Sunday, April 8, 2012

Reasons I shouldn't hike the AT

I like to imagine that I am brave. I’ve spent a lot of time fantasizing about terrible things happening around me, and in these imaginings, I not only have the presence of mind of a zen master, but also the deft, deadly precision of Bruce Lee. My muscles are like a set of coiled springs, simply waiting for the trip wire to be triggered in order to launch into an epic take down. The camera has to record in slow motion in order to capture my movements, as my fantasy self clearly would move too fast for the normal eye to register.

I spend a fair amount of idle brain time imagining myself or my loved ones in dire peril, my body springing into action with the sheer ferocious power of a mama bear. They say that adrenaline can give a 12 year old boy the strength to lift a car. Of course, my adrenaline would not allow me to lift a car, because I have to take into account that my arms are like a pair of half-cooked spaghetti noodles: simultaneously floppy and brittle. However, my legs are strong enough to crush a man’s skull, and in my fantasies, my adrenaline would give me the strength to judo-kick a car halfway down the block.

Once I was staying with some friends at a cabin in the woods and we all went to bed after an intense game of monopoly. My friends fell asleep, like normal humans. However, my brain continued to motor along like a happy tug boat down the river of perpetual wakefulness and I happily entered into the world of fantasy in order to entertain myself. I began to collect every creak and sound in the cabin as further evidence of someone coming to murder us. I pictured every scenario possible, and all of them ended with me standing triumphantly over the knocked-out potential murderer, with a black eye and a perfectly placed cut across my cheek that would later heal into a tasteful yet intriguing scar. My friends would wake from their slumber, breathless and stunned. “Dear god!” they would exclaim “She’s saved us!” And I would toss one of them a phone and growl softly, “Make yourself useful and call 911. This dude ain’t gonna stay out forever.”

In reality, if a murderer did suddenly show up at the bedroom door, me being awake would only give me the advantage of being conscious of my utterly unavoidable death. Which, if you think about it, isn’t much of an advantage. I might accomplish a bit of shrieking, and if I was really lucky, I might try to disentangle myself from the sheets and face plant into the floor boards. But, mostly I would just do a lot of dying.

I sometimes have dreams of being a Gryffindor. And yet I remain a full-blooded Hufflepuff. These are the things with which I struggle.

In my experience of dealing with real danger, I have been reliably transformed into something like a fish flopping around in vain on a dock. I am trying to do everything I can to save myself, and yet, my chances of survival hover around 5% while my chances of looking completely ridiculous remain at a full 100%. I can flop around all I want, but the odds of me blindly flailing myself to safety are basically non-existent. I gasp for oxygen, and have brief flashes of the series of bad choices that have led me to this terrible place. Meanwhile, the cruel fisherman of fate simply chuckles at my useless show of wiggly bravado, and considers whether I will taste better grilled or fried.

In truth, I have done a lot of dangerous things. One perhaps could argue that this is evidence that I am indeed brave. I would argue that it is evidence that I am an unrepentant moron. The difference between idiocy and bravery is perspective. If only I weren’t so self aware, perhaps I could consider myself a modern day gladiator. For now, I am satisfied to think that I will likely die doing something very exciting.

While I was staying with the aforementioned two friends at that cabin in the woods, we went white water rafting. It was a balmy 45 degrees outside. First, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the entirely separate and confounding riddle of how to get a female body into a wetsuit designed for a man. I never imagined that I would know exactly what it felt like to be the ground up meat that gets forcibly injected into a sausage casing. Now I know, and I can bring that knowledge to enlighten you, dear reader: It is unpleasant. It was like being swallowed by a boa constrictor head first, and then somehow righting myself and waddling around with only my feet sticking out of the poor creature’s jaws. Unlike a man, my waist and my hips are not the same circumference. To the contrary, I have done the math and my waist and hips are at an approximately 2:3 ratio. I spent the day with the proportions of a lamp post and the swagger of a constipated duck.



Once, long ago, my rented wet suit was likely a bright, robust red color. Instead, the years had rendered it the mottled color of expired pepto bismol, and there were a few rips in the fabric. As I had neglected to bring the proper undergarments, I had to go commando in this form-fitting neoprene cesspool, likely teeming with years of accumulated bacteria. In order to complete my ensemble, I had a tent-like bright blue splash jacket, a black wool cap, and a blue “helmet.” This helmet was more like a bucket that someone had hammered into a vague, head-like shape. I’m not sure how much damage it would prevent, though I suppose it is better than a direct skull-to-boulder collision. Really, anything is better than that. I also had a life jacket, which was too big for me, but serviceable.

I have never been white water rafting in my life, and it turns out that my assumptions about the sport were entirely false. All the images I have seen depict a group of 10 or 12 amateurs in a gigantic inflatable bathtub, with experts at the stern, controlling everything. I was under the impression that if you were inexperienced, you would have little to no control over your own fate. I was mistaken.

They put the three of us with two other inexperienced folks, gave us a crash course on paddling, told us to assign a “captain,” and let us know that we would be fending for ourselves. There was a guide, but she was in a different raft than us. At this point, I had already signed the “YOU WILL DIE, AND NONE OF YOUR LOVED ONES CAN SUE US” waiver, so I figured that there was no backing out.

They gave us a raft that was somehow both small and bulky, like a swollen, gray tick. We were instructed to perch upon the slick round walls of the raft, lean out, and paddle hard. Technically one can secure oneself to the raft by jamming one’s toes into the narrow gap between the cross beams and floor of the raft. However, as I was in the very front, I had no cross beam, and thus I had nothing to hold me in except sheer will power, and a misguided belief in my own infallible immortality.

I grew up owning kayaks and poke boats, and I am well versed in how to handle a paddle. I am quite adept at ottering my way back into an open-topped kayak, in the event that I get tipped out. You can also wear this neoprene skin that permanently afixes your legs and lower torso into the kayak (making you a sort of boat centaur: a boataur). This makes it 100% impossible to fall out. However, it also means that if you flip over, you are left to dangle helplessly upside down, completely submerged in salt water. There’s a way to re-orient yourself back up into a decent sitting position by using your paddle to manipulate the physics of the water around you, thereby flipping you upright again.

I took a class in high school to learn how to do this, which involved floating in a kayak in the deep end of a pool. I had to purposefully rock myself back and forth until my kayak barrel-rolled over and submerged me. I remember the first time I did this, stuck upside down, my hair drifting around my face, my paddle in my hands, slowly running out of oxygen. I began to panic, swishing my paddle uselessly in the water around my head, like a toddler swatting at an angry bumble bee. I was probably only under for 10 seconds or so, but in that time, I convinced myself that I was going to die a virginal 16-year-old, good and drowned by my own idiotic hands. In my panic, I miraculously moved my paddle in the correct way, propelling my kayak to roll back upright, reintroducing my lungs to the precious air. By the end of the day, I was spinning myself in and out of the water faster than John Lennon spins in his grave every time “Imagine” is used in a car commercial.

All of that exposition was to help you understand that I wasn’t totally misguided when I thought I’d be fine if I fell out of the white water raft. As we headed downriver, traversing several difficult rapids without incident, I began to allow my hubris to infiltrate my imagination. I imagined myself gracefully falling out, with a gentle “whoopsadaisy!” and immediately propelling myself back up and into the raft, with the swift precision of a killer whale beaching itself onto an ice floe to murder a delicious seal.

Imagine my surprise then, when I was launched off the side of the raft like a kernel of popping corn, my arms and legs spread eagle, squeeking out something along the lines of “Ergugh!” I landed in the roiling rapids with a solid plunk, gretting swirled around and utterly disoriented. I somehow found my hands on the side of the raft, and tried to grab on.

This was the moment. This was when I would proudly launch myself back into the raft, landing perfectly unscathed. This would be the moment that my friends would later gush about, their eyes wide in admiration. “So brave!” they would enthuse, “and such the pinnacle of modern athleticism!”
 
I put my hands on the wall of the raft and attempted valiantly to hoist myself upward. I made it about 6 inches up and immediately fell backward, but not before allowing my face/head to bounce off the side of the raft like a dodge ball bouncing off the pectoral muscles of a furious 6th grade gym teacher.

My head went under water at that point. When I surfaced, I couldn’t stop laughing. I think when we’re faced with scenarios of extreme danger, we have 3 basic human responses. As a professional, I can tell you this is based on evolutionary and scientific data:
1. We stand our ground and fight
2. We run away
3. We get the giggles
Not many of the giggle-getters survived past the neolithic era, as most of them were mauled by tigers. However, some of the genetic material clearly endured, as my family is rife with people who have this exact response.

One of my friends also fell in the river at the same time that I fell in. I’m not sure how he got back into the raft (I was too busy getting buffeted by waves and rocks, and cackling hysterically), but he did so easily and without incident. I was scrabbling against the side of the raft, the two other female rafters trying in vain to pull me back in, when my friend appeared, soaking wet and determined. He grabbed me by the shoulders of my life vest and lifted me into the raft like a sack of flour. I landed in the belly of the boat, my feet sticking up in the air, and paused for the briefest of moments to watch the foggy sky drift overhead.

That friend, and my other female friend, were sleeping soundly in the other room of our cabin in the woods as I thought about this. As I looked at the bruises on my knees and elbows from smashing into river rocks, I genuinely wondered if I would really be able to stop a murderer, if one were to appear. At this point, I think the best I can hope for is that I would laugh with a convincing enough degree of insanity that he would be scared away. If the end result is the same, and everyone survives, isn’t that just as good as bravery?

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