This essay originally appeared on public radio.
One hot summer, Ivy-based writer Erika Raskin–a dedicated homebody–found herself far from her couch. She took a trip down the Youghiogheny River in a raft and offers us this cautionary tale about expanding one’s horizons.
We’re on “vacation” with six teenagers (three ours, three buffers) in the Maryland mountains. Everyone’s thrilled by the notion of the impending raft trip. Almost everyone. I’m desperately contemplating faking an acute catastrophic ailment. I’d only let my husband sign us up because I envisioned a lazy float down a contained body of water. Something akin to the tube ride at an amusement park without the smell of pee. But I’ve discovered the glossy brochure full of whitewater photos and a list of things to leave at home (things like medicine and glasses.) I remind my husband I once demanded to be let off a ferris wheel. I’m not sure but I think I hear ‘spoilsport’ muttered from the driver’s seat.
At the dock, we’re provided life jackets and helmets –helmets—and are divided into groups, the older kids in a foursome, the younger two with us. It can’t be that bad, I tell myself, guides aren’t assigned to either boat. Even better, I notice some boys in matching t-shirts from a Jewish Day Camp. I imagine the stack of permission slips signed by Jewish Mothers and relax.
My attention wanders during Instruction Time. I study the other participants, hum a Sarah McLachlin song and pick at my cuticles. Then I notice the kids looking so psyched I experience a psychotic moment when I think the trip might be fun — one of those family bonding experiences I’ve always heard about.
As told, we tuck our feet under the sides of the raft for balance and are pushed by a guide towards the first eddy. All hell breaks loose. The captain of our craft, my normally unflappable anesthesiologist husband, begins barking orders, like a cross between a Doberman and a drill sergeant.
My youngest says she wants out. But there’s no turning back. We are up the creek.
The water thrashes us about and we all paddle like madmen. “Left, left!” My husband shouts, “No, I mean, right, RIGHT!” The paddles are no more than placebos for those of us who like the illusion of control. It’s like clutching chopsticks in a blender. I’m pretty sure my shoulder is dislocated.
Two exhausting hours later, the rafts maneuver to shore like trail horses heading back to the barn. Thank God, I think. But it’s only lunchtime. The head guide swats yellow jackets and calls for attention.
“We are about to pass through Devil’s Pinball”, he says, “A level four rapid. Aim your raft at that tree hanging over the water. If you miss it, you’ll be batted between the rocks. If you’re thrown out, DO NOT let your feet touch bottom or they’ll get STUCK. We’ll let you through, one at a time.”
I think I may actually be going in to shock. I won’t allow myself to consider the children. But I fake smile and remind everyone to keep their feet shoved under the sides. Adrenaline radiates from our older kids. Daredevils, they can’t wait for the rush. They go first. We hear their delighted yelps as they make it.
Then it’s our turn.
The current is insane. It happens so quickly there’s no time to ready myself and my mouth is actually open as I’m pitched backwards off the raft, water pounding past my ears and into my throat. I’m slammed into submerged rocks in slow motion. For a moment I am thrust upwards, trapped under the raft. Interestingly, I’m pretty sure I see the undersides of my husband’s shoes. Then I’m moving faster than I ever have in my whole life. Sommersaulting, twisting, hurling. I keep my knees up but it doesn’t seem to matter.
A detached interest in meeting death this way is followed by a very clear acceptance. Oh well, I think.
And then like a cartoon character on a geyser, I’m propelled above the surface. My throat’s making this bizarre noise. I have mud in my mouth. A rope is thrown but I’m too dazed to reach for it. Until I realize I’m being sucked towards another rapid. Fear motivates. I flail towards the neon lifeline. It’s only as I’m reeled into shore that I allow myself to think of the girls. Where are they? I sob.
They’re on shore still dry, but very frightened. My husband, too, looks as though he has just seen his future as a single parent. And it wasn’t pretty. I pretend to be alright so as not to alarm anyone but my back is bruised and bleeding. Also, the helmet is dented. The guide nonchalantly performs a mental status test on me, asking a few questions including my name.
Emily, I reply. Incorrectly.
But there’s only one way out of this. I climb, bravely, back in the raft. So does the guide. She ties her kayak like a caboose and relieves my spouse of his responsibilities. We are all grateful. The object, she says kindly, is to make the river work for you. Stroke, rest. Stroke, rest. I imagine hitting my husband with the paddle.
The journey’s end is almost pleasurable. I even laugh once. The Jewish Day campers have lost all of their oars and are using cupped hands to make their way. Their counselor, a WASP-y looking fellow, appears homicidal.
It’s finally over and I stumble like a drunk towards the car. My husband slips the guide a huge tip. I know he’s calculating how much he owes me. That makes two of us.