Jerome, Arizona is full of lively adventurers. As soon as we arrived in 1980, our friends were taking us backpacking and whitewater rafting in the Southwest. All private trips. Sometimes we got along; sometimes not. I came across this tale while paddling through my writing notes and said, what the hell, I’ll post it for all my river friends.
The beer wasn’t ours. It belonged to 18-year old Tank and three young women whom I quickly named Pabst, Blue and Ribbon. The women’s wore red, blue and silver bikinis displaying hourglass bodies that were so perfect and smooth they looked manufactured. Tank was a fullback hero at his college. He told us he could regularly plow through a dozen linemen. We were the old hippie fogies.
Tank and friends were sharing their rafting permit with my husband and I, son Max, and his best friend and girlfriend for two days rafting on the Colorado River at Westwater. Two Rubber oar rafts for them; two for us. Tank had never rowed a boat, much less a raft, before. Pabst told us she was a whitewater guide that had been trained by her father and would be the lead boat through the rapids. The four of us had thousands of river miles between us.
Once the sun began to set, the mosquitos came out of hiding from large tamarisk bushes lining the river. (The tammies were only beginning to be eaten up by the new super bugs that were beginning to be used up and down river.)
Tank was spraying RAID on the women, up and down their bodies and on their faces (they did close their eyes), a spray so thick it enveloped them in a kind of plastic bubble. Then Tank built a large fire in the fire-pan to further ward off the mosquitos. The smell of smoke, RAID mixed with the dust of 75 cars and trucks wheeling in and out of the parking lots at sundown on a Saturday evening reminded me of a weird kind of drive-in movie in the boonies that my teenage boyfriend used to take me to when I was 14.
It was 106 degrees in the shade.
The next day, it was mid-afternoon by the time we got on the river. Tank, Pabst, Blue and Ribbon didn’t show up until about ten, fingers already curling around a can of beer. For breakfast , they munched on Doritos and Cheese Whiz with beer chasers. Tank lathered sunscreen over the Raid, but missed lots of parts of their bodies. It took them three hours to load the coolers full of 170 cans of beer, food and the rest of their gear. We watched as they roped it all casually on the boats. Finally they flopped in and were headed down river.
This was the beginning of a wilderness experience it never even occurred to me to dream up. There were two different types of trips occurring simultaneously.
The two days we were on the river, I never saw them without their fingers curdling around a can of beer. They never saw us without a joint.
First day was without mishaps. Lots of swimming to cool off; lots of water fights. We watched as they stopped, climbed up on high rocks and dove into the river. Lots of laughter. They shrieked their way down river. We were in some sort of somnambulist dream floating between the ripples of sky and water, surrounded by orange and magenta cliffs.
At the end of the day, Pabst, Blue and Ribbon stumbled out of the boats, flopped on the beach that day and passed out, too drunk to get in the shade. Already their bodies were turning into a kind of patchwork quilt: bright magenta where they had missed with the sunscreen; and kind of bleached white where the sunscreen had been applied. We tried to tell Tank he should at least get them into shade, but he just laughed. “Sun’ll be down soon,” he muttered.
Not our trip; not our friends. If we hadn’t been there, the same actions would have gone down. But we did pick up after them and made sure we left a clean camp.
The next day, the boats seemed to maneuver themselves through the three rapids that Westwater was known for. The river was low and the rapids quite passable. The room of doom, a big eddy that is almost unbreakable, was a ‘not much.’ In the front boat, Blue held on to the bowline standing up, as though she were riding a horse. The second boat went through backwards. No mishaps.
Towards the end of the day, Tank and the women found magenta cliffs that rose up forty feet from the river. The women climbed up and jumped off, feet first. Tank decided to show off a double back flip. His back hit the water with the sound of a sudden thunder-clap. It was also the sound of injury. He got to shore and our son’s best friend checked him out and said he likely had some internal bleeding and we needed to get to the take-out as soon as possible and rush him to a hospital. The girls woke up from their drunken stupors and started crying.
Drunkenness and foolhardiness are somewhat common on river trips. Some people just look forward to just getting totally wasted. On one trip through the big rapids on the Colorado, there were 112 cases of Blatt (We call ’em blatz) beer for 16 people. Towards the end of that trip, the ice ran out and no one could stand to drink the blatz, so they started making beer bombs with them. Shake ‘em up and watch ‘em explode.
What else is there to say? Danger and peril always lurk during whitewater rafting, even in the best of circumstances. The river gods are somewhat forgiving to fools and assholes, but not always.
Tank was lucky. He did have internal injuries and he didn’t play football that season. We never saw him or the girls again.