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Down By the Riverside book cover

Down By the Riverside
Book Nine of the Dawnwalker Cycle
Wes Boyd
©2015, ©2016

Chapter 4
Thursday, May 23 – Saturday, May 25, 2002

It was a long drive, but Al liked to make it out to the pickup at Diamond Creek when he could, and especially on each crew’s first trip of the season, when it always seemed as if problems were more likely to be exposed. This time, mostly because of Nanci, Karin decided to make the long trip with him, which they chose to make in his pickup towing a big flatbed trailer that would soon be loaded with rafts, while Jeff Pleva tagged along behind in the old Canyon Tours short-bodied former school bus.

Al didn’t know exactly how old Jeff was, although he was no spring chicken, that was for sure. Al knew Jeff had been just barely old enough to be in the Army at the end of World War II; a little math indicated that he had to be in his late seventies. Al had first hired Jeff years before, to drive the bus on pickups and put-ins; he was a retired school bus driver, so possibly could put up with the hassles of hung-over boatmen heading down to the river after a weekend of partying. Over the years Jeff had also become the run-and-fetch guy, the handyman, and the real glue that held Canyon Tours together.

One of Al’s real worries was that someday Jeff was likely to retire again, or even keel over in his tracks, and when that happened he was going to be a very hard man to replace.

The road – if the term can be used – down Diamond Creek Wash was lousy. It was a rough bulldozed track that crossed the creek several times, and it was extremely subject to being washed out if there was a thunderstorm anywhere on the south side of the river within forty or fifty miles. When that happened the road could be closed for hours to days, and the rafters waiting for pickup could be stranded there for who knew how long. Usually the tribe that owned the road was able to get it open again in a day or so, and pickups and the schedule might not get loused up too much, but every now and then it could take much longer. The last time that happened, a few years before, the trip leader was able to talk to a friend who ran an S-rig coming by, and get a tow out to Pearce Ferry, the former takeout on Lake Mead before water levels in the lake got so low. It took long enough that the Canyon Tours team had to go directly from Pearce Ferry to the put-in at Lee’s Ferry with only enough time in Flagstaff for a quick stop at a laundromat.

It was early enough in the season now that thunderstorms weren’t likely, but later in the season anything could happen. Two years before a Canyon Tours crew had a very near miss with such a flash flood there, avoiding it by only minutes and then only because of the eerie weather sense of a young Navajo woman boatman. It seemed likely that a group was likely to be caught on a trip again sooner or later.

That was far from Al’s mind as the pickup jostled down the parody of a road. Mostly he was curious about how the trip had gone. It couldn’t have gone very badly, if for no more reason than there had been no calls on the satellite telephone, the only way the crew could communicate with the outside. There was also no way to call them, even on the satphone, which the crew normally kept turned off. Actually, he didn’t have a lot of worries; it was a very experienced crew, except for Nanci, but he was curious about how she had done. He was sure that Karin was even more interested in it.

When they got down to the landing, it was clear that the party had made it in, although they clearly hadn’t beaten the bus by much. The customers and crew were still busy unloading the rafts and stacking the gear on the shore, but it appeared to Al that the process was close to completed.

There were hugs and good-byes; after two and a half weeks on the river, new friendships had often been made, sometimes between people who would not see each other again soon or ever. The customers piled on board the bus with their gear to be taken up to the top of the hill, where they’d get on a much better bus that would take them to Las Vegas so they could go on to wherever their homes were.

Now there was some time to find out what had really happened. The crew gathered around Al and Karin for a breather before actually loading the rafts; it would take Jeff a while to get the customers up the hill, after all. “So, everybody,” Al asked. “How did it go?”

“No problems,” Crystal told him. “We had a couple of customers get a little too sunburned, and one twisted her ankle pretty badly on a hike, so we had some fun getting her back to the rafts, but that was about it. It was about as routine a trip as I’ve ever been on. The customers started pulling together really early, so that helped a lot.”

“Any equipment problems?”

“I had a handgrip come loose on an oar,” Larry reported. “But a little Gorilla Glue took care of that while we were at lunch one day.”

“Nanci,” Al asked, “how did it go for you?”

“Not bad,” she smiled. “We had that windy day, what, three days ago, and I got a little pooped out trying to keep the gear boat moving.”

“We all had problems with that,” Crystal admitted. “We all had customers spelling us on the sticks now and then, and I even had a guy relieve Nanci a couple of times. I finally decided to pull in a little early that day just to keep from getting windburned any more than we had to. That turned out to be the right move. The next day was gorgeous, and we got back on schedule. Other than that, we did get a little drizzle one afternoon so we broke out the tents that evening, but it proved to be a waste of effort.”

From Al’s perspective this was good news; this represented about the smallest gripe list he’d heard from a crew just off the river in years. “Well, good,” he said. “I always like to see a season getting off to a smooth start.”

“Al,” Crystal grinned, “I just want to say that Nanci did good. I mean, really good. We all talked it over this morning before we started getting the customers up, and as far as we can see there’s no reason her next trip has to be on a gear boat.”

“I told you it was going to be your decision,” he replied. “Nanci, you get a say in this, too. Do you think you’re ready to take customers on your raft?”

“Yeah, sure,” she replied. “There were a few times on the trip that it would have been nice to have someone to talk to.”

“All right,” he smiled, thinking back to his first impression of the girl from a little more than a year before. Back then he would never have believed this could happen, but the Canyon had really worked its magic on her. “I guess that means you’re a fully-qualified Canyon Tours boatman.”

“Thanks, Al,” she replied shyly. “I couldn’t have done it without you and the way everyone else helped me, and thanks be to Jesus, too.”

“Jesus may have helped you, but there’s no way you could have accomplished it without a lot of work on your own. You’ve done something to really be proud of, Nanci, and I don’t mind saying it.”

“Thanks, Al.” she smiled again.

“Now the bad news,” he grinned. “You know the deal, since you’ve had to do it before. The junior swamper has to be the one to clean out the crappers when we get back to Flagstaff. There aren’t any swampers on this trip, which means the junior boatman is going to have to do it. Guess who that is?”

“I knew I was going to have to do it anyway,” she shrugged. “But we are going to have a swamper on the next trip, aren’t we?”

“Yes, but a new one,” Al teased. “You’re still going to have to be the one to teach him how to do it. Let’s get started loading these rafts, since I’m sure you’re eager to get back to Flag so you can get it over with.”

Loading the rafts on the trailer went quickly; there was a shear-legs arrangement and a winch on the trailer that made it a lot easier than the old days Al could remember when everything had to be done by sheer brute strength. A lot of the gear stayed in the rafts, but some had to be loaded onto the bus since it would need attention back at the office before the crew could hit the river a few days later. Soon they were heading back up the wash.

The crew often used the opportunity for naps during the three hours it took to get back to Flagstaff. Al and Karin got back into the pickup for the trip and appreciated the considerably more comfortable vehicle, even though they couldn’t sleep on the way back.

“I’m very relieved about Nanci,” Karin said as soon as they were on the road. “I mean, I was pretty sure everything was going to go all right, but it’s still nice to know. Al, I just can’t get over it. That can’t be the girl I worried about for years.”

“I don’t think it is,” he replied. He wasn’t a particularly churchy guy, but he had a deep core of faith he rarely talked about. “People talk about Christians being born again, but you know what? There you go.”

“I know,” she sighed. “I’ve heard about it all my life, but I never expected to see it happen like that, and especially to Nanci. I’d given up on her, Al. When I left Pete and came out here, I figured I’d lost her and there was nothing I could do about it. I hadn’t seen her for months at that point, and I expected that the next time I heard about her it would be the police or the coroner calling. I didn’t know what she was doing, and it turned out to be even worse than I’d imagined. They talk about miracles, and I’ll tell you what, I believe in them now.”

*   *   *

It was a long haul back to the Canyon Tours office on Thursday afternoon, and the job wasn’t complete when they got back. Nanci did have to clean the “rocket boxes” – the containers from the toilets, since solid wastes couldn’t be left in the Canyon by National Park Service rules. It was something that had to be done, so she held her nose and did it; it was part of being a Grand Canyon boatman, after all, and as she said, she’d done it before.

There was gear that had to be cleaned and exchanged, a few repairs to be made, and plenty of other things that would have to be done prior to leaving for the launch at Lee’s Ferry for the next trip on Sunday. There was more work than normal to be done Thursday evening, since the crew was essentially losing a day by agreeing to go down and help Jon, Tanisha, Ben, and Joy move from their apartments to their new houses.

At Canyon Tours, it was pretty close to tradition that once a crew was done with the after-trip chores they headed to the Burro, a downtown bar with awesome bar burgers and a laundromat next door. That combination made the place pretty close to the official boatman’s bar for all the rafting companies. Most of the members of the White Team didn’t drink at all, and those who did only did so sparingly, but still a stop at the Burro for burgers they didn’t have to fry themselves and chairs they could actually sit in was not to be denied. That also meant they could pick up some river gossip and pass along a little themselves. Nanci’s promotion, as far as they were concerned, was the big item of interest they had to pass along, since at least a few people from other companies knew her.

They didn’t stay there long, since there were still things to do, mostly involving shower heads. Kevin departed to his family’s house in town, taking Larry with him, since Kevin’s family had long before offered their hospitality when he was off the river. Crystal and Preach headed to “The Girls’ House,” a small rented place they shared with two other sets of married trip leaders. Since they were all on different schedules they had the place to themselves for the weekend, at least during the season; off season, it sometimes got a bit crowded. The name of the place came from when Karin, Crystal, and her friend and fellow trip leader Scooter shared the house before they all were married, and it stuck although it no longer applied.

The previous summer, before Crystal was married, Nanci had stayed with Crystal at the Girls’ House, but after the season ended she’d moved in with Al and her mother. It had been a good winter; Nanci and her mother had grown closer than they’d been for over a decade in Chicago, and it had given her a comfortable family life to settle into, which she’d needed badly at the time.

Since Nanci had been two weeks without a shower, and had only had occasional brief but cold baths in the river, she clearly had dibs on the shower. She just about ran out the hot water, while Al’s washing machine was churning away at the few clothes she’d taken with her, all many days used. Since river life for her was very much an early-to-bed, early-to-rise thing, the sun was barely down before she was in the small room at the back of the house she called her own, catching up on some badly needed sleep while Karin got the clothes in the dryer. Al and Karin kept pretty much the same schedule, and weren’t very far behind her.

She slept late the next day – well, late for her; the sun was already up when she got out of bed, which wasn’t something that happened on the river. Now she went through her mail, which included her grades from her online courses and the University. A little to her surprise, she was pleased to discover that she’d aced everything, with the exception of one A-minus in freshman biology.

After sharing breakfast with Al and her mother she went out and got in the white Toyota Camry that had brought her to Arizona a little over a year before, as she had things to do around town. A couple of years before she’d mashed a fender rather badly driving while both drunk and high, and it had still been mashed when she showed up at Canyon Tours – there had been no money to get it fixed. She’d been surprised to come off a trip on the river that summer to find it repaired, looking like the accident had never happened. It took her a while to get Jeff to admit with reluctance that he’d gotten a fender from a junkyard and fixed it. Even so, she couldn’t get him to tell her whether he’d done it on his own hook, or whether Al or her mother or Crystal had asked him to. It could well be that he’d done it on his own; she’d gotten to know him on her first, life-changing trip down the river the year before, and he’d come right out and said he admired her spunk.

While she drove it very little these days, just around town, the car was a little special to her. It had been a gift from her father, Pete, at her high school graduation. It was about the only evidence she had these days of the way her life had once been, but it had also been the lifeboat that had carried her out of Chicago and into a new life. Even seeing the car reminded her of how far she’d come, and not only in miles.

She didn’t have many errands to do, since she didn’t need much on the river; by mid-morning she was back at Al and her mother’s house, but she wasn’t in much of a mood to laze around. Since her free time would be very limited until fall, she had to use it wisely, and one of the things she really needed to do was to figure out what classes she wanted to take when the season ended.

Last winter, the decision had been pretty easy – her classes had been mostly freshman-level introductory stuff, and mostly required courses at that. She’d gotten out of some of the requirements by only starting at the university in the second semester, and had done some of the first-semester stuff online. There were still general studies requirements she could fulfill next winter, but it was clear that at least she needed decide on a general direction of her studies, if not a major.

What she really wanted to do more than anything was to increase her knowledge about Christianity. She had become very serious about her religion and hungered to know more. She was getting a good education in it, mostly from Kevin and Preach, a couple of church classes at Hillside Methodist and her own study, but the main thing she’d learned was that there was more to learn. The problem was that since Northern Arizona University was a state school, they understandably didn’t offer much in her area of interest – a comparative religion class, which might be interesting, and a couple of history and sociology classes that didn’t seem to go in the direction she wanted. She felt that she would at least like to minor in religious studies, if not major in them, but it was clear that she couldn’t do it at the University. It wasn’t something that had to be decided this year, but a decision would definitely be needed next year.

Part of the problem was paying for it. The online classes had been relatively cheap, and her mother and Al had been very good about funding the last semester, which had been inexpensive since she’d been living at Al’s house. But it would cost her more to live if she went somewhere else, and she didn’t want to ask her mother and Al to pay for that along with her classes. There was the possibility her father might be willing to help out, but she didn’t want to approach him until she was sure she could do the work, and her grades last semester seemed to indicate she could.

True, she could cover a good part of the cost from her income as a rafter. With the exception of a few clothes and necessities along with the occasional tank of gas for the Camry, most of the money she was making on the river went straight to the bank. She didn’t even see it, since it was on direct deposit. But there was no way it could be enough, and one of the things she needed to do this summer was to investigate financial aid. That would be difficult to do, since she only had a small handful of free days before she’d have to be heading back to school.

After several hours online, mostly coming up with dismaying numbers, it was becoming even clearer that she would have to be at NAU, at least the coming winter. That wasn’t all bad; she’d have all winter to investigate her options, rather than having to rush through them on her days off. She’d have time to think about them, and pray about them; after all, if religious studies was what He wanted her to do, He would open the door for her, although it would be up to her to step through it.

For two weeks she’d been looking forward to making the trip to help Jon, Tanisha, and their friends move on Saturday. Though Tanisha had played a key role in Nanci’s decision to come to Jesus, Nanci didn’t know her sister-in-law as well as she would have liked to. She’d gotten to know her pretty well on her first river trip the year before, but had only seen her occasionally since then, and then just for short periods. Jon’s and Tanisha’s lives were very busy, doing important things that they couldn’t talk about, and Nanci wondered from time to time just how much Barbara was going to change things for them.

So, early Saturday morning Nanci, her mother, and Al were seated three across in Al’s pickup heading toward Jon and Tanisha’s old apartment in Tempe. Crystal, Preach, Kevin, and Larry were all planning on being there as well, but were driving down in Preach’s car. They stopped briefly for a restaurant breakfast, then got on the road again. As it turned out, they all showed up about the same time, bringing the new swamper for the crew, Mark Kayleigh, who Nanci hadn’t even met yet.

When Jon opened the door on Saturday morning with Ben and Joy already present, it shouldn’t have surprised him to see more than Al and Karin standing outside. As he stood there shaking his head, another pickup towing a box utility trailer pulled in, and Jon shook his head some more as Joy’s parents got out and joined the throng.

“Mom,” he protested half-heartedly, “I know this move is a big deal, but it’s not that big a deal.”

“Well, it was just going to be Al and me,” she grinned, “but your sisters decided they wanted to help out, and things just happened from there.”

With that big a crew they went through the townhouse in one fast and furious hour, and, finally, the place had been stripped to the bare walls. While the rest of the crew waited outside, Jon and Tanisha took one last pass through the place, just to make sure nothing had been overlooked or left behind.

Moving into the new house was a little more complicated since the boxes and furniture and things had to be sorted as to the rooms where they would be needed before being hauled there; some new furniture had already been delivered and set in place. With that many hands, it didn’t take long before they were heading back to Ben and Joy’s apartment to do the same thing all over again. By noon the process was complete and all that was left was the unpacking and settling in. During this time several boxes of pizzas appeared, and the first backyard party at the new house consisted of going through the refreshments like a swarm of locusts. There was enough, but barely – Canyon Tours employees were active folks and didn’t believe in letting food go to waste.

Shortly after they finished the pizzas, Crystal announced that she and the crew needed to be headed back to Flagstaff. If they worked late they could get the food bought and packed for their next three-week river trip and still have time for church in the morning before they headed for the river. Al and Karin told them they’d be back in Flag in the evening, and were planning on helping with the final loading in the morning and being on the crew bus for the trip to Lee’s Ferry.

Six of them were crammed into the car for the drive back to Flagstaff, the whole White Team, four in the back. Nanci spent a little time getting to know Mark. He seemed to be a nice enough guy, hardly bigger than she was, and just barely out of high school – in fact, his graduation ceremony would be Sunday. The plan was for him to skip going up to Lee’s Ferry with the crew so he could attend graduation, and then ride out to the launch site with Al and Karin early on Monday morning. He’d done a tryout trip with another team the summer before, and had reportedly done well with it, but with the upcoming church trip it looked like he was going to get an unusual introduction to being on a regular crew.

The break, such as it was, was over with. Now it was time to get ready to run the river again.

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To be continued . . .

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