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Dawn's intense hatred for
mathematics began in sixth grade, when she would write stories during math
class and pass them around the room. This is probably why she still cannot balance a checkbook or figure a 25 percent tip.
Now Dawn is a very accomplished writer thanks in part to that hatred of numbers, and if you want to learn more about Dawn and her writing now, you can visit her website www.dawnwilson.com.
Sapony Mountain Trail Creek, upper branch
Things I’ve seen:
1) A worn out child’s wading pool. Lavender. Wasn’t sure what it was at first so got out of river to investigate. Perfectly usable--just old and dirty. Too big for kayak so made note to pick up during River Fest cleanup day.
When Aunt Sophie died, I was one of the unfortunate relatives enlisted to clean out her basement. Aunt Sophie had grown increasingly OCD (especially right before her stroke) and it wasn’t until after her death we realized she had been hoarding all kinds of crap---three years of full-color Sunday comics from the Asheville Citizen-Times, 75 CD-roms inviting us to try AOL, a gazillion garbage bag twist ties, and practically every edition of the JC Penny summer catalog that had been printed since the Korean War. Uncle Frank was clueless (as uncles often are) and had no sense of the vicious landfill of junk gathering underneath his feet.
It’s now one week after her funeral and we’re still hauling this shit out. Uncle Frank hasn’t left his bedroom all morning, and mom’s been trying to coax him out. I tell mom that maybe this is Frank’s way of grieving and maybe we should just call it a day and leave him alone.
“Alone? We can’t leave him alone!” Mom says, as if Uncle Frank would jump in front of the nearest train if given half a chance. “It’s just not healthy.”
“Just give it a rest.”
“Give it a rest? If I had just given it a rest, you’d still be holed up in your apartment.”
“I would’ve left the apartment eventually.”
“Yes, likely. Just not as soon as you wanted.”
“Is he still paying you?” Mom asks. “Don’t let the fact that you’re childless be an issue. He’s an accountant. They make all kinds of money.”
They don’t make all kinds of money. But I don’t say it.
“Charlotte, he did send the check this month?” she asks, as if I hadn’t heard her the first time.
“He did send the check.”
He didn’t the month before.
Or the month before that.
Ivy Forks River, Lamon’s Ferry branch
Things I’ve seen:
1) Empty bottle of Maker’s Mark Kentucky whisky.
2) A handmade cardboard sign tacked onto one of those bird boxes the state uses to trace migratory waterfowl patterns. The sign declares “Party Cove” in a magic marker scrawl and then “Raise hell ---class of ‘04”
I suspect the bottle of whiskey and the graffiti are connected.
Aunt Sophie’s basement makes me feel like I’m on an archeological expedition. How much crap can one person collect in a lifetime? Mom tells me to go through these old clothes crammed into a forgotten corner----they’re all molting away, getting damp and stinky. She says she’s finally convinced Uncle Frank to come out and have a sandwich for lunch. I’m plowing through this heap of clothes, sorting them into boxes labeled “Goodwill” and “Landfill” when my toe bangs against something hard, blunt and smooth. I yelp—more out of surprise than pain—and dig through the remaining clothes like a dog digging up a bone, unearthing what I’d hit.
It is a deep yellow kayak, about eight feet long, with the words DAGGER WHITEWATER blazing across its side. Crammed into the cockpit is a deconstructed paddle in two pieces. It emits a smooth, new plastic toy smell—the kind of scent that I remember as a kid on Christmas mornings after opening up a new Barbie townhouse.
“What the hell is that?” Mom barks. She had darted downstairs immediately after hearing my yelp. She stares at the kayak. “It looks like a pregnant banana.”
“It’s a whitewater kayak.”
“How do you know?”
“It says ‘whitewater’ on it.”
“What was Sophia doing with that?”
By now, Uncle Frank has come down the stairs and he’s leaning over my shoulder.
“Must’ve been what she won on the radio a while back,” he says. “There was some contest on the radio—you had to guess these quotes from TV shows. Didn’t she tell you about it?”
I shake my head.
“She won on ‘The Honeymooners.’ Can you believe it?” He smiles. “Some young moron she was competing against had never heard of ‘The Honeymooners.’ To the moon, Alice! Pow! Right in the kisser.” He laughs.
I just realize I haven’t heard him laugh in a long time.
“She was so excited she didn’t even know what she won until UPS came and delivered it,” he continues. “I told her she should sell it. Those things can go for $800. But she said she might like to try it at least once before we got rid of it. Humpf,” he gives a snort that sounds like it comes mainly from his nose. “Buried under all this stuff all these years. Humpf. To the moon!”
I reach out and feel the smooth, cool, firm and sleek fiberglass body of the kayak.
“Can I have it?” My voice is bold. I don’t even recognize it.
“Charlotte!” Mom snaps. “What do you know about kayaking?”
“I can learn. They teach classes over at the Asheville River Center.”
“But you can’t do that!”
“Why? It’s not rocket science.”
“And where are you going to keep it? In that tiny apartment? Are you going to use it as a coffee table? Honestly!”
Uncle Frank straightens up and looks at me for about fifteen seconds, but it seems like much longer. I feel his eyes follow the curve of my chin—the chin that they say looks like Aunt Sophia’s--- and I sense him examining the shape of my head, as if wondering if a helmet would be enough to protect my stubborn skull while I plummet helplessly down the river, clinging to a pregnant banana.
“Let her have it.” He says, but I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or Mom. “It’s yours.” He turns and shuffles up the stairs. “Let her have it.”
Deer Track River
Things I have seen:
1) The most gorgeous blue heron. I’ve seen them in the distance before, but this one let us paddle up right beside him. I had no idea they were that big. He spread his wings and he looked about the size of my Honda.
2) A rusted out washer and drier. Can’t believe people just throw their crap into the river. Darrin said it probably floated away from the Sears store across the interstate in the flood that happened a few years back.
I stop by the dollar store on the way home and buy a journal that has a pirate ship on it and decide this will be my kayak journal. I’ll write down all the miraculous things I find after racing down the river. I’ll write it all down and then tell Uncle Frank about it and he’ll be glad he let me adopt the kayak and give it a home. Mom will know I can take care of myself. Most of all, I’ll record all the details so I won’t forget.
Kristen—who lives in the apartment next to mine--- has a friend named Darrin who is a part-time river guide with an outdoor company. She introduces us and Darrin takes me to a sporting goods store and gets me all geared out. Darrin knows someone who knows someone who owes him a favor, and they give me a 40 percent discount on the spray skirt and helmet. Darrin says winning a whitewater kayak without a spray skirt is like winning a car with no wheels.
“But it is a pretty sweet ‘yak,” he says. “I’m surprised it lasted so well after being stuck in a damp basement.”
“Yeah, me too.” Actually, I have no idea what happens to kayaks if you store them in a damp basement.
Darrin lets me store the kayak in his garage in exchange for the privilege of being able to use it. He likes having an extra kayak around for when some of his buddies from Charlotte come up for a long weekend. I figure it is the least I could do since he agreed to give me free lessons.
Lower East Fork Branch, Maple Creek
Things I’ve seen:
1) One of those sets of plastic rings that is used to hold together soda cans. It was just floating down the river. Darrin quickly grabs it and cuts it into little pieces and stuffs it into his dry bag. “Beavers can choke themselves on these things,” he said. He hates it when people abuse the environment. “The river is our life. All things come from it. When it goes bad, we go bad.”
Darrin makes environmental stewardship so sexy.
Darrin asks when the pool at my apartment complex closes. I tell him I think it’s around dusk.
“I have a surprise for you,” he says. “I’ll bring it on over with your kayak. At dusk. Meet me at your pool.”
He shows up with a small gift bag. Something has been hurriedly stuffed into it and the tissue paper is poking awkwardly around the top corners at odd angles.
I open it. “What’s this?”
“A nose clip.”
“It helps when you’re learning to roll.”
The sun sinks below the rim of the mountains. Darrin sets out these Coleman camping lanterns around the pool--- the pool area isn’t lit at night. The realty company doesn’t want to encourage late-night skinny dips or any other such folly that occurs when the sun sets and a sticky Southern evening is in full force. Darrin hauls the kayak out of his truck and plops it into the pool.
He shows me how to slide through the spray skirt. His calloused, tan, leather-like fingers help me ease it over my waist. He double checks my lifejacket, tugging on my shoulders to be sure it is firm and tight around my breasts. Then he pulls off his shirt and eases into the shallow end of pool. He dunks his whole body underwater and pops back up with a broad smile, shaking water from his overgrown honey-and-peanut-butter bangs that, in the pale lantern light, seem to resemble the strange caramel swirls found in a pint of heavenly hash ice cream.
“It’s the same type of balance you use to ride a bike,” Darrin says. Maybe he thinks I look worried. “Just think of it as riding a bike on the water.”
He holds the kayak for me as I awkwardly fumble for it. I grab his shoulders for balance as he fastens the spray skirt to the comb of the kayak cockpit. He has a long, crooked scar running from his shoulder to just above his right nipple. He notices me staring.
“I got on the wrong end of a boulder running a class five down Green Narrows.”
Oh crap, there’s classes?
“Just relax,” he says as double checks the spray skirt. “It doesn’t require a lot of strength. It’s all technique. Pretty soon it’ll be as natural as breathing.”
First he just leans the kayak over at 45-degree angles to each side, so I can get used to it. He shows me how to tuck my head and hold my arms so that they don’t get belted by underwater boulders.
“I’m going to roll you a complete three-sixty. Just so you can know what it feels like. I’ll leave you upside down for three seconds and then flip you back over. Just relax and let it wash over you.”
My instinct is to flip off the skirt and bail, but I somehow manage to count, slowly, as the water laps into my ears…one, two, three… and I’m plucked out of the water. I gasp. He does it again. It’s a rolling baptism: first the warm stickiness of the sweet Southern evening, then the cool brace of chlorine. My lifejacket struggles to push me up to the surface while the kayak holds me under. There’s a tinge of panic about being upside down underwater and encased in a fiberglass cocoon.
He flips me back on top of the water. Like the hand of an angel.
“You got the hang of it?”
“Do it again,” I whisper, trying to sound sophisticated when the nose clip has cut off my sultry alto, making me sound like a congested cartoon character.
We smile, lock eyes, and he flips me again. From under the water I think I see the moon shining behind his silhouette.
One of these days, Alice. To the moon.
June 15, 2007
West Mount River, Hippie Rapids
Things I’ve seen:
1) The remains of an old hippie Volkswagen van on the side of the river, hence the name Hippie Rapids. There’s an urban legend that some hippies still live there, though I don’t see anything except the rusty van with the words “Make Love, Not War” painted along its side.
2) Darrin shows me a good play hole and demonstrates how he can do a kayak cartwheel on this standing wave. I surf the wave a while, but don’t attempt a cartwheel. Darrin laughs at me.
I love to roll now. Every evening we practice it in the pool. I like see how quickly I can do it—snapping and flexing my hips--- a turbine. Like if I spin fast enough, I’ll liquefy my bones, liquefy my heart, liquefy my brain so it just slowly slithers into the river and disintegrates into a million tiny atoms that surround the riverbanks, honey coves, and favorite secret fishing spots until I slowly meander to the sea. In pieces, granted. But still, to the sea.
“I think you’re ready for some whitewater.”
He says it like it’s one of those 10-syllable words on final Jeopardy. I like the way his green eyes reflect the Coleman lanterns. Like it’s a magical secret.
He then teaches me the most important move of all. He calls it the Hand of God.
“If you start to roll, and for whatever reason, you can’t flip back over, just pound on the sides of the kayak as hard as you can.”
“That’ll flip me over?”
“No, but it’ll let me know you need help, and I’ll flip you over.”
“Shouldn’t I just bail?”
“Never bail from your kayak.” His voice is suddenly stern and serious. “It protects you from getting hammered by the rocks. You’re safer in the kayak than out. Just pound the kayak, I’ll find you and flip you over.”
“And what if you’re not around?”
“You should never paddle alone, Charlotte. Never paddle alone.”
He says it like it is so easy to find someone to paddle with, like there would always be someone on the river with me.
Oak Creek Landing
Things I’ve seen:
1) A goat. I swear. In the middle of nowhere, meandering along the brambles at the edge of the water. Don’t know how it got there. I think Darrin was afraid I was going to try to save it and put it on my kayak, because he yelled, “That goat’s fine! He’s got plenty to eat! Leave him alone!”
We laugh about it later that night over wine and cheese at a small outdoor café that overlooks the river.
Mom asked when she was going to meet Darrin.
Mom is never going to meet Darrin.
Darrin says Beaucatcher Branch is a good place to start. It’s a small tributary, but it’s beautiful and it is “off the map” (whatever that means) and there are no tourists to wreck your style. He says the word ‘tourists’ long and slow and deliberate like it’s the worst cuss word he could think of. Some simple, basic class two’s and one class three that Darrin swears is not nearly as intimidating as it looks. He said he regularly runs class four’s. I’ve seen pictures of class fours. I can’t tell the difference between a class four and a waterfall.
We meander down a few class two’s, just enough to give me a thrill. I feel the boat turn at my slightest command. I follow Darrin’s path down the rapids. The cool spray refreshes me and I feel like I’m in outer space, flinging past comets and astro-dust. When I hit my first class three rapid, I feel a small pit in my stomach, the same nauseating thrill you get when you perch at the top of a roller coaster and you know you’re about to place your life into the merciless hands of physics. I push off with the paddle like Darrin told me and the kayak maneuvers down the drop with a boof as it hits the water. I take a sharp right and bang against a boulder. I recover, but as I’m coming out the last chute I feel my balance slip and the cool headwaters of the mountain river—much colder than any apartment complex swimming pool—loudly rush into my ears as I turn over.
My pool practice keeps me from panic. I briefly wonder about the fish, otters and other aquatic life examining me with wide eyes and perplexed stares. I push with the paddle and snap my hips, and I’m back on top of the river. I let the current flow my kayak toward Darrin. He’s waiting for me at the end of the rapids. He paddles beside me.
“You did great!”
“Yeah…” I gasp a little, just now realizing how much oxygen my racing heart had required.
He smiles and I smile. In my eyes, I know he sees it. I’m addicted now. Enthralled. No turning back. He grabs my paddle, pulls me closer to him and kisses me. I feel the cool smell of river on his cheek and the warm reassurance of his mouth.
All day float trip
French Broad River
Things I’ve seen:
1) Some type of small hawk or falcon. He never lets us get close enough to see what he is. He has a tawny red breast. He lets us paddle just close enough to tease us and then sails away. We paddle downstream only to find him waiting on us again. It’s a game we play all day.
2) Some awkward shack beside the river. Looks like a vagrant’s been living there because we see clothes and all kinds of plastic bags piled into a corner. Darrin says lots of people live by the river. He says they just live and let live. For some reason, that makes me feel better, but I’m not sure why.
Darrin’s so pleased with my progress he invites me to go with his Charlotte buddies on the Needle Eye. Of course, that’s not the name of the river, but that’s just what they call it. There’s a class four, and the class three’s can be rough depending upon the water level. I ask if I’m ready for it.
“Oh yeah,” he says. “Hell, yeah.”
We meet his buddies at the put-in. There’s Charles who’s an environmental engineer, his wife Lori, and Richard, who does something with computers—no one can explain to me what, exactly. Charles is athletic and his thin blonde hair is starting to gray around his temples. Lori sports a short, brown bob haircut like mine, and she’s almost taller than Charles. Charles calls her his Amazon.
We have some small talk as the gear is unloaded. Darrin pops open a bottle of Rolling Rock and takes a deep guzzle. He downs it in three swallows. Charles laughs and says this is what Darrin majored in at college—that is, if he had ever finished college. Darrin tosses the bottle to the side. I’ve never seen him litter. He goes to his truck and gets another bottle. He sips it and looks back and forth between Charles and Lori. I’ve never seen him drink before getting on the water.
“Hey, slow down buddy, you’re not as young as you used to be,” Charles says.
Darrin flips him off. Lori laughs nervously. Darrin stares at her.
“You’ve met my girl, Charlotte,” Darrin gestures to me with the neck of his beer bottle.
“Oh, that’s wild. Your name is Charlotte and we’re from Charlotte,” Lori says.
“Yeah.” I smile. Lori is hoping I’d find it funny, but I don’t. So I go and help Richard unload the lifejackets.
“Lori and Darrin used to date.” He mutters to me, quietly, like he’s doing me a favor by letting me in on some big secret.
“Long time ago.” He doesn’t elaborate.
“Hey Darrin, what we got today?” Charles asks.
“We’ve got some mild water starting out, and then some class three’s that really aren’t that bad. Then there’s a wicked four with fierce drop. Down below the four is a good standing wave that you can play in and practice your cartwheels. I’ve even caught some air on some flips there.”
“Charles can’t playboat to save his life,” Lori laughs. “But I can do a sweet cartwheel.”
“Maybe you can show my girl how to get a cartwheel rolling.” I should be happy that he’s calling me ‘my girl.’ But I’m not.
As the others slide into the water, I lean close to Darrin.
“I’ll just portage around the class four.” I say.
“You can’t. There’s not trial around it. It’s all rocks.”
“Well, then I’ll just take another branch, loop around and meet you back at –”
“I can’t do a class four.”
“You can do a class four. Please. It’s just a straight drop. It’s not that technical. Just let the rapid take in you in, drop, and spit you back out. Just follow me. I’ll be watching for you.”
He kisses me on the cheek. The smell of beer over powers the cool smell of the river.
I stick close to Darrin as we paddle downstream. He doesn’t say anything. He smiles at Charles and occasionally puts a glance in Lori’s direction. His eyes seem to change color when she laughs. Richard paddles beside me for some small talk, like he knows I’m feeling awkward---maybe regretting telling me about Lori and Darrin.
“It was a long time ago, Charlotte.” That’s all he says.
“Oh, it’s no big deal.” That’s what you say when it is a big deal.
I make it a point to document every sharp turn and stroke Darrin makes down the class three’s, telling myself it’s practice for exactly imitating him when we go down the class four.
I know I’m not ready for this, and yet, I have a feeling that I can’t turn back, that these events that took me up to here were decided long ago, when I first put my foot in the river, and if I’m going to die to today then I was meant to die today and there’s nothing I can do to stop the event in motion now.
I taste the cold, stale, mountain stream spray, turn, push a last paddle stroke and land the drop, but I overextend to the left and capsize with a stinging throb in my right arm. It throws my mind off and I try to snap my hips through the blinding pain. I hear a thud as my bow hits a rock. Something grazes my helmet. I can’t find the paddle. I try to flip, but with the pain and no paddle, I have to depend upon my hips. I snap my hips and push, but I don’t know which way is up. I open my eyes and can’t see, cold, white noise roars in my ears…my chest aches and spasms as it wants to me to take a breath. I clamp down on my throat. My chest stings...
I pound the sides of my kayak, calling for the Hand of God.
The water seems to slow a bit, and I try to flip again. No air. My arms can’t push, like it’s too cold and they’ve forgotten what to do. Don’t panic. Flailing. Don’t panic. No air. Be calm. Sweet Jesus. Be calm. Something strikes my wrists. No air.
Pounding the kayak. Hand of God.
No one watching, slamming, slamming, sweet Jesus—pounding flail burst no, no, no, no, dark, cold, slamming, slamming, sweet Jesus, slamming. Hand of God. Not like this. Not like this. Not like this. Everything arm, leg, wrist, bail, bail, bail, arm burning, bail, bail, bail—
Suddenly plucked out. Pulled over. The world right-side up.
Gasping, sucking in air like I’m having a stroke. Not sure where I am. Breathing. Is there color in my face? Breathing. I’m on the river. Breathing. I couldn’t flip back. I’m right side up now. Breathing. I look at Darrin to thank him for flipping me back over.
But it’s not Darrin. It’s Richard.
I try to say something but my vocal cords burn like stinging saltwater. I nod and cough.
I try to say something but nothing happens.
“Just breathe. Slowly. Just breathe.”
It’s like I’m learning to breathe again.
Richard recovers my paddle and guides me away from the rapids and to the standing wave, where Darrin is teaching Lori how to refine her cartwheel. Charles is surfing in and out of the wave.
“Hey Charlotte! See? There’s nothing to it.” He calls at me.
“She had a bad flip.” Richard said.
“You okay?” He asks me, but I can tell he has no plans on listening to whatever I say.
“She had a real bad flip.” Richard said.
“I know what that’s like,” Darrin smiles. “Man, the hydraulics I’ve been caught in, damn nearly drowned twice.”
He launches into a story about the kayaking in Colorado. But I’m not listening. The words rush over me like the water did. And I can’t breathe again.
I don’t know if Kristen heard me crying or if she heard me banging the walls as I awkwardly tried to maneuver the kayak into my living room. Maybe she heard both. She knocks and I let her in.
“New coffee table?” She points to the kayak in the middle of the living room.
“I’m still recovering from my near-death experience.”
“I heard. Richard told me.”
We sit there for a while and neither of us says anything. I wipe my eyes with my sleeve because I hate for people to see me cry.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I ask.
“Tell you what?”
“That he was just another jackass.”
“Because you wouldn’t have believed me. You wouldn’t have listened.”
“I would have.”
“No, you wouldn’t. No one ever has. No one ever does.”
Mom doesn’t understand why I don’t sell the kayak. I’m not so sure why I don’t, either. I could use the money. It’s been five months since I’ve gotten a check.
After a week, I take the kayak out to the pool at dusk. I strap myself in, paddle to the deep end of the pool and roll. I turn under, up, under, up, a thousand times—trying to perfect my turbine baptism. If I stretch my neck just right underwater, I can see the silvery moon. It’s like I’m on the highest mountain in the world, where I can just see that the earth curves, where I can see that the earth is round, and everything is going to circle away and come back again, just as I put my head back underwater. Again and again, seeing reflections in chorine glass.
To the moon, Alice. To the moon.