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

Chapter 34
Friday, June 11, 2004

Nanci had been over the road from Diamond Creek back to Flagstaff many times, and like many of the boatmen she’d learned to sleep, if a little poorly, on the old Canyon Tours bus. Like any school bus, it rode rough and was noisy, so it took being pretty tired to be able to sleep, but after getting up early and staying up late for so long, three hours to pass out was a welcome gift.

The extra sleep was going to be welcome this weekend. They were coming off a short fourteen-day trip, the first one of two the White Team would be running this summer, and only the second one they’d ever run – the first happened to be Nanci’s first trip on the river four years before.

The fourteen-day trips were a little different, mostly because they had to run a little farther each day, but so little more it was scarcely noticeable, only about three miles per day farther than the longer trips. What could be seen, though, was that the familiar progression of campsites changed. They had to stop at some they’d only floated by before, and give some favorite ones a pass. As day flowed into day, however, no one really noticed. Nanci knew that it was still much more relaxing, with more time to take in the sights and feel of the Canyon, than it had been from a motor rig.

The down side to the fourteen-day trips was that the crew got off the water on Friday, rather than Thursday like they were used to – and they still had to be back on the water for their next trip on Monday. What with the need to buy food and load out, it didn’t make for much of a break. It was mostly a chance to have a meal or two at a table; for most boatmen, it would preferably be at the Burro where the coin laundry next door could be working on their clothes at the same time.

Having a few beers while she got her clothes washed and dried wasn’t an issue for Nanci, of course; she could skip the beer and do her laundry at Al’s, where she stayed when she was off the river.

What made the short weekends even more of a hassle was the fact that there would also be another team in the office at the same time, although for only a day. The other team, this time the Gold Team, would be heading up to Lee’s Ferry the next day, so even more potential for confusion existed. It was something else they were going to have to get used to, because Al had told them that the way the schedule looked now they were going to have it that way even more the next year. At least there would be a short chance to talk with the other crew for news of what was happening with them.

So, though she relished the chance to spend at least a few hours in a bed and have clean clothes, Nanci wasn’t exactly looking forward to the madness of the next couple of days, and neither was the rest of the White Team, except for Preach. Not only would he have a chance to see Crystal again, she’d be with them the next trip, the first of the two Christian trips of the season.

While Preach was pretty much his normal self on the last two trips without Crystal, Nanci could see that he missed his wife. The two had only rarely spent more than a few hours separated since well before they got married, and it was taking some adjustment. When she’d talked with Crystal on the last break, she’d gotten the same impression. Some people found it a little strange that two people with such different personalities could grow so co-dependent on each other; it was something Nanci had never experienced, and could barely comprehend.

The change from the steady drone of the old school bus’s wheels on the Interstate to the start-and-stop drive through town finally brought Nanci to wakefulness; the nap had been good and sorely needed. Within a few more minutes the bus pulled to a stop in the Canyon Tours parking lot. To nobody’s surprise, Crystal was waiting for them as they got off the bus, and since the Gold Team was loading out, it was little more surprising to see Michelle, the Gold Team assistant leader and the company’s senior boatman, waiting with her.

Michelle was something of a legend at Canyon Tours. She had started on the river as a swamper at the age of fifteen after her parents gave Al a severe arm-twisting. She’d proved to be superb at it, and developed a nearly magical touch at the oars well before she was old enough for the insurance company to allow her to take a raft on her own. The story was that her birthday came on the second day of a trip, the day after she graduated from high school. Al had ridden along, and when they stopped at Badger for the night, he’d turned Michelle over his knee for the ritual spanking, pronounced her a boatman, and hiked out up Badger Canyon to prove it.

That had been over ten years before, and she’d made a lot of trips in that time – her total was now second only to Al himself. She planned on catching up with him, although she realized she still had a ways to go. For many years she had steadfastly resisted being a trip leader, at least partly because she looked a lot younger than she was. The only reason she agreed to be an assistant trip leader now was that her boyfriend Duane was the trip leader.

As the White Team filed off the bus, Crystal had them gather around. “I’ve got some good news for you,” she said as soon as everyone was off the bus. “You’re going to have a little more time off than you expected. You’re not going to have to do groceries, since they’ve mostly been done already. What hasn’t been done will be done and packed tomorrow, so Sunday all you’re going to have to do is load up. You’re still going to have to clean gear and stuff tonight, but we’ve got a couple of wannabe swampers here to help, so maybe that will help.”

“Crystal,” Preach asked, “what brought this on?”

“After the screwups on the last couple of double turnarounds, Michelle and I had a little heart-to-heart with Dad,” she replied. “It’s not fair to the crews to have to do all the normal stuff on a short weekend, and there are a couple other reasons. We sold it to Dad at least partly because we can get better grocery prices by buying in bulk from food service distributors and getting volume discounts. This is kind of a tryout, but unless it turns out to be a complete bust early-on for some reason, we’re going to be doing it this way at least the rest of the summer. Keeping everything straight topside is going to be a hassle, especially with me being on and off the river, so that’s why Michelle is going to be the turnaround supervisor for the rest of the summer.”

“Turnaround supervisor?” Kevin replied with real surprise. “You’re not going to be on the river, Michelle?”

“No,” she sighed. “Not this summer, anyway. I’m pregnant.”

Now that’s a surprise, Nanci thought. But then she remembered Al saying that with four husband-wife leader teams of that general age – counting Michelle and Duane as married, which they hadn’t gotten around to yet – it was bound to happen sometime. Now, here it was. “Is that going to keep you from being on the river?”

“I didn’t think it would,” she replied. “But I had a talk with my doctor, and he sent me to a specialist. The upshot of it is that I have a better than normal chance of having a miscarriage, and that’s something we wouldn’t want to have happen on the river. So here I am. I’m going to be here to get set up for turnarounds and keep things moving, and then I’ll be with my folks out at Grand Canyon Village the rest of the time.”

“What Michelle wouldn’t tell you,” Crystal added, “is that the doctor said she’s not supposed to lift over ten pounds, so if you see her trying to move something heavy, yell at her or whack her with something.”

There was laughter in response to that; Michelle was known as being one of the hardest workers around the place, and one of the stronger ones; Nanci remembered one time when Michelle had hiked down from the rim wearing a backpack weighing over a hundred pounds.

“There’s one more thing,” Crystal went on, “and you’re going to have to be the ones to buy off on it since it will involve your cooperation. Since we’re trying to maximize the time off for the crews, when we launched the Blue Team last weekend, we decided to try leaving here real early on Monday morning, rather than going up and rigging on Sunday afternoon.”

“You’re kidding!” Kevin said. “I’ve thought for years that going up on Sunday was a waste of time.”

“No, I’m not kidding,” Crystal went on. “It worked out all right last weekend, although we’re going to have to be sure you leave here with everything you need since there won’t be any coming back to get something that gets left behind. There also will be the ramp-space issue up there, but thinking about the last couple of years, most of the time it wouldn’t have been a problem.”

Needless to say, everyone was pleased about that – it essentially meant that they would get most of an extra day off, at the expense of having to be in the office somewhere before their normal getting up time on the river in order to make the schedule. That meant no more lazy breakfasts while they waited for the customer bus to get in, but Crystal said that Al had promised to have coffee and a box of doughnuts for the crew when they showed up early on Monday morning. “We thought about getting carry-out breakfasts for you,” she added, “but not even the drive-through fast food places are open at that hour.”

The usual cleaning and swapping gear went a little better than expected, what with the help of a couple of high school kids who were on the list to have tryout trips as swampers, the usual first step for kids to become boatmen at Canyon Tours. Of course, they had to be told just about everything to do, but still Mark was glad to see them since he was able to shuffle off cleaning the rocket boxes onto them. As they worked they could see that a room in the barn out behind the office had been converted into food storage; there were boxes of food sitting around, and Dan was building shelves for storing it.

Eventually they got done with their work, and they could take off for the evening. With the new arrangement, there was no need to come into the office on Saturday like usual, which was a relief all the way around. “Preach, Nanci, let’s go get some dinner,” Crystal suggested. “The Burro will probably be pretty full at this hour, so let’s go to one of the restaurants out by the interchange.”

“Fine with me,” Preach replied. “Somehow I’m not in the mood for a Burroburger tonight.”

“Me, either,” Nanci agreed.

A few minutes later they were sitting in the restaurant at a table, a slightly strange experience after sitting on rocks to eat for the last two weeks – it always seemed like a real luxury when they came off the river.

“That was really a huge surprise about Michelle,” Preach said after the waitress had left them menus.

“If you think it’s a surprise,” Crystal smirked, “think about her. From what I heard she was barfing all the way down the river but didn’t think much about it. But she was supposed to stay topside because of the leadership training deal, and I guess Duane leaned on her pretty hard to go see a doctor. Well, Al did, too. And then, guess what? She wound up riding a mule down to Bright Angel to tell Duane about it.”

“I’ll bet she doesn’t like being off the river,” Nanci observed.

“Not one bit,” Crystal shook her head. “In fact, she was pretty down about it. Don’t say I said so, but that was what pushed Dad over the top about changing the turnaround to this new system. It’s kind of like Dan, only more so. Michelle is the longest-time Canyon Tours employee after Jeff, and she’s put an awful lot into the place, so Dad felt he owed her. That meant we had to find a place for her. I’ve been trying to sell the idea to him for years that the crews shouldn’t be doing most of the turnaround stuff, since they have an awful lot to do on their breaks, and not much time to themselves. He never really bought off on it until he realized we had to find a place for Michelle to transition away from being a boatman.”

“It’s got to be hard for her,” Preach nodded. “I know that when she had to stay topside to run the office for a while, and it just about drove her nuts.”

“No fooling,” Crystal said. “She would come up with just about any excuse to get out on the river. I mean, if you think I’m anxious to get out in a raft again, it’s ten times worse for her. At least this way she can think of herself as a boatman, or at least the boatmen’s representative topside for a while. Dad and I are hoping it eases the transition for her.”

“It might help for now,” Preach agreed, “but it’s still going to be hard for her.”

“No fooling,” Crystal agreed. “I don’t think she really understands yet that this is going to change things for her a lot more than she wants it to. I don’t think she realizes all the way that she may not get much time on the river again for a long time. She’s not going to be able to leave a kid behind all summer while she goes out and gets her jollies in a raft.”

“No, she probably won’t,” Nanci agreed. “I mean, I see how much effort Tanisha and Jon have to put in with Barbie and Billy, and that’s with the day care center where they work taking up a lot of the load and me helping out where I can.”

“Her parents will probably be willing to help out some,” Crystal nodded, “but they work that gift shop of theirs out in Grand Canyon Village twelve hours a day, seven days a week, and that means they can’t be that much help.” She gave a long sigh, shook her head, and went on, “In fact, I look at her and realize that she’s going to be showing me the way. I’m going to have to go through the same stuff she is all too soon.”

Nanci raised her eyebrows. “Crystal, not you too?”

“Not yet, but it’s probably not going to be much longer,” her sister replied, catching Nanci’s meaning exactly. “Sometime in the next couple of years, probably, and then I’ll be in the same boat. I’ll tell you what, while Michelle knows she’s not going to be able to run this year, she has hopes of running next year. The heck of it is, she won’t be able to get away enough to be a regular boatman. It’ll probably be just the odd fill-in during the spring and fall, and it could be half trips at that, sort of like Mom. It’s already starting for me, and it’s just going to get worse when we start having kids. In fact, if she doesn’t come back next year at all, I will probably be the turnaround supervisor on top of everything else, but at least she’ll have the system established.”

“We knew you being off the river most of the time was going to happen,” Preach observed. “But seeing Michelle, it makes things seem a lot more real.”

“I’ve got a pot load of that,” Crystal agreed. “I’ve been seeing her a lot since this happened, and I feel it every step of the way. Which makes me think of something we’re going to have to think about real hard on the next trip, Preach.”

“What’s that?”

“Having Michelle off the list of boatmen has really tightened things up. We’re OK for the next trip since I’ll be going, but the trip after that I’m really going to have to be back topside again because of some other stuff coming up and we’re not sure how we’re going to fill the seat. What would you think of giving Mark a raft of his own?”

“Wow, good question,” Preach said, obviously thinking hard about it. “I hadn’t really considered that, since I figured he was going to be a swamper for the rest of the season. He’s coming along pretty good, though. I suppose if push came to shove we could put him in a gear boat.”

“That’s what I was thinking,” Crystal replied. “But you’ve seen him the last couple of trips, and I haven’t.”

“We don’t have to make a decision now, do we?”

“No, not now, but we should be leaning that direction. If we don’t put him a gear boat we may have to have Mom fill in, and I really don’t want to have her down there in all that heat.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right on that,” Preach agreed. “It would be hard on her. She loves doing it, but I can tell it’s harder on her at her age than she is willing to admit. All right, let’s get him at the sticks most of the way on the next trip, especially the hard stuff. We’ll figure on him taking a gear boat the next trip unless we see something we’re really concerned about.”

“Sounds reasonable to me, and I’ll let Dad know that’s what we’re thinking. If that works out, I guess he’ll be on the sticks the rest of the summer, so I’ll see if I can come up with an extra swamper, maybe one of the tryouts.”

“I’m sure he’ll be glad to have someone else cleaning the rocket boxes,” Preach grinned. “But then, it’ll be good to be able to use a flush toilet again, even if it’s only for a couple of days.”

“I have to agree that I appreciate it as well,” Crystal snickered. “You know, that’s one thing we need to think about when we’re looking for a house.”

“Yeah, a flush toilet ought to be a given,” Nanci laughed.

“I wasn’t thinking about that,” Crystal shook her head. “I was thinking about a nice big water heater so I could have a decent shower when I get off the river, not that I’m going to be able to spend much more time on it. That little thing at the Girls’ House gets more and more irritating every time I try to use it.”

“It’s definitely something that needs to go on the list,” Preach agreed.

“I keep thinking more and more about getting a house,” Crystal sighed. “I guess living in the Girls’ House is all right for now, but I keep thinking it’s more of a crash pad than it is a home, and it’s starting to get to me.”

“It’s worked well for us up until now,” Preach replied. “But you’re right, a home of our own sounds increasingly appealing. I mean, a place that can be our place, not a crash pad. I almost hate to say it, but maybe we ought to think about dumping the idea of doing a big trip next winter and think about getting a house instead.”

“Yeah, I keep thinking that, too,” Crystal admitted. “I would still like to do a big trip, but I’m starting to have my doubts. I really haven’t done much about setting anything up. Maybe it’s because I’m not quite that thrilled about doing the Tasmanian trip. I would still rather go to Patagonia, but I think it’s a little beyond our reach for next winter, considering the cost and everything else.”

“We’ve talked about that before,” Preach said. “Given enough free time, it would be the more preferable to me, too, but the obstacles to doing it are bigger. That’s why we decided to give it a pass, after all. I mean, I think the idea of paddling to Cape Horn would be a trip of a lifetime and then some, but I honestly wonder if we’re up for it. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been in a sea kayak, and that trip strikes me as a little extreme for that level of experience.”

“It’s not a heck of a lot better going to Tasmania,” Crystal agreed. “From what I can find out the western side is pretty hairy, too. At least it’s a bit warmer.”

“How long before we have to make up our minds?”

“We’ve got some time yet, but not a lot of it. I think we need to have it pretty well set up by the time we wrap it up for the winter, and realistically, before we get into the fall trips since I’ll be back on the river then and won’t be able to do much about it.”

“I know we both want to do a big trip,” Preach suggested, “but maybe we’d better give some consideration to giving up the idea. We would still have the option of going somewhere else, somewhere a little more placid. I don’t know how thrilled I would be spending a lot of time with the gang in Costa Rica, but there’s no reason we couldn’t do, oh, two or three weeks in Hawaii instead. It probably wouldn’t cost as much and would be a whole lot less risky.”

“Yeah, that’s a thought, and I agree, I don’t know how crazy I’d be about spending a lot of time in Costa Rica with the gang either. A week would be fine but I’m not up for a month of it anymore. It even gets to be a pain when they’re off the river for a break, since I’m starting to feel like they’re intruding on my space. I mean, I know they’re not, it’s not what the Girls’ House was supposed to be, but the amount of time I’m going to have to spend topside probably means it’s not the best idea to keep on the way we’ve been going very much longer.”

Eventually the waitress came and took their order, and after a while their meal was served. Nanci mostly stayed out of the discussion, since to a great degree it wasn’t her business.

Crystal and Preach kicked around the idea of doing the big trip against the idea of doing a smaller trip and looking for a house most of the time the three of them ate their meals. They didn’t come to any conclusions, but it looked to Nanci like the idea of a big trip was increasingly looking iffy, while the idea of a house was more appealing to them.

It was clear that Crystal’s being off of the river for increasing amounts of time in the future was figuring into the decision. Nanci felt that Crystal thought she’d like to have a place of their own to share with Preach, a place for him to come home to when he was off the river – and a place to raise kids, if and when that time came.

Nanci knew that it was a hard decision for them to reach. Crystal had been planning and doing increasingly ambitious adventures since clear back in high school, and in a way being a Grand Canyon boatman and trip leader was just another one of those adventures. But now that it looked like she was going to become less and less of a boatman as time went on, perhaps she was giving up the idea of pursuing adventure for its own sake.

Eventually they finished their meal; Crystal and Preach dropped Nanci off at Al’s house and headed to the Girls’ House for a little time alone, which Nanci knew they both needed badly. It had seemed like a bit of an intrusion on their lives to have dinner with them this evening, especially considering the decisions they were facing. She was sure that there were going to be some serious decisions to be made on the river during the next trip. They were decisions that were going to seriously affect their lives, and they were going to have to be made soon.

But then, Nanci knew she was facing a big decision of her own. She’d put it off for a couple years now since there had been no rush to make it, but time was running out on that one, too.

After her shower that evening, Nanci retreated to her room in the back of Al’s house, got down on her knees, and prayed for God’s help in the decision Crystal and Preach faced – and for help in making up her own mind about the one she faced.

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To be continued . . .

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