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My Summer of Rivers, Testosterone, and Spiders
Everyone says that the worst off you can be is up a creek without a paddle. I know from personal experience however, that this simply just is not true. Even though I was going down a river, and even though a paddle was firmly grasped in my white knuckled hand that matched the white water I was careening from, I was nearer death on that raft ride than I probably ever will be again.
Thwak! I had just begun to pound in my last nail of the day. I paused to wipe my brow in the sweltering heat of the West Virginia summer sun. As I fanned myself, I caught a quick glance past the sleepy run-down mining town at the glorious green gems that were the Appalachian Mountains. A deep sense of pride in my work, and in the pulchritudinous perfection of the surrounding scenery, had welled up in my heart.
“Jill, what the heck are you doing? Give me that hammer!” Tom Chepke jerked the hammer from my hand. “This needs to be done fast Jill, and good. Why don’t you do something else like give all the guys water?” Tom said as he mashed the nail crookedly into the stud.
I fumed. If I had to have one enemy in this world, it was that kid. Tall, strong basketball protégée, he was thoroughly convinced that he was God’s gift to the world, and that the only reason he was going on this church youth mission trip was to generously spread this gift to all America. That wouldn’t have bothered me so much. I’ve met plenty of puerile punks in my day. What began our discord was his cave-man like misogyny. He was diametrically opposed to girls doing anything of substance. The entire mission trip he had been stealing construction jobs from me because he didn’t think I was capable of doing a “man’s job.” His chauvinism had been itching at me all week, and I was determined to put him in his place.
Now, I’d like to point out, that I typically was not the vengeful type. I was very careful the whole week not to let my emotion get in the way of what I was supposed to be doing down there, because I considered fighting church members to be a rather poor message from kids who were supposed to be teaching love and peace. But I also had a competitive streak that approached ruthlessness and was especially competitive when people underestimated me due to my sex. So on the last day of our stay down in Bluefield, when we were given the option of going white water rafting, I jumped at the chance not only for the adventure, but also for the idea of being able to release a little of the pent-up angst I had been storing all week.
When we got to the boating docks of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, after what seemed like an eternity of driving down a serpentine, bumpy, country road, we were met by a ramshackle cabin and two river guides that gave us an intense lecture in rafting safety that made me question the sanity of our youth Pastor Dan. The last instruction before we launched off was “…and do not forget! If you happen to fall out of the raft, please do not turn over on your bellies. You will cut your face and possibly drown. Alright, let’s do this!” The two guides then stood next to each other, their backs facing the brownish green expanse of water. The heady scent of fresh wet earth blew off its surface, and the sun began to make it flash in little sparkling ripples; despite my apprehensions about our adventure, immediately I reverted to some sort of primal exhilaration as my senses absorbed these tantalizations of nature.
“I’m Sly and this is Carissa. We’re gonna have two groups,” said Sly. “All the older guys and maybe some girls who have rafted before will come with me. All the younger guys and the rest of the girls will go with Car. I’m gonna be hitting a lot of the pretty advanced rapids and need some strong or experienced people...cool?” I analyzed Sly. He was what looked like a cross between Wile E. Coyote and Rambo. He was wearing a t-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, cuffed jeans, old dirty flip flops and a bandana. His toenails were all painted a different color and had a thick head of long red hair with a scruffy beard. Beneath that hair his eyes had a crazed-laughing look that made you very uncertain of his emotional or mental state. He looked like fun. But had I heard him right? He said only boys and maybe girls? Really, were girls that much weaker that they couldn’t paddle an air filled boat through some rocks? With Tom, snidely grinning in triumph at me, a passionate annoyance with this whole gender thing set me off on a prerogative to dissolve it, even if it killed me. How little did I know that this would almost be the case.
When the groups split up and I had stepped over to Sly’s group of boys who were attempting to look as strong and experienced as possible, I was immediately shot with a flurry of arrow-like glares. “Umm…have you ever rafted before?” Tom asked cynically. My many confrontations with Tom had led me to understand that this was my challenge against being accepted into “boy world.”
“Yeah, last week actually,” I said as if it were nothing. It really was nothing; the Pigeon River that I had conquered last week was at its worst a class two. “A river in the Great Smoky Mountains… I went to Tennessee, remember?” I wasn’t stretching the truth, but I knew just the right nuances to put into that truth where it sounded like the Pigeon River was more or less the Niagara. Luckily, because boys are predisposed to accept facts, they piled into the boat without further question. Maybe I was getting in over my head, but I had a duty to the rest of the female race to protest this obvious discrimination.
“Alright dudes, time to get nasty!” Sly whooped as he hurdled into the raft. He began hollering all sorts of instructions, which at first made me nervous; I had no idea what he was talking about. Eventually though, I fell into the rhythm and was feeling rather victorious in my abilities as a woman rafter. Tom occasionally would throw some jibe at me, but mostly we all were just enjoying the experience. It became evident to everyone however, why Sly wanted to go on the bigger rapids. Every time he did something remotely requiring high skill he would shout, “Hey Car, check this out!” He was very much like a howler monkey, I decided. He put on a loud display to get girls’ attention. Sly was testosterone driven, that was for sure, and he had an odd effect of making all the other guys around him operate in a similar fashion. Soon they were all obnoxious, loud-mouthing apes, but none more so than Tom. This proved especially bad when another rafting company converged with ours at one of, according to Sly, “the sickest spots in the river.”
“Those dirty sons of blanks!” Sly cursed, except that my young church youth group ears added the “blanks.” “This isn’t their time to be on the river!” He began engaging in some long distance debate with the other company, in which all the boys vigorously joined in. Sly was apparently competing for a spot in the “whirlpool,” the only class five rapid in the gorge. After further derision shared by both parties Sly shoved his paddle into the river in frustration. “Rules or no rules, I ain’t waitin’ for them. Prepare to do a five on four, if we don’t go fast enough and do this perfectly there could be some serious repercussions. Go!”
Five on four was a fancy term for really hard, fast strokes. But I wasn’t doing them. Part of me was still in shock that Sly even knew the word repercussions, but a greater part of me was questioning the wisdom of what Sly was going to do. The other boating company had taken up most of the river, and Sly was trying to squeeze us through a small rock hewn hole next to the bank with churning rapids. My fellow rafters, injected with testosterone, were blind to this potential danger.
“Move Jillian, you slow freaking lazy girl!” Tom shrieked. Immediately I jammed my paddle into the river with anger.
“What did you say?” I demanded.
“Why do girls have such a freaking problem?” Tom shouted over the roar of the river. Our raft had begun to jerk and pitch in the buffeting river’s surf. Water sprayed into my eyes and nose, adding to my exasperation. Anger seethed in my heart like the water in the river. I swiveled around to face him, completely against instruction.
“You are such a…ahhhh!” I never got to finish my sentence. At that moment I was hurled from the raft, the chill of the water immediately shocking my lungs. Cold began seeping into my bones. The entire world suddenly became a big, tumbling blur. I kept trying to breathe but found that every time I would to lift my head I only found more water. I was rolling over to get onto whatever I thought was my back, but direction no longer meant anything to me. My lungs screamed for air, they kept begging, please, just find the surface. But I couldn’t. The river kept cuffing me, smacking me, like a watery hand, every which way. It gnawed me with its teeth-like rocks. I could feel the skin scraping away. In my mouth I tasted blood and dirt. I was going to be eaten by a monster, and its name was New River Gorge.
Thwak! My shoulder exploded in pain and I screamed. The water was no longer tossing me about like a rag doll but instead washed over me and was shoving me like a bulldozer. I coughed and tried to open my eyes to see what had happened. The water had shoved my side right in between two large boulders. I didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t want to be subject to that merciless monster again, but every kiloliter of water that cascaded over me was hammering me further into the crevice, squeezing my already starved lungs. But the most horrific part of this new development was that covering the face of boulders, were tons of giant hairy, brown spiders. I felt like I was in an Indiana Jones movie. Spiders, I thought, why did it have to be spiders?
Just when I was about to let out the most arachnophobia induced scream of all time, a voice greeted me more sweetly than an angelic chorus.
“Jillian, relax, we’re coming for you, don’t move!” Tom called.
Of course it had to be Tom. I cried. It wasn’t a real cry, mostly because I’m not a crier but also because I was still representing the female race. It was the sort of deep, sighing sobs that make you chest jump in odd rhythms. I wasn’t sure what I was crying about though; although it was mostly the touching irony of seeing my worst enemy so concerned for me, it was also probably a combination of the pain, the relief, or the terror of seeing twenty or so huge arachnids at eye level. Either way, I made sure to shut up once Sly and Tom came into view. Sly produced a bungee cord, and, with impressive marksmanship, hooked one of the boulders in a lasso. Tom, with some odd, unreadable look on his face, held the loop secure as Sly leaned out and took hold of my life vest. Some of the other boys who had fallen out found their way to the bank, Sly told me as he gently tried to pry me out of the crevice, taking a cautious note of the spiders.
I cringed at seeing the furry brown surface of the rock ungulate and as my own mangled body scraped against its face. Sly heaved with one great backward thrust and we both flopped into the raft. I lay there for a while, my malnourished lungs hungrily sucking up air. No one in the raft talked. Finally, after going over in my mind what had just occurred, and the silliness of it all, I began to lose it. I guffawed in a loud, almost maniacal way. I laughed and coughed and spewed up river water and just kept laughing until the burning in my abdomen reduced it to a chortle. The boys then began laughing too. Theirs was the deep belly laugh of relief.
After we had finally laughed all the emotion out of us and were left panting, Tom sighed, “Jillian, I’m sorry, about everything. I...I don’t know what I would’ve done if…”
“If what, I had died?!” I laughed.
“No,” he began solemnly. “If you had gotten paralyzed and they had to replace you with an actual girl on our worksite, it’d be so freaking annoying. At least you don’t whine, ‘my feet hurt, and I’m thirsty!’ every two seconds!” Now his face was contorted into a contrived scowl that barely hid his broad smile.
Sly had begun sterilizing my cuts with a stinging cleanser from his first aid kit. I winced.
“Well, just so you know, I am one hundred percent actual girl,” I lifted my chin defiantly. “And this girl just survived a beating from the Bruce Lee of all rivers.”
“Yeah,” Tom chuckled. “That was pretty freaking sweet.” “But, uh…you know Chuck Norris is better than Bruce Lee, don’t you?”