Would you rather, for just one day, be invisible or be able to fly?
Would you rather wear only shorts for the rest of your life or only trousers?
Would you rather wake up in a desert or wake up in a small boat at sea?
If you wanted a place in the paddle-raft, you had to play the game and answer Katie’s silly questions. And I desperately wanted a place in that paddle-raft, especially when we got to Lava Falls.
We were on a two-week trip down the Grand Canyon, with four oar-rafts, one paddle-raft and a dory, floating the two hundred and twenty-six miles from Lee’s Ferry to Diamond Creek. In the oar-rafts and the dory, the guides rowed while the passengers relaxed and enjoyed the ride. But in the paddle-raft, there were no passengers, only paddlers. As she said every morning before she selected the half dozen volunteers who would be that day’s paddle-raft crew, Katie only wanted those with a BURR-NUN DEE-SIRE to paddle. Without wanting to be a pig about it, I volunteered most mornings, hoping to prove myself on some of the tougher rapids – like Granite, Hermit and Crystal – so that, when Katie named the paddle-raft crew who would shoot Lava Falls, the toughest rapid on the river towards the end of our trip, I would be on it.
I soon settled into my spot at starboard bow, where I got seriously hammered by the waves, taking a couple of days to learn what Katie was trying to teach me, that the best response to a big wave that was about to smack you was to lean as far out as possible, to stick your paddle in that wave as high as you could – like stabbing a shovel in a sand dune – and then to pull the raft into the wave with all your might. And to make sure, of course, that you stuck your paddle in your wave and pulled at roughly the same time the paddler at port bow stuck his or her paddle in his or her wave and pulled. I lost a fingernail learning that lesson on Hermit and I almost lost my only shemagh learning that lesson on Crystal, but what had sounded somewhat nonsensical slowly began to make sense.
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When we were not paddling hard, we played hard. We even played while paddling some of the lesser rapids, including a game we called Bucking Bronco. To play Bucking Bronco, a paddler would sit on the bow of the raft, his or her feet dangling in the water, hold on with one hand to the lifeline that ran round the tube and, quite simply, ride the rapids, trying to avoid being bucked onto the floor of the boat. Some paddlers were bucked all the way to the back, sliding to a stop between Katie’s legs.
We played games on the boat but we also played games off the boat. Katie was particularly fond of a simple game she called Corndog, which consisted of jumping into the river and then slowly rolling down the beach, coating yourself in sand. Sometimes we also played a game she called Super Corndog, which meant Katie smothering you quite liberally with suntan lotion, then slowly rolling down the beach, coating yourself in sand. The Super Corndog took some scrubbing to remove.
We also sang the Butt Dam Song. This game began with a hike up a side canyon with a small stream running through it. We were told to build a toy town out of sticks and stones on both banks of the stream, a task some of us took quite seriously, like Gullivers constructing our own Lilliput. Then we were told to sit side by side, squashed like sardines, upstream of the toy town, plugging gaps where water leaked through with spare items of clothing.
When the butt dam had done its job, the water rising remarkably fast behind our backs, Katie taught us the Butt Dam Song. The song is essentially the theme song for the Batman television show from the sixties, with one minor modification.
Da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da Butt Dam!
We were told, when we sang the words Butt Dam, we should jump to our feet, creating a flash flood that would wash our toy town away. Which we did, of course. Katie pronounced it one of the best butt dams ever. We could not have been prouder.
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Although we had occasionally floated past proper flash floods washing down other side canyons, suddenly turning the Colorado from sunny blue to muddy brown, we had had no rain in the Canyon itself for almost two weeks. Until the night before Lava Falls, when our slice of night sky between the canyon walls suddenly began to thunder and lightning, followed by, at about three in the morning, nasty wind and even nastier rain.
There was a sudden scramble to locate the unused tents amongst all the other gear stored on the oar-rafts and to put them up for the first time, by head-torch, of course, in the wind and the rain, so I decided to collect the clothes drying on the bushes beside my sleeping bag, wrap myself snugly in my groundsheet and go back to sleep instead. The guides, who always slept on their boats, wished the campers good luck with the tents, pulled their sleeping bags over their heads and did the same.
When I heard the call for coffee, the sun was already halfway down the canyon wall on the other side of the river, with the beach on our side of the river littered with poorly pitched tents. I put on my flip-flops, grabbed my mug and walked over to the camp kitchen.
‘So, you plumped for the tarp taco last night,’ said one of the guides on breakfast duty that morning. ‘How do you want your eggs?’
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Even the guides were scared of Lava Falls. It is a blind rapid, meaning it drops so suddenly and so steeply that you cannot see it until you are actually in it, though you can hear it from more than a half mile away. Lava Falls drops fifteen vertical feet over a distance of only sixty feet, with the Guinness Book of World Records calling it the fastest navigable rapid in the Americas. On the rating scale for rapids from one to ten, Granite, Hermit and Crystal are all about seven or eight. Everyone agrees that Lava Falls is a ten.
What scares guides most about Lava Falls is Ledge Hole, a trough the size of a school bus that creates a wave twelve feet high, curling back upriver. Most of the width of the river at Lava Falls is Ledge Hole, with a sort of mini-Ledge Hole, called Pourover, to its right. Your best bet is to bust through Hump Wave, between Ledge Hole and Pourover, without tumbling into either of those two troughs. Rafts that tumble into Ledge Hole are sucked underwater and spun round several times before being spat out again. You could, of course, still get flipped by Big Kahuna, hoovered into Corner Pocket or slammed into Saddle Rock, but at least you would have avoided what the guides call being Maytagged by Ledge Hole.
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After breakfast that morning, Katie did not ask for volunteers. She simply named the paddle-crew for Lava Falls, having obviously put some thought into balancing the boat.
With considerable outdoor experience between them, Maureen would paddle port quarter and Darlene would paddle starboard quarter. This was Darlene’s fourteenth trip down the Colorado and she had already booked her fifteenth trip for the following summer, when her sisters would join her for the first time. Ollie and his sister Poppy were given port beam and starboard beam, the only teenagers on the trip and, other than the guides, our only entertainment around the campfire, with Ollie plucking a mean Spanish guitar and Poppy playing a seriously sweet version of Over The Rainbow on her ukulele. Kurt and I would paddle port bow and starboard bow, where we had often paddled this trip and, Katie said, worked surprisingly well together, even though Kurt was less than half my age with more than double the muscle. Kurt was also the victim of way too many Super Corndogs, with Katie enjoying rubbing suntan lotion all over that torso perhaps a touch too much.
Just before Lava Falls, there is a beach on the left bank where you can park your boat, climb the hill behind the beach and scout the rapid from above. This was guides’ business, not ours, and it took the guides some time to agree that day’s route, as well as the order in which the boats would go. The dory would go first, followed by two oar-rafts, then the paddle-raft and two more oar-rafts, the idea being the oar-rafts, sandwiching the paddle-raft, could collect any paddlers tossed from the paddle-raft.
Katie took the paddle-raft crew to the top of the hill, showed us the route we would try to follow down what looked more like a waterfall than a rapid and then asked whether or not we were scared.
‘Yes, of course we’re scared,’ we said. ‘It’s fucking Lava Falls.’
‘Well, what should we do?’ Katie asked.
‘Run away?’ we suggested. ‘Paddle back up river?’
‘Just what I thought you might say,’ Katie said, unzipping her knapsack and rummaging round inside.
‘You are under the unfortunate delusion that simply because you want to run away from danger, you have no courage,’ she said. ‘You are confusing courage with wisdom. Back where I come from, we have men and women who are called superheroes and they have no more courage than you have. But they have one thing that you have not got.’
‘What’s that?’ we asked.
‘Underpants,’ Katie said, pulling a package of brightly coloured knickers from her knapsack.
‘What does Superman have that you don’t have?’ she asked. ‘What does Superwoman have that you don’t have? Simple. Underpants outside their clothes.’
Katie opened the package and presented each of us a different coloured pantie, telling us to put them on over our shorts and our swim trunks.
‘I saved the pink panties for you, Tom,’ Katie said, handing me my knickers.
‘So, why the funky underwear today?’
The woman who asked about the underwear was wearing a blue and white checked sports jacket with a blindingly yellow tie and a bowler hat. I was wearing a pink polka dot sundress, I was told, with, of course, matching panties.
The customary camp after Lava Falls is Tequila Beach, where the guides let their hair down and throw one hell of a party. There was a big bag of cheesy secondhand men’s clothing for the women and a big bag of cheesy secondhand women’s clothing for the men. One of the guides flagged down a motorised raft and borrowed a couple tubfuls of ice, which soon became a couple tubfuls of margarita. A boom box seemed to play nothing but the Bee Gees.
‘Why the funky underwear?’ I replied.
I told them what Katie had told us about Superman and Superwoman, about the power of pants.
They told me Superman’s power does not come from his pants, but from coming from another planet. They told me superheroes do not get their superpowers from their underwear, but from genetic mutation, like the X-Men, or from radiation, like the Fantastic Four, or from some sort of chemical modification, like Captain America and Spider Man. But definitely not from their pants.
NOT A SILLY QUESTION
So why do superheroes wear their pants on the outside, then?
NOT A SILLY ANSWER
Because the costumes of the original superheroes, invented in the 1930s, were modelled on the costumes of circus acrobats and professional wrestlers, who often wore shorts over their leggings.
Okay, I said, so perhaps superheroes do not get their superpowers from their pants, but would you rather have x-ray vision and be able to see through walls or intangibility and be able to walk through walls?
Would you rather have super speed like the Flash or super strength like the Hulk?
Would you rather have the power of telepathy and be able to read people’s minds or the power of telekinesis and be able to move things with your mind?
Would you rather have the power to control machines or the power to control the weather?
Would you rather be able to size shift and become as big or as little as you want or shape shift and become anything or anyone you want?
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‘Hey, Superman,’ Darlene said. ‘Or is it Superwoman now?’
Like most evenings, we were slowly gathering round the campfire, with the guides getting out their guitars and starting to sing, mostly, for some reason tonight, songs from John Prine’s Sweet Revenge. Darlene plopped down on the sand beside me, spilling some of her mugful of margarita.
‘Does she always do that?’ I asked. ‘Give paddlers those panties?’
‘Probably,’ Darlene said, taking a swig from her mug.
‘You don’t know? Haven’t you done this thirteen times before?’
She told me this was her first trip with Katie. In fact, Darlene said, this was her first trip in the paddle-raft. She had never been in the paddle-raft before, only the oar-rafts. And she would not have volunteered for the paddle-raft this time if not for Katie. She did not really want to paddle, she told me, but she really wanted to be in the same boat as Katie.
I told her I had planned to paddle now and then on this trip, not most days, with no desire, until I met Katie, to paddle Lava Falls. I told Darlene I left America for Europe more than thirty years ago and, coming back for this brief visit, I was pleasantly surprised that America still produced people like Katie. Or like almost all of our guides, for that matter.
‘Do you feel the difference between us and them?’ I asked her. ‘Between the guided and the guides? We all need well paying jobs in order to do stuff like this, but they have chosen not to follow the path to the well paying job in order to do what they do, to be full-time river rats instead. It is like the conformists of American society being guided down the river by the nonconformists of American society, the normalistes being guided by the normalophobes.’
‘He said, wearing a pink polka dot sundress with matching panties,’ she said.
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The evening ended, as our evenings on the river often ended, with Katie singing Wagon Wheel, the only song we could ever persuade her to sing.
So rock me mama like a wagon wheel Rock me mama any way you feel Hey, mama rock me Rock me mama like the wind and the rain Rock me mama like a southbound train Hey, mama rock me
Katie. Goddammit, Katie.
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‘How’s the head, paddler?’ Katie asked, sitting down beside me with a whopping stack of pancakes in one hand and a mug of steaming coffee in the other.
When I woke that morning, I told Katie, having slept in my sundress pretty much where we were sitting now, I found half a mug of undrunk margarita on the beach beside me.
‘Were you tempted to drink it, Tom?’ Katie asked.
‘Uh huh,’ I said. ‘But I’m trying not to drink in the morning these days.’
As we ate our pancakes and drank our coffee, I asked Katie how long she had been doing this, rafting down the river. She told me she had all but grown up in the Grand Canyon, that there was a good chance she had even been conceived in one of its side canyons. Her mother took off when she was still a baby, so she had been raised by her father, who worked as a river guide, and by Uncle Jerry, one of the older guides on our trip but not, she told me, really her uncle.
‘Where do you live,’ I asked, ‘when you’re not sleeping on your boat?’
‘I don’t live anywhere,’ Katie said. ‘I keep a few things at my father’s place but, otherwise, I suppose I live in my truck. And there are always sofas I can sleep on.’
‘So where do you live, Tom, when you’re not passed out on some beach?’
I told Katie what I had told Darlene the night before, that I once lived on the Colorado River not far from Glenwood Springs but left America for Europe more than thirty years ago. I now lived in a small town in England on the sleepy River Ouse.
‘Why?’ Katie asked. ‘Why would you leave America for Europe? Would you really rather live in England than live in Colorado?’
Good questions, as always, Katie.
What if you had stayed home? What would your life have been like if you had not left America? Would you rather write for a dinky little newspaper in the mountains of Colorado or teach at a dinky little university in the midlands of England? Or would you really rather be Katie?
‘Oh yeah,’ I said. ‘I almost forgot. You can have your panties back.’
‘Jesus, Tom,’ Katie said. ‘You can keep the fucking panties. They’re not my panties.’
‘Not your panties? What do you mean, they’re not your panties?’
She told me she did not have time to do laundry between trips so, before we left Flagstaff, she ran into a shop and grabbed a pack of underpants but forgot to check the size. Not knowing what else to do with them, she gave them to us to wear on Lava Falls.
‘Did you really think those fat undies would fit me?’ Katie asked.
‘No,’ I said. ‘Of course not.’
‘Perhaps you should ride in an oar-raft today, Tom.’
‘Oh okay,’ I said. ‘An oar-raft is always an option.’
Or would you rather ride in the dory?