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

Chapter 9

It was normal practice for Canyon Tours crews to stop for lunch at Cathedral Wash, only about three miles out. By then it was usually getting near lunchtime anyway, and the customers would not have eaten since breakfast before dawn in Las Vegas. More importantly, the customers had been exposed to the river a little, so would be more receptive to some of the things they still needed to know.

Crystal gave most of the orientation, as usual. While it involved how they would break for lunch, of course, among other things it also involved how people were to relieve themselves. Solid wastes had to go into the portable toilet, which probably would only be unpacked if it was really necessary for someone to use it. “If you have to urinate, you might have noticed there aren’t any bathrooms around here, so the Park Service rule is that you do it in the river. The basic rule is easy to remember – men upriver, women down,” she told them. “Just like your pants. There’s a little room to spread out here, but there may not be at some places we stop, so if everybody will just kind of turn your backs and extend a little courtesy, it’ll work out.”

Crystal had been expecting more static than normal about the public urination, especially from the women on the trip. She got all she expected and then some, but tried to make her point that it was how things were going to be, and that was that.

At least partly to counter the obvious reaction, she also explained that since the air was very dry, there was a very real danger of dehydration, especially on hot days. “Drink lots,” she said. “We have plenty of water with us, we have lots of sodas. That stuff mostly rides in the bottom of the raft, but each day we’ll hang some over the side in drag bags to keep it cool. There is no reason to go thirsty, and it’s dangerous if you do.”

She again warned people against sunburns – they happened easily and were no fun to live with when out on the river day after day. “Keep an eye on each other to see if anyone else is burning,” she said. “You may realize it before they do.”

Lunch was a little better than it would be most days on the river. Since they were still so close to starting, they could add to the normal cold-cut sandwiches some things that didn’t keep well, like pre-made potato and macaroni salad. The customers soon learned that there was going to be no sitting down at a table for lunch or any other meal, but as Crystal pointed out, this was a wilderness trip, not a luxury hotel.

While the customers and crew were eating and wandering around – not that there was much of a place to wander, at least without climbing over some rough stuff – Crystal found the opportunity to get Nanci alone for a minute. “How’s it going with our problem children?” she asked in a voice barely over a whisper.

“Which problem children?” Nanci snorted.

“That Barber guy. He was just giving me some bull about how he expected to be able to use the satphone whenever he wanted. I told him he couldn’t, of course, and he didn’t like it one bit. I expect he’ll be making a nasty phone call to Al when we get down to Phantom Ranch. Is that couple with the kid some kind of problem, too?”

“Yeah,” Nanci shook her head. “Apparently I don’t meet her high standards of what a Christian is supposed to be since I wasn’t brought up as one from babyhood.”

“Oh, boy. One of those, huh?”

“Afraid so. What’s more, that kid of theirs apparently isn’t allowed to blow her nose without their permission, and it sounds like they have every minute of every day programmed for her. I mean, home schooled, not allowed to have friends she can talk to without their supervision, and that sort of thing.”

“It happens. I saw it when we were on the church tour last winter. They want their kids to be little robots doing everything just exactly like they say.”

“That’s a pretty good description,” Nanci agreed. “I really feel sorry for the kid, but I can see there’s not much I can do. That’s the way life is for her, whether she likes it or not.”

“Ride it out, I guess,” Crystal sighed. “It’s their decision to make and they may have to pay the price in the long run. Maybe I’ll tip Preach off to say something about it.”

“It may not do much good. They also seem perturbed that he’s a boatman, and not the pastor of some church somewhere. In other words, nothing’s moral and proper enough for them. Actually, I think I could almost put up with Barber. At least he’s up front about being upset. The Fletchers seem to be more the kind of people who would stab you in the back the first chance they get. Barber would at least stab you in the front.”

That was a pretty heavy accusation for someone who was as serious a Christian as Crystal knew Nanci was. “Oh, boy,” she shook her head. “Yeah, from what you’re telling me they could be the kind of people who want to cause dissention just because they can.”

“You said it, I didn’t, but you’re probably right. I’d be willing to bet they’re pains in the neck at whatever church they go to, too.”

Crystal looked at the ground for a moment, then said. “Well, I guess they’re committed to the trip now, and so are we. Are you going to be able to put up with them for the rest of the day, or should I get them out of your raft?”

“I’ll manage today, but I’d appreciate it if one or both of them are in some other raft tomorrow. I’ll take my turn with them, Crystal, but I’d just as soon not have to do it with both couples at the same time.”

“I think I can rig that around without it looking too funny. I’ll try to get you with someone good tomorrow. I still haven’t got a feel for the group, but while there seem to be a couple more jerks, there’s some good people here, too.”

“Crystal, I hope you’re right.”

“Yeah, so do I.”

Before too much longer Crystal got people moving back toward their rafts. “We’ve only come a third of the way I’d planned for today,” she told the group, “and we want to stop a little earlier tonight than we normally would so we can teach you about setting up camp.”

They were soon back on the river. It was mostly placid for now, although with a steady current, running through what seemed like a deep gorge. The boatmen knew it was nothing compared to what was to come. A couple of miles out they went under the twin arches of Navajo Bridge, which Crystal told them would be the last real sign of civilization they would see until they reached Phantom Ranch, not that there was much of it there. The customers may not have understood it, but the boatmen knew they were really on their way now.

It was only about another five miles to Badger Rapids, the first real rapids of the trip, if only about midrange for difficulty; there would be much worse to come, but this was also an opportunity to show the customers what they were in for. A few people got a little wet, but nothing really went wrong, and it also taught people how quickly things dried out in the low humidity of the desert air.

Badger Rapids was where Canyon Tours parties usually liked to stop the first night out, everything else being equal. There were two options of places to camp, and neither one was exactly Crystal’s favorite place on the river to stay a night. Given a choice she preferred to press on to Soap Creek, three miles further on and pretty close to a good average daily run for the trip. While the campsite was somewhat better it had the disadvantage of having to run a mid-range rapids just as soon as they were on the water. They might have to do it later in the trip, like they’d had to run Hance the first thing on the previous trip, but with the customers all new to Canyon life it was something she really preferred not to do.

The other reason to stop at Badger, if a campsite was available, was that if they pressed on to Soap Creek and found it occupied, it was a long way to the next place where a party this large could camp comfortably. Given all that, Crystal was just as happy to see both spots at Badger empty. Although she hadn’t told anyone – and didn’t plan on it unless someone was a real pain in the neck – it was possible to hike out of the Canyon from the camp on the river right side, although it would be a long walk to Marble Canyon. If someone made enough of a pest of himself or herself in the camp, she might just give them the option. Despite what Nanci had said at Cathedral Wash, she thought Barber might just take her up on it.

Once the rafts were snubbed up to shore, Crystal gave the customers the chance to stretch their legs for a minute before calling everyone back together. She started out by explaining, and then setting up “duffel lines” to unload the rafts. Most of the gear was passed up onto shore, with each boatman unloading their own raft – some things would stay on the raft since they wouldn’t be needed until later in the trip, but only the boatmen knew for sure what was what. Everyone pitched in on that chore, including the Barbers, a little to Crystal’s surprise.

After the gear was piled on shore, Crystal started in on the camp orientation. This took a while, since there was a lot that people needed to know, and most of it would be important for the rest of the trip. People would be responsible for setting up their own sleeping areas, and tents if they wished to use them, although on a night as warm and calm and clear as this one there would be little need for tents; as it turned out, nobody bothered. Generally speaking, she told them, the crew tended to either sleep on their boats, or set up close to the kitchen area so it would be easier to get up and get going in the morning. Everyone else was on their own for finding a place to unroll their sleeping bags. While she was overseeing that, Nanci and Mark went to set up the portable toilet at a location well away from the camp site, they were back before Crystal finished her talk.

Before too long, the crew got started on dinner; the traditional Canyon Tours meal for the first night out was halibut steaks, which didn’t keep well on the river so had to be eaten early. While it was under way Crystal took the opportunity to grab Preach and take a little walk upriver, away from the group, so they could have a private conversation. She hadn’t had the chance before to tell him what she had heard from Nanci about the Fletchers, and their thinking that it was inappropriate for him to be a boatman, and not have a church. “Or,” she added, “At least that’s the way I got it from Nanci.”

“It’s not the first time I’ve heard that,” Preach said. “In fact, there were a couple of people on my raft who were a little curious about it. I don’t know that I want to get into a lot of detail about it, but maybe I’d better try to put it to rest early on.”

“You could just say that at this point in your life you don’t feel the leading to have a church, but to be here,” she suggested.

“I’ll probably have to say that, and it will be the truth. You know as well as I do that it’s more complicated than that, but those are personal things not everyone needs to know.”

Crystal indeed knew a lot about it, so there was no need for discussion. Preach had been the Youth Pastor at Glen Hill Road for nearly four years, longer than a young pastor usually had in that position. The thing of it was that he’d had the feeling for some time that it wasn’t where he was supposed to be, and being pastor of a church wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing.

The problem hadn’t come clear to him until after Crystal invited him to come out to the Canyon to perform the wedding ceremony between Al and her mother the year before. Even though he’d spent a lot of time in his summers running rivers, he hadn’t accepted the invitation eagerly. Mostly it was because he feared that the temptation of a place like the Canyon and a long-time friend like Crystal could drag him away from what he believed his future was, which was to have a church of his own.

When he’d come out to the Canyon, the temptation had proved to be strong indeed – too strong, in fact. While he felt no less strong about needing to serve the Lord, he’d also become even more disillusioned about the idea of being a normal neighborhood minister like he’d been expecting to be. Plus, he’d still been single, and there had been women around Glen Hill Road who were getting increasingly predatory about increasing their own Godliness by snapping up a minister for a husband. While several of them might have made perfectly adequate minister’s wives, he hadn’t felt drawn to them in the same way he felt drawn to Crystal.

After much prayer and thoughtfulness, he’d decided to take the plunge, offering to stay in the Canyon if Crystal was willing to work toward their relationship being more than that of “just friends.” She had accepted eagerly. She had been feeling the need to have a more than “just friends” relationship with someone, but she’d never been able to work out the differences she had with the only other man she’d ever considered marrying, her old friend Randy Clark, who she’d met in college.

It had worked well, at least so far, but Preach had admitted to her that he still had his doubts about whether he’d made the right move after all. However, he’d agreed to stay with Crystal in the Canyon, not the least reason being that she was tied to it pretty closely, what with her father owning the company and her being his only child. Their relationship was still clearly a work in progress.

Crystal still had some wanderlust and a desire to see what was on the far side of the hill. Before they’d gotten together Crystal had spent her off-seasons doing quite a bit of that, though the previous winter had been pretty low-key compared to the ones that had gone before. She’d agreed to do it, but the church tour just hadn’t been her idea of a fun way to spend the winter, and it had led to some tensions between them.

At least they were both open and honest about their concerns and were willing to talk about them. They were just rough spots to be gotten over, not anything that seemed likely to break them up.

“I agree it’s going to be a bit of a problem on the trip,” Preach replied. “I half expected there to be some grumbling and dissention, so I guess we’re just going to have to do what we can to keep it from getting out of hand. I guess the best thing to do is to keep an eye on them, and I can have a private discussion with them if it looks like it’s going to be a problem. I think in public sessions I probably shouldn’t get into it very much.”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m sorry about this, Preach, but this is just the sort of thing that I was worried about.”

“I think you’re still making a mountain out of a molehill. So what’s the deal about this Barber guy?”

“I don’t know. I’m beginning to think he’s just a chronic complainer, always looking for something to find fault over. If and when he makes it to heaven he’ll probably complain that the streets are paved with eighteen karat gold instead of twenty-four. In spite of everything he seems to be settling into the trip so far, but I imagine he’ll still gripe every step of the way.”

“I guess we’ll just have to live with it, and maybe God or some of Al’s Canyon magic will mellow him out a little.”

“Well, there’s always hope,” she sighed. “I’m still going to be glad to have this trip over with. Let’s face it, this isn’t the normal group of people we get down here, although some of them seem to be fitting in pretty well.”

“I’ll see if I can say something tonight that will get people a little more tuned into the trip.”

“It’ll probably help,” Crystal smiled. “I’m always interested in what you come up with. I suppose we’d better be getting back so people won’t wonder what we’ve been up to.”

“Maybe we should let them wonder a little,” he grinned. “I think some people don’t quite believe that ministers are human after all.”

“If you’re saying what I think you’re saying I’d be in the mood, except for the fact that this probably isn’t the time and place for it.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” he laughed. “But darn it all.”

Dinner was as good as it usually was; both Preach and Crystal, working separately, tried to make contact with everyone in the party and talk to them a little, either during dinner or right afterward. Crystal was a little encouraged by that – it seemed as if most of the party was settling in, at least for now. While she knew that in two and a half weeks little tensions could turn into big ones, for the moment things seemed to be going all right.

Evenings were long at this time of year, so well before dark Crystal called everyone together in what had become the common area, a little ways away from the kitchen. “I suppose it’s traditional to have campfires when we’re camping,” she told them, “although, I have to admit that I only rarely had one when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail a few years ago. Here at Canyon Tours we like to have campfires most evenings, but we’ll keep them small and wrap up early since we all will have to get up early tomorrow morning.”

“How early?” someone piped up.

“Way early,” she smiled. “One of the jobs boatmen have on the river is to wake up the birds. We’re usually up well before dawn to get going on breakfast, so that means you won’t want to go much past that. We’re on river time here, folks. That means early to bed and early to rise, since we don’t want to waste daylight. Anyway, to get back to what I was saying, this time of the year the Park Service doesn’t allow us to gather driftwood for fires, not that there’s much driftwood to gather, so we brought a little wood and some Presto-Logs so we can have a small fire most evenings. On this trip, it means that the evenings are going to be when Reverend Whittaker will be giving us something to think about for our trip down here. We may sit around and talk about it afterward, or we may talk about something else. With that thought in mind, I’m just going to turn this over to him.”

Crystal sat down on the ground nearby as Preach got to his feet. “Thanks, Crystal,” he said. “I should probably say that I try to not give sermons, but teachings, and things to think about, which when you stop and think about it is pretty much what a sermon is supposed to be all about in the first place. We’ll probably have some discussions at these evening meetings, and probably a hymn sing. I don’t have any songbooks or anything, but there are hymns that most of us are probably familiar with. But before we get started, let’s have a brief prayer.”

He stopped for a moment, and noticed that everyone had bowed their heads. “Heavenly Father, thank you for a good day on the river, and guide us toward having a safe and successful trip, tomorrow and each day we’re out. Help us to learn what You are trying to teach us, in this, one of the more beautiful of Your creations. Keep dissention on this trip to a minimum, and help us to work together to magnify the glory of Your name. This we ask in Jesus’ Name, Amen.”

Preach looked around in the gathering darkness; they weren’t really in a good location to see the sunset, but they could get hints of what it must have looked like. “I’ve never been to the Holy Land,” he began. “That’s one of several things that Crystal and I have talked about doing during our off seasons, possibly this winter, and possibly in another. We’ll have to see where the Lord leads us.

“If and when we go to the Holy Land, one of the things I really want to do is to go to the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, just to see what it’s like, and to walk in the wilderness where Jesus walked after He was called to His ministry. You all know about that – He went out into the wilderness and spent forty days and nights there, talking with God, being tempted by the Devil, and preparing Himself for what He knew was to come.

“I don’t know a great deal about the Judaean Desert. Hundreds of years ago artists painted pictures of what they conceived that wilderness to be like. I suppose most of us think of a wilderness as being forested, with lots of trees, and apparently they did too. But from the photos I’ve seen, it’s not like that at all. It’s a very dry desert, in some ways not unlike the desert we’ll be in for the next two and a half weeks. It is rugged and daunting, and not a place people normally would go to live, again much like this wonderful Canyon.

“Most of us, most of the time, are using our vision on this trip to see wonderful things, but I can’t help but believe that many of us are out here on a sort of vision quest of our own. Why else would we seek out the wilderness, the solitude, the peace? Back in our lives beyond the rim there are many distractions, TVs, telephones, other people, and other things to do. Down here, it’s just the few of us and the Canyon. Distractions are far away. There is a world out there, and we’ve deliberately turned our backs on it to seek the wilderness. Perhaps we’re looking for direction in our lives, perhaps a hint about what we’re to do, or the chance to think things out, to make sense of them, and the simplicity of the wilderness may prove to be a good place to find them. Things do seem simpler, here, quieter, more pristine – and closer to God. For really, isn’t that what a vision quest is all about – to seek to hear the voice of God? He’s speaking to every one of you, perhaps through my words, perhaps not. You have but to listen to hear it.

“I know that in my time in the Canyon the Lord has taught me many things, things I might have not learned otherwise. While I’m satisfied with my life in the Canyon, I imagine that I won’t be doing this forever. I’m sure the Lord is preparing me for other things, and using my time in the wilderness to teach me what I need to know to do them. At the same time, you should take the opportunity to listen to what the Lord has to teach you in this place, so you can be prepared for the challenges he will have for you in the future . . .”

Preach went on in that vein for several minutes, gently working on a simple point: quietly take the opportunity to learn what being in the Canyon could teach them on this trip. Enjoy the tribulations and the discomforts of living in the wilderness; it was not like their normal lives, after all, but the difficulties would give them an opportunity to experience in some small way what Christ must have felt like in the wilderness. It was to be enjoyed, not just endured.

It was a familiar theme to Crystal; she’d heard Preach give variations of that talk in the past, and some of the words sounded familiar indeed – but there were a couple of things that were a little new to her, too. They made her wonder.

After a while, it seemed to her that Preach felt he’d gone on long enough with his gentle talk, so he found a good place to wrap it up. They sang a couple of familiar hymns to the accompaniment of his guitar – The Old Rugged Cross and Onward Christian Soldiers. After that, he sang a favorite of his that was unfamiliar to most, the nearly forgotten Hold the Fort for I Am Coming.

There was ongoing discussion for a while after that, but it was getting pretty dark now, with only the light of the full moon to guide them. Finally, Preach said, “If any of you want to sit up and talk it’s fine with me, but this has been a long day and there’s a sleeping bag calling me. If you want to stay up, please keep it down so you don’t bother those of us who are trying to sleep, and remember that you’ll be getting up about as soon as the sun is up. We’re going to be getting on the river early, and it would be good if you have plenty of rest.”

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To be continued . . .

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