Smiling in the face of pain

Jean Gillette is on vacation this week. Here is a reprise of one of her favorite past columnsI have blisters on my hands. I just finished a six-hour drive including the Grapevine. Every muscle in my body aches, my feet are pruney and I’m sunburned.

So why am I smiling? Apparently it was something in the water. Actually, it was me in the water — a lot — as my son and I rocked, rolled and bobbed down a 15-mile stretch of the Kern river last weekend. The whole adventure went strongly against my better judgement. Remember, I had my kids late. Life these days includes a tricky back, varicose veins, arthritic fingers, abdominal avoirdupois, and the inability to negotiate steep trails without loud, embarrassing wheezing. Nevertheless, when the opportunity came up to raft the river for two days, I found I couldn’t say no.

What was I thinking? Well, truth be told, I was thinking back to when I was 27 “rafted” both the Kern and the Klamath rivers. I remembered lazing along, getting bounced by the occasional rapids and watching the guide work his brains out maneuvering the boat with two long oars. No one told me that this trip would be an all-paddle event. Our river guides possessed patience far beyond their 20-something years. That and their upper body strength of an Olympic gymnast kept us out of trouble. But we still had to paddle – a lot. Our guide, Pete, provided us with a basic crash course in crewing and I got reintroduced to some muscles that truly thought they had retired to flabland for good.

After the first day, I began to suspect it was a covert fitness camp for zaftig moms, led by their devious teenage sons. We jumped off high rocks into the river, hiked up and hiked down, leapt out of the raft, swam furiously against the current to reach the shore, and paddled, and paddled and paddled on command.

To Pete’s shouts of “Forward — one!” or “Backpaddle — three…back it up, back it up!” we sought timing and teamwork. We could have been far worse, Pete graciously admitted. His most harrowing trip had been a raft full of pre-teen girl scouts.

“They were like popcorn,” he grinned. “You never knew when one of them would fly out of the raft and at every rapid they all hit the floor.”

Consequently, I felt adequately smug that I not only survived to walk again, but that our rafting skills sometimes actually worked. Pete did his darndest to keep us from wrapping our raft around a rock or unintentionally flipping out to join the “Kern River Swim Team.” In the process, I laughed out loud and had more fun that I ever thought I’d have again. The greatest part of the joy was watching my son having the most glorious time of his young life. By the end of the first day, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face, even if I could have lifted my arms that high.

I kept my eyes open just long enough to eat because I couldn’t bear to miss the luxury of someone else cooking and cleaning up for me. I hit the sleeping bag just as the sun went down and the bats came out, lulled to sleep by the soft roar of the river. I had the good fortune to waken sometime after the moon had set. I watched shooting stars fall from a sky jammed thick with our vast universe. It took my breath away.

Somehow, I managed to cheerfully rise the next morning without the aid of a winch and fill another day with rock jumping, river swimming, and paddling, paddling, paddling. I began to envision muscles in my legs, hidden since my days in ballet class, and dream of my old hipbones, buried since childbirth. All I needed was five or 10 more days on the river.

Alas, I am back to the daily grind, limping along as my hard-won endorphins fade. My sunburn itches, my fanny is sore and I need a nap, but I’m still grinning like a kid. Forward — one!

 

Jean Gillette is a freelance writer and fully-fledged river rat.

 

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