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

Chapter 5
Sunday, May 26, 2002

Buying and loading the food for the trip was time consuming, but routine. They had lists of exactly what was needed, in what amounts, and where it had to be packed. Doing this in an orderly fashion was important to avoid all-out hunts for this or that item while on the river.

The food would have to last twenty-four customers and six crew members for two and a half weeks, along with leaving a little extra in case Diamond Creek flash-flooded and they had to wait it out for a day or two. That added up to a lot of food. Weight wasn’t critical, but volume was, since there was only so much room for food boxes on the rafts. That was why they took very little bread in loaves, for example; bread for sandwiches and the like ran to pitas and tortillas, which kept better in any case.

It took the White Team until nearly midnight to get everything packed up, and much of it loaded on the bus. There were a few items that would stay refrigerated until they loaded the cold boxes just before they left, but that was a relatively small problem. It had been a long day; they all headed back to where they were staying for showers and time in bed.

For a number of years it had been the normal Canyon Tours practice for the river teams to leave the office for the put-in at Lee’s Ferry late on Sunday mornings, allowing them to set up the rafts and get them loaded leisurely in the late afternoon. They spent the night at the Lee’s Ferry campground or right at the landing, so they would be ready to go when the customer bus from Las Vegas showed up early on Monday morning. It would have been just barely possible to leave very early on Monday and do it – and it had been done at times when it had been really needed. However, that option ran the risk of not always being able to get the ramp space they needed in the wee small hours, and not being able to make a fast trip to Flagstaff to get something if it became necessary. Once they found a raft torn up on the trailer, apparently done by kid vandals, and it had been a huge rush to get a replacement raft up to the launch site in time for the trip to begin on schedule.

In the last year it had become the normal practice for the other Canyon Tours crews to do the grocery buying and packing early on Sunday morning, arriving at Lee’s Ferry somewhat later; there was still plenty of time to do everything and it kept Saturday as a day off. The White Team, however, stuck to the old practice because the members liked to make it to church on Sunday mornings.

Kevin’s family was active in the Hillside Methodist Church not far from his home, and the previous year Preach, Crystal, and Nanci had taken to joining him there for the Sunday service before they got on the river. That was mostly because before he and Crystal were married, Preach had stayed with Kevin’s family on the off weekends; it made no sense for Crystal or Nanci to go anywhere else. Even after Crystal and Preach got married there was no reason to change. No one thought it strange that Preach, a Baptist minister, chose to attend a Methodist Church, and he was perfectly happy with it. This Sunday was no different, except for the fact that Larry joined them. Mark, the new swamper was absent. He had been invited to join them but they knew he planned to be at his home church across town.

The service was good, if routine; Nanci thought the minister, Rev. Gene Miller was all right, although a little lackluster. In her mind the singing only reinforced once again Preach’s comments about Methodists being able to mutilate any perfectly good hymn, although he’d admitted on more than one occasion that the Baptists he was familiar with didn’t do much better. But still, it was good to be there, to be part of the community of believers, to know that she and her friends weren’t alone in their beliefs.

The group scattered briefly to change into river clothes and grab their gear, but an hour and a half after church had ended they were all sitting on the Canyon Tours bus with Jeff driving, heading for the river again. Al, Karin, or both of them often went to see the parties off at Lee’s, but because of Mark’s graduation they’d decided to skip going up on Sunday, but would drive up with him early on Monday morning.

It was about the same distance to Lee’s Ferry as it was to Diamond Wash, although the trip went more quickly since the roads were much better. There wasn’t a lot of talking; the bus was an old one and it had seen better days, so it was noisy inside. Nanci didn’t even try to study her Bible, since it was hard to read the way they were bouncing around, so like some others on the crew she took a nap as the familiar miles went by.

Eventually Jeff drove the bus and trailer over the river at Navajo Bridge, and those not still asleep got a glimpse of the river from far above; shortly afterward he turned down the road to the landing. Whatever parties had been launching today had already left, so they had their pick of spots to set up the rafts.

Getting the rafts off of the trailer and partly loaded went well; after all, everyone had done it plenty of times. There was a place for everything, and everything had to go more or less in its place so it could be found when needed out on the river. As the day was winding down they were about as ready as they could be.

At that point the other Canyon Tours crews were in the practice of taking the bus up to the bar in Marble Canyon for dinner and a few beers before returning to the launch site for the night. Once again the White Team didn’t hang around bars very much, so they sent Jeff and Jimmie, the pickup truck driver back to Flagstaff, broke out a grill, and commenced frying some steaks. It was already a close team, good friends who knew how to work together, so it was a relaxed group.

However, Crystal still harbored some reservations about the trip, and after they’d gotten everything from dinner put away, she decided there was some air that needed to be cleared. “Look,” she told the group, who were sitting around with cans of soda in their hands, “there are a few things about this trip we’ve got to talk about. This ain’t gonna be the normal trip in a lot of ways, and I’m a little nervous about it.”

Crystal’s having misgivings about the trip wasn’t really news to the rest of the team, but up until now it had been a theoretical subject, off in the future somewhere. But the future was now, or at least tomorrow.

“It’s not going to be that bad, Crystal,” Preach said calmly in an effort to reassure her. “I’m of the opinion that things are rarely as bad as we expect them to be. There’s going to be some good people on this trip. You’ve met a lot of them, you know, back when we were doing the church tour last winter.”

“Yeah, and that’s what I’m worried about,” she sighed. “Yeah, there were some good people, some I’m looking forward to getting to know a little better. But there were some boneheads who signed up too, and you know it as well as I do. One or two bad customers can louse up a trip for everyone else. Fortunately it doesn’t happen too often, but we’ve seen it more than once.”

“Well, you’re right on that,” he conceded. “I think we had pretty good luck last summer, but I remember that bunch from Laughlin last year, when we were running together with Dave and Mary’s team for a couple of days.” That needed no explanation; all of the White Team boatmen had been there. A small but drunken and rowdy family group had upset the rest of their party so much that some of the other customers had been ready to climb out of the Canyon on a rough trail rather than put up with them any longer. Things had worked out only by pure chance, but there were other customers on Mary’s trip who had pretty well been soured on the Canyon in the process. No one expected to ever see them back, and no one at Canyon Tours was happy about it. “But I remember that kind of thing on the Ocoee, and I know you do, too.”

“Yeah, but there we only had to put up with them for two and a half hours, not two and a half weeks,” Crystal sighed. “Maybe I’m just being negative, but if I remember correctly, there are some people on the customer list that struck me as naturally being that kind of creep, Christian or not. You know, the kind of people who think they’re absolutely right about everything, whether they know anything about it or not, and because they believe it they think everyone else is not only wrong, but a heretic.”

“As much as I hate to say it, there are those kinds of people who call themselves Christians,” he agreed. “And to be honest, there are a few we met last winter I’d just as soon not have on the trip myself. I mean, the kind of people who like to argue to show how smart they are, who like to throw their weight around because they can.”

“I know the type,” Kevin said. “People who like to use their Christianity as shields to cover up what kind of jerks and hypocrites they really are. They may think they’re Christians, they may call themselves Christian, but, well, ‘by their fruits you shall know them,’ as the Bible says.”

“I have to agree,” Preach said after a moment of reflection. “I mean, I know plenty of jerks who aren’t Christians, but I have to admit that I do know jerks who claim to be Christian, too. Whether that’s going to be the case on this trip, I can’t tell you.”

Crystal shook her head. “Maybe I was looking at some of the people we talked to last winter a little more critically than you did,” she sighed. “And I could be wrong about who I remember and who signed up for the trip, but I’m just pretty sure we’ve got some from both lists. Maybe not all of them, maybe just a couple of them, but enough to really louse up a trip if things go badly.”

Preach stared out over the river. Perhaps he was praying silently; but if so no one could really tell. After a moment he replied. “You could be right, Crystal. In fact, the odds are in favor of your being right. We can’t know now, and we probably won’t know until we’re out on the river when we won’t be able to do anything about it, not that we could do anything about it if we knew about it now. Whatever happens, we’re just going to have to make it work.”

“Like it or not,” she nodded. “I’d like to see this work, and I know Dad would. But like I said, I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

“Maybe the Lord is telling you something,” he said. “I’m certainly not going to discount it. But as I’ve said before, very often when you’re anticipating a bad situation, it turns out to be not as bad as you think it’s going to be. I mean, like Hance or Lava looks bad and is bad when you look at it from above, but doesn’t seem as bad from below after you’ve run it.”

“Preach,” Nanci spoke up. “It can be true the other way around, too. I mean, I know it.”

“Well, yeah, there’s that, too,” he agreed. “Look, if it turns out that we have personality conflicts, well, we’ve had to deal with them before. About all I can say is to try and smooth things over and give people some space. But look, these church trips are at least partly my idea, and I have to admit I wasn’t exactly sure what I was thinking about when Al and I came up with the idea to have them. However, I would say that if you get into Christian hairsplitting or issues, refer them to me. I am still a Baptist minister, after all, and that gives me a little bit more authority in these things than the rest of you. I may not be able to smooth things over, but at least I’m in a better position to argue.”

“I think Preach is right on that,” Crystal agreed. “In fact, we all probably ought to reinforce the idea by calling him ‘Reverend Whittaker’ instead of ‘Preach,’ at least some of the time.”

“That’s probably not a bad idea,” Preach agreed. “I would say to do it, but not overdo it. More importantly, while I know we’re all Christian to one degree or another, I would suggest that you keep your opinions to yourself and not get into religious discussions if you can avoid it. I mean, say things like, ‘Boy, I don’t know, you’d have to ask Reverend Whittaker about that.’ What I’m telling you is to be well-behaved boatmen, and leave the spiritual leadership up to me.”

“That was sort of how it was supposed to be anyway,” Crystal commented.

“That won’t solve all the problems, but it ought to help,” Preach went on. “But along that line, it wouldn’t surprise me if we had one or more of those jokers who will tell you that the rocks can’t be billions of years old because someone counted the generations in the Bible and concluded that the Earth is only six thousand years old. Speaking as both a Baptist minister and a Grand Canyon boatman, those people irritate me.”

“They more than irritate me,” Crystal snorted.

“They tend to be pretty sure of themselves, and dead sure they’re right whether they are or not. Like I said earlier, they know they’re right so everyone else has to be wrong, and a heretic at best. They’re creationists and usually are unwilling to consider the opinions of others and the evidence in front of their eyes. That means they can be a real pain in the neck, like Crystal is worried about. In this case, she has reason to be concerned. Believe me, I don’t want to have to deal with that issue on this trip along with everything else.”

“That bothers me a little,” Larry shook his head. “Well, more than a little, at least when we’re talking about the Canyon, rather than directly about religion. I suppose I can fuzz over or ignore the evolution versus creation issue with the customers, but so much of what we have to interpret for the customers involves the age of the Canyon that, well, sometimes there wouldn’t be much left to say.”

“I know what you’re talking about and I agree with every word of it,” Preach nodded. “About all I can tell you is to not let yourself get pinned down to exact statements. Use words like ‘allegedly’ or ‘apparently’ a lot when you get to those kinds of things. Say things like ‘the geologists tell us,’ or ‘some people think,’ rather than tying yourself down to a direct statement. Once again, if things get too hot, refer those people to me. I may not be able to satisfy them, but at least the heat will be off your shoulders.”

“Preach is right on that,” Crystal replied thoughtfully. “In fact, it might be a good idea to do that regularly, church trip or not. We can run into those kinds of blowhards any other time and I’m surprised it doesn’t happen more often on our normal trips.”

“One other thing,” Preach pointed out. “There are six of us, or will be when Mark gets here, and twenty-four of them. But we know each other and know how to work together. Most of these people will be strangers, except for couples or families, which most of them are likely to be. We are the ones who are in charge and know what we’re doing, while for the most part they won’t. None of this is new to you, since we go through it every trip. In this case, it just means that we’re going to have to work a little harder to establish our authority right from the beginning while everybody else is a little confused and no pecking order has been established. Try to remember that we are here to give people a good trip, not a bad one. If Crystal and I see someone who is making trouble, we’ll just have to get him or her off to the side and try to reestablish order. Yes, there may be trouble, but we all shouldn’t let it get out of hand.”

“Yeah, Noah, you’re right about that,” Crystal said. She took a deep breath and went on, “Look, maybe I’ve just been a little too negative about this, but people like we’ve just been talking about make my skin itch, and they always have. This is just something we’re going to have to learn how to do, like it or not. We’ve got one more of these trips scheduled for this summer, and the response Dad and Mom have had means that we’ll probably be having them in future years. If nothing else, the next time one of these comes up we’ll have a better idea of how to handle it.”

“And if it does, it’s probably going to be pretty much us having to deal with it,” Larry snickered. “I mean, can’t you just imagine one of these trips with Scooter running it?”

Everyone laughed at that. They knew that Scooter, the Red Team leader, could be pretty brusque and liked to set the tone for a trip by smoking a cigar when the customer bus showed up. A woman smoking a cigar usually got people to wondering just how rough and tough the trip was going to be, and the fact that she could also be pretty creative with foul language if her dander was up only added to her reputation. There were some other characters on the Canyon Tours crews who were pretty unique individuals, too.

“You know,” Crystal smiled. “I’ve heard dumber ideas. If this doesn’t go well, maybe I’ll have to run that one by Dad.”

*   *   *

The Grand Canyon is very dry most of the time, and rain is a rare occurrence. When it comes, it usually comes and goes quickly. It is normally too dry for mosquitoes. While there were tents packed on the rafts, usually the Canyon Tours crews didn’t bother with them, preferring to sleep out under the stars. Not long after full darkness, they unrolled their auto-inflating foam pads and sleeping bags here and there around the rafts, and were soon using them.

Since Preach and Crystal were the only married couple, they usually slept a little ways away from the rest of the crew in a pair of sleeping bags zipped together. Preach soon dropped off to sleep, but Crystal lay awake, mostly looking at the stars overhead and thinking.

Maybe she had been worrying a little too much about this trip, she thought. There were reasons to be worried, of course, but maybe she was making a mountain out of a molehill, too. Maybe it was because the church tour last winter had left her a little sour. Oh, most of the people had been all right, and there had been times that it had been fun, but it got more than a little old before it was over with, and by then she was focusing more on the bad experiences than she was on the good.

While the church tour had mostly been a success, she still wished it had come down a little differently. While she loved Preach, and was happy to be married to him, the rush from river to wedding to church tour in only a matter of days had been very troublesome and hard to adapt to.

It would have been nice to have even a few extra days to themselves before they had to get started with the tour, but the time hadn’t been there and that was that. Being married to Preach had proved to be different than being ready to marry him, and she hadn’t realized just how big the change would be.

Being on the tour, meeting other people daily and having to be nice and gracious to them, sometimes having to say things she didn’t really mean, sometimes staying as guests of total strangers – well, it had been a rough start to their marriage. There had been some sour moments, which they had tried to keep private, mostly successfully. But that meant that she and Preach didn’t have a chance to iron out some of those new differences until their real honeymoon, sailing on a boat named the Felicity Ann in the Bahamas three months after their wedding.

By then, a few gaps had opened between them that had proved hard to close; they’d gained more ground after returning to Flagstaff in March after the tour. But, no matter how successful they’d been, the memory of the tour left something of a bad taste in her mouth, and she was sure it was carrying over to this trip.

Granted, it would have been hard to make the tour as a pair of singles among all those church people, but maybe they should have done it that way. It might have proved to be a little less troublesome in the long run, but what had been done was done; they had to live with it and go on from there.

She stared at the Big Dipper, high in the northern sky, clear and bright in this dark desert in a way it could never be in a city with all the lights around. Whatever happened tomorrow, it would be there again. Tomorrow would be another day, she thought. Good or bad, this time tomorrow the day would be pretty much over with. With her words barely a whisper to avoid waking Preach, she prayed that it would be a good day.

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To be continued . . .

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