I turn from driveway onto Garden Road 30 minutes late. My nephew R sits in front as he has been most of this week-long visit. This time, I tell him to let Geen sit up front so she can GPS me like she always does. She disagrees saying that she can guide me from the back seat. He stays where he is and immediately falls asleep or rests with his head down and covered. After 20 minutes, Geen asks if I want her to come up front. I say, Nah, it's okay. Another 20 minutes go by before she tells me to pull over so she can come up front. I drive a few more miles. I pull over on I-25. He moves to the back without either of us having to ask. She asks for the stereo and puts on the radio to keep us alert. We eat our homemade bean-and-egg-in-corn-tortilla breakfast tacos with some green chile that her cousin made.
I am afraid that we will miss meeting our guides at Bode's. We drive through Santa Fe then Española. I watch the speedometer and roadside. I don't want to mark this trip as I did two others last year: with a moving violation. It's not fun to stand on the side of a road, especially being outnumbered with towering state police officers' hands on guns.
We arrive and I park on the side. I rush into the store. Have any rafting guides been here, I ask a few minutes before 9:30 am. There were some here earlier, the young woman of color at the counter tells me. I ask the older white man at the other cash register the same thing. I hope that I have read the website and the brochure correctly: Meet at Santa Fe at 8:30 am; Abiquiu at 9:30 am. I go to the car and check the brochure. Again. Geen and I talk about calling the company, but our cell phones have no service. Geen suggests that I ask to use the store's land line. I go inside and ask the man to use his phone. He asks why. I tell him. He says, They're running late. They always run late. This is New Mexico!
Our rafting guides arrive and we load up into their two vans. Our driver Katie passes out the permission slips. R has already given me the slip that he and his mom had to sign. I sign mine then pass our slips in and wonder how necessary they will be. Katie drives us further north about 30 minutes. We get out and the guides lower the four rafts from a van's roof. One member passes PFDs (personal flotation devices) and instructs how to put them on. He says to make sure that they don't go above our ears. He says that if we fall into the water, they'll grab us by our PFDs' shoulders. No rafting guide ever says life jackets throughout the whole day. One says, Life- then stops herself and pronounces PFDs.
Katie gives the safety lesson to the entire group of 20. We learn the importance of holding--and NEVER letting go of--the oar with a T-grip; pointing our feet downstream or grabbing the rope if we find ourselves outside the raft; and other survival tips. Katie then assigns passengers to the four guides and rafts. We get her. Our other passengers are a woman, her teen daughter, the daughter's teen boyfriend, and the woman's man. Katie tells us that the front two seats tend to be the wettest then she asks who wants them. Everyone stays quiet then the woman raises her hand. I wait for someone else to claim the other wet seat. Long pause. Finally, Geen says she'll take it. I know that Geen has swimming issues. I volunteer to take her spot. She lets me. I think about the adventure of the trip and ask R if he wants my seat. He doesn't hear me and while I'm explaining myself, the woman tells R that he can have her seat. It wasn't what we planned on, but it feels right. R and I smile nervously and excitedly at each other.
We scoot onto our seats bottoms first as directed. I'm surprised that we sit on the raft not inside on the bench. This is not how I had imagined being inside the raft. I reason that if we sit on the raft, it will be easier for one of us to fall in. Katie tells us to plant our feet--outside foot goes into a pocket and inside foot goes beneath the seat that we're not sitting on. I tell Katie, My inside foot doesn't get a good grip beneath the seat. Geen says hers doesn't either. Katie doesn't seem to hear or worry. I worry. Katie tells us we are not allowed to scream like little girls. I stifle a protest. I take some comfort when she adds, It's usually little boys who scream like little girls.
Katie has us practice going forward and backward then she sets us on our way. She calmly commands, Forward. We glide through the water like a huge eel or hippo. I dig my oar in the water and puuuul just as she's instructed. I look at R to make sure we are in synch. He barely puts his oar in the water and doesn't puuuuul. I pull my oar back and smack the teen boyfriend's oar. Somehow we go forward as Katie directs. One by one, the three other rafts follow us. We're a pack of lazy hippos floating down the river now.
Katie guides us as she makes light conversation with our two different groups, two different families. The other family quickly answers her questions, almost cutting her off. The girl and her boyfriend go to a boarding school in Pennsylvania. She spent her summer at Berkelee College of Music, and he worked at his mother's golf course. Geen, R, and I do not interrupt until Katie has asked her question. We wait for one of us to answer then we fall silent again.
One of the other family members asks how deep the water is. Katie stands her oar into the brownish water and says, About three feet. One by one, we each stand our oar in the water to confirm her measurement.
Water sloshes against the raft. The sky alternates between cloudy blue and overcast grey. The sun cooks our skin then retreats and rain sprinkles our heads. Katie tells us that according to an old wives' tale, the winter snow will be as high as the five-foot tall grasses swaying on the banks. In the background, mountains colored shades of red to brown watch us as we glide down river.
Katie expertly and nonchalantly navigates us down the Chama. We float along until we can see the swirling rapids ahead. Worse, or better, we can hear the rapids. They are not frothy and white as I had imagined. The water slaps against the raft and falls inside to wet my lower half. R makes no sounds as water hits him. I scream like a little girl. Okay, I yelp like a woman who has had very cold water thrown at her. Honestly, more water seems to fall on my side than R's.
Every now and then--and too far in between--Katie commands, Forward. I thought we were going to be moving those oars a lot more than we are. I thought we'd paddle so much that we'd beg her to say Stop. Once in a while, there's a Backward. But after three strokes, she says, Okay, stop. Maybe twice we get in four or five strokes in a row. I never feel that I'm in danger of falling into the water.
I look around. I imagine the first people to have travelled down this river. I wonder about other rivers, rivers I haven't seen--the American and Sacramento in northern California. I remember declining invitations to go white water rafting on them. I think of the Mississippi and remember Mark Twain's "Two Ways of Seeing a River" from the reader I use for English 950. Twain describes his feelings when steamboating on the Mississippi was new to him. He was enthralled. Later, when he knew the river, he could not get back the poetry of it. I know I'll never know the Chama or lose the poetry of any river back home.
The woman points out swallows' nests to her daughter. I don't want to turn my head because I don't want her to see that I am listening to her conversation though it is hard not to sharing the same ten feet of space.
Katie guides us to an eddy. She waits for the other guides to approach. She asks if they are hungry and want to stop for lunch. The guides check with their passengers and everyone says they can wait. Half an hour later, we stop for lunch.
We climb a small hill. We all notice a large tree with a rope hanging from a branch over the river. A male guide grabs the rope and swings his body out over the river. He returns to land, takes off extra clothing, and swings out again. Over the river, he releases himself. My eyes fall to the river and see him on his back with his knees bent and sticking out of the water.
The guides set up tables and bring out loaves of bread, lunch meat and cheeses, lettuce, tomatoes, condiments, and peanut butter and jelly as well as cookies. They say they let men serve themselves first yesterday so today it's women first. The breakfast tacos have worn off. Geen and I line up right away. I tell R that he'll get his turn soon. The guides clean up and we're off ready to finish our ride. R and I switch sides. Geen follows R to the other side too.
R is completely awake and a little more expressive during the second half. I think the early rapids were more mild than what he had imagined.
I point out tiny mudcaves beneath ledges. Geen tells me those are the swallows' nests. Oh.
As we approach our landing, the random sprinkles have turned into a light rain. We disembark and walk up to change our clothes. I change my shirt and decide to change everything else when we return to Bode's. We climb back into the van for the ride to the store.
R asks if we're heading back to Albuquerque. He wants to come back for Free Seat Cushions that will be given away at the Isotopes game. By this time, Geen has gone inside to change into dry clothes. The rain is pounding the top of the car and I have to raise my voice to be heard. I tell him that we had wanted to see what we could see in this part of New Mexico that we'd never been to, but because of the rain we may be going back sooner than later. Geen comes out. The rain stops. We cross the road to Abiquiu.
I chose this trip because I thought it would be a Class 3 and it was a 1-2. My brief rafting research revealed that class 1 is easiest and 5 is hardest. I figured that class 3, middle ground, was a safe place to start. My research also revealed that Taos Box is Thee Mera-Mera Rafting Trip and a class 4. Katie suggests coming back in late April or early May when the water is its highest and doing a class 3 trip. If it's good she says to come back the next week for Taos Box.
Some days I think this blog should be called Ignorant City Slicker or Urban Rat in Rural Paradise. My San Francisco is a small city--not big but definitely city though I'm not a complete hardened urbanite or streetwise cat. It's that I'm more familiar with what lies on top of concrete than what lies beneath it. During my two year "field trip" or residency here in New Mexico, I find myself laughing at myself for what I don't know and have never experienced as well as in complete awe of the beauty of this place. July 26th marks the end of Year 2 and beginning of Year 3 of the New Mexico 3 to 5 Year Plan.