The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Seventeen

Cheat Thrills

Friday, 12:30. Sun's bright and hot, the air cool and crisp. A good day to drive somewhere. I head for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Uh-oh, I've forgotten the cassettes. No matter. The instant the road turns west, an automatic homing command takes over and I'm ready to drive anywhere, as long as it's west. Indianapolis, Saint Louis, Tulsa, Amarillo, let's go!

The radio hums Beethoven, a guy normally reserved for mountain motoring. No complaints, though. A giant truck rockets by. I'm doing 70, at peace with the highway. The turnpike through central Pennsylvania: farmlands, hills and dales, hawks and swifts, crackling warnings of approaching cops on the CB radio. Now the first tunnel, lights on, sunglasses hanging low on my nose, then the second, the third. The last one, the big one, is just up the hill, but I head south now. Not without difficulty. The western homing instinct is so strong that I change direction only with supreme effort. The road wends through more fine countryside, the type of road you'd want to find for a Sunday afternoon drive. Barns, cows, horses, tractors, fields--a microcosm of rural America compressed into a 22-mile stretch of blue highway.

West now through Cumberland, Maryland, a city of oddball architecture, a blend of the old and the new. No, not a blend. A clash. West. Homing instincts again. On the map, black dots parallel the road, signifying either a scenic route or some carefully deposited insect spoor. I see trees, a couple of hills, off in the distance more trees, no big deal. Must be spoor.

I cross the Eastern Continental Divide, 2800 feet, then Keyser's Ridge, 2880 feet, big-time elevation for the East. Now downhill to Friendship, Maryland. Too good of a name to pass up. I exit the big highway, drive into a small burg nestled in a picturesque valley. I cross a gurgling stream. It's friendly. Chat briefly with the town mechanic. He's friendly, too. A dog approaches, wags her tail. Friendly! Too much! Give me a little avarice and ill will! Please!

The road forks--the right one continues west, the left one leads to a town called Accident. West or Accident? What a choice! I may regret it later, but the pull from the west is just too strong.

Some more trees, some more of those curious black dots along the roadside, then, suddenly, West Virginia: hillbillies and moonshine stills, revenue agents and stock market brokers. Similar to Virginia, but farther west. Now a quick left turn, 15 serpentine miles south, and I'm in Albright, population 150, campground and launching site of the Cheat River Canyon Yahoo Rafting Adventure.

It's a campground in the best American sense of the word--a big, grassy field full of tents pitched and motor homes docked and radios ablare and dogs unleashed and lager guzzled. Hundreds of tents, maybe thousands, exceeded in number only by folding lawn chairs. Surely this is paradise.

Well, what's one more tent? It's my sleeping quarters, that's what. In a mild breeze it takes 20 minutes to set up. Imagine if there were rain or snow, too. I stroll down to the river. Looks peaceful enough. So what's the big to-do? Oh sure, the nearby bridge was washed away in a recent flood, leaving ghostly stone pilings, but so what? An unseen bird shrieks, an eerie, disembodied sound. Like col legno violins bowing a quarter-tone mazurka. A sense of foreboding chills the air.

Suddenly I have to urinate. More people arrive, other refugees from the corporation--the one which, if I mentioned its name, you'd recognize in an instant. My boatmates. More tents pitched, more lawn chairs unfolded, more thirsts slaked. A battered propane stove is lighted. Coq au vin--that's chicken in beer with a decent napkin--is heated up, wolfed down. We're in a valley, so reception from the portable television is poor. All we can see is snow. This is not a good omen. A bonfire is started. The bons burn brightly, egged on by dancing flames. Still, this does not take my mind off the snow, particularly since the temperature has already dropped to 40. Naturally, I've brought my tropical isle attire. I seem to have an innate ability to select the wrong clothes no matter where I go. I put on the heaviest of them--three pairs of Bermuda shorts, a neckerchief, a sombrero--then wriggle into my sleeping bag and wait for body warmth to catch up. It doesn't. Well was there really ever any doubt?

Morning. Foggy and 32º. Shivering has raised my body temperature to 45º. Others are already up, making beer omelets in shorts and shirtsleeves. I go get a bright orange wetsuit. What luck, it's already wet. Cold, too. Now I won't have to break it in. The suit fits like a glove, or more accurately, a catcher's mitt. With my black hat and sunglasses, I look like a reject from a bad Halloween costume party.

The fog is thick, mysterious, evoking memories of Basil Rathbone skulking across Grimpen Mire. But then the sun rises over the hills, wrecks the atmosphere, makes short work of any Baskerville fogdogs caught out in the open.

A modicum of warmth returns to north West Virginia, partly generated by the impending adventure. Our rafts are pumped up and so are we, eager to be off. We are not alone. Dozens of other boats have the same idea. And at the same time. We put in--that's boat talk for shove off. Six in our boat: four from the corporation, one hardy spouse, and the hired driver, a relaxed rent-a-rafter from Ohiopyle, which is neither Buckey community nor kin of Gomer. He exudes a quiet confidence, like a festering sore exudes pus--effortlessly, but with a purpose.

At first, we allow the current to have its way with us, and we float along without protestation. Then, the first rapid. We need little instruction, all being premier paddlers. At least the others are. My previous experience is limited to a pair of waterwings in a 10x12 vinyl pool, which I decide to keep to myself. No matter. A surge of adrenaline covers for me and I swat the water frantically enough to stun a school of harbor whales.

Hey, that was easy! I relax, relieved the worst is over. I have, however, miscalculated, and soon enough we're preparing for Decision Rapids, a Class IV piece of rocky water. It's called Decision because right about now you're all supposed to decide whether or not to go through it. I vote no, but am overruled. I summon my adrenaline again, but before it can kick in I'm swamped by cold white water which, in fact, outperforms adrenaline in three out of four laboratory tests.

The floor of the boat resembles a wading pool. Time to bail it out. We float by wildlife--not ducks and goats and buffalo but rather a bunch of obnoxious people in another boat. There are lots of other boats. Not as many as lawn chairs, but enough to warrant a river traffic cop. Like, who has the right of way? The kayakers apparently think they do, as they just squirt about wherever they please, without any regard for current or gravity.

All right, so I'm a little envious. And a lot wet. But no time for introspection, because just ahead are the Nasties: Big Nasty, Even Nastier, and Little Nastiest, all Class IV jobs. Our driver tenses palpably as he outlines his plan for successfully negotiating this stretch of water: get out and walk. True, that would be cheating, but I point out that the river isn't called the Honest And Aboveboard.

My boatmates, naturally, want to press on.

Into the rapid, the raft swings around, right side paddles back, left side paddles forward, or is it the other way around? Riding a wave, on top of it, now plunging into the trough like a drunken dolphin at Sea World. We're swept into an eddy, spin out, right side back, hard, harder! Rocks ahead, right side back, now forward. No, back! Someone shouts "yahoo," a brave attempt to take our minds off of the imminent peril.

And then we're clear. Spit out like a plug of soggy chewing tobacco. Time to bail the spittoon.

Okay, time's up. More rough water dead ahead (bad choice of words there). Cue Ball Rapids, Tierdrop, and The Maze, an especially dicey bunch of rocks, holes, whirlpools, and abrupt lefthand turns that've turned better boatmen upside down.

In we go. It's like trying to parallel park the log flume ride at Disneyland. Another raft careens into us, vying for the same parking space. We're caught on a rock, then on a hard place, then between the two. We shift to the boat's left side--any port in a storm, eh?--and magically slip free.

But not for long. Now we're rudely swept into a veritable maelstrom, the water churning and seething around us like a Cuisenart set on purée. Paddle again, hard! Everyone! Guess that means me, too. Another wave engulfs the boat. Now we're not only paddling madly but treading water.

And just as suddenly, we're out of the vortex, back into calm water.

That's outside the raft. Inside, the water's still jumping around like crazy.

We have about five minutes to gird ourselves for the next rapid, Coliseum, the biggest on the river. I try to collect my wits, which are scattered all over the boat, then brace for action.

There are two other rafts in our outfitter's party, and they're already into the current. One of the rent-a-rafters flips out--an ignominious feat--swims to a rock and waits for rescue. Good grief, that's us! Acceding to our captain's wishes and curses, we shoot into the torrent the wrong way, then we're whirled, swirled and twirled, diced, chopped, folded, spindled and nearly mutilated. And we haven't even gotten to the hard part yet. We reach the stranded boatman at last, pick him up and head for shore.

You'd almost think the rescue scene was choreographed, because it's at this very moment time for lunch.

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mayonnaise and fig newtons--mmm-mmm, a low-budget gourmet's delight. Parked halfway through Coliseum Rapids, we're afforded a splendid view of more folks tumbling out of their boats. I wave to a dozen of them as they're swept downstream. Most wave back, some more animated than others.

Time to press on. For the rest of the journey, I move to the back of the bus, where the ride is allegedly more pronounced. That's okay, I'm ready for more adventure. Silly me.

Seconds after swinging back into Coliseum, a minor wave bucks the raft. I'm tossed into the air, stunned a bit by the collision of the paddle with my face, and lose my hat to the river.

As I sit there, blood streaming down my chin, my lip swollen to the size and consistency of a tomato blintz, before even bothering to take inventory of my teeth, this is what races through my mind: "It's 1938. DuPont chemists have just discovered thermo-plastic polyamides. But what to call them? Someone, not entirely facetiously, suggests Dupparooh, an acronym for DuPont Pulls A Rabbit Out Of a Hat."

Then my head clears, I find all teeth present and accounted for, my hat is fished out of the water, Dupparooh returns to 1938, and even the blood output slows somewhat. Welcome to white water rafting, the contact sport.

The yang of the river soothes the yin of my swollen lip, though I'm usually not so forgiving, and gradually the frenetic pace of the river likewise slows. Soon, in fact, we're at the take-out point. Another adventure.

Parking the boat is no problem, and the thought of carrying it to the truck a quarter mile away also doesn't seem too unreasonable. Until we discover the truck's parked up there, at the top of the palisade. Say what? The only way up is via a steep flight of narrow stairs. Wet, slippery, precipitous lengths of splintery railroad ties. As the only injured party, I naturally claim medical disability. But I nevertheless empathize strongly with the others as they labor to lug our craft up to the truck.

Wait, the adventure still isn't over. There's the bus ride back. This may not sound very exciting, but you haven't seen the road. Skirting the palisade, it's 12 inches wider than the track of the bus, maybe, and nothing beyond that but down. Down to the river. Three hundred and some odd feet of straight down.

Did I mention that West Virginia has its share of moonshine stills? From all indications, we have one of 'em behind the wheel right now.

Get the picture?

Perhaps now you'll understand why I didn't endear myself to the other passengers when I began gently rocking the bus from side to side.

Back at the campground at last. Hot now. How hot? Hot enough to burst the thermometer I left in the car. And to fuse my leftover chicken-in-beer to the plastic bag. So much for supper.

Sun's going down now, temperature no doubt to follow. I retreat into my sleeping bag laden with even more clothes, await the bone chill that will surely come. I am not disappointed. When morning at last arrives, I'm eager to get out of the bag but the zipper's stuck. By the time I extricate myself, I've had enough aerobic exercise to keep me warm during an ascent of the Matterhorn (i.e., the Matterhorn ride in Disneyland, Anaheim, California). I fold up my tent, including the dozen moths who glued themselves to the outside during the night, toss it into the trunk, then head east.

Hours pass. And miles. Driving east is always a numbing experience, always a sense that the adventure's dénouement has passed. Again, I am not disappointed.

But neither am I disappointed with the Cheat River Canyon Yahoo Rafting Adventure. I mean, I survived, I ate fig newtons, and I didn't lose my hat. What more could an adventurer ask?

Don't ask.

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.