A narrowing canyon: deep, long and slim, with fluted columns of red sandstone and brickish dented walls. Yellow cinquefoils blooming from niches bob in the noonday breeze. Within the canyon is a fast stream so filled with rocks and boulders that the water can hardly find a course. The bank is clay and has retreated with the burden of the spring run-off. Along the southern shore is a roadbed; beside it a flock of brewer’s blackbirds feed on ticks and water spiders. Their hollow white eyes snap-to at the first rumble of an approaching vehicle.
Red dust, clouds of it, rose like a plume from the back of the jeep. Michael Boyd Atman was sitting on one side of the open tailgate with Stuart Jr., the kid on the other. Between them lay the pup, Strider, on his side panting. They had to keep their eyes closed tight against the clouds of red dust, but occasionally Michael would open his for a quick glance across the stream, his eyes always alert and on the swivel, observing and absorbing everything with a military precision. We were just entering the canyon and here the far bank sloped up steeply, completely covered with thin bristlecone pines.
I didn’t know where I was going, but that really didn’t matter. The rutted roadbed was unyielding to my steering, and the dried mud creases held the wheels like a slot car. Driving was more like being a switchman, choosing the route by the ruts at all points of decision. Beside me sat Michael’s girlfriend and the kid’s mother, Sarah, smoking a long thin cigarette. The shapely supple muscles of her slim arms tensioned and loosened, holding on tight to the jeep as we veered back and forth in concert with the canyon.
We came around a bend and the canyon was suddenly filled with Cub Scouts—dozens of them on both sides of the road, carrying plastic garbage bags and running around cleaning the place up. On the bank near the water was a mountain of filled sacks. The scouts were all grinning at us and giving us the peace sign.
“They look like little beavers building a dam,” said Sarah.
The pines began to yield to rock, tall and speckled cliffs, seventy feet up and overhanging. We were now in the South Platte River canyon. Ahead, three fishermen, all in tall olive waders, splashed around in the stream like bird dogs. They looked up as we passed, frowning at the noise of our jeep, as if their own commotion hadn’t already scared every trout for five miles. One of them, the smallest, gave us the finger; the kid thought it was a new kind of peace sign so he flashed it right back. The guy must have felt great getting the finger from a little kid. Michael sat up between the front seats and looked out. Except for his long twirling hair, you might think Michael was still in the Army. Even now, years after leaving Viet Nam, his jaw still retained the clean-shaven, sharply defined line of a Special Services military man. Beads of sweat dripped from his strongly aquiline face.
“The river is a lot lower this year than when I was here last. It was right up to the roadbed then. You can see where it carried off that shack and left it in the sand.”
In the middle of the stream on a high sandbar was a graying wood shack on its side, roofless. The parallel walls leaned far to one side.
I had never been here before. It was a thinning, dusty canyon. Michael had told me about it the night before at the Loop Lounge.
“How did you hear about this place?” asked Sarah. Glancing over at her, I could see that the apex-noon sun was casting shimmering yellow flecks into her clear green eyes. She was still holding on tight to the jeep with both hands.
“Alan and I came up here last spring and jumped off the cliffs for accuracy. It was great trying to go straight through an inner tube jumping all the way from the top,” Michael said. “Too low for that this year, though. Bad luck!”
“Yeah, bad luck,” I said with sarcasm. Alan was probably Michael’s craziest old Colorado friend. I had been driving up here to this canyon all morning from Manitou Springs so I was looking forward to stretching my legs and uncramping my stiff muscles. Today’s boisterous outdoor activities were planned late, late last night at a bar table, which should explain a lot, including my cramped, water-starved muscles.
“This is it,” Said Michael. “We’re almost there.”
The cliffs rose on both sides. On our left, the steep red rocks plunged straight to the road’s edge. On the far shore, the cliff face rose sheer from the foaming rapids. The stream thinned and accelerated through this new alley-like narrows. I tried to estimate the depth of the water, to see if it could ever be safe to jump from the top. No, it seemed much too shallow, perhaps from halfway up.
“This is it,” said Michael. “Right there, see the white water? Well, it spills out into a slow pool and then you can ride it all the way down.”
I slowed down and pulled off the road onto a narrow shoulder where I parked in the shade of an overhanging ledge. The kid, who I had only met today, took off as soon as I stopped. He hadn’t said much during the whole trip up, but just sat smiling. I figured he was just shy.
Michael and I were in long pants and had to change. Sarah followed our thirsty dog Strider down to the stream’s edge where he drank deeply. I peeled off my jeans and put on my climbing shorts. My legs felt great to be unfettered. After we had both changed we got the truck tire inner tube off the jeep roof and walked upstream high above the water. On a huge boulder along the river we passed about ten Denver teenagers. Almost all of them were wearing sailor’s watch caps. They thought that made them look tough; a few were playing guitars, and all were drunk and loud.
We left the road and made our way toward a crack in the cliff. It became a loose shale path leading steeply down to the torrent. Michael hurried down, jumping from rock to smooth rock, all the while rolling the wide inner tube in front of him. He pulled up short of rushing in and slowly dipped his foot into the water.
“Ahhh,” he grimaced, “it’s freezing!”
Just under six feet tall, Michael was an extremely striking figure. He had a shock of rebellious dirty blonde hair that cascaded to his shoulders. His eyes were an intense shade of flinty gray that shined out from young crows’ feet like a lantern light in darkness. His face was like a nervous animal’s, moving, twitching, and seemingly always ready for any action. He instantly jumped on the inner tube and paddled out into the fastest part of the current, his back muscles undulating with the effort. He soon left my sight, bouncing down over a roller coaster of white water, yelling.
His husky voice soon faded away in the fleeting foam. The shore’s thick dust clung to my feet and itched. I waded in to my knees; the water was chilling cold, a shimmering white reflection of the sky above. The bottom was covered with smooth worry-stone pebbles and sloped away into a sharp V. The stream was about thirty feet across at that point. In the center the current was the slowest, although still fairly fast. The water rushed along both sides of my rapidly numbing and whitening climber’s legs. It felt wonderful though, and thoroughly purged whatever was left of my hangover. I squatted down and splashed my face in the icy water.
Presently I saw Stuart coming down from the road with the inner tube. He slid like a skier in the loose gravel. His long straight hair was the exact same shade as his mother’s. He had a habit of flicking his bangs out of his eyes with a short swift shake of his sandy head.
“Michael said to tell you it’s great. He says wait ‘til you get past this first narrow part, the next one is even better.”
He rolled me the inner tube and I jumped on. I kicked my way out into the current, and it picked me up like a mailbag.
I got comfortable lying on my chest with my arms overhanging. Paddling and kicking, I tried to keep my head facing downstream, but I was soon spinning out of control. Up and down over unseen rocks, my head and shoulders were often buried in the icy water. It was strange not to be able to control the tube with my body, but though sturdy, my climber’s muscles were simply no match for this spring stream’s swift, solid current. The stream’s first pass went up over a rock and then down ten feet over two more. I could see the rich green moss on the faces of the submerged stones. Then the current slowed down, flowing into a small, languid pool. I drifted serenely towards the downstream exit. Just before I reached the edge, feet first, I heard something that sounded like loud applause. I gradually recognized it was the roar of falling water.
I was powerless. I free-fell for about twenty-five feet, landing partially in the water and partially on a rock. My back stung, tearing as the rock bit in. The inner tube took the worst of the jolt, but I lost my grip and went under.
When I came up, spitting like a whale, the inner tube was only about ten feet away. I swam to it and slowly worked my way on. My legs and arms were bloody, though numb from the cold water. Long abrasions, sprouting droplets of bright red blood, traced torn lines from my shins all the way up to my knees. Once back onto the tube, I floated slowly downstream again towards the red bank nearby. I gradually perceived the sound of a voice yelling over the continuous roar of the water. I looked up and could see Michael high above me on the cliff, laughing and dancing around, and pointing at me, and laughing.
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Genre – Literary Fiction
Rating – PG