Tales of Retirement in Paradise
|Chapter 11: Below the High Water Mark (cont'd)|
Polly G. Vicars
After the awesome day at the South Rim, we rode home tired and subdued. Thoughts of the upcoming ride on the rapids were creeping into our consciousness; we looked forward eagerly to finishing the final day of classes, and beginning the ultimate adventure, shooting the rapids!
Yavapai College may not be Harvard or Yale, but the quality and dedication of its faculty and staff would take second place to neither. Devoted Dave, Wild Man Mike, and Gentle Joanne are prime examples.
Terrible Tom, the multi-talented Audio-Visual Director (you'll understand the terrible soon,) is another perfect example of the quality and versatility of this staff. His love of nature, specifically that of the Grand Canyon, along with his musical skills and audio visual expertise enabled him to produce a one-man musical show of spectacular slides (both his and from historical sources) backed up by what proved to be songs written, orchestrated, and sung by Tom himself.
He played a variety of instruments, sang several different parts and laid down track after track. The result sounds like a band, lead singer, and back up - but it is all Tom. It is so good that I'm sure he'll be "discovered" and we'll be hearing him on the radio and seeing him on the talk shows.
Although I was taught by my Mother to say something nice about someone or keep my mouth shut, I am compelled to go against her advise to tell you that Tom has the most gosh awful collection of corny jokes ever to be assembled and expounded in public, and that he made us listen to all of them. (Understand the Terrible?) Thank goodness, he can sing and play!
We had not yet met all of the instructors. Brave Bill had been held for the last, but as is usually the case, he was not the least. His expertise is in Desert Creatures - those creepy, crawly things that cause most of us to scream, if not faint. He is probably the only person in the world who has a bumper sticker that reads, "I brake for tarantulas!" and one of his claims to fame is that he raised and trained tarantulas for most of those old horror movies.
With live specimens and examples of "road kill," he entertained and educated us on the facts and fictions of his critters, making fans of most of us of the maligned bat who eats many of the least desirous of the desert inhabitants. Bill and his wife run their Elder Hostel programs with the same care and patience they give to their critters.
The "Ultimate Adventure" was at hand! With rain suits, back packs, canteens and plastic bags, we were ready for the challenge; we felt secure we could find the high water mark. We had been thoroughly indoctrinated, captivated, and amalgamated into a group of dragon slayers - strong, brave, and willing to battle the elements.
We breakfasted at 6 o'clock and then drove off through the Verde Valley into the high desert for a rendezvous at Grand Canyon Caverns. There we left cars, vans, and civilization. Some of us got lost, only adding to the adventure, but eventually we all were taken down, down, down through the Hualapai reservation to the bottom of the canyon where our rafts and guides awaited us.
The river was reddish brown (thus named by the Spaniards - Colorado) and looked docile. Piece of cake! We stowed our gear in waterproof bags and tied them into the rafts, We donned the required life preservers over our jeans, sweat shirts, and rain gear, making us resemble overfed polar bears. With seven hostellers and two pilot-guides per rubber raft, we shoved off.
Husband and I were with guides Ray and Scott and five of the gals. Husband reveled in his harem. He stationed himself right in front opposite the only veteran rafter in the group. We chugged along settling in and admiring the scenery when the roar of the first rapids reached us.
Ray and Scott told us to what to do if we got swept into the water - arch your back and point your feet downstream - the same instructions given to Meryl Streep when she was filming "River Wild." They cautioned us to hold on tightly and guaranteed we would soon be soaking wet!
From my vantage point in the back, I could clearly see Husband's face. He seemed calm enough, and only mildly anticipatory. W H O O S H ! B A R O O M ! The front of the raft shot down into the first rapid and a wall of water hit with the force of a two-ton truck! Screams pierced the Canyon, Husband's perhaps the loudest! The astonishment and sheer joy on his face was a portrait I'd not seen in a whole lifetime. He whooped and hollered (as only a Kentucky Hillbilly can) and asked the pilots to "do it again!"
Exhilaration supplanted fear. It was everything and more than we had anticipated. (My only problem was Emily, whose grip threatened the bone in my arm each time a great wall of water hit.) Being wet was incidental; the ride was the thing! We took those rapids again and again; each time seemed a first. We griped and complained when we hit the calm spots. We lost no hostellers and no gear.
The day was glorious, lit by bright sunshine and washed with fresh air. We intermittently rode the rapids and the rolling river, snapping pictures with our throwaway, waterproof cameras. Talk about bonding! Our little group became as one; we looked out for each other and didn't welcome intrusions from outsiders. Someone from another raft suggested we might want to switch around during the day. We met this suggestion with boos and a chorus of "No way!"
We were in for more and different kinds of thrills when we beached the rafts for lunch. Some of the Hualapai set up a picnic table in the middle of a shallow stream of clear, cold water. While they were putting out a delicious lunch, other Hualapai were climbing up the steep wall to the source of the stream, a noisy waterfall tumbling from a hole in the top of a cave way up there! To reach it you had to keep your legs perpendicular to the wall, and walk yourself up pulling, hand over hand, on a rope secured on both ends by strong Hualapai, and reverse the whole procedure to get back down.
Not withstanding my sixty-three-year old body, I scampered (some might more correctly call it labored) up that rope, edged by the falling water on the slippery rocks, and finally reached the top. I was rewarded by a view of cascading water washing iridescent rock - illuminated by the bright blue sky which pierced the top of the cave.
After snapping the requisite pictures, we had two choices - stay at the top of the cliff or try rappelling down to the picnic lunch. Husband went first, and, of course, did it expertly. I, half-rappelled and half-bottomed (my word). The last part included a good slide down the middle of the waterfall. But no matter. I had another notch on my belt and another incredible vision of nature's majesty imprinted in my mind (and slimy mud imprinted on my backside.)
Back again on the river, we floated in the silence or roared through the rapids. Both experiences, moving and memorable, were worthy of all our efforts.
Too soon for all of us, especially Husband who kept urging our guides to "do it again" after each passage through the rapids, we reached our campsite. We unloaded the gear, chose our sleeping spots (Husband's and mine away from the crowd, but close to the high water mark), and prepared ourselves for a magical night on the shore of the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
I really hate to bring this up again, but the placement of the thunder boxes by the Hualapai was inspired. They had hacked a narrow passageway through the low dense trees back to a beautiful clearing in the middle of a little grove with a majestic view of the Canyon's wall.
When you reached this spot, you were greeted with a throne that offered you privacy, peacefulness, a view, and whatever relief you were seeking. (The chemicals inside did their job efficiently and the Hualapai knew what to ultimately do!) A white signal flag (actually a roll of toilet tissue) was hung out at the beginning of the passageway when the throne was unoccupied. No signal, no entry! It worked and everyone was relieved!
As it grew dark, the smell of sizzling hamburgers and hot dogs drifted from the glowing charcoal pits. As a surprise, Lucy, one of our talented guides, was baking cakes in Dutch ovens over those coals. Add to the menu potato salad, baked beans, onions, lettuce, tomato, coffee, tea and milk, and you have the feast we all enjoyed.
Someone spread a couple of huge tarpaulins along the ground to make sort of theater seating with the river and the opposite shore as the back drop for the stage. After dinner, I encouraged Husband to perform his magic for the group.
I guess I should apologize to Terrible Tom, because corny is not strong enough to describe Husband's brand of magic. However, he redeemed himself with a couple of really funny stories, and the curtain was up. One after another of the hostellers got up to add their bit. They told jokes, presented skits, and sang songs; it was fantastic. A couple, veteran's of dinner and little theater, but good enough for Broadway, stole the show. However, the rest were no slouches with their dry humor and politically correct (and a few incorrect) jokes.
When the curtain finally went down, we crawled into our sleeping bags (carefully inspected for critters) and gazed up at a sky like none I had ever seen. It was a diamond studded blanket from horizon to horizon; there was not a square inch of that sky that wasn't star filled. Occasionally a shooting star moved through the maze; a satellite, broadcasting its news somewhere in the world, went on its monotonous journey; airplanes winked and blinked as they zipped their passengers to their own adventures. Now we had real magic!
The next morning we watched the sun rise over the rim of the Canyon as the crescent moon set. We ate a hearty breakfast, packed and loaded the gear, and started our final day on the River. This was a leisurely ride, as the final descent into Lake Mead has no rapids. We stopped along the way for a picnic lunch and arrived at our jumping off place early in the afternoon. We unloaded for the final time and said good-bye to our guides and new friends, the Hualapai.
We boarded the waiting busses, and traveled a narrow dirt road through the Mojave Desert. After passing a mirage that fooled us into thinking a great lake lay ahead, we reached the Grand Canyon Caverns with its welcome indoor plumbing and hot showers.
At the mouth-watering Arizona dinner of barbecued ribs and chicken, cowboy beans, fresh corn, and johnny cakes, we relived the week, made plans to get together at new locations, promised to exchange pictures taken of each other and agreed that we'd treasure this experience the rest of our lives!
The next morning, we, who had never set eyes on each other before last week, heartily embraced each other with real warmth and affection. Our shared experiences were precious. We could and would tell our family and friends of the wonderful time we had, but each of us believed that only those who were here could know the real story.
The Grand Canyon, Yavapai College, Elder hostel, and the Hualapai tribe will never again be just words to us. We were touched by them all. As we drove back to our own places and lives, I believe we were wiser, even a little better, than we had been just one short week before. Besides, we had all found "the high water mark!" (Reading this chapter for the first time in more than 13 years, stirred my blood and added another item to my list of things to do - Do it again!)
Elder hostel advertises itself (truthfully, we think) as "educational adventures for older adults looking for something different." For information on their programs check out ElderHostel.org.
Polly G. Vicars and her husband of 57 years, Hubert (a.k.a. "Husband") retired to Puerto Vallarta in 1988 and soon became active members of several charitable organizations. Polly is the author of "Tales of Retirement in Paradise: Life in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico" [a sell-out!] and "More Tales of Retirement in Puerto Vallarta and Around the World." Proceeds from the sale of her books go to the America-Mexico Foundation, a scholarship foundation that is their passion.
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