The roar of the rapid below her nearly hid the silent scream in Liz’s head. Her arms ached and her chest felt tight from panic. The idea that she was at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon was still unreal to her. Now she was on a cliff overlooking Crystal Rapid, the first rapid just below Phantom Ranch, watching as a rafting group swirled in and out of the shadows of the opposite wall and dipped and rose, crashing through tall waves of cold water before disappearing around a bend. Liz knew that most of the boat’s occupants were screaming, but no sound could reach her.
Now she had to rally herself and descend to the water’s edge to take the exact same trip through the rapid with her group. Not only that, but there were many more terrifying rapids to navigate before her rafting group would reach Diamond Creek where they and the rafts would be picked up. Liz’s knees were jelly. She wobbled as she walked and hugged herself although the day was hot. She wanted to double over and fall into the fetal position. She had to will herself to rejoin the group. There was little choice, although it was possible to hike out of the canyon. What were her chances of doing that? As it was, she had to gather all her courage to move away from the group and risk snakes and God knows what to use the toilet shovel. She guessed that in an emergency, a helicopter might maneuver to a large sandbar for a rescue. Did she want to chicken out? Have the group remember her as a quitter? Have the boatmen recount to future rafters the story of the Easterner who failed to complete the trip?
Liz had already provided them with one good story when she showed up the first day of a 10 day raft trip at Lee’s Ferry wearing a fashionable straw hat with a graceful, full curving brim. She had climbed aboard the pontoon boat with enthusiasm, ready for an adventure. However, the brim of her treasured hat had drooped down, covering her whole face and head, when the raft crashed through the first wave of a rapid ,drenching her. Before she could recover, the second wave ripped the hat from her head and tossed it into the Colorado River. The head boatman, Bud, was a weathered man in his late 40’s who had a world weary air about him which implied that he had seen a lot of fools. All that remained for him in life was to put up with the fools and reduce his ridicule to a dry, steady gaze and a twisted mouth. He had leveled such a look at her after the hat incident. His silence was filled with judgment.
What did he know of her? Before leaving the gentle Pennsylvania valley where she had grown up, she had never been west of Ohio. And, although she had seen pictures of the magnificent Grand Canyon with its play of gold, yellow, orange and red colors, she didn’t really comprehend its majesty until she rode the Colorado River through one breathtaking, picture postcard turn after another. Here was something a person could value. How her spirit expanded at the sight of the clear, star-filled night skies she watched from her cot. The Colorado River in its calm places between the low banks and towering cliffs was grandeur itself. The rapids were the price a person paid for this once in a lifetime experience. As the raft approached the rapids, even before the sight or sound of the roaring water ahead, there was an overwhelming sensation of being drawn out of control towards the inevitable descent, terrifying but thrilling too.
Liz had known hardship in her life. Her father had died suddenly and at an obscenely young age in the last month of her senior year of college. She had survived the pain and haunting emptiness. She had watched, feeling helpless, as her mother struggled to continue life. Liz’s boyfriend had proved to be a disappointment in the face of her grief. His selfish impatience with her grieving led to his eventual straying, trying to make her jealous. She broke their engagement.
No, she was no chicken. And, she wasn’t a quitter. She could laugh at herself too.
This western experience would be the beginning of a new life. She would embrace its beauty, its challenge, its thrill. Yes, she would get back on the raft.