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

Chapter 17
Saturday, August 24 – Sunday August 25, 2002

“Take your time, honey, and don’t over-exert yourself. You’re going to have plenty of time,” Karin said as she held her younger daughter in her arms.

“I know, Mom,” Nanci said. “It’s not like no one has ever done it before.”

“Yes, but still. Look, Nanci, take care of yourself and study hard.”

“You know I will, Mom. It’s not like this is forever. You’ll probably be down to see us in a couple of weeks, or I’ll be up there to see you and go to church. It’s not that far.”

“I know,” Karin sighed. “But this is something a little new, after all. God go with you, Nanci.”

Nanci stepped back from her mother and looked around the Boatman’s Beach at Phantom Ranch. The rafts were close to loaded now, and as soon as her mother got aboard what had been her raft for the last three and a half months they would be ready to go. It was a surprisingly sad sight; somehow she felt she ought to still be the one at the oars, not her mother. She raised her voice and called, “Are you ready, Crystal?”

“Sure am, Nanci. Good luck. Now, let’s head ’em up and move ’em out.”

Nanci quickly untied the rope holding her – darn it, her mother’s – raft to shore, coiled it up and handed it to a customer sitting on the tube, then gave the raft a shove. With a little bit of scraping it drifted out on the water. As soon as it was afloat, she moved to the next raft to get it going, too; there were customers helping with the rest, and soon the five rafts were out on the river, drifting away. There were waves from a couple of the customers, and last-instant wishes of good luck.

With a sigh, Nanci picked up the same daypack that her mother had carried down from the rim that morning. Nanci had topped off the canteens in the pack, and that ought to be enough for nine miles on this warm, but not hot day. Nine miles that included close to a mile of up; it was a long way to the rim but she had little doubt that she would make it. Nine miles heading away from the river and a life she’d come to love; nine miles into her future.

She slung the daypack to her shoulders, hooked up the waist belt, and began to walk toward the Bright Angel Bridge, keeping an eye on the fast-vanishing rafts. Kevin was with them, too, she thought, and it could be a while before she saw him again, and she wondered about that a little.

She had been friends with Kevin for a year and a third, now – close friends. He was probably the best friend she had who wasn’t in the family. More than a friend; he was her brother in the Lord, her sponsor in the church, her mentor who had, more than anyone else, taught her how to row a raft and the tricks of handling it. From time to time Crystal had hinted that they were boyfriend and girlfriend, but it was just a tease and even Crystal knew it.

Sometimes Nanci wondered about that – even a little more than sometimes. She could look at herself and say that she really wasn’t ready for a boyfriend at this point of her life, even if he was a fellow river rat. She felt no urge to pursue that kind of relationship. In the time she had known Kevin, powerful things had been happening in her life, and a boyfriend would complicate things to say the least. But still, sometimes she wondered why she didn’t feel the urge for something more – and why he didn’t seem to, either.

The kiss he’d given her a couple of minutes before only caused her a little more confusion. It was just a little peck on the lips, friends saying goodbye before a long separation – but it was the first time they’d kissed, ever, and it made her wonder. It clearly didn’t mean anything other than the fact that they were good friends, and that was that. It was something she resolved to think about on her long climb up to the rim.

In only a minute or so the rafts were out of sight, although she suspected she might get a last glimpse of them when she walked across the bridge. It would be a long time before she was aboard one of them again – too long, but that was the way it was. She’d known this day was coming clear back before she’d started her first trip in the spring. She’d be heading back to school on Monday, and that had been the case even when she’d been thinking in terms of going back to NAU, rather than Black Mesa.

The half-trip she’d had in the last week had been a little bit unsure right up until the last minute. It was a tough time for Al, trying to keep boatmen in the seats of all the company’s rafts as most of the college students among them headed back to school. The only way he was managing it this year was that they were going to have one fewer team on the river. Duane and Michelle had been the team doing all the short trips taken over from GCR earlier in the year, and when they got off their current trip they would be done for the season.

They wouldn’t be contributing to filling the raft seats themselves, because after a couple days of packing and getting organized they would be off to their winter job far away, helping to train dog teams for mushers who planned to race across Alaska in March. It was a cold job, but one they’d been looking forward to, even though it was a bit amazing that Michelle could be torn away from the river when she might be able to run it; she was as crazy about being on the river as anyone Nanci knew.

She stepped up onto the long suspension bridge and started to walk across it, keeping her eyes on the rafts downstream, of course. In spite of everything she wished that she could be with them, but she couldn’t, and that was that. She knew she had more important things to do for both herself and the Lord, but that couldn’t keep her from wishing.

She couldn’t help but wonder how her father had felt as he’d stood on the shore of the launch ramp at Lee’s Ferry a month before, watching her drift away on the waters of the Colorado. Nanci had been surprised to see Doris and him there, along with Jon, Tanisha, and Barbara. He’d seemed curious about everything, if a little amazed at what both of his daughters were up to. Doris seemed very interested in it, too, and Nanci couldn’t help but wonder if she’d be seeing the two of them on the river sometime after all.

The two had stood back in the tamarisks and watched as the final preparations for the arrival of the customers were being carried, out, and watched as the members of the White Team joined hands in prayer to ask for a safe journey down the river once again. Even though he’d been told of it, the reality still seemed to be a little beyond his comprehension.

That trip had been the second of the two Christian trips Canyon Tours had run that summer, and there just hadn’t been the apprehension there had been before the first one. In fact, it had all worked out just fine; the trip was as filled with joyful good fellowship as the first trip had been awkward and rough, at least up until they’d reached Havasu Creek.

Oh, there was a man who insisted that the Canyon couldn’t be more than six thousand years old, but he seemed to get by all right with the boatmen using terms like “allegedly” and “geologists say” without too much protest, although he repeatedly brought his point up. Even that eased off when Preach, gave a long and detailed discussion of how the volume of rock in the Canyon being excavated in that amount of time could have only been managed if it had carried off enough silt to fill Lake Mead several times a year. That ignored the fact that there was good evidence even the protester couldn’t dispute that the Canyon could not have changed anything like that much in the time that humans had inhabited it.

Preach’s explanation was more than a little bit confusing, and Nanci thought she could point out an error or two in his reasoning, but she’d kept her mouth shut, and no one else seemed to think much about it.

They’d made a stop at Havasu Creek, of course – they never missed a trip – and since it was Sunday, Preach held a service. At the last instant, with no warning, he’d asked Nanci to speak, and she had. She only gave a brief version of her testimony, which still surprised some people, but still made a powerful statement about the power and the glory of God that may have had more impact on the group than her sermon on the previous Christian trip. It was still hard to believe she could affect people like that, or rather, that God could use her as a vessel like that.

She felt sadder about the end of that trip than she had felt about any other trip that season, just because it had been a good one, and that it was her last full one of the season. The half-trip she’d just ended had sort of been a coda to it, carrying with it the realization that it really was the last trip and it would be a long time until she was back on the river again.

At least the weekend following the trip wasn’t quite as hectic as the previous ones had been. Jon and Tanisha – and more Tanisha at that – had done some investigating and discovered that students at Black Mesa were expected to dress a little less casually than they did elsewhere. On top of that Nanci wanted Dr. Nelson to have a good impression of her, so her mother had taken her to do some clothes shopping. Clothes had been one of her addictions back when she’d been in high school, but she’d taken little real interest in them since. She wasn’t sure about her mother’s taste in clothing for school, but Nanci knew that going with her mother was better than going with Crystal, whose opinions about clothing had never been able to be trusted anywhere beyond jeans and sweat shirts.

The Bright Angel Trail follows the river for a ways, but by the time Nanci got there the rafts were gone, on to Horn Creek and Adrenaline Alley. She was alone on the trail, and alone with her thoughts, as well.

For whatever reason, she got thinking about Kevin again. Crystal had been correct when she’d referred to Nanci as being a “boy-crazy teenager.” Too boy-crazy, in fact, much too boy-crazy. Looking back at it now, Nanci thought that at least some of it went with the territory of being a girl of that age, although she also felt she’d overdone it by a wide margin.

But now? Not since she’d left Chicago had she had any desire to have a boyfriend – in fact, well before she’d left Chicago. It simply was not a factor in her thinking, whether Curt had burned it out of her, or God had taken it away from her, or whatever. When she reflected on it, it seemed a little strange.

On that last weekend down at Jon and Tanisha’s she’d held little Barbara, cooed at her and did all the sorts of silly things adults did with babies. While she was amused and interested in the tiny girl, she had no desire to have one of her own, at least not anytime soon and perhaps not ever. It simply held no appeal for her. Perhaps God would change that in her when the time came, or He might not. Once again, there were other things she had to do first.

In one corner of her mind, she thought it likely that she was going to experience about all of babies she wanted to have in the next year, or the next three years if everything worked out at Black Mesa. At least when that was over with she’d have more knowledge of how to raise a young child, and a better basis for making any decisions that had to be made for herself. But for right now, she wasn’t planning on taking the first step, that of looking for a boyfriend or a relationship. If it happened, it happened, and if it happened it would have been because God had cleared the way for her. Whether it was with Kevin or someone else seemed immaterial; if it came down to Kevin, she thought he would be just fine, but she felt no drive toward it and apparently neither did he.

The trail bent on upward. There was a long way to climb, but if she took her time and didn’t overstress herself she thought she might be able to make it in fine shape. She knew that going up this trail was just the first steps on an even longer trail, and she had no idea where that one led, but she was looking forward to finding out.

*   *   *

Nanci took her time climbing the Bright Angel Trail, moving along at a slow but steady trudge that eventually ate up the miles. She stopped briefly several times, to sip at her canteen, to eat a candy bar, to rest her legs, and to take in the view. In two summers in the Grand Canyon she’d seen a lot of it, but mostly from river level, so to see it from here seemed strange and glorious. There was much more to the Canyon than the river, after all.

It was getting late in the afternoon when she finally reached the trailhead, in the tourist area near the El Tovar Hotel. Not far from the trailhead there was a gift shop, run by Michelle’s parents, Pat and Rachel, who had both been boatmen years and years before – Rachel had been, in fact, the second woman boatman ever hired by Canyon Tours, and one of the first on the river at all.

The gift shop was also sort of the unofficial pickup and drop-off point for Canyon Tours boatmen doing a half-trip hike. Nanci didn’t know Pat and Rachel well, but she’d met them. The plan had been for Karin to leave her car behind the gift shop so Nanci could drive it back to Flagstaff, but she knew to step into the gift shop briefly to call Al and let him know that she’d made it up the trail all right. That took a few minutes, and talking with Pat and Rachel about Michelle and Duane took up a few more, but soon Nanci tossed the backpack into the passenger seat of the car, and started the drive back to Flagstaff.

She got back well before dark, but after the office was closed, so she went straight to Al’s house, a low ranch style, located in a nice grove of Ponderosa pine not far from the Canyon Tours office. Although Nanci had lived there less than ten months, it was home to her now in a way that her old home in Chicago had never really been. The reappearance of her father not withstanding, in many ways Al had been a better father to her in that time than Pete had ever been.

Al was in the kitchen working on dinner when she walked in the door. “So how did it go?” he asked.

“Just fine,” she told him. “The trip was very smooth, and it was especially nice now that the heat has backed off. It was a good group of customers, too.”

“How was the hike up the Bright Angel? I was a little worried about you doing that.”

“Slow, but I wanted to take it slow so that everything would go just fine there, too. There are some great views from some spots there. I spent about half an hour at Indian Gardens, just resting and taking it in.”

“I’ve always enjoyed it, too,” he smiled. “I’ve never been able to hike as much as I would have liked to because of my bum leg, but the Canyon never fails to amaze me. Did you eat dinner on the way back?”

“No, I came right here. I had lunch with the crew, and a couple of candy bars on the way up.”

“I’m making some enchiladas,” he said. “There’d be plenty for you if you want to join me.”

“Talked me into it, Al.”

In a few minutes they were sitting down at the kitchen table. “So,” Al asked, “are you ready for Monday?”

“I think about as ready as I’ll ever be,” she told him. “I guess I’ll more or less be moving down there permanently, at least for a while. Oh, I guess I’ll be staying with you over holidays and when I’m off the river next summer, but in a big way it seems like I’m leaving home all over again.”

“Yeah, it does to me, too,” he admitted. “Nanci, Louise and I never had kids, you know that. Karin came back into my life very unexpectedly, and of course brought you kids along with her. It was all pretty much Louise and me, and then it was your mom and me. Then, when you moved in last year it almost seemed like the house was complete. I know you’ve only been here, what, ten months? I’ll tell you what, I’m getting a real serious dose of what people talk about being empty nesters. I sure never thought I’d ever feel that.”

“Al, I appreciate that. You’ve done so much for me it’s not funny, just by being you. I really appreciate the trust you put in me, and I appreciate the faith you put in me by making me a boatman last spring.”

“I’m glad you feel that way, Nanci. I don’t know that I would have made you a boatman if there had been any other way last spring, but as far as I can see it worked out even better than I could have dreamed. I would have liked to spend some time on the river with you this summer, but with all the other hassles this season there just wasn’t time to do it.”

*   *   *

After a summer on the river, Nanci still got up early enough that the birds were asleep. She was up and running well before sunup, with coffee brewing in a coffeemaker in the kitchen, rather than in a big Graniteware pot over a noisy propane burner. She’d done her laundry and taken a shower the night before, but now she pulled on her river clothes one last time and started to carry her things out to the Camry.

It didn’t take long, and by the time she was finished she could see that Al was stirring; after his many years on the river he was an early riser, too. He was scratching and yawning as he pulled himself together. “Wow, you’re up already?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah,” she grinned. “I learned it from you, or at least from the people you’ve taught over the years. Back when I was a kid I never liked to get up much before noon, but then, given a choice I’d be going to bed at this hour, not getting up. I was just getting started on breakfast. Bacon, eggs, and hash browns all right?”

“Sounds fine to me, Nanci. I thought I’d help you get loaded after that.”

“Pretty much all done,” she laughed. “I’ll have one more armload after I change clothes for church, but that won’t be a big one.”

“Wow, you must not have much stuff, even with all you and Karin bought last weekend.”

“No, I don’t,” she replied slowly. “You know, when Kip and I moved me out of my house back east, we came pretty close to filling his car. Well, I lost most of that stuff, or gave it away, or it disappeared over the next few years to the point when I left Curt’s I only had a couple of shopping bags of stuff. They weren’t even full, and the clothes were pretty much junk, anyway. While I don’t like many of the things I learned in those years, I learned that I can get along with a lot less in the way of possessions than I ever believed I could.”

She paused for a moment, and then went on, a little more brightly. “Then, the last two summers, I managed to get along on even less. That was a good lesson for me, Al. It taught me that possessions aren’t the important things in life. People are important, spiritual things are important. That was a big lesson to learn.”

“I think you’ve learned it well,” he said as she poured him a cup of coffee – household strength, not river strength. “You know, I never saw much of the old you, except for the first few days on the river that time, and you were starting to come out of it by then. But you know, I think I’m just as glad, because I like the new you a whole lot better than I think I would have liked the old one. Nanci, Crystal is my daughter and she’s pretty much like I figured a daughter of mine would come out when I thought I’d never have one. But you . . . well, there are a lot of ways in which you outshine Crystal, and I’ve come to enjoy the difference. I’m glad you came into my life, Nanci, even though I only got to enjoy it for a short time.”

“I’m glad you were in my life, too, Al. What’s more, I’m so very glad you took a chance on me back then. I don’t know how I could ever repay you for the faith you had in me, for the lessons you taught me, and the lessons you allowed me to learn. Al, by doing that you not only literally saved my life but changed it in more ways than I can ever say. Thank you, Al. There can never be thanks enough, but thank you.”

A couple of hours later, both Nanci and Al changed clothes to go to church. Al wasn’t a real regular attendee at church, at least partly because of trips loading out on Sundays, but this time he decided to go with her.

Nanci was a little sad when she walked into church that morning. This had been her church ever since coming to Flagstaff; she knew these people, and they had taken her in without regard for who she was or what she had been. She had become part of the fellowship here, and although she planned on returning when she could, she knew it would most likely be spotty in the future.

The service went about like normal; the readings, the lackluster hymns. But when it came time for the announcements, Reverend Miller surprised her. “I have one special announcement this morning. Most of you know that Nanci Chladek became a member here only a few short weeks ago, and now she’s leaving us to pursue pre-seminary studies at Black Mesa College. I will admit that we haven’t seen much of her, mostly because she’s a boatman on the Colorado River two Sundays out of three, but many of us have been impressed by her faith on the third Sundays. Nanci, come up here, please.”

A little surprised at being singled out, Nanci got up from the pew and went up to the pulpit; Reverend Miller came out to meet her, with a book in his hand. “Considering what Nanci is going to be studying, I thought we ought to send her off with a token of our good wishes for successful studies so that she can learn to serve Jesus even better. There’s a lot in this book, and I think that you will find it useful.”

He handed her the book: it was a copy of the 2002 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. It wasn’t a real big book, but expensive, and filled with a lot of small print, most of which, she knew, could be her road map to her future. “Thank you, Reverend Miller,” she said. “I’ll do my best to make it worth your effort. And thank you to everyone in my brotherhood of Christ in this church, as well.”

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To be continued . . .

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