In the Heart of the Canyon
In the Heart of the Canyon is a gripping new novel about a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon that changes the lives of everyone on board.
Peter, twenty-seven and unemployed, embarks on this journey to avoid his family, while Evelyn, a fifty-year-old biology professor, comes in search of a more visceral life. Ruth and Lloyd, veteran white-water rafters in their seventies, know they will never make this trip again. Jill, a stay-at-home mother with her husband and two boys in tow, craves the luxury of relinquishing control and following someone else’s rules. Mitchell and his wife, Lena, are re-creating a historic river journey undertaken years before. Seventeen-year-old Amy Van Doren and her mother set off on this journey expecting little, especially from each other; together they will face the most daunting journey of all, one that has nothing to do with whitewater rapids.
And guiding them all is JT Maroney, who, in his 124 previous trips down the Colorado, thinks he has seen everything. Until now.
In the Heart of the Canyon brings Elisabeth Hyde’s gifts for character and drama to a strikingly beautiful but persistently hostile landscape, where stifling heat and the volatility of the river combine to create treacherous physical and emotional challenges for all. Stunningly set and expertly paced, it is a literary adventure novel from a master of suspense.
Recent praise for In the Heart of the Canyon:
“The incredible journey of three rafts full of thrill-seeking nature lovers and their guides… Hyde is well qualified to guide her readers through this . . . journey. . . . Her prose is vigorous and natural, her perception subtle, her voice and those of her characters all-American.”
The New York Times (Editor’s Choice)
“Hyde’s engaging fifth novel…. [She] has a keen eye for social dynamics, but she’s just as good at keeping the adrenaline pumping. … She expertly evokes the thrill and terror of rapid-running.”
People Magazine (featured selection)
“How much did I love this book? I couldn't resist gulping it down in two sittings, oblivious to my own real life (yeah, sorry about that frozen pizza dinner, honey…but I was busy rafting down the Colorado River). A huge, enthusiastic thumbs-up for this riveting page-turner, which will definitely be high up on my "Best of 2009" list.”
“The reader is swept along with the characters through the strikingly beautiful canyon and the potentially deadly river. Great�scenic description and fully believable characters make this adventure�story well worth the ride.”
“This story is part travelogue and part thriller. It also is an engrossing, evocative study of human behavior, especially under duress … Hyde has crafted a page-turner that is full of suspense and populated with interesting and emotionally appealing characters … In the Heart of the Canyon is a great read for hot summer days and cool nights.”
“An astute, engrossing character-driven affair … The novel succeeds as both a study of strangers striving toward a common goal and as a suspenseful drama filled with angst and humanity. Hyde outshines herself with this wild ride.&rlquo;
“Hyde has concocted a near-perfect blend of humor and drama, heartbreak and redemption …This book’s pacing is sure-footed all the way through.”
“Hyde vividly portrays both the wonders and horrors of white-water rafting.”
“A poignant, first-rate story.”
“There’s nothing predictable about either Hyde’s plot or her searing conclusion.”
Frequently asked questions
What inspired this novel?
I got maytagged! Which is to say, I fell overboard in a big rapid. It was during my first trip down the Colorado, back in 2002. I hadn’t even wanted to go on the trip in the first place, because I have a habit of sinking boats, not to mention the fact that I get very cranky when the temperature rises above 80.
But off we went, and within a few days I was hooked on the Canyon and the river. By the end of the first week I was thinking about running away and becoming a river guide.
And then on Day 9, we hit Deubendorff Rapid at the wrong angle. I was in the back of the paddle boat, digging hard, and then suddenly this giant rooster tail of a wave loomed up, and Ed the paddle guide was shouting “Left turn! LEFT TURN, PADDLERS, LEFT TURN!” in his gravelly captain’s voice, and the boat reared straight up toward the sun and I went back overboard.
Ed grabbed my ankle, and for the briefest of moments he held on. Then – no doubt realizing that my being tethered upside down wasn’t the safest way to swim a rapid -- he let go. Down I went, into this vast universe of cold gray bubbles, getting tumbled and spun around, coming up for air, getting yanked back down and finally – just when I thought I was going to fill my lungs with the coldest river water in the world – the river spat me up into the sunlight; with my lifejacket keeping me above water, I floated, feet first, down toward the boat, which was waiting for me at the bottom of the rapid.
Lord. I should have been scared to death but I wasn’t – in fact I was as exhilarated as I’d ever been in my life. I started writing as soon as I was on land – writing and chattering, recounting the swim for anyone who would listen. That night I read a long breathless poem to the group (a poem I won’t print here, because it’s really, really terrible and goofy).
And all during the ride back to Boulder, Colorado, I kept writing – in my mind, on paper. I was working on The Abortionist’s Daughter at the time, and tried to make one of my characters a river guide. Let’s just say that it didn’t work out, and my husband finally said forget it, just write a whole book about a river trip.
All from a 45 second swim.
How did you research the novel?
After that first trip, I read every book I could find on whitewater rafting and the Colorado River. I subscribed to Boatman’s Quarterly Review, http://www.gcrg.org/bqr.html. I took kayak lessons (never did master that Eskimo roll, sadly) and studied hydraulics and learned about currents, and then I’d go stand on the footbridge that spans Boulder Creek and pretend the creek was a hundred times bigger than it was, and imagined my route down through its mighty rapids.
But most importantly, I pestered the guides, and made it no secret with Arizona Raft Adventures, that I would like to go down the river again, as an assistant – a swamper, in river parlance. And finally, in 2005, the call came through in early September. Five days later I was on a plane to Flagstaff, and for the next 14 days I schlepped bags and cooked on an open stove and set up and dismantled the groover; I learned a teensy bit about rowing, and continued to indulge my fantasy about becoming a river guide.
The guides themselves were so incredibly patient with me. Bill Mobley, Jan Sullivan, Jerry Cox, Jon Harned, and Jessica Cortright – they welcomed my questions and if anything encouraged me not to work quite so hard (I have this New Englandy thing of needing to make myself useful all the time). They let me row some of the more benevolent rapids, and patiently rescued the boat when I got stuck in an eddy at the bottom.
A few of the guides knew I was working on a novel (and they weren’t particularly impressed; book contracts don’t really matter, down on the river), but I didn’t broadcast this fact to the other passengers. Eventually it slipped out, though. One passenger’s reaction: “Oh shit!” And so to all the people on that river trip, I will reiterate the standard disclaimer that all characters in my novel are fictional, and any resemblances to any of them are entirely coincidental.
I haven’t made it to guide school yet. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I known what a magical place the river was, back in my twenties. I was all hung up on getting a career going as an attorney, and I’m not saying I regret it, but there are times in your life where you can really push yourself physically, and my twenties would have been a good time to join the river community.
The story is told from 6 different points of view. Why so many?
First of all, there’s a huge difference between the way the guides perceive things, and the way passengers do. Amongst the passengers themselves, you’ve got every type of personality under the sun, and they all have a different agenda, as well as vastly different takes on each other. These are close quarters, and you’re stuck with each other for those 14 days.
So X thinks Y’s a know-it-all, and Y wishes Z would stop hogging all the avocado at lunch – you get the picture. I wanted to give readers a variety of different impressions, and this was the only way.
Besides, I love writing from different points of view. Of all my novels, only Crazy As Chocolate is written in the first person, and the first person only. My favorite book as an English major was The Sound and The Fury. Another novel that influenced me – especially for this kind of a journey book – was Ship of Fools. All those characters, all those different agendas – the story is almost written for you, as long as you keep your ears open.
What was the hardest part of writing this novel?
The first draft I handed in was 800 pages long. That’s WAY too long, at least for the kind of novel I was trying to write. The problem was that I thought anyone reading the book would naturally want to know every single detail of how things work on a river trip – and so to that end, I included all the menus, the guides’ methods for packing their boats, and a few too many descriptions of the toilet system.
So I was faced with cutting it basically by half. My husband was teaching for a semester at Cardozo Law School in New York City, so I joined him, and holed myself up in our tiny dark apartment and began ruthlessly cutting. It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I used a lot of post-its.
Did you know how the book was going to end, when you began writing it?
No. I knew a certain crisis was going to happen (you’ll probably figure out which one when you read the book), and I knew a lot of the personalities, but apart from that, no. Actually, the problem wasn’t so much how the novel was going to end, but when – i.e., at which point on the river trip. It would have been really easy to keep going – figuratively speaking, all the way to the Baja. Fortunately my agent and editor clued me in on a better stopping point.
Do you really pee in the river?
photo by Scott Reuman
Down in the heart of the canyon, in the bone-baking heat, they put their lives on hold.
Most of the travelers had never experienced anything quite like it. Peter Kramer, whose year mapping the jungles of Central America included a monthlong stay in an unair-conditioned hospital with a fever of 104, found it impossible to suck down more than short little gasps of hot air. Evelyn Burns, professor of biology at Harvard University, spent the first day lecturing everyone about the tolerability of dry heat (105 in Arizona being nothing compared to 90 in Boston), then vomited five minutes into the first windstorm. Dr. and Mrs. Lloyd Frankel, river veterans, lay on their sleeping mats in stunned oblivion to the velvety orange wasps that scurried in blind circles on the hot sand between them. And Amy Van Doren, who unbeknownst to her mother had weighed in at 237 pounds on the hotel spa scale the night before the trip, rigorously shook the bottle of hot sauce over everything on her plate, for she knew that chile peppers made you sweat, which in turn would not only cool her off but enable her to lose a few pounds.
JT, the head guide, had seen it all before. This being his 125th trip down the Colorado River, he’d witnessed time and again the universal zombielike walk of his guests at the end of the day when they staggered up the beach in search of a campsite. He called it the Death Walk and always reminded his fellow guides not to expect much volunteer help in the first few days of any July trip, as guests acclimated to the suffocating conditions of the Grand Canyon. It was simply a matter of physiology: the human body wasn’t designed to go from a comfortable air-conditioned existence to the prehistoric inferno of canyon life in a day. When his heat-stomped campers marveled at his energy, he kept at what he was doing and raised an eyebrow and said, “You’ll adjust.”
JT was a man of few words.
At night it was so hot you slept without a blanket, or even a sheet, for well past midnight the winds continued to fan the heat off the sun-baked canyon walls. In early morning, as people shook out their clothes for scorpions, the air could feel temperate, and they might be fine in just a bathing suit; but as soon as the sun’s rays came barreling over the canyon walls, out came the long-sleeved cotton shirts, which got repeatedly dunked in the river, wrung out, and worn, soaked to chill, until sundown.
During the midday furnace, when even the guides crawled into whatever shade they could find and collectively dreamt of that first brisk morning in October when you could see your breath, JT himself would confront the heat head-on. Alone in his raft, he would kneel against the side tubes with his arms draped over the edge, staring in a kind of rapt hypnosis at the sheer walls across the river. Something in the flat midday light, he’d found, caused them to eventually start floating upstream, a mirage of the mind until he blinked, and then they would snap back into place until the next daze sent them floating upstream again. It was a game he played, a game he’d never reveal to anyone lest they think him soft, or spiritual, or just plain wacky.
But in fact he was all three. JT Maroney’s heart was in those walls, and had been since his first trip thirty-five years ago when someone handed him a life jacket and a paddle and said, “Are you coming or not?” It was in the polished maroon cliffs of Marble Canyon, the dusty tan layers of Coconino sandstone; it was embedded forever in the shimmering black walls of the Inner Gorge, Land of the Giants. It was in the scorpions and the velvet wasps and the stinging red ants that sent you running for a vial of ammonia; it was in the feathery tamarisk trees and the canyon wrens’ falling notes and the grumpy blackwinged California condor he spotted without fail as they passed under Navajo Bridge the first day of every trip. It was in the tug of water around his ankle as he splashed about, rigging his boat; it was in the sunlit droplets that danced above the roar of big water.
Each trip changed him a little. This trip would change him a lot. It would change everyone, in ways no one could have anticipated.
But on the Fourth of July, at the beginning of JT’s 125th trip, it wasn’t about change. It was about drinking beer and eating pie and dreaming up new ways to fly the Stars and Stripes over the grandest river in the West.
Up at Lee’s Ferry, the night before the trip, JT sat on the side tube of his eighteen-foot neoprene raft, popped open a beer, and tried to remember exactly how many times he’d flipped his raft in Hermit.
Deep in the Inner Gorge, ninety-five miles downstream, the runoff boulders from Hermit Creek collided with the Colorado River to create one of the longest hydraulic roller coasters in the canyon, wave after wave of foaming madness that could buckle a raft in seconds. The fifth wave, in particular, had a tendency to curl back upon itself, something that could easily flip a boat. JT’s goal was always to punch straight on through, aiming for just enough of a wild ride to give his passengers a thrill without actually flipping. Trouble was, sometimes the ride got ahead of itself, and JT hit that fifth wave with maybe too much weight in the back, and suddenly there they were, rising up, hovering in midair with water roaring all around and JT heaving his weight into the oars even as he felt them go back and over: down into the churning froth, getting maytagged and then popping up into the light, always disoriented until he spotted the white underside of his raft, which was usually right there beside him. And so it was, more than just a few times in his life as a guide, and although there were always a few who subsequently wanted off, now, what made it all worthwhile was seeing the expressions on the others’ faces as he hauled them up onto the upturned belly of his raft—expressions of shock, adrenaline, joy, fear, joy, excitement, and did he mention joy? Because that’s what it was, usually: the sheer exultation of surviving a swim in one of the most powerful rivers on earth.
JT tallied up the times he’d flipped. Five in all, if his memory served him well.
Draining his beer, he tossed the empty can onto a tarp on the beach and reached into the mesh drag bag for another. The sun was still high in the sky, the water a deep turtle green, achy cold if you left your foot in for more than a few seconds. Across the river, tan hills sloped up from the water’s edge, speckled with piñon and sage and juniper; downstream, salmon pink cliffs marked the beginning of Marble Canyon.
JT was the lead boatman for this trip, the official Trip Leader, and as such he was the one who made all the important day-to-day decisions: where to stop for lunch, which hikes to take, whether they’d schedule a layover day. If there was a problem passenger, JT was responsible for reigning him in; if someone got hurt, JT decided whether to evacuate. JT figured he was good for two trips per season as lead boatman; you got paid a little more, but you never really slept.
Up on the beach, Dixie and Abo, his fellow guides, worked together stuffing tents one by one into a large rubberized bag. JT was tired and hungry and wished briefly that they were cooking him a good dinner instead. After a long morning spent loading up the truck back at the warehouse in Flagstaff, they’d driven the three hours to Lee’s Ferry, where they worked the entire afternoon rigging their boats in the hot desert sun. The beach at Lee’s Ferry was the only put-in point on the river, so it was crowded with people and boats: two fat motorized rafts, a dozen or so durable eighteen-footers, and a flotilla of colorful kayaks. The beach was littered with so much gear—dinged-up ammunition boxes, waterproof bags, paddles, oars, life jackets, water jugs—that it resembled a paddlers’ flea market. Yet despite the mayhem, everybody seemed to know what was what and whose was whose, and JT knew that by ten o’ clock tomorrow, all this gear would be stowed in its rightful place on the boats.
High in the sky, a turkey vulture slowly circled, its white-tipped wings spread wide. The people on the motor rig had set up lawn chairs and opened umbrellas for shade, but nobody was sitting down; there was too much work to be done, although they did it with a beer in hand. Up on the beach, Abo, his paddle captain, was now mending a book with duct tape, while Dixie, who would be rowing their third boat, was starting to assemble their picnic dinner. She wore a yellow bathing suit top and a blue sarong knotted low on her hips; wet braids curled at her shoulders.
“How come there are only five sandwiches?” she asked.
“Four for me, one for you and JT to split,” said Abo.
“Well, someone’s going hungry,” said Dixie, “and it isn’t going to be me.”
JT smiled to himself. He was glad to have these two for his crew. Abo, who could always be counted on to loosen up a group, was thirtyfive, tall and bony-legged, with bleachy-tipped brown hair and clear blue eyes. Nobody knew his real name. He was a farm boy from the Midwest who’d come out to study geology at the University of Arizona, then took a river trip and never went back to school. During the winter, he built houses and scavenged work up at the ski area. Reputedly, he had a son by a woman in California, a movie producer whom Abo had met on an earlier trip. He was a good guide, in JT’s view; not only did he make people laugh, but as an amateur geologist he knew the pastry layers of the canyon better than anyone.
Dixie, whose real name was just that, Dixie Ann Gillis, was twentyseven. She was relatively new with the company, and he’d only done one other trip with her, but he’d been impressed when he watched her rescue a private boater from the Rock Garden below Crystal Rapid. She had strong opinions about a lot of things, and JT liked that about her. If you caught him with his guard down, JT might admit that he was half in love with Dixie, but she had a boyfriend down in Tucson whose picture she kept taped to the inside of her personal ammo box, and JT wasn’t one to mess with somebody else’s good thing. Besides, after 124 trips, JT knew how things worked in the canyon, knew you could fall in love at the drop of a hat, literally, before you even got through Marble Canyon. It was a guide’s life to fall in love, he knew; he’d done his share, but if there was one thing he understood these days, it was to stand back and not get caught up in things, trip after trip after trip.
JT unlatched the ammo box by his feet and took out the passenger list and scanned the names and notes. They were supposed to have fourteen passengers on the trip, but at the last minute one couple had canceled, which meant he was going to have to juggle the seating arrangements to balance out the boats. There were two vegetarians, three “no dairy,” one “high craving for red meat.” Most had no rafting experience, which didn’t surprise him; but one couldn’t swim, which did. There were two kids, which pleased him; kids usually brought a goofy spirit absent in adults, who too easily fell victim to excessive reverence for natural wonders. He made a mental note to assign the boys a job—can-smasher, maybe—so they could feel useful and independent from their parents.
He continued scanning. There was a couple from Wyoming, named Mitchell and Lena; Lena, he noted, was allergic to peanuts, furry animals, grasses, and pollen. Well, hopefully she was bringing along a box of Benadryl and an EpiPen or two. There was a mother and daughter, Susan and Amy. The one who couldn’t swim was a young man from Ohio named Peter, age twenty-seven, traveling solo.
Noting Peter’s age, JT glanced up at Dixie, who was reknotting her sarong. Don’t even think of it, he heard himself telling Peter. Don’t even try.
That evening, as the sky grew dark, boaters from all the groups gathered together and passed around a bottle of whiskey, sharing old stories, inventing new ones. Around nine thirty, JT, who’d passed on the second round, returned to his raft. He brushed his teeth, then unrolled his sleeping bag across the long, flat meat cooler that spanned the center of his boat. Even though it was dark, the day’s heat continued to radiate off the canyon walls. JT strapped on his headlamp and sat down and carefully and methodically dried off his feet. He rubbed them well with bee balm, then pulled on a pair of clean socks to keep his skin from cracking. Finally he stretched out on top of his sleeping bag. He settled back and locked his hands behind his head and gazed up at the spattered current of stars above. A warm breeze fanned his skin, and he picked out constellations: the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, the busy little Pleiades.
Up on the beach, a burst of laughter erupted from the revelers, but by now his eyes had begun to twitch and blur. He fought to keep them open, to watch just a little bit more of the star show, but within minutes he was fast asleep.
I’m writing in the bathroom of our hotel room because Mom is out there with everything laid out on the two double beds, FREAKING OUT that she might forget something. Tonight we had our orientation meeting. Mom and I were late and we walked into the room and everybody stared at me. Must have been my FAT CLUB T-shirt. Please please please don’t make me go on this trip. There is nobody my age and all I’ll do is eat. And it’s going to be hotter than shit and I’ll probably sink the boats.
Maybe if I throw myself out the window, she won’t make me go.
We’re supposed to get up at 5:30 tomorrow morning and the bus leaves at 6:30. I do not know what I am going to do with my mother hanging over my shoulder for two weeks. Why did she have to bring me along? I could have stayed home alone. Oh no Amy, I want some time with you, you’re going off to college in another year. Oh no Amy, I wouldn’t feel right. Oh no Amy, a serial killer might be able to figure out the twenty-two locks on our front door.
I think I’ve got food poisoning.
River Miles 0–16
Lee’s Ferry to House Rock
The next morning JT woke up floating, as he did on every river trip. Fourth of July. Launch day. The air was temperate, the sky a dark peacock blue. JT estimated it was about five o’clock. At some point during the night, he’d drawn up his sheet. Quietly now, he sat up and pulled on a T-shirt, climbed over his gear, and hopped out onto the beach. He lit the stove and started a pot of water boiling, and when it was ready he dumped a baggie of ground coffee directly into the water and gave it a stir. How good it smelled, this bare-bones coffee in the canyon!
By now Abo and Dixie were sitting up, yawning, fumbling for clothes. When the grounds had settled, JT filled three plastic mugs and brought them down to the water’s edge.
“Happy Fourth,” he murmured.
Abo took his cup without a word and closed his eyes and blew on it.
“Thank you thank you thank you,” said Dixie as he handed it to her.
Her voice was soft, full of a sweetness and uncharacteristic fragility he tried to disdain but couldn’t. “How’d you sleep, JT?”
They sat very still and very quietly, taking in the shadowy blue-gray water, the silhouetted walls. A canyon wren called its plaintive cry, a long series of descending notes. A slight breeze lifted the hairs on his arms.
“I am so so glad,” Abo finally said, his voice deep and gravelly with sleep, “that I do not have to be nice to anyone right away.”
“How much of that whiskey did you have last night?” JT asked.
JT left them and went to chat with the kayakers, who were straggling up the beach from their small camp just downstream. They were all related, it seemed: tall lanky brothers, along with their spouses and several children. JT asked them where they planned on camping that night; the key during these crowded summer months was for the different parties to stagger themselves that first night, so they wouldn’t be on top of one another the whole trip.
“Haven’t thought that far ahead,” said one of the brothers. Though he couldn’t have been more than forty, he had a full white beard. His name was Bud, and JT learned that they were all from Vancouver, where the temperature rarely rose above eighty degrees. Here, it was already close to a hundred. They were to be forgiven, he told himself, for not being the most organized group.
“Holler on the river if you need anything,” JT told them.
By seven o’clock, the sun was already up over the low hills to the east, and the motor people were scampering about on the fat tubes of their rig, tightening their gear, and some of the day fishermen had arrived and were messing with their tackle by the side of the river. By eight o’clock, JT and Abo and Dixie had finished breakfast, and for the next several hours, they tightened straps and crammed hatches and rearranged gear so that all boats would be more or less equally loaded. They clipped bail buckets into their boats. The sun grew hot, and their shoulders burned, so they covered up with long-sleeved shirts. They guzzled water from old orange juice jugs.
At ten thirty, JT was lashing an American flag to his rowing seat—it was, after all, the Fourth of July—when he looked up to see an old gray bus rocking its way down the hillside. A cloud of dust roiled up from behind. Dixie squinted.
“Time to rock and roll,” she said. “How’re you coming, Abo?”
Abo, whose sleeping pad held a chaotic jumble of clothing, books, giant squirt guns, and camera equipment, stood in the well of his boat, brushing his teeth in the hot sun. He spat into the water. “I’m almost ready,” he said. “Hey, can either of you fit some of this stuff in your boat?”
“Hell no, babe,” Dixie replied. “You ready, JT?”
JT stood high on his boat and pissed a sparkling arc out into the river and wiggled himself back into his shorts.
“I’m ready,” he said, hopping off the boat onto the sand. “Let’s run this river.”
One by one, the guests staggered off the bus into the hot morning sun. Their clothes were clean, their hats straight, their skin pale and freshly shaved and smelling of sunscreen. Eager not only to be of use but also to make a good first impression on the guides, they swarmed the rear door of the bus, jostling to unload more than their fair share of gear. As best he could, JT matched people with the names on his list: Ruth and Lloyd Frankel, the old couple who’d been down the river more times than he could count; Peter Kramer from Cincinnati, who was doing much of the heavy lifting; the Compson parents, calling their two sons back from the river to help with the bags. The tall man with the flappy nomad hat must be the retiree from Wyoming, which would make the tiny woman with an identical hat his wife. There was the teenage girl, Amy—whoa, she was big—and the trim blond woman talking to her must be her mother.
There would be time for introductions later.
When the bus was empty and all the bags lay strewn about the beach, JT directed them to a heap of orange life jackets, and the three guides went around and checked their fittings, tugging on straps and yanking up shoulders to ensure things were sufficiently tight.
“I can’t breathe,” said the tiny woman.
“Good,” said JT with a chuckle.
Then he called everybody over into the shade of some tamarisk trees for his orientation talk. He introduced himself with the fact that this was his 125th trip down the river. “Kind of a milestone, I guess you’d say,” he said, glancing at the different faces. “But I’m as psyched now as I was on the first trip. I don’t think it’s possible for me to ever get tired of this place.”
As he spoke, a fat yellow bumblebee lazily buzzed its way into the circle, then hovered in front of JT’s face. JT grinned at the bee, and it scooted off.
“And it’s way more than running the rapids,” he said. “It’s about hiking up into side canyons; it’s about condors and mile-high cliffs and wild watercress and—well, you’ll see what I mean.”
He went on to remind them that over the next two weeks, they’d be getting to know each other pretty well. “I like to think of it this way,” he said, hoping to instill good feelings at the outset. “There’s no such thing as a stranger, just people we haven’t met.”
At this, the Compson mother nudged the two boys, who scowled and edged away. JT suspected he might have just reiterated some earlier parental lecture about being open-minded and making new friends; probably the boys had taken one look at all the adults and assumed they were in for two weeks of heavy scolding. Well. Wait until those boys saw how adults could behave, two days into a river trip.
He squatted down and unfolded a well-worn topographical map on the sand. The group moved in closer. Using a stick, JT pointed to the upper-right-hand corner of the map.
“So: We’re here at Lee’s Ferry,” he told them, “and we’ve got two hundred and twenty-five miles between here and the takeout at Diamond Creek. Some days we’ll go ten miles, some days thirty; it’ll all depend on the day. The only thing I ask is that you be flexible. Plans change, depending on a lot of things.”
“I hope we’re going to stop at Havasu,” said the man from Wyoming. “Mitchell Boyer-Brandt,” he added, extending his hand.
“Is Havasu the place with the turquoise water?” the mother asked.
“And vines and ferns and waterfalls,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been waiting to go there since I was ten years old.”
JT did not want to get sidetracked. “Havasu’s beautiful,” he agreed, “although with fifty people on the trail, it can lose a bit of its charm. But I’ll do my best to stop there.” Carefully he folded up the map. “Now: I see you all have a life jacket. Number one safety rule is you have to wear it all the time when you’re on the river. No exceptions. When you get off the boat, clip it to something on the boat or a bush, whatever, so it doesn’t blow away. Know what we call a passenger without a life jacket?”
There were nervous chuckles all around.
“A hiker,” JT said with another grin. “Rule number two: Know where we keep the first aid box and take care of any nicks and scrapes. Wash them well. Put on some ointment. Use a Band-Aid. One little cut can quickly get infected, which definitely can ruin a trip.”
“Are there rapids today?” one of the boys asked.
JT looked at the boy, who was squinting up at him. Then he looked at the boy’s brother. Both light-haired, freshly buzzed. JT wondered if he would be able to tell them apart.
“What’s your name?”
“Put it here, Sam,” said JT, and they slapped palms. “There are most definitely rapids today, and I want to give a little demonstration so everyone knows what to do in case you end up in the water.”
“I sure hope that doesn’t happen!” exclaimed the young man from Cincinnati. “Seeing as I can’t swim.”
“Well, it probably won’t,” said JT. “But in case it does, here’s the routine. You might find yourself underwater for a few seconds, but I guarantee your life jacket will bring you back up. Once you’re up, look around. Chances are you’ll find yourself right beside the boat because the water’s taking you down at the same speed. So grab on. Pull yourself up.”
“What if you don’t come up?” asked Sam.
“You’ll come up,” JT assured him.
“But what if you get sucked into a whirlpool?”
“I’ll come get you myself, kiddo,” he said. “Now, if for some reason you’re not right beside the boat, you may have to swim on through the rest of the rapid. And then what you do is, it’s very simple, see, you put your feet out in front,” and he elevated one foot out in front of him and hopped a little for balance, “and kind of sit back, like this,” and he leaned back from the hips with his arms out to the sides, “and just float on through the rest of the rapid, and we’ll pick you up down below. Very simple. Pay attention. If somebody’s waving at you to swim to the left, swim to the left.”
“What if you’re in a coma, though?” asked Sam.
“Oh, Sam,” his mother sighed.
“But if you’re in a coma, you can’t do very much.”
“Don’t be a dickhead,” said his brother.
“If you’re in a coma, I’ll take good care of you,” JT assured Sam. “All of us guides, we’re very good at taking care of people who are really hurt. But that’s not going to happen. If you fall out of the boat, you’re going to be just fine.”
“But this raises the question,” said Mitchell. “What happens if someone does get hurt?”
“We’ve got a satellite phone,” said JT. “Usually they can get us a helicopter within an hour.”
“And where’s the nearest emergency room?” the mother asked.
“Are there rattlesnakes down here?” asked Matthew, the brother. “Yup. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you.”
“Yup. Shake your clothes out in the morning.”
“How about West Nile?” asked the boys’ father.
JT held up his hands. “Whoa. Let’s be positive, folks. You’re probably more likely to get in a car accident on the way to the grocery store than get bitten by a snake.”
“How hot does it get down here?” This came from a woman who looked to be in her early fifties, with a bowl-shaped haircut and no neck to speak of, what with her shirt buttoned up to her chin.
“And you are?”
“Ain’t gonna lie, Evelyn. It gets pretty darn hot. And this trip’ll be no exception. One fourteen at Phantom yesterday, I heard. But there’s always the river for cooling off. Know what I say about the heat?”
The group waited.
JT raised an eyebrow. “If you’re hot, you’re stupid.”
“What are the water levels running at, if I may ask?” said Mitchell.
“Lows are twelve, thirteen,” said JT. “And for those of you unfamiliar with Bureau of Reclamation measurements, that means twelve thousand cubic feet of water are running past you every second. Highs are eighteen to twenty.”
“Why the variance?” Mark asked, and JT explained that the operators of the Glen Canyon Dam released more water at certain times to satisfy the power demands of Phoenix.
“Kind of like tides,” he said. “Not a big deal.”
“How’s the food?” Peter asked.
“Let me put it this way,” JT said. “This isn’t a weight-loss trip. We’ll feed you well. Speaking of which, I want to get in a few miles before lunch, so let’s get moving.”
He tucked the map into its waterproof sleeve and told the group to make sure their water bottles were full, their hats secured. In response to his directions, the group filed out of the shade into the hot, bright desert sun. Last in the group was the teenage girl. She’d been standing in the back, and he got another look at her and realized she wasn’t just big; she was huge. She was wearing an oversized green T-shirt from Jamba Juice, with gray athletic shorts that hung to the top of vast, dimpled knees. Her dark hair was parted in the middle and pulled back in a low, unflattering ponytail.
She hesitated, and JT noticed that her life jacket didn’t buckle at the bottom.
“Let me adjust that for you,” he said cheerfully.
Shyly she held her arms out and glanced to the side as JT tugged at the straps to free up a few more inches. Still the bottom buckle wouldn’t clip. He checked to make sure the jacket was a size large. It was. He worked at the straps some more, and by squeezing tightly, he finally managed to clip the buckle shut. The girl winced.
“Too tight?” he asked, glancing up.
She wrinkled her nose.
JT frowned. “Well, you really need to have it buckled,” he said.
“Park regs. Put your arms down and let’s see.”
She lowered her arms. As soon as she inhaled, the buckle popped open. Instantly tears filled her eyes.
JT scratched the back of his neck. Regulations were regulations. If anything happened to her, it would be his fault. “What’s your name?”
“Hey, Amy. Some of these life jackets have a little more give to them. We’ll find you another one.” He led her back to the pile, and they picked through the life jackets until they found one that buckled.
Her arms stuck out cartoonishly, like penguin wings.
“I think a lot of it’s just water weight,” she offered. “My mother says it’s from the altitude. My ankles are swollen too.”
JT nodded, though he doubted her diagnosis. “Let’s find you a good spot on one of the boats. Want to ride with me?”
“Okay,” she said timidly.
“Come on, then,” said JT, heading toward the boats. “You like the front or the back?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, in the front, you might get splashed a little more.”
Amy smiled. “Front, then.”
He immediately realized that with her weight, the front of the boat was just where she shouldn’t be. But he wasn’t about to spoil the mood right now.
“Front it is,” he said. “Come on. Mine’s the boat with the flag. Where are you from, Amy? Wisconsin, isn’t it? My gramma grew up in Wisconsin. You want some gum?”
“Thanks,” said Amy.
“Welcome to the ditch,” said JT.
As the bus rocked its way down the gravel road to Lee’s Ferry, Peter Kramer finished off the last of the watermelon he’d swiped from the breakfast buffet that morning. Peter had read in his sister’s Cosmo that watermelon made your sperm taste better. He didn’t know if he was going to get any blow jobs on this trip, but figured a quick adjustment to his own personal sugar levels wouldn’t hurt.
Not that he had many hopes, after meeting his fellow passengers at the orientation session last night. There was a nuclear family with a clean-cut dad and weary-looking mom and two squabbling boys. A boxy, middle-aged woman, obsessing over whether she should bring her rain pants. A geriatric couple glued at the hip. A blowhard cowboy and his midget wife, both carrying large iced-coffee drinks. Last to arrive was a trim, stylish woman whose blunt-cut blond hair and wispy bangs gave her an ethereal Scandinavian look—but she came with her daughter, who was quite possibly the most obese girl Peter had ever seen.
Which had worried him: didn’t they have weight limits, for safety reasons? What kind of an organization was this?
The trip had not been Peter’s idea. Back in Cincinnati, he’d been moping for weeks, complaining to his sister that their mother was going to spend another entire SUMMER asking him to come over and water her PEONIES every other night and he needed a fucking BREAK from that woman. Just because he was out of work and just because Miss Ohio dumped him a year ago didn’t mean he was available to step in as his mother’s gardener.
Finally his sister got sick of listening to him complain, and she booked a last-minute spot with Coconino Explorations. She’d gone on a river trip with them the year before and loved it, and now wanted the whole world to go. Peter reminded her that he couldn’t swim, that he didn’t trust sunscreen, and that he was allergic to organized trips where you had to hold hands every time you crossed the street. Plus, canyons made him claustrophobic. Plus, he was trying to quit smoking.
“Peter. Stop. It’s paid for,” said his sister. “And it’s really, really beautiful, and you’ll come back a changed person, and some big map company will offer you a cushy job.”
And so Peter got on that plane to Phoenix, if only to escape his mother for two weeks. He trusted his sister when she told him that the guides made everyone wear a life jacket, that his chances of falling into the water were slim. He told himself that Miss Ohio would hear about this and realize how adventurous he was and regret her decision to marry someone else. He was even all set to allow that perhaps he’d meet someone hot on the trip—until he walked into the orientation meeting and realized he’d committed himself to two weeks of forced group therapy.
Now Peter stepped off the bus into hundred-degree heat. It didn’t seem very canyonlike. The beach was junky and crowded and noisy. They got a pep talk; he made it through Life Jackets and Gear Loading and River Safety and wondered if the bus driver would take him back to Flagstaff.
But then the Trip Leader introduced the other two guides, and everything changed.
She was wearing a beat-up straw hat and faded red shorts and a tattered pink shirt knotted at the waist that revealed her belly button.
She had two braids that brushed against her shoulders and wore a silver charm on a leather band around her neck. She barely stopped to wave hello, though Peter couldn’t take his eyes off her as she worked on her boat, lugging boxes and crates and yanking straps and coiling ropes; and when she dunked a bandanna in the water and tied it around her neck, he had to blink, to make sure it was real.
Was there any question, any question at all, which boat he was going to choose?
As soon as JT dismissed them, Peter casually wandered down to the shoreline and stood by her boat.
“Need some help?” he finally asked.
“Nope,” she said, flashing a smile, and then she pirouetted from one boat to the other, bending and coiling and knotting and hoisting; what she was doing, Peter couldn’t tell, but it seemed to require a good deal of expertise, and she finally pranced back to her own boat. Peter hadn’t moved.
“Here,” and she tossed him a snarl of rope, “untangle that, if you wouldn’t mind. Hey Abo! Is this your bag? Don’t make me haul your shit!” and Peter, whose mother had time and again asked him to untangle a skein of yarn only to have him scoff at the idea (for he had hoops to sink and weights to lift and a V-8 engine that needed revving), now found himself lovingly coaxing apart the strands of a white nylon rope that, for all the times it had touched Dixie’s hands, had instantly taken on the intimacy of the entire contents of her top bureau drawer. So that when the blowhard cowboy from Wyoming rounded everyone up for a group photo, he found himself smiling self-consciously, knowing she might be watching.