It was one of those early spring days that seemed no season at all, rather a pause in seasons, as if nature had come to a stop while trying to remember what should come next. We had seen signs of spring on the drive down: crocuses and daffodils pushing up beside lonely houses, a purple furze along the highway. But here, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there was no color, not even from the buds on the trees. And no birds. No birdcalls, no flutterings in the bushes. This struck me as very strange.
It was a long hike down to the water, so it was a relief to finally put in within sight of a large braided waterfall, to make the delightful transition from heavy, jerky plodding to effortless gliding, from laden camels to free-floating dolphins.
The Linville Gorge. It had never been run, though an imaginative description existed in a guide book written by an expert map-reader named Burmeister. If we could run the gorge, Tom assured me, it would be a first descent.
We started off on a stretch of easy, pleasant whitewater, where Tom pulled away from me. Then, at the first challenging rapid, I caught up when he got out of his boat to scout.
I joined him on the bank, and we studied the rapid in silence, as usual–while I suppressed my impulse to ask questions.
The proper route was obvious. It involved a ninety-degree turn, in mid-current.
“If you missed the turn, you might get banged around on those rocks,” I said finally, pointing.
The water, as I stared at it, kept changing its aspect. One moment its currents and cross-currents looked muscular, powerful beyond all resistance; the next they seemed minor rivulets. Would I cut right over them? Or be swept onto the rocks? I couldn’t tell. I could see exactly what was happening, but I couldn’t gauge the scale, the degree of power. I picked up a piece of driftwood and tossed it in, watching it bob slowly through the waves. It disappeared entirely when it came to the turn.
I saw that it would not be hard to walk around. And I reminded myself that I have to be especially careful. The boat I was paddling, a Hahn design built in England, was unusually fragile. I had sold my tougher Olympic C-1 back to the builder, leaving me with a craft made entirely of polyester and fiberglass, no sandwiched nylon or polypropylene to toughen it. But worse than that: the entire deck, and most of the hull, was not even woven fiberglass, but rather chopped fibers pressed together into what is called “mat.” Mat is considered a heavy material, but this boat was thin enough to remain light–light, stiff, and as I already knew, notoriously easy to break.
But that’s why we trained slalom, wasn’t it? To be able to get down the river without touching any rocks.
Then there was always that other option.
“I guess I’ll carry it,” I said uncertainly.
Tom gave me a quick glance, then looked back at the river. Our etiquette was firmly fixed: each man for himself, make your own decisions, never pressure the other, never give in to pressure.
Tom climbed into his boat. I stood, making no move to carry, and watched him turn out into the current, slide down the first drop, perform a smooth half turn, and accelerate through the proper slot. As I watched him do it, I immediately knew that I could do it, too. Watching another boat paddle a rapid gives you a lot more information than throwing in sticks.
For several long moments I did not move; I stood in the chill air, staring dully at the water, while there passed through me a wave of internal disorientation. Pieces of my mental universe were being rearranged–some moving aside, others falling into the vacancies. When the relocating had completed itself I shivered, and with that shiver the new parts settled into place–and there it was, not at all a new, but an all-too-familiar, pattern.
Big brother leads little brother down the river. No, not a new feeling at all. At six years my senior, Tom had always, automatically, been the leader of our group of two. What was more, he was somewhat of legend throughout the sport for being tough, unafraid, for thinking for himself. He had also been a standout wrestler at Yale, placing second in the Easterns, for example. I had grown up hero-worshipping Tom.
But it wasn’t without a certain sense of personal diminishment that I felt the old paradigm reassert itself. For some things did not fit into that old pattern; there was no room for certain of my previous year’s cherished individual accomplishments, for Olympic Team or Bronze medal or any of that. These are entirely irrelevant here. What did the river care about credentials? This was no artificial trumped-up television spectacle. Here was only the ceaseless flow of water over rock.
And I was still the relatively cautious, pain-avoiding Jamie I have always been, still with that unambitious goal of getting myself down in one piece.
Some things never change.
I climbed stiffly into my boat and ran the rapid exactly as Tom had. It was easy.
From that point on we tried to hurry along a little more. We made up our minds quickly, unanimously, when we scouted rapids. Tom was still, almost invariably, the first one down any rapid difficult enough to scout.
The river dropped away, and dropped away again, throwing one blind horizon line after another across our view downstream. Time after time we were forced to climb from our boats. I longed for a dull stretch, for a quiet, lazy mile.
The first serious incident came from just a little slip. I pulled into an eddy at the top of a blind drop, popped my skirt off the cockpit rim, put down my paddle–and started to slide backwards out of the eddy. I grabbed a slippery shoreline rock, but was unable to stop myself; a jet of the main current caught me as I left the shelter of the eddy, forcing the boat against the shore and pinning it there while water poured into my uncovered cockpit. Bent violently sideways at the waist, I clung to one last rock.
I had no attention left for anything outside myself. Suddenly there were hands underneath my armpits; then the boat and I were lifted up, dragged across the rocks, and dumped high and dry.
I crawled out of my boat.
“Thanks. Sorry. I just–I guess I wasn’t paying attention.”
“Let’s be careful.”
We went on. Rapids, and small, bubbling pools. We had to get out to look at almost every drop. Most we ran, but often enough we both decided to carry. Several times we were tempted to run drops which, if located on some easily accessible stretch of river, would have been commonly run. But here, miles from help, we portaged. We made decision after decision without discussion, by mutual consent.
Late morning, perhaps midday, we came to a rapid that we disagreed about. The drop was not tall, and it ended in a calm pool, but I was convinced that the water was dropping directly onto just-concealed underwater rocks. It was hard to tell, because after a drop like that the water boils to the surface anyway, whether it is deep or shallow.
We disagreed briefly, carefully. In order to emphasize the certainty of my opinion, I put my boat on my shoulder and started to walk around, then put it down again as Tom paddled away from the bank to line himself up. For a moment he was hidden from my point of view–then he reappeared above me, poised against the sky; he fell–
One moment he was falling–the next he had come to an almost complete stop, the boat still vertical; then it tipped, twisting, to one side.
Tom rolled up and paddled to shore, sinking fast, the bow of his boat pointing crazily skyward, like the curled toe of a jester’s shoe.
Although this was almost exactly the result that I had anticipated, when it actually happened I found that I was shocked, disconcerted. I realized that, subconsciously, I had assumed Tom would find a loophole, an out, that he would at the last instant pull off the move and arrive at the bottom unscathed. Never had I felt so taken aback to be proven right.
Tom joined me on shore, and we conferred.
“I could hike back in tomorrow with some duct tape,” said Tom. He had allowed three days for our first descent of the full fifteen or so miles to the first bridge-crossing below. We never dreamed, in those days, of carrying extra gear, camping gear or even food. There was no good way to waterproof it. We weren’t about to put ammo boxes in our slalom boats; that was for the traditional canoeists in their big open craft. We didn’t even own a flashlight. Camping would be out of the microbus.
Besides, we had started out hoping to run it all today.
“You really think you can tape it on?” I asked.
“I’m sure I can. I’ve seen it done with a bow that had fallen off completely. This isn’t that bad.”
“Yeah–this has at least six strands of fiberglass holding it on.”
There was a problem, though: the river right, the side of the river that the road ran along, was at this point almost a cliff. It looked like a climber’s challenge, not a paddler’s, to ascend on that side of the river.
The river left, on the other hand, sloped moderately away from us. And of course there was a road there, too, somewhere, farther back, behind the hills. We had seen it on the map. There is always a road, if you go far enough. Just as there is always a river.
“I’m going to walk up the far side,” said Tom. “I’ll be on the road over there, near the top.”
“Okay. I’m going to keep going.”
Tom nodded, as if he’d been expecting that. He might have distrusted me, he might have wondered if I should go on alone. But no–his nod was a nod of approval.
“I’ll try to get down to where the path gets close to the river,” I said, “and walk up to the overlook. Then I’ll meet up with Peggy, drive around to your side, and get you.”
“Okay, Jamie. Take care of yourself.”
Tom paddled his broken boat to the far bank and left it there. With a last wave he disappeared into the trees.
Going on alone should have made me nervous, I suppose. It did not. Quite the opposite. Tom was my paddling support, yes, my unacknowledged leader. And he was exemplary in not pressuring me. But at the same time, paddling with him was like driving with my father in the passenger seat. I felt exposed, observed, judged. It was not his fault. It was nothing he did. But I couldn’t seem to help it.
Only now, alone on the river, could I fully relax.
At the same time, without really thinking about it, I knew: no more slips were allowed.
I paddled. I climbed out of my boat, I looked. I climbed back in, and paddled some more. Rocks flashed by, waves broke over the deck of my boat, overhanging branches swept by overhead. Gone was the morning’s uncertainty. I was entirely absorbed in what I was doing. Words were irrelevant. There is a terrific clarity that comes with being alone on the river, trying to solve one intricate puzzle after another. And the Linville was complex beyond anything I had paddled. Often enough I chose to portage.
My progress was very slow. My boat had begun to leak badly. Soon I was forced to put in hurriedly, pop my skirt on as quickly as possible, paddle one short section, sprint to shore, climb out, empty, climb back in again.
The time came when the gorge, long shadowed, began to darken. Though I was reluctant to stop–for all the slowness of my progress, this was still a far more appealing means of transportation than walking–I knew I should strike off right away. I hadn’t seen any evidence of a trail, and bushwhacking in the dark without flashlight or compass is a sure way to get lost.
I left my gear on the riverbank and started to walk. My feet squished in my wet-suit booties. The wet-suit chafed at the groin. It didn’t matter. I felt both tired, and infinitely strong.
After a long, wearying, pathless climb, a thousand vertical feet up from the river, I pushed through a screen of bushes and stepped onto the soft dust of the ridge-top road. Twilight had fully established itself. Perfect timing. My brother Tom’s girlfriend, Peggy, should soon leave from the bridge that had been our over-optimistic goal, to drive up this same road toward me. If we didn’t reach the bridge, Tom had told her, come looking for us on the road. Dry clothes, food, warmth, were headed my way.
Or so I thought.
It wasn’t long before a log truck came up from behind, and without my having signaled in any way, the driver stopped and offered me a lift. I only rode the short distance down to Wiseman’s view, however–the only overlook on that side, and the only campground–getting out in case Peggy was parked there.
But the area was deserted. I walked back and down the road.
I walked for long while, perhaps an hour or two–I had no watch. The road ran along the ridge-line, so I had a good view in two directions, but the only lights I saw were miles away. There was very little else. The world had simplified itself: the sky was gray, the forest black, the road an in-between shade.
Obviously something must have happened to Peggy. The microbus should have come along hours ago.
Eventually I turned and walked slowly, aimlessly back upstream. If I stopped I’d be cold. Could I walk all night?
It began to rain. After an attempt at sheltering under a pile of leaves, I got up and continued back to Wiseman’s view. There I headed for the only roof: the outhouse.
The door, on its spring, banged shut behind me. It was an instant relief to be out of the rain. The only smell coming up from the lidless toilet was of damp earth. I lay on the concrete. Three-sixteenth’s of an inch of shark-skin neoprene was all that protected me from a cold, inhospitable world.
This should have been the hardest thing, lying here, waiting for morning. But for some reason it wasn’t really hard at all. It was not at all, for example, like that barely-hanging-in-there feeling you got near the end of a running race or a paddling time-trial. Or going to a party where you don’t know anyone. Those were hard.
I lay there, feeling quite certain that I could not possibly sleep … and drifted off, roused to shift positions, slept again.
On one of my many awakenings I found my little box suffused with gray light. I shifted, opened my eyes. The light was filtering down from the ventilation gap between walls and roof.
I closed my eyes again, feeling unbearably cramped, exhausted, cold. I tried, vainly, to sleep once more.
But then, slowly, with every breath, I began to feel better.
Chilled, stiff, groggy, with no plan or time-schedule, no breakfast waiting, no shape to the day ahead, closed between four walls set too close together for me to stretch out, stripped of the basic comforts I have always taken for granted, I became aware of an underlying pleasure. Very mild, very quiet it was, this small but indestructible pleasure–easily lost, overwhelmed, in everyday life–yet here it was, a little pulse of pleasure with each heartbeat. And there was another, steady, sustaining pleasure in the ebb and flow of my quiet breathing. The night was over. And here I was. That was all I needed. Being alive was all I ever needed. Everything else–friends, comforts, medals, success–were extras. Nice enough in their way. But it was tremendously freeing to realize that I don’t need them to feel pleasure. That this bare existence is pleasure enough.
I lay, for a time, clasping this knowledge to myself. Finally, on impulse, I sat up, struggled to my feet, stood leaning against the wall. The light was dim. There was no more rain-sound. No sounds at all.
I opened the door and stepped out. The quiet was unearthly. No traffic, no insects, no birds. Even the light seemed muffled, there under the low branches of the pines. But something had changed overnight. A new smell was in the air. I walked toward the clearing that was the parking lot and stopped at its edge, under the last overhanging boughs.
A sloppy wet snow perhaps two inches deep blanketed the lot. I shivered at this confirmation of the cold, tucked my hands under my armpits and squeezed down.
Slowly I walked out into the open. Stopping in the middle of the lot I swung my arms stiffly forward and back. That didn’t seem to help. And yet I felt very calm, and strangely happy, as I squished through the slushy snow, out to the “main” road, that furrowed tract, and down it.
To my surprise the road remained as deserted as it had been last night.
I needed shelter, food. And it would certainly be nice to take off the damp, chafing wet-suit and put on dry clothes. Yet part of me was for some reason glad that no one came.
It took us that entire second day to reassemble ourselves. The first person I met was a man operating a bulldozer off to one side of the road–a man in his early thirties with an omnicompetent backwoods air about him. He dropped everything to drive me around the gorge in his pickup in search of Tom and Peggy. Peggy I never found, but Tom showed up on the road on the far side. Our new friend bought us food at a gas stop, then went back to work, leaving us with obvious reluctance.
We tried, without money or ID, to convince a hotel operator to take us in, failed, and ended up attempting to build a fire in the snow while a new flurry swept around us. We had not yet succeeded when Peggy pulled over beside us.
She hadn’t been able to make it up the road, she explained, and had spent the night in a woman’s trailer-home near the take-out. The bulldozer operator and I must have driven right by her that morning.
The next day, on a still cool but this time partly-sunny spring morning, we set out once again, with a fresh roll of duct tape, dry wet suits, and a supply of matches double-wrapped in sandwich baggies. After long hikes to our separate boats, and time for Tom to tape his boat and make his way down to me, and then for me to tape mine, it was noon before we were ready to start out together, with boats almost watertight, and determination fixed in our eyes.
Just before setting out, I managed to lose the new roll of tape by dropping it into a deep pool in the river.
Tom just shook his head.
We were in the midst of the most difficult section so far. The river was dropping fast, twisting and turning on itself like an animal struggling against the stony clamp of the squeezed-together hills, fretting at its course, diving under blockading rocks instead of cooperatively flowing over or around, beating itself into white fury over unyielding ledge and stone.
As the afternoon wore on, my boat slowly broke up beneath me, not from any one hole but from the accumulation of many cracks. Dying the death of a thousand cuts. Once more I was reduced to paddling only a couple of minutes before I was forced to stop and empty. Tom’s boat, with its flexible snout, was not doing much better. As the sun passed behind the hills we knew we were far from the end of the gorge. We pressed on until the air around us began to fill with the gray dust of twilight, then shouldered our boats and struck off together into the woods.
We found a path that angled uphill in the right direction, giving us, in comparison with our first-day hikes out, a highway up and out of the gorge. Along it I trudged, hardly noticing that Tom was slowly leaving me behind, forging ahead up the long slope.
For a time the path was easy to follow, even in the dark forest; I could feel its slight hollow under the thin soles of my wet-suit booties. But when, instead, the earth gave way to a haphazard jumble of rock, I stopped and peered ahead.
Night had fallen. A dark night. At some point when I wasn’t noticing, clouds had covered the sky.
I could hear water running, a thin tinkling sound. Ahead of me, across the rock, I could see no break in the dark wall of undergrowth. Taking my bearings from the path behind me, I picked my way across the rocks, stepping over the stream. Surprising how wide a bed this little brook had scoured off the hillside. On the other side I walked into a waist-high rhododendron. I backed off and tried again. And again. Many times. I couldn’t find the path.
“Tom! I shouted. Tom!” I waited for an answer. Trees creaked overhead with the sound of doors opening and closing.
He was too far ahead to hear. I shouldn’t have let myself fall behind.
I dug out my matches and built a fire on the top of the tallest rock I could find. In the wild flaring light of my twig fire I could see a thin unmistakable path cutting into the darkness.
Once on the path again I had no trouble following it, curving back and forth but always up, until the slope finally eased. Stepping into a wide grassy clearing I was greeted by a familiar voice.
“Did you find the road?”
“No. I lost the path in this open spot. I’ve been wandering around looking for it for a while.”
I laughed, and told him what had happened to me at the streambed. To my surprise, Tom apologized for leaving me behind.
It struck me as very strange, to have him apologize. I hadn’t kept up, my fault, end of story–or so I would have thought. And if I had thought differently, why should Tom care? His apology revealed an unexpected sensitivity to my opinion.
Together we located the path again, and on it soon found the ridge-top road. Dropping our boats in its ditch, we turned and strolled downriver, silent for a time.
I knew the adventure was over. We only had the three days. We had to drive north; my spring vacation was nearly over, and Peggy had to return to her job and two girls. In two days of paddling we had covered perhaps eight miles, roughly half of our goal. We had been defeated. Denied by the river.
I wouldn’t have thought that possible. To me, yes, but not to Tom.
Our booties squelched as we walked. We followed the road down onto flatter ground where we came upon human habitation, a farm where a single street lamp shone all night, high on its pole.
In its light I looked over at Tom. Aware of the turn of my head, he looked back at me, giving his tight-lipped smile. It struck me how vulnerable that look was. A wave of protective feeling passed through me.
It surprised and disconcerted me to notice this feeling. Protective, toward Tom, my leader and my own main protector, who had pulled me out of trouble time and again?
But there it was. I was a middling sort of guy, a mixture: a dash of courage, a cup of caution; a dose of ambition, a healthy measure of laziness. While Tom’s purity, like the brittleness of many an unalloyed metal, could also be a weakness. He had missed out on Olympic year training with shoulder and knee injuries.
And, walking under that single light in midst of overwhelming darkness, it fully came to me: Tom was just another guy, another human being, very different from me, but not essentially different, having to make decisions, day by day, like the rest of us. Not as certain, not as monolithic, not as heroically “other” as I, in my hero worship, had always assumed. This was the kind of revelation one usually has in relation to a parent–and Tom, six years older, had in my mind assumed a half-parental role. It was the simple realization: he’s human, too.
Of course, I knew that; in a sense I’d always known that. I just hadn’t felt that.
We passed the farm and moved on into the darkness, disappearing as tracelessly as two wandering spirits.
We talked, now and again, about the river, the countryside, the upcoming summer, the cold, our voices thin and lonely in the vast darkness. But for the most part we walked in silence, side by side in our parallel tire ruts.
Jamie McEwan, long known as a slalom “racer head,” reads, writes, and hangs gates in upstate Connecticut.