy.
Now Peter stepped off the bus into hundred-degree heat. It didn’t seem very canyonlike. The beach was junky and crowded and noisy. They got a pep talk; he made it through Life Jackets and Gear Loading and River Safety and wondered if the bus driver would take him back to Flagstaff.
But then the Trip Leader introduced the other two guides, and everything changed.
She was wearing a beat-up straw hat and faded red shorts and a tattered pink shirt knotted at the waist that revealed her belly button. She had two braids that brushed against her shoulders and wore a silver charm on a leather band around her neck. She barely stopped to wave hello, though Peter couldn’t take his eyes off her as she worked on her boat, lugging boxes and crates and yanking straps and coiling ropes; and when she dunked a bandanna in the water and tied it around her neck, he had to blink, to make sure it was real.
Was there any question, any question at all, which boat he was going to choose?
As soon as JT dismissed them, Peter casually wandered down to the shoreline and stood by her boat.
“Need some help?” he finally asked.
“Nope,” she said, flashing a smile, and then she pirouetted from one boat to the other, bending and coiling and knotting and hoisting; what she was doing, Peter couldn’t tell, but it seemed to require a good deal of expertise, and she finally pranced back to her own boat. Peter hadn’t moved.
“Here,” and she tossed him a snarl of rope, “untangle that, if you wouldn’t mind. Hey Abo! Is this your bag? Don’t make me haul your shit!” and Peter, whose mother had time and again asked him to untangle a skein of yarn only to have him scoff at the idea (for he had hoops to sink and weights to lift and a V-8 engine that needed revving), now found himself lovingly coaxing apart the strands of a white nylon rope that, for all the times it had touched Dixie’s hands, had instantly taken on the intimacy of the entire contents of her top bureau drawer.
So that when the blowhard cowboy from Wyoming rounded everyone up for a group photo, he found himself smiling self-consciously, knowing she might be watching.
fter JT’s lecture, Evelyn Burns, PhD, found herself clambering on all fours across the rubbery tubes of Dixie’s raft, trying not to slip as she made her way to the back. She would have preferred to ride in JT’s boat, but the fat girl had just taken the front seat, and JT signaled Evelyn to find another boat. She reminded herself that a woman could row as well as a man and scolded herself for presuming otherwise.
But here they were, finally starting their journey! Evelyn had signed up for this trip as a gift to herself for her fiftieth birthday, and she’d been planning it for well over a year, reading guidebooks and history books and all the personal narratives she could find. A professor of biology at Harvard, she applied her vast research skills to scouting out the best equipment on the Internet—sunblock shirts and insulated water bladders and quick-drying pants that unzipped to become a pair of shorts.
Evelyn hated being unprepared.
Now, with an awkward lurch over a mound of gear, Evelyn found herself in the back well of the boat. The young man from Cincinnati was already sitting on one of the side tubes. Evelyn steadied herself and set her day bag down and wiped her brow.
“It’s a bitch, isn’t it, just getting in and out,” he said.
Evelyn didn’t want to think that she was in the same category as this young man, who had informed them all last night that he didn’t know how to swim. Evelyn knew how to swim. She knew how to canoe and sail and kayak too. She just didn’t have a lot of experience climbing in and out of big rubber rafts.
“So I forget—is this your first trip down the Colorado River?” Peter asked.
Actually, it was the first time she’d even seen the Colorado. She’d gotten her first glimpse earlier that morning, when the transport bus stopped at Navajo Bridge, which spanned the river just before the turnoff to Lee’s Ferry. Lots of people liked to walk across the bridge, the bus driver told them. Evelyn got off the bus and joined the others, but midway she stopped and peered over the iron railing. There it was, five hundred feet below, a glassy blue ribbon flanked by green bushes and pink cliffs. Where were the rapids? Where was the roar of white water? All she could hear was the drone of cars crossing the bridge.
In fact, if she closed her eyes, she could have even been back in Boston. She thought of the man who’d left her six months ago with the briefest of letters, whose golden heart she still wore around her neck. She reached up and fingered the heart. It was smooth and warm, as familiar as a tooth. She recalled its red velvet box, the white satin inside. She remembered the touch of his bearded chin against her chest, how he bumbled with his glasses before they made love.
Suddenly, on a whim, Evelyn reached up and unfastened the chain. Dangling it over the railing, she pictured his face once more, then let go. Golden threads in midair, the heavier heart glinting below—Julian’s gift evaporated in the hot desert air. And with it, she hoped, any gloom that was trying to seep in and ruin her trip.
“Yes, it’s my first trip,” Evelyn replied now.
“Mine too,” said Peter. “I’ve never even been in a rowboat. Want some help?”
She was trying to clip her day bag to the web of straps that crisscrossed the pile of gear. She shook her head, but the straps were too tight, and she had to wait while he wedged his hand beneath to lever some space so she could slip her carabiner through.
“Tight little buggers, aren’t they?” he said cheerfully.
No doubt wanting to imply that he had more experience than she! Down in the bilge, a puddle of cold water collected at her feet, and she wished she’d thought to get out her neoprene socks. But she wasn’t going to go through the rigmarole of unclasping the carabiner and opening up her bag again.
So much work, just getting settled in a boat! How she hated being a novice!
Up front, the old couple had settled themselves efficiently, as though they’d done this a thousand times before. Meanwhile, Dixie waded knee-deep into the icy water and began coiling up the thick nylon bow line, which she then jammed into its own loop, giving it a fierce tug.
“All set?” she asked, and after getting nods all around, she gave the boat a push and hopped up and nimbly pranced across the piles of lashed-down gear to finally land with a little smack on her seat, where she wiggled herself into a good position and grabbed the oars and pivoted them out into the water. Deftly she gave two strong heaves with her right arm; the boat swung around, and to Evelyn’s surprise, what she thought was the back quickly became the front as they caught the current and headed downstream.
“Good-bye, civilization!” Dixie exclaimed.
Evelyn gripped the straps. The sun bore down; the water lapped gently at the side of the boat. The river was a rich emerald green here, not blue as it had looked from the bridge, and it sparkled sharply in the sun, glinting where the current moved swiftly. Here and there, the water melted up into round blotches that simmered on the surface. Evelyn glanced back toward Lee’s Ferry, where the motor rigs were still on the beach, and she thanked her lucky stars she wasn’t on a motorized trip, for it seemed a clumsy and thoroughly illegitimate way to experience the river. Upstream, fishermen waded toward Wyoming, casting their lines.