This story runs a little long, (though the whole thing is really worth reading! Honest) but if you must, you can skip to the appropriate section. (If you press "control" and "home" (IBM) or "home" (Mac) you can get back up to this list from wherever in the story you're at...)
The Crucial moment
Here in Arizona, a region with quite possibly the highest per capita skin cancer cases this side of Venus, we have a little outdoor adventure activity known as "tubing."
Tubing involves stripping down to your shorts, (and for the girls, the trend seemed to be to bare as much skin as legally possible), then plopping yourself down on a black rubber inner tube, and floating lazily down a river during the peak sunburn hours.
(I suspect the black rubber inner tube is used only because it was the closest floating material with roughly the same properties as the originally designed vehicle: highly reflective sheet metal with sandpaper attached to the parts that come in contact with the skin...regardless, the effect is the same; it soaks up heat and chafes at the slightest movement of the occupant.)
(I further suspect that under NATO laws and the Geneva Convention, this activity would be deemed illegal if performed on prisoners of war...)
Despite this, an impossibly large number of people PAY money for this experience. And, on a fateful day in June, I and some other friends did just that.
The river we did this on was called the "Salt River", aptly named because jillions of people (henceforth known in this story as 'tubers', not to be confused with the white starchy potato, although, come to think of it, there were quite a few people that fit that description as well...) have sweated (and we'll just leave the other bodily secretions unnamed for the delicate readers) into this slow moving river, increasing the sodium chloride concentration to levels seen in only one other body of water: your toilet. I mean the Dead Sea. Not exactly a fish haven. Carp were ashamed to be seen in this body of water, for Pete's sake... Yet somehow people enjoyed immersing themselves in it. I even did, for a bit!
As we pulled into the parking lot of the place to rent our torture devices (a.k.a. inner tube), I was struck by the sheer number of people. (Literally. They ran over and through me to get to the front of the line, in order to have a longer fry session.) As far as the eye could see (my other one was all swollen up by now), there were people milling around, waiting to be taken by a school bus down to the riverbed. After waiting a long time in the line, (only passed out twice due to heat stroke, and once from dehydration) we all had our tubes.
We also had some of the other necessary accouterments for a proper tubing expedition: rope, and an ice chest, to hold our lunches that we could consume at leisure. Of course, this being our first time, we didn't have a custom-made 100,000 Watt waterproof floating wall of noise, unlike most everybody else. Additionally, I rented an extra inner tube, to which I strapped my 55 gallon drum of SPF 99 sunblock. I also wore a long sleeved shirt. (You don't do it any other way if you're a fair-skinned male who is in the middle of a cancer biology education... I, unlike approximately 99.99% of everybody else, was determined NOT to get sunburned.)
Finally, after more interminable waiting, we boarded the bus to get to the river bed. I think that this sort of setup should be used by school districts across the nation: The seats were all slightly smaller (or they could have been normal for school buses: I've grown since the last time I was on one, so my perception was a little off...) and the center aisles were stacked to the ceiling with our inner tubes. These buses were jam-packed with inner tubes and people. If we got in a wreck, we'd just bounce around harmlessly. If we rolled, we'd just bounce around harmlessly. If we ran off the road into a body of water, we'd just float around harmlessly. If we got hijacked, the bullets would just bounce around harmlessly. It was amazing.
At last, shimmering in the distance, the river beckoned to us..."Get off the bus and take yer tube and other crap!" Actually, it was the bus driver threatening us...
We did just that, and waded out into the knee-deep water. It was cold at first, but was actually quite pleasant after all the standing around in the heat...(and as long as you didn't think too hard about what all was in the water...) As mentioned above, a length of rope is necessary for a successful tubing expedition. The idea is to tie all the inner tubes together, and thus float down the river all linked together. Unfortunately, "length of rope" is a somewhat vague term, and Dave Ropp, the man in charge of bringing the rope (Ropp, rope, it seemed appropriate...) did the best he could with what he had.
After uncoiling the 600 yards of rope, it was decided that maybe "a length" should be more specifically designated as somewhere between 15 and 20 feet.
Undaunted, we set about getting our tubes tied. (insert obligatory female sterilization joke here) Due to the excess length of rope, and a decision not to cut it (although I think we coulda shaved off 20 feet and still been able to help the Navy salvage a ship from the Marinas trench...), we thought we'd just "loosely tie" all our tubes together; sort of a confederation of nearby tubes; able to "reel ourselves in" if the need arose, but otherwise semi-autonomous.
Things were going swimmingly. By the way, it is a little known fact that the Salt river supports some of the largest natural groves of marshmallow trees in the U.S. At least I am assuming that marshmallows grow on trees, due to the immense number of floating marshmallows we saw drifting by. In fact, at one point we must have drifted directly under a marshmallow orchard, as it seemed to rain marshmallows. Either that or every other group on the river brought a bag of marshmallows and were throwing them. But of course, that couldn't be true, could it?
Another little known fact is that the Salt river supports some of the largest droves of drunken fools in the U.S. At least I'm assuming that, due to the immense number of floating drunken fools we saw drifting by. In fact, at one point, we must have drifted directly by a Miller-drinking orgy, as it seemed to reek of Millers. Every other group on the river brought their entire body weight or their combined IQ times 100, whichever was higher (usually body weight) in beer. But of course, that couldn't be true, could it?
(is it me or did those last two paragraphs give you just a touch of de ja vu?)
Having successfully navigated past several stalled groups, we were feeling pretty good. We got the hang of this tubin' thing: Stay in the middle, coordinated paddling can help nudge our loose confederation around obstacles, yadda yadda yadda. Pass the cheeto's. We'd reel in the tube that had the ice chest, pass around the snacks, chat, enjoy the smell of our charred flesh. It was great. Approximately every 5 minutes, I reeled in the drum of sunblock and reapplied it. [If you ever hear reports of a ghost tubing down the salt river; ignore it, they were probably talking about me.] Another little trick you learn real quick is to keep the top of the inner tube wet. Unless, of course, you like the back of your legs seared to a delicate pink and vulcanized directly to the rubber.
Another member of our party, Lori, who had actually done this before (apparently she'd undergone a lobotomy since then, or had sustained multiple head wounds...whatever the case, she must have lost her memory in order to have done this voluntarily a second time...) piped up and said. "This is the one part of the river that can get a little fast."
Bah. We can handle it; coordinated paddling
and all that. Hand me some pizza from the cooler, will ya?
Indeed, now seems like a good time to enjoy lunch...
I must digress for a moment to remind you of a physical phenomenon. You remember Archimedes and "Eureka!!"? Displacement and all of that? Well, remember how I mentioned earlier that the water was knee-deep? Apparently, just like ol' Archimedes in his tub, the water was knee-deep because the jillions of people were sitting in the river and displacing the volume, such that it was deeper AT THAT POINT IN TIME. Well, as near as I can figure, approximately 98% of all the tubers had synchronized their watches, and at this point in time, when they heard Lori utter the magic words, they all immediately jumped out of the river at precisely the same second we went into the "slightly fast" part of the river.
To further confound the situation, much like Dave and a "length" of rope, "A little fast" for Lori is an apparently ambiguous term. A tsunami bearing down on the coast of Japan would be "rushed" in her terminology. I suspect that she would say that water going over Niagra falls is "in a bit of a hurry..."
Semantics aside, all I know is that within milliseconds of Lori's pronouncement, the water level dropped to approximately the same depth as between these letters and the background image--around two microns. What little water there was, apparently rushing in to fill the void of displacement from all the drunken fools leaving simultaneously, rapidly increased in speed. I had a chance to look up and see Joanna desperately clenching her ziplocked lunch in her teeth, and reeling in the ice chest tube with one hand and reeling in herself with the other. Everyone else in our loose confederation was doing the same thing. And, just like in politics, a "loose confederation" lasts about as long as a burp in a whirlwind. We were more than just drifting apart; we were being ripped away from each other.
To make matters worse, the extra 597 yards of rope that was lazily floating all around and through our tubes suddenly was attracted to the newly exposed rocky bottom. Consequently, Joanna was on one side of a rocky crag, while the rope that tethered her was snagged, and the ice chest-containing inner tube was on the other side. As if that wasn't enough, the way we had fastened the ice chest to the tube was through the handles. Thus, the rope stretching from the exposed rock to the tube was approximately a foot and a half out of the water: at exactly the right height to serve nicely as a garrote for Dave, who was headed directly for said rope at an alarming speed. Luckily, he saw it coming, and put his hand up to protect his throat. However, due to our "loose confederation" (I'll be happy if I never hear that phrase again), he was tied to Joanna's cousin, as well as to Lori, who had somehow managed to escape this and had shot past us. So, Dave not only had the water pushing him straight into the rope, but two inner tubes also pulling him into it! Now, even though Dave is working on a Ph.D. in mathematics, he's no pencil-necked geek. No, he keeps his pencils in his pocket protector, where they belong. (proof of this can be seen here) Nonetheless, his forearm was strained to the point of snapping, trying to keep the rope from decapitating him.
Where was I in all of this? Since my last name is Butts, I generally bring up the rear. Maybe my 55 gallon drum of sunblock slowed me down. I don't know. What I do know is that I was watching all this unfold in front of me, and within seconds I would soon be slamming into Dave, the rock, the rope, the ice chest, Joanna, and a partridge in a pear tree.
The only good thing about all of this was that the water was extremely shallow. It was terribly slippery and fast, but shallow. So I stood up and worked my way down the rope to where it was hung up. By this time, Dave had managed to worm under the rope, and was now wedged against the rock that was holding things up. We both heaved mightily and got the rope to go over the rock. Immediately, Joanna, the ice chest tube, and BOTH OF OUR TUBES shot on down the rapids. So now the two of us were stuck in the middle of the river, tonguetied and tubeless.
After catching our breath, we slogged over to the side of the river to contemplate our fate. We decided to just keep walking along the bank, and then when the river slowed down, we could find them again and get back in our tubes, and back to those cheetos and the lazy river life we once knew...
Unfortunately, the bank was not made for walking along the shore. Moreover, I left my machete at home. Had I the option, I'd have called in an airstrike to napalm the whole thing to clear out the underbrush. It was incredible. We had to go WAY inland to get around a dense mass of foliage that would make the Big Thicket seem like a spot of crabgrass. I think part of "The Fugitive" was filmed here. I half expected to find Jimmy Hoffa or Elvis wandering around in there. I flushed out a deer whose species hadn't been seen in so long it was thought to be extinct. We stumbled across some obsidian chips, a fire pit and a mastedon skull...
I kid you not, at one point we saw a helicopter circling overhead. It was a news helicopter, doubtlessly filming drunken fools throwing marshmallows at each other, while just upstream a drama of two young men, trapped in a wasteland of dense thickets and in dire need of a helicopter rescue was unfolding. This drama could have had Geraldo bidding for the narration part on the made for TV movie... But no, gotta swing around and get another shot of drunken fools pelting each other with marshmallows...I felt like sending up a smoke signal for them to rescue us.
We finally got around and back to where we could SEE the water. We got closer, only to find that we were now a good 15 feet higher than the water, and the river was much deeper and still pretty fast. [Apparently the drunken fools heard us say another magic word which was their signal; and this time everyone brought a friend back into the water, displacing it to an even higher level, making it deeper and harder for us to cross...] Pushing on, we finally got to some lower ground. Unfortunately, the river hadn't slowed down any, and it was definitely no longer possible to wade. Worse yet, there seemed to be no change in the river conditions for quite a ways. If only we had decided to go to the OTHER side of the river after our harrowing rope/rock incident: on the other side of the treacherous river, we could see people lazily sunning themselves on the rocks; cars were pulled up along the FLAT beach, and everyone was having a grand old time; oblivious to the fact that two shipwrecked people were stranded and needed help.
Dave and I sat down and removed our shoes and socks and spent half an hour removing all the sand burrs, weeds, small rodents and other things that had accumulated in them during our trek. Then we tied the shoes around our necks, scrawled a last will and testament in the sand, and dove in. We tried to swim straight across, and barely made it across at all; some 20 yards downstream...
Well, we were with civilization (looking around me at that point, I'd have used the term loosely) again, but no sign of our "loose confederation..."
FINALLY we found them, on the OTHER side of the river! (yes, this, like most other rivers, only has two sides, so what I mean is that they were on the side we had just risked our lives to come from...) Eventually it did calm down on that side, and they'd pulled over to wait for us. In fact, some fellow was over there reeling in the 600 yards of rope and was busy lashing all our tubes together the right way-- a tightly knit unit of rubber and rope, capable of withstanding the high seas off the coast of Maine in October...or something like that.
We waded out to meet them halfway, and they paddled out to us. What a joyful reunion. I missed my sunblock. I missed the cheeto's. Oh yeah, and it was nice to see all of them, as well.
As I was slathering on the sunblock, I asked for some cheeto's out of the ice chest. In the midst of all the excitement, water had flooded the chest and it was truly a disgusting sight. Soggy pizza crust floating, bloated cheetos bobbing, greasy pepperoni's twirling gently, and an unidentified white bread sandwich mass taking on water and swelling to proportions no sandwich should...on second thought, cancel the cheeto's, I'll wait til we get home...
And fortunately, we didn't have long to wait. We passed more drunken fools, more marshmallows (and by this time, the marshmallows were the more sober and eloquent of the two) and NO more rapids...
We pulled over at the "exit" bank, where the bus was waiting. Had I known how entertaining the next five minutes were going to be, I would have just skipped the tubing and parked myself here all day: Watching drunken fools try to get up out of an inner tube and wade over to the side was thoroughly enjoyable. People were falling left and right; you'd have thought the bottom was strewn with mine shafts sunk all the way to China the way people kept going under (in a 4 ft. deep river, no less) and bobbing back up, spluttering and coughing. Moreover, the alcohol fumes were so strong that I was tempted to put up a "no smoking" sign; one spark and half the river would have flash-boiled away, what with all the alcohol-saturated people standing around...Lastly, at the beginning of the day, people were fairly normal looking. At this late hour in the afternoon, however, it looked more like lobsters and crawfish were coming out to feed. I'd never seen so much acute sunburn in my life. People's lips were pale in comparison with the rest of their skin...If I had had a cell phone, I'd have bought all the stock of vaseline intensive care lotion and aloe vera that I could get my hands on. I know I'd have made a killing....
And thus ended the Great Salt River Tubing Expedition of '98. I'm happy to report that I didn't get sunburned! Like they say, "All's well that ends well, especially if you don't end up in a well."
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