Thursday, October 23, 2008

How I Spent My Summer Vacation: On the River 1

In planning my solo vacation, I did not expect my parents to shuttle me around all of Idaho. But I didn't object when my dad insisted on meeting me in Idaho Falls on Sunday afternoon to drive me to Stanley, nor did I object when he agreed to make a second trip to Idaho at the end of the week to pick me up in Salmon. Well, I objected a little bit. Two back to back weekend road trips to Idaho is a lot of car time. But my dad told me "once you see where you are going, you will understand why I'm so willing to make the drive."

And he was right. Mostly.

The initial part of the drive from Idaho Falls to Stanley was pretty bland. Although I finally saw "the site" where my grandpa worked many years ago. I had heard about "the site" all of my life and never really knew what it was. Still don't really (although I know my dad told me). All I know is it is in the middle of nowhere Idaho and has to do with nuclear energy. . . I think. And it is HUGE. Not that there is anything to see other than a couple of buildings, just a lot of wide open nothingness, with a fence and a couple of signs.


Once we made it past there, the scenery picked up as we entered canyons. Although my bladder continually reminded me that my dad's initial 2 hour estimate of the drive was a bit on the overly-ambitious side. We listened to music and laughed and talked and stopped for junk food (also, for the facilities) at a tiny little gas station. My mom was there too and made sure to pass up fresh beverages and snacks as needed from the back seat she insisted on taking.


And can I just take a moment to explain to you how delicious E.L. Fudge cookies are? Seriously, buttery cookies stuffed with fudge in a delightful elfin shape, what's not to love? I hadn't had them in years so I couldn't resist when I saw them on the shelf in that remote gas station. I was, after all in Idaho where my love of E.L. Fudge cookies was born. Sometime in about 1989/1990, my family was vacationing in Island Park and/or Yellowstone. We were driving somewhere and stopped for snacks and discovered a package of cookies we had never seen before and decided to give them a go. Before I explain the rest of the story, I will add this one caveat: Back in the day, these cookies came in a smaller package than they do now. As the family legend goes, I passed a few cookies around for others to try but before anyone had a chance to ask for more, I had eaten the entire package. My defense? I had been warning them that I was hungry and no one seemed to have taken me seriously. So I ate all the cookies. Oh, to have my metabolism of yore. . . . This roadtrip in Idaho, I refrained and did not eat the whole package. But I did eat more than my fair share, along with some licorice - another road trip staple.


We arrived in Stanley with less than two hours to spare before the orientation meeting with my river group. That should have been plenty of time to check into the motel, eat dinner and wander down the street to the meeting. Turns out, you need a lot more than two hours to eat pizza in Stanley. There were only a couple of other tables occupied in the restaurant and an overabundance of workers. Yet, none of them were in any particular rush to offer menus or take our order. Although we did get two full rounds of water from two separate servers within 60 seconds of each other. After we finally managed to place our orders, it was a long wait for food. We were starving and I kept checking my watch as the time before my meeting quickly shrank. Our garlic bread came early enough that I was able to eat something while working out a plan for meeting my parents after my orientation. My cutoff time was 10 to 8. And that is when the pizza came. I shoved a piping hot piece in my mouth and ate quickly before running out. I took my mom's cell phone because I was already practicing being unplugged for the week and left mine at the motel. I had a little trouble finding the room where the meeting was held which means I arrived late. Way to make a first impression on the group, right? They knew who I was because I was the last one to show up.


I sized up the group and felt a little disheartened by the demographics - teenagers and parents. Older parents and even grandparents. No one remotely near my age. Well, I didn't make this trip to meet anyone, I was doing it to clear my head. Part way through the meeting my mom's phone started beeping to alert me to a text message. I had no idea how to turn her phone on silent and the more attempts I made to silence it, the more noise the phone made [seriously cell phone people, shouldn't the button for "SILENT" mode actually be silent?]. Another good impression.


We were divided into different meeting times for our flights the next morning. Without even trying I was put in the later 8 am time slot. That evening I packed my gear into the dry bags I was given and slept restlessly, anxious about arriving on time.


Early morning in Stanley, Idaho is stunning. Our little motel suite was on the second floor and had decks on both sides. It was quite chilly and out the back we had a view of a meandering creek and out the front a glorious view of the Sawtooth Mountains in that perfect light of early morning sun. We tried to go out to breakfast but worried about a repeat from the night before and opted instead to pick up cereal and milk and eat in our little suite.


My dad has a fascination with planes so not only did they drop me off at the meeting spot, he and my mom also followed us up to the the tiny dirt airstrip at the top of a bluff to watch us take off. I let other people sort out where they would be sitting and waited my turn which meant I didn't get on the first plane. And I'm glad I didn't because the last plane was the smallest and relative to everyone else I was the kid, so I called shotgun. Which was an incredible experience!! Although I was a little startled when we took off and the steering column in front of me jutted toward me. The majority of the photos from the video in my prior post were from the flight.


But if you want to see the photos in all their glory (along with a whole lot more), pull out your own tunes (I highly recommend Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild which was essentially this summer's soundtrack for me) and click on the slideshow below. Then you will have visual to acompany you through the tedious narrative of my vacation because as I wrote in my journal the day of that flight "The flight was stunning. I don't have words to describe what I saw - rolling hills with trickling streams and soaring lodgepole and ponderosa pines - many of which were unfortunately dead in groves, stacked on the mountainside." If it helps, think of me as your obnoxious neighbor who invites you over and forces you to watch vacation slides after dinner. I've never known anyone to do that. But if anyone did, it would probably be me. At least this way you have the choice to skip out on the whole experience. . .


Day 1


The first day on the river was probably the least best day. I say it that way because every single day was amazing but that first day was all about getting oriented, figuring out how to do things, finding routines and getting to know people. Oh, and I was on a boat with 4 teenage girls and a 12-year old boy. Not exactly a relaxing start. The teenagers did not yet know one another so those first hours of paddling were interrupted by lots of questions and giggles while the girls sized one another up. Oh, and two of the girls were from England which meant there was a lot of "how do you say . . . ", "no, how do you say . . . " mixed with comparisons of education systems and pop culture items and phrases. Initially, I forgot I was old and tried to chat with them. Then I realized I must appear ancient to these girls (how did that even happen?). Oh, and somehow defective because there is nothing more horrifying to a teenager than being anywhere alone. How embarrasing for me. Actually, at one point this topic of solitude came up in discussing the sweep boat operator who hauls all our gear ahead of the crew solo. They couldn't imagine anything worse than spending the whole day by yourself. If only . . . but like I said, as far as teenage girls go, it could have been much worse.


A few logistics. There were three boat options: paddling raft, oar boat or kayak (aka "duckies"). The paddling raft is what you would traditionally think of for river rafting - a large inflatable raft with 6 or so people and a guide paddling. I spent most of my time here. The oar boats were similar to the paddling rafts except instead of all the passengers paddling, a guide has a seat in the middle and maneuvers with giant oars. These generally carried gear and one or two passengers who got to just float for the day. The kayaks are self-explanatory - just small, inflatable kayaks. I tried kayaking a couple of times and will share that experience with you in due time. We were allowed to carry in the boats with us our water bottle(s) and our small dry sacks. Although most of the dry sacks were stored in the oar boats except at lunch or when we stopped for a hike.

*************WARNING! This is where I carry on a bit too long about peeing in the river. Proceed with caution!!!****************


Another logistic you may or may not be wondering about . . . bathroom situation. No, there were not any bathrooms. For six days. When we set up camp each night, the guides set up a couple of port-a-potties on the outskirts of camp but they were in the wide open. A wash bucket and toilet paper "key" were placed at the head of a trail leading to the spot. If the toilet paper wasn't at the wash bucket, you waited for it to come back before proceeding. There was a bucket with a toilet seat precariously perched on top for pee (seriously, there were times I would wobble and have a fear I was going to tip over and all the . . . I'll let you finish that thought) and a locking port-a-pottie for everything else - including all paper products. Needless to say, having to switch between seats depending on your business is not an easy thing to get used to. Men have no idea how easy they have it in this department.

Of course, that was only in the evening. During our little toilet orientation before we set forth on the river, we were told to pee in the river and ask a guide if we had to do anything else. I don't know about anyone else in the group but I made sure I never had to ask a guide about any other business all week. It was hard enough to inform a boat full strangers that I needed to stop for a pee. These are not things I generally discuss or announce outside the confines of my family but I am a frequent pee-er. I drink a lot of water. I'm talking a LOT of water. And being back in a hot desert climate, I knew I needed to up my water intake even more so I didn't get dehydrated. I'm pretty sure I drank somewhere around a gallon of water every day of my trip. Yes, a gallon. That's a lot of water. Which lead to a lot of peeing.


I'm no stranger to peeing in the woods. I don't enjoy it, but I don't make a big deal out of it. While I laughed at what a ruckus the teenage girls were making over peeing in the river, I could identify with them. For one thing, all my life I have trained my body not to pee in front of strangers. For another, it is hard to pee in water. There is something unnatural about it. I remember not so long ago being horrified when Michele told me at Lake Powell to just pee in the lake. And finally, most importantly, cold water inhibits the bladder. So I initially tried to only pee when we were stopped somewhere so I could sqaut at the edge of the river behind a bush or boulder and do my business with maybe only my feet in the water. I tried to act all tough and non-chalant about the whole thing like I had no qualms about peeing in a river. But seriously, those first two days were torture. I dreaded having a full bladder. Especially since there wasn't always an entirely private place to squat riverside and there was always the risk of other boats floating by. At the end of my first day on the river I wrote "We have been instructed to pee in the river which initially caused some stage fright. I could not make myself pee! But I'm all good now." Even in a semi-secluded spot, initially, I somehow couldn't function properly.


But I wasn't quite all good yet. I believe it was the afternoon of day two when I thought I might die if I didn't go. It was after lunch and hot. I kept hoping we would stop soon but I was getting desperate. The guide on my boat had mentioned stopping to swim at some point. I waited and waited and waited until I couldn't take the pain. I asked when we might be stopping to swim. I don't know if it was the desperation in my voice or my shaking legs that tipped him off but he asked if I needed a bathroom break. I said yes. And soon, please. He promised it was close.


It wasn't.


We paddled on and on until we finally *FINALLY* reached a large eddy shaded from the hot afternoon sun by the tall canyon wall. I jumped out and tried to relax. But the more I tried the harder it became. I. could. not. pee. It didn't help that people were jumping out of boats all around me as I held onto the side of my boat pretending I just needed to cool off. Other boats had super soakers and were continuing an ongoing afternoon waterfight. There were shouts and yells and laughter. And I could only squeeze out short bursts. I mean, who really wants to pee in their shorts? Before I knew it, my time was up. I couldn't go anymore and I had to get back in the boat without having finished. I survived another 45 minutes before the excruiating pain came back. Luckily we stopped for someone else or something else and I was able to get back in the water and make it happen. After that, I was good to go at will the rest of the trip. Although I still preferred the side of the river to mid-swim. Especially after I picked up a technical tip from the sole female guide . . . ladies, squat low with knees together. Your thighs will thank you and no peep shows.

********************************Pee discussion ends here******************************


Our first night we camped at a place called Marble Creek (or maybe Marble Slab?). We were reunited with our large dry sacks and sleeping gear and tents that beat us to camp and were neatly piled near a large circle of camp chairs. Everything was very organized. And color coordinated! Green dry sacks for personal gear, purple bags for tents and blue bags for sleeping kits. Except mine - which was red because I brought my own sleeping bag. Each bag was labeled with a name or numbered to kep from mixing it all up. After we had a brief introduction on how to set up our tents, I grabbed one and searched out a flat and smooth spot to set up. There was one other solo traveler in the group. A 60-something-ish (I'm guessing here) school teacher from Arizona who seemed rather odd to me initially. Although by the end of the trip I had great admiration for her and her eccentricities. This trip was just one stop in her summer vacation of traveling in her motorhome with her dog for a companion. I can only hope I'm still willing and able to be that independent when I am her age. To give you a flavor for this woman, when people started cliff jumping into the pooled river later that afternoon, she was one of the first to jump (I certainly didn't try it)! And she was always excited to paddle and I'm not sure that she rode in the oar boat more than once. But on that first day, I made a stubborn and rude mistake.


Acknowledging that we were the two solo campers, she approached me as I started setting up my tent and offered to help me if I helped her. I am ridiculously proud of my camping skills. Ridiculous. I can (and have) set up a tent in pitch black night or in a pouring deluge and quickly. I can build fires fairly readily and have out-boy scouted a number of boys I have dated. I realize I am a bit overly proud of my outdoor skills and since I don't get a lot of opportunities these days to put these talents to use, I am not exactly looking for assistance. Besides, I hate looking like an incompetent and needy girl. Hate it. So instead of graciously accepting her offer, I told her I was good but would help her if she needed it.


Not exactly the nicest thing to say, I know. I just wasn't thinking. I was intoxicated by the smell of pine and the sound of the river and the unbelievable scenery that surrounded me. I was so excited to be preparing to sleep with these surroundings for five nights that I rebuffed her showing of kindness. I didn't want to be lumped into a "helpless girl" category in any way. I'm a jerk.


I realized this as I finished putting my tent together even as I gloated over how quickly I had finished the job and looked around to observe that no one else was finished yet. Ha - take that, all you people who didn't even know you were in a race with me. . . . Miss New Yorker needs to learn to drop the competitiveness, right? So I decided to make up and I went back to the woman and offered to help her finish. She resisted a bit and then allowed me to help. But before we could finish her tent, I was knocked down a peg or two by someone yelling to get my attention because a gust of wind had surfaced and was blowing my tent away. I was so caught up in my own speed and the taunting in my head that I forgot to stake down my tent or even put my stuff inside to keep it in place. Nice.


I sheepishly righted my tent and staked it in place and by the time I was finished, my fellow solo traveler had finished her tent on her own. She never asked me for help again.


We were told there would be a hike that afternoon but I was anxious and didn't know when we were going. I suddenly had all this excess energy and no outlet. I wasn't ready to sit, I needed to explore. After an attempt at writing on a rock that was interrupted by the cliff jumpers and swimmers, I decided to set my sleeping arrangements up to kill time. I then tried to read. After that, no one seemed to be swimming anymore except a couple of the teenage boys who were practicing the next rapid in a kayak (something I should have given a go) but I didn't know where the rest of the group and gone. So I assumed they went hiking and set off toward the trail that had been pointed out earlier.

But the trail was empty so I hiked alone and gulped it all in eagerly. The sights, the sounds, the smells. The big picture and the tiny details. I cursed myself for no longer knowing the names of the various wildflowers and trees that surrounded the trail. I wondered where those wildflower and tree books went that we kept in our trailer and then laughed at how I would pick sample wildflowers and press them in a notebook and copy the description of them in my scraggly handwriting. I even sampled the thimble berries growing along side the trail. After an hour or so of fast paced walking, slowed only to remove especially demanding pebbles that wedged their way between my foot and my chacos and photo sessions, I realized I probably wasn't behind the group and maybe I should have told someone I was taking on the trail before I set forth. When I reached some rather large bones bleaching in the sun layed out across a rock, I decided it was as good a place as any to turn around. Not 10 minutes later I met up with the group coming up the trail led by one of the guides. I decided to keep going with them and reversed directions. They didn't hike a lot longer before resting in a small meadow shaded by tall trees. Except after a short rest, one of the guides decided to press on. So I joined her, still mesmerized by my surroundings. She clipped along at a fast pace which I matched and we ascended higher and higher along the trail getting to know one another as we went. When we finally turned back and I took the lead she commented on my fast pace explaining that she never has clients who can keep up with her. I told her she must not encounter many New Yorkers because we really only have two walking speeds: fast and faster.

That night I wrote:
Why don't I hike more? Oh, right. I live in NYC. I love it. This afternoon I set
off on a solo hike that allowed me the opportunity to let my brain roma without
the intrusion of others. I breathed in the clean, fresh air deep into my lungs
and marveled at God's creation. At once familiar and new. The trail climbed high
above a small stream, then dipped down to the bank and parted ways again as the
stream cut a deeper trail. I realized as I walked that this is a deeply rooted
part of me that has been pushed into back corners for years. Solitary hiking
invigorates and rejuvinates me like no other activity. I think I am just a born
walker. This trip is is reminding me what I am missing in my life by living in
NYC.

We finished the day with a delicious meal and I struggled with how little work was required of me. Other than putting up and taking down my tent each day, all of the camp chores were taken care of by the guides who rotated responsibilities and took turns cooking up incredible feasts. I wish I had written down what we ate each night because it was all so delicious.

2 comments:

Trixy Lovelace said...

I know this is not the right post to comment on, but I just got turned on to your blog from my friend and it actually just about gave me post traumatic stress, I couldn't finish your story. Too close to what happened to me, minus living out of America, throw in the military, and a lot of cheating and death threats. So so similar, woah. I thought about writing my story, but then I start and can't breathe, even 7 years later and remarried. Anyway, letsgetpoetic@yahoo.com is me if you ever get a minute.
Thanks for being brave!

J.J. said...

I have cousins that live in Salmon and I lived there for a summer before the mish. It is absolutely one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Your post stirred up all kinds of memories for me. This reminded me that I MUST take my wife and kids to get the experience next summer on the way to Utah. THANKS!

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