So far my summer has been absolutely lovely, the best ever.
It’s been so much fun that it’s hard to keep up with in my blog; a first! As much as I love to tend my blog, for the first time there is much that pulls me away in the best possible way. I am learning that life can be more cyclical. There is a time to work hard. And there is a time to float down the river.
This weekend it was time to float down the river.
I really needed to take down my front hedges another 6 inches or so, and seriously considered skipping the famously fun river trip I’d been invited on in order to work in the yard. But I have heard from so many people how much fun it is to float down the river all day — at least two friends have unequivocally called it their favorite fun to have all year, bar nothing. Did I really want to skip a river trip to trim my hedges?
I ditched the hedges and arranged to carpool to nearby Hot Springs with Rowan.
This was no ordinary river trip. It was the Eighth Annual Fun & Fancy River Float.
The Fun & Fancy is sponsored annually by Katie and Laura, who tell all their friends to meet them at Paint Rock Creek in Pisgah National Forest on the weekend before the Fourth of July, and come out dressed to float in style. You don’t have to wear a costume, but if you DO you stand a chance of winning your own cooler float and $500 in Monopoly money. Prizes are for Most Fun, Most Fancy and Most Fun and Fancy.
This year’s winner for Most Fun was our very own Rowan, who cut a plastic softball in half and wore it like a bra, carried a big red plastic whiffle bat and floated down the river on a giant orange baseball glove.
The Most Fancy winner was dressed as a mermaid, complete with a tail of iridescent fabric, scallop shells hot-glued to her bikini top and a visor that said MERMAID MAGIC in green glitter.
Winners of Most Fun and Fancy were a couple in biblical garb. Their blow-up ark held two inflatable monkeys and two pink inflatable octopi as well as a row of chicken, pig and puppy hand puppets, all in pairs. They received a deluxe cooler float with a steering wheel and working horn, which Laura advised them to use to tell the less fun and fancy people on the river to get out of their way.
Also of note was Ryan, who took to the river astride a four-foot yellow seahorse. He swiftly fell off into the water and declared his float was mean and wild, and in need of a breaking-in.
We shoved off after two hours of blow-up and prep, drinking Pink Panty Pull-Down, a devilishly smooth concoction of liquor, cheap beer and lemonade.
I was utterly unprepared for being on the river. Because I haven’t been out to the river in 30 years or so (like most locals, I never do the fun things in my own hometown), I had ignorantly neglected to bring a towel and a pair of river shoes. In a river full of slick rocks and broken glass, my bare white feet were an incredibly bad idea. So I brought my pair of pleather Target summer sandals along in a grocery bag, just in case. I also brought two back issues of The Economist and some bottled water. I had this dream of floating down the river while reading The Economist. Mildly insane multi-tasking or pleasure reading? Not even I knew…
But you know, there are these things called dry bags. They keep things dry on the river. And without them, things don’t stay dry, even in a little boat like the one I was riding in. River water has a way of getting into everything as you stumble ineptly over mild rapids. My dear copies of The Economist, which I had looked forward to reading on the river with an almost loverly anticipation, were soon wet mush turning the puddle of water that gathered in my little inflatable boat into grey slop. So much for reading.
It was a lesson. There is a time for reading, and there is a time for being. It was time to just be on the river.
Good god it was fun. We splashed and played and talked and drank beer and got a little banged up on the mild stretches of rocky water that gurgled and rushed louder and louder as we approached. Long stretches of slow, deep water let us just float carried along by the river current, gazing up at the sky or into the trees and mountains all around us. It was a perfect late June day, warm but not hot, and slightly overcast for the start of the trip. We floated along, talking, visiting briefly with each other as our boats and floats drew up to one another, drifting peacefully alone under the sun when the currents pulled our little flotilla apart. Eventually I got out and swam, letting the river pull me along.
Halfway through the trip was Snack Island, a well-named bar of sand and rock where our party pulled in for refreshment.
It proved too difficult for me to walk to the shore in bare feet. A barelegged fall on those rocks — hard big slick slabs under a few inches of water– would have meant bruises and pain, possibly blood. After a failed attempt to get to shore I slogged back to my boat and tugged on my sandals, hardly made for river (ab)use. They came apart in the water as I gingerly walked to the island. Luckily I had river-guide Laura, with her finely honed instincts to help those having trouble on the trip, to hold my hand as I climbed up the slick bank. I was with such a kind and friendly group of people that I didn’t really feel too silly. No one made me feel odd; no one teased me for not bringing shoes or stared as I baby-stepped ashore. Hats off to Laura and Katie’s friends, who are a kind, helpful and accepting lot.
I’d lost my sunglasses on the river, too. I don’t care to be a newbie, but that is just exactly what I was. A clueless, shoeless newbie in a plastic boat full of papier-mache.
But I made it to Snack Island! Sun and water make you hungry. We downed sandwiches, Twizzlers, spicy party mix, cheese pretzels, fruit and more Pink Panty Pull-Down. God we were hungry! We laughed at Snack Island’s perfect name and ideal location, halfway to the trip’s endpoint. We stood on the stony bank together, standing and eating and laughing, a colorful flotilla of sea horses, monkey-filled arks, giant baseball gloves and red-haired women wielding whiffle-bats.
Then back in the water for the remainder of the trip, which had my favorite part, a brief float under the overhanging branches of trees. You don’t think you’re going fast until those branches whiz by. You don’t think the current is strong until you try to fight it. Even this safe, gentle float down a relatively slow stretch of river still held currents ready to defeat you. Truly, you don’t push the river. Even this famously easy recreation spot has currents of surprising strength. Within 20 minutes of being in the river I could easily see how currents could kill in deeper, swifter water. Unless you are very fit and very aware of all the tricks it takes to fight its strength, the water will take you where it wants to take you. It’s different from the lake and different from the ocean.
As we floated away from Snack Island I realized that there was no sign of civilization anywhere around me. I was one of the first to put in after our late lunch and was ahead of the group. All I saw were trees, mountains, water, sun. No trash. No people. It could have been 1891. Or 1532.
After around four hours on the river, our trip was done. We floated up to the take-out near the Tennessee border drained and exhausted from hours of water and sun. After a painstaking and slightly harrowing solo journey over 30 feet of river rock in torn and ruined sandals I would later pitch in the garbage, I made it to the dirt road where the truck awaited to take me and Rowan back to her car. Total newbies together, we’d brought a cooler, then forgotten to take it on the river with us. Once back in her car we tucked into a cheese biscuit and a little bag of baked tofu like we’d never seen food before, making loud moans of deliciousness over how good our ravenous hunger made the food taste. We vowed to be more prepared next time, me to bring shoes and a towel and her to have the sense to actually bring our cooler of food with us onto the river. Then Rowan had a smoke with Ryan and I slipped on my jeans, wonderfully warm on my cold legs from 6 hours in the car in the hot sun.
I noticed my pedicure had taken a beating.
It was worth it.
Rowan took me through downtown Hot Springs on the way home, a tiny, colorful, artsy downtown where everyone was gathered for the holiday weekend celebrations. We drove home listening to Jack Johnson and Cat Power. And the strangest thing happened. I couldn’t remember exactly what I was coming home to. Home. Where was that? What was that? I couldn’t remember what home looked or felt like. Cloudily I started to remember a house with cats. Four cats! That’s right! Visions of my own home started floating back to me, lazily and unclearly. I could barely picture it.
It was like my whole existence had been rebooted. All I could remember was the river and the good things that happened there.
I got home to see my cats waiting in the grass, walking up to me slowly with their heads down, the cat way of expressing deep happiness at my return. They swarmed up to my legs and my life came back to me. I was home. I walked up the steps like a prodigal returning, gladness in my heart like I had been gone for half a lifetime rather than just the afternoon.
The next day I visited a friend in his chilly icebox of an apartment, all his windows shut tight, the AC blasting, a movie he called “stupid” playing on his giant widescreen television as he sat there, unsmiling. I realized that for so long I had believed my own life to be empty, when in fact it was overflowing with riches and growing richer every day.
When I pulled in to my own sweet house I sat in the driver’s seat for a moment completely overcome with gratitude for my home, my cats, my friends, my deeply and quietly excellent summer. For my life just as it was, so much closer to perfect than I had been able to understand. I felt like my whole world has been washed clean. What has the river done to me?
I can’t wait to go back.