Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
July 9-29, 1999
Grand Canyon, Trip 5, 1999
The funeral was somber, and it was not small. While only Team 3 was off the river and able to attend the funeral, there were a lot of former Canyon Tours employees there, and many people from the other river touring companies that had their headquarters in Flagstaff.
Al was at the funeral, but he was just about gone in grief. While both Crystal and Scooter offered their condolences, both suspected that he was never totally aware of who he was talking to, and both were willing to guess that it would be a while before he pulled himself together.
One thing was a little out of the ordinary, the minister handling the service announced that Louise had requested a special piece of music to be played. A local singer who was pretty good performed it: Laura Nyro's And When I Die with the haunting lines,
Give me my freedom, for as long as I be,
All I ask of livin' is to have no chains on me.
All I ask of livin' is to have no chains on me,
And all I ask of dyin' is to go naturally
I only wanna go naturally.
And when I die, and when I'm gone,
There'll be one child born in the world to carry on.
There was a dinner following the funeral; Crystal and Scooter and the rest of the team went to it, of course, but didn't hang around long. The funeral had eaten up much of the one full day they had off before they had to get groceries and pack, but the evening was free. Normally, they would have headed to the boatmen's bar downtown, but they just couldn't manage to do it this time.
Packing went decently the next day; Michelle was there to help, along with some extra hands -- her parents, both former boatmen, and both of whom looked astonishingly young themselves -- roughly Scooter's and Crystal's ages, maybe a little older, even though they said they were in their fifties. Afterwards, Crystal, Scooter, and Michelle headed down to the Burro for a beer or two -- Michelle said it was the one place in the world where she could drink without carrying her passport along with her driver's license and still not get carded with every drink.
It was still early, and quiet; the three of them found a quiet booth in back and ordered beer. "Look," Michelle said. "I'll tell you again that I really appreciate you hanging in there with leading your crew."
"Given a choice, I'd rather not, but we weren't given a choice," Crystal said. "We'll make it work."
"We're just going to have to do what we have to do," Michelle said. "Scooter, I know you don't know me, but Crystal knows that I'd by a damn sight rather be down between the walls than sitting in the office. I know I owe enough to Al that I don't have any question about doing what I have to do."
"That's pretty much where we're at," Scooter nodded. "Actually, it ought to work out pretty well as long as things don't get too bent out of shape. My major concern is that I'm still learning the place. I mean, I can handle the raft OK; I've been rafting for years. But I think of Al pointing out places where it's not good to camp because of a flash flood danger, and that's the kind of shit I don't know. I've listened to both Al and Louise, and I'm still way behind on interpreting the Canyon's geology, history, and nature for the customers. I mean, I couldn't tell a Kaibab limestone from a Tapeats sandstone if either one of them bit me on the ass."
"Me either," Crystal nodded. "I'm trying to pick it up but I ain't a geologist."
"Jerry is pretty good with that stuff," Michelle counseled. "He went on a special Park Service trip to learn some of it. Lean on him."
"I knew that," Crystal said. "We leaned on him for that pretty hard after Phantom."
"Good, he can teach you a lot. Look, you two, I don't know if Al or Louise told you, and maybe it's not my place, but you two leading trips was going to happen pretty soon anyway. They really wanted to hold it off until we got through the summer rush so you'd have a few more trips under your belt. Neither Al or Louise would have told Jeff or me that if they didn't think you were pretty close to ready."
"Both of them told me something like that," Crystal nodded.
"Same here," Scooter added. "I feel like I can handle it, but I wouldn't mind having a few more trips before it happened."
"This is one of those deals where we have to shuffle things around and make it work, like we did for Team 2 when I left," Michelle nodded. "In a couple ways, it's a worse reach for them than it is for you."
"How's that?" Crystal asked.
"There wasn't anyone on the team who we could upgrade to full boatman, and neither Jeff nor I could come up with anyone on short notice. They have a kid with them, Stan, is a second-year swamper and not bad on the sticks, but there's no way he's ready to carry passengers, and I'm not even talking about insurance. Back before I turned eighteen, I took a raft on a couple trips a little special when we came up shorthanded. Al and Louise had me take a raft solo, no passengers -- just gear -- and the insurance company let them get away with it. So Dave and Mary and I decided that Stan could run a gear boat."
"That's shuffling it around, all right," Crystal nodded. "You have any idea if it's working?"
"I had Dave call in from Phantom, just on general principles," Michelle smiled. "It was working so far. It's a little hard on Stan; he doesn't get anyone to relieve him, but he's a big, strong kid. Look, you two, I don't anticipate any problems, but I'd appreciate a call from Phantom just in case Al gets to wondering how things are going."
"Sure, can do," Crystal nodded. "We really don't have a bad crew, Jerry wants to be a cowboy a little, but I asked him to keep it down and he did. We're just green, all of us."
"You'll do OK," Michelle said. "Jeff or I wouldn't let you do this if we thought Al and Louise didn't think you were about ready. We'd have cancelled it otherwise."
"Thanks, Michelle," Crystal nodded. "Now let me give you a vote of confidence. I know you'd rather be on the river, but if someone has to be in the office, you're the best one to do it. I'm going to feel a lot more comfortable with you there than I would with anyone else, even Jeff."
"Thanks, Crystal," the young-looking blonde nodded. "I'm hoping I can get back out on the river pretty soon. Maybe with the funeral over, Al will snap out of it some."
The final loading went well the next day -- the crew had worked together long enough since the beginning of the season that they were starting to get it down to a science. Michelle offered to ride out to Lee's with them to help with the rigging, and neither Crystal nor Scooter were about to turn her down. Crystal knew that Al or Louise saw every trip off, and Michelle took over the tradition without comment.
Up at Lee's Ferry, the rigging also went smoothly; as always, Jimmie stayed behind to keep an eye on the rafts while the crew, Jeff, and now Michelle went up to Marble Canyon for the going-away dinner and crew meeting.
It would have been a little surprising to reflect on it, but there was no question that Michelle was running things. Although she looked like a high school kid being taken on a trip as a swamper tryout, everyone in the company knew her personally or by reputation, and despite her appearance she was treated with a lot of respect. "Just a word of advice, which you can take or leave," she said at the meeting. "I'd suggest that you don't let on to the customers about Louise or Al, or if you do, be real casual about it. Remember that your customers are there to have a good time and to see the Canyon, so try to not let your being down affect them."
"Good advice, Michelle," Crystal agreed. "In fact, I'll put it this way. Tomorrow morning is our time to be bummed out wishing that Al and Louise were both with us. But when the customer bus gets in, the bum-out ends. What both Al and Louise would want us to do is keep the customers happy, and by God that's what we're going to do."
That didn't keep either Crystal or Scooter from feeling down in the dumps while they were in the last minutes of waiting for the customer bus to come in. As had become almost traditional, Scooter sat on the bow of one of the rafts, smoking a cigar, both of them thinking about who wasn't here this morning. Not much was said; they both mostly looked out at the water, up the road for the customer bus, and didn't voice what was on their minds.
All of a sudden, Crystal commented, "Scooter, I think Louise knew down in her gut that something was wrong. Maybe she didn't believe it in her head, but I think she knew it in her heart."
"What makes you think that?"
"That last trip she led was a lot different than the trips I was on with her last fall," Crystal said. "I don't know how to say it; she seemed more reflective, more philosophical, more into memories of the old days." She let out another sigh. "I wonder if she knew in her heart that it was going to be the last time."
Scooter took a long pull at her cigar, and let the smoke drift upriver. "I don't know," she said finally. "I do know that when we got off the river she told me that she thought she'd blazed a pretty good trail for you and me to follow."
"Then I guess it's up to us to follow it," Crystal shook her head. "She said the same sort of thing to me once. You know, maybe it's just me putting things together in my mind and making something out of it, but I almost feel as if there's something eerie going on."
"How do you mean?"
"Oh, lots of things," Crystal shrugged. "I took that first trip down here with her last fall, and I just fell in love with this place. I mean, it almost felt like home. I've told a number of people that I can't get over the feeling that everything I've done has been to prepare me for this place. It's like this is where I'm supposed to be."
"I've heard you say that," Scooter nodded. "I understand, because I've got a pretty good dose of it myself. I could no more go back to NOC than I could work in that place where Andrea and Debby go sometimes, the Redlite or something."
"Yeah," Crystal nodded, "But it goes deeper than that. Louise was a teacher who gave it up to stay in the Canyon. I'm a Michigan certified PE teacher, although I've never worked at it. Or, Louise taking my mom on her trip down the Canyon before I was born, and then taking me on my first trip, introducing us both to this place." She let out a sigh. "And, for God's sakes, my name: Crystal Louise."
"So, your mom was impressed; you told me that."
"Yeah, I know," Crystal nodded. "But the timing, that's another thing. I don't know about you, Scoot, but I feel just barely ready to lead this trip. Ready, but just barely. Even two trips ago would have been too soon."
"I'm about the same way," Scooter agreed slowly. "I really wish I'd had a little more time, but I feel like I can hack it if I have to, and I think you can, too."
"I think I agree," Crystal said slowly. "But you want to know the really weird thing? That song at the funeral."
"And When I Die?"
"I can't help but think that Louise was sending me a message from beyond the grave." Scooter glanced up at her friend, and saw a tear rolling down her cheek as she quoted the final lines of the chorus, "'And when I'm gone, there'll be one child born to carry on.'"
"You're thinking you're that child?"
Crystal was silent for a long moment. Scooter took a long drag on her cigar, and was letting the smoke out when in a very tiny voice, Crystal said, "Yeah."
Now it was Scooter's turn to think for a long moment before she slowly said, "You're probably making five out of two and two, based on a bunch of coincidences." She was silent for another moment, then added, "But if you're right, it's not a bad legacy to carry on. In fact, I can't think of a much better one."
"That's true," Crystal nodded, "It couldn't be much better." She let out a sigh. "Here comes the bus, and I guess I better get a smile on my face. Louise wouldn't want me greeting the customers all bummed out."
"Hey, Crystal Louise," Scooter smiled. "You can do it if anyone can. Let's get our acts together and get our asses on the water where they belong."
It had been hot toward the end of the last trip, but on this one it was ungodly hot -- hotter than either Crystal or Scooter had experienced, in the Canyon or elsewhere. When it was that hot, there were lots of dangers, dehydration, heat stroke, sunburn -- or just sitting down on the wrong rock. Even at night it often didn't cool down to being comfortable. Charlie, the motor rafter who had run with them the first trip of the spring, hadn't been joking when he said the only way you could get to sleep was to wrap up in a wet sheet.
There were times that only the river kept them going. Even at the height of the summer heat, the water was still coming winter-cold out of the bottom of Lake Powell, and was about 47 degrees. It felt like ice to jump into, and no one could manage to stay in long, but it brought the system back into balance a little. It often felt good to take off a T-shirt, get it wet and put it back on. It would be dry in fifteen minutes to half an hour at the most -- the air was that warm and dry -- but for a while it would feel good. When they hit a rapids with a big enough standing wave, rather than trying to minimize the spray and the splashing, the boatmen would try to get things as wet as possible.
Most days Scooter started out wearing shorts and a T-shirt over one of her bikinis -- even a one piece was too hot for later in the day, and most days she was down to her bikini by the first rest break. In spite of what Andrea and Debby had told her back in the spring, she didn't have a bikini body and she knew it, but looks were less important than keeping cool. Like Crystal, Scooter tanned well, but now she had far and away the deepest tan she'd had in her life, and it covered much of her body, not just her arms and lower legs and face like was usually the case running the Nanty or hiking the Appalachian Trail. The long exposure to the sun bleached out her brown hair to a dirty blonde. She hadn't had a haircut since back in the winter sometime; her hair was below her shoulders, and it was hot. She happened to comment about it to the customers on her raft one day, and one of the women said, "I used to be a hairdresser; I could cut it for you and leave it looking pretty decent."
They had to swipe scissors from a first aid kit, but Scooter took her up on it, losing about two thirds of her hair in the process. It felt a lot cooler. There was no mirror big enough to tell, but she happened to glance at her reflection in the water that evening, and she thought it made her look pretty strange, but pretty good. The short blonde hair, the deep tan -- if she'd seen a picture of herself the way she was now six months ago she'd have never recognized herself.
Long, hot, tiring hikes had often been the feature of breaks earlier in the year, but they were pretty much a thing of the past. Although the view from the Granaries at Nankoweap was as thrilling as ever, and Scooter offered to lead a hike up there, no one took her up on the long, hot climb up the sunward slope.
The most appealing camps were now the ones that had a lot of shade in the late afternoon, either from nearby cliffs, or from the tamarisk trees that were often found on the little beaches up and down the river. They got used to getting going as early as possible so as to be able to get off the river at a potentially appealing campsite as early as possible, before the best ones could be grabbed by someone else. This was the time of heaviest visitation during the year; in addition to the oar boats from the various companies and the private parties they came across, they'd often get passed by motor-powered rafts. The big S-rigs used by the companies that did motor trips, hurried from Lee's Ferry down to the helicopter takeout point at Whitmore Wash in as little as four days, leaving the crew only another day to get down to Pearce Ferry on Lake Mead to take out -- the road up Diamond Creek Wash was too narrow and treacherous for the semis needed to haul the big baloney boats.
Frequently they knew one or another of the crews of the other commercial trips, from the occasional meeting along the river, and more often from a few beers and stories shared at the Burro in Flagstaff while on break. Crewmen from the motor rigs frequently passed them twice on a trip that summer, sometimes even three times if the schedules got a little goofy.
A week out of Lee's Ferry, they pulled into Phantom Ranch, just three weeks after that supremely bad day that the crew really hadn't mentioned to the customers. While most of the crew set out a lunch in the shade of the tamarisks near the Bright Angel Bridge, Crystal hiked up to the ranger station to use the phone as Michelle had requested. She didn't hurry, mostly because it was near the peak heat of the day, and they were getting pretty well through lunch before she returned. "So, what's up?" Jerry asked.
"Nothing much," Crystal shrugged. "We about done with lunch?"
"Pretty much," Scooter nodded.
"Well, let me throw together a sandwich and let's get packed up," Crystal said.
They ran most of Adrenaline Alley, all but Crystal Rapids, and pulled into the same campsite that they'd used in the area the previous trip -- it was on the shady side of the Canyon. It was still early, and they turned it into a lazy afternoon. Scooter was down on her raft by herself doing a little rearranging when Crystal sauntered up. "So what really happened?" Scooter asked.
"Michelle doesn't think Al's much better, if he's any better at all," Crystal told her. "Beyond that, no real change. Bill and Team 1 were shaken up at the news, but they're all hanging in there."
"It doesn't mean any personnel moves for them, so it's not surprising," Scooter agreed softly. "Shit, I wish there was something we could do for Al."
"What Michelle told me was that she's hoping time heals all wounds. The good news is that there's a cold front supposed to come through tomorrow sometime, we most likely will get some storms, but it should cool off for a day or two afterward."
"I thought the sky was kind of looking like it," Scooter nodded. "You're telling the rest of the crew, right?"
"Yeah, when I can get them off to the side," Crystal nodded. "Hell, we've got another week and a half, there's still time for him to perk up before we get in."
"We can hope," Scooter agreed.
They ran Crystal Rapids the next morning without incident, although, as always, there was the concern about it ahead of time. It seemed like a rougher ride than normal, but once again there were whoops of "Alive Below Crystal" and some general good feelings before they got back on the river.
True to Michelle's prediction, the sky darkened in the afternoon and a heavy thunderstorm rolled in. It was welcome, since the afternoon had become oppressively hot. They happened to be in an area where there wasn't a particularly good beach to land on to sit out the storm. For a while the visibility was a little marginal to actually be on the river, not to mention the relatively slight danger of lightning strikes this deep in the Canyon. So, they found a fairly quiet eddy by a talus slope and pulled in there for a few minutes, hanging precariously while the rain fell in torrents and the air dropped a considerable bit in temperature. While the rain was first falling, people gloried in the cool, but as it continued it began to be a bit much, and rain jackets and rain pants started to make their appearance.
With people actually getting chilled -- an almost unheard of experience on this trip -- they pulled in a little short that afternoon, mostly so people could get into the gear bags that were stored beneath the tarps on the various boats, to get out such unbelievable things as long sleeved shirts and pants.
The weather continued cold for the next couple days -- well, cold for here; Scooter guessed that it hit ninety on both days, but they were so used to hot now that most everybody made it through the day in T-shirts and shorts. It got hot again after that, as hot as before, but it seemed a little more bearable now.
After several more days, the trip wound down, and once again they were at Diamond Creek, unloading the rafts and loading everything onto the flatbed, the pickup and the crew bus. Jeff got Crystal and Scooter off to the side, and asked, "Any problems?"
"Not particularly," Crystal reported. "Other than getting caught by a thunderstorm one afternoon and it being hotter than hell most of the time, it was a pretty routine trip. How's Al doing?"
"Not good," Jeff said, "I mean he just don't feel like doing anything, he's just lost in grief. I go over there every day, so does Michelle, but all we can do is talk and he don't pay a lot of attention."
"Bummer," Crystal said, "Do you think maybe Scoot and I ought to go over and see him?"
"It won't hurt," Jeff nodded. "Don't know if it will help, but it won't hurt."