I’m older than dirt.
The kid sitting on the pile of gear behind me is maybe 25, the son of my one of my life friends. He’s going to guide me through my first class 3 rapids. He’s got to be nuts. He’s laughing and joking on top of the cargo net. I have a death grip on the oars. I watched him take us through some earlier rapids here on the Yampa. He was coolly competent. The raft just bounced and flew exactly where he wanted it to go. I was impressed. I caught myself thinking, “If this kid can do this, it can’t be that hard.”
He was a scary kid growing up. He drank way too much beer and did crazy stuff. He’s big at 6’ 8”and got in bar fights. I called his dad one day to talk about business and asked after his kid. His dad stopped me cold when he said, “I hope he survives high school.”
I was 25 in the early-’70s and fighting a losing battle with the draft. My government wanted me for cannon fodder. I almost had a degree and some school-loan debt. I had an apartment with my girlfriend and a job at a newspaper. I lost the fight with the draft and was saved by the reserves. I married the girlfriend. And I was real average in all respects. Did I whine about stuff? Of course, but I was taking care of myself.
A lot of you guys in this same age range are doing fine, but a disproportionate number of you don’t appear to be able to find your butt with both hands. You guys seem like you have the attention span of a fruit fly. You have huge debt from school. Your unemployment rate is the same as Muslims in Norway, and you are living at home with mom and dad.
If you are 25 and still reading this (doubtful) you are going to think, “Just another cranky geezer.” That could be true, but that’s not the point. This is a really rough start for you guys under 30. Mark Twain talked about older parents looking at their middle-aged children searching for signs of improvement.
We’re looking at you guys and saying, “We know it’s tough out there. In one way or another, it has always been tough out there. Show us something.”
I can hear the roar of the rapids ahead, but I can’t see it. I’ve sweated through the back of my cowhide gloves. Best guess is that my pulse is already over 100. There is that odd metallic taste of fear in my mouth.
“Remember,” he says, “when you see the tongue, set-up right in the middle of it.”
I nod my head, because I’m afraid that if I say anything my voice will sound nervous — but more like scared shitless.
We round a bend and there before us is the maelstrom. It is just a wall of whitewater that makes me wonder what class 4 and 5 are like. I see the tongue. And after several days of coaching from a 25-year-old, my hands move the raft into position in a sort of magical way. I’m a hair to the right and get a slight tap on my left shoulder.
“Good” is the last thing I hear before the roar of the river as we fly down the tongue.
This 25-year-old is a boatman. He’s also a mechanical engineer with a new job on the coast and a wife headed for medical school. Like all of us, he’s got some rough patches in front of him. And he has many more days on the river where he will laugh so hard the back of his head will hurt. He’s made a life for himself.
Things start happening fast. I feel like I’m going to broach to the left and into a wall. I’m praying that the kid will reach down and take the oars. Instead I get a firm hand on my right shoulder and pull hard to get my line again.
There is a huge “WHOOOP! from behind.
We pound down two more tongues in better order this time. I might actually be smiling through clenched teeth.
In my peripheral vision, a big left hand points a finger toward a wave train.
“Hit the train! Hit the train!”
We ride the train and settle back in a placid ride downstream with the roar behind us.
I’m getting pounded on the back by this kid.
It will take a week to get the smile off my face.
It’s fine to ignore what I’ve said here. But this kid has taught me to believe in you guys. There is some hugely important work that needs to get done in the next 40 years. There are mountains and rivers and oceans to explore. Get out there and do it.
Boulder resident Alan Stark, a gin-drinking, portly trail runner with an attitude, is the publisher at Colorado Mountain Club Press. His blog, Mountain Passages, can be found at mountaingazette.com.