River Rat
Chapter 1

April 14, 1999

Nantahala Outdoor Center, Wesser, North Carolina

The last sip of coffee in the Aladdin cup was getting pretty cold, but at least it tasted more or less like coffee. The pot would still probably be hot over in the office, she thought. She could put up the "Back in Five Minutes" sign and go over and tank up, but she couldn't make up her mind if she really wanted to. Actually, on a day like this, there wasn't much that she wanted to do, and it was hard to get up the energy to do much of anything.

It was not an impressive day. It was overcast and was raining off and on, which made riding her bike to work pretty nasty. It was only about a mile to the showroom from the little travel trailer she'd lived in for years, but this morning's trip had been less than fun, even for as much of an outdoorsman as she was.

Probably it was the weather that got her down as much as anything, but there was the same old "what the hell am I doing here" question that she'd wrestled with for several years now.

She glanced out through the window of the showroom -- raining again. Bleaugh!! She knew that if she stepped outside she would be able to hear the falls running, and the sound of the racing water usually picked her up. In another couple weeks, it would be May. The summer help would start showing up, and she'd be back out on the Nanty, in a raft, where she thought she belonged, not here in a salesroom on a slow, wet day, without even any customers around to shoot the bull with.

Even the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers had started to die out, now. That was one of the real bright spots of the job -- for about a month, maybe a little more, there'd be handfuls of thru-hikers coming through, usually two to four weeks out of the trail head at Springer Mountain. She'd been there and done that, and was always happy to introduce herself to them as "Scooter" -- her trail name, the one she'd used on the trail through three thru-hike attempts, one of which was successful. Even her work name tag read: "Rhonda Whitsell -- 'Scooter', AT '93". She thought of herself as "Scooter" anymore, still a dedicated long-distance hiker -- even though she'd learned years ago that another thru-hike attempt was probably doomed to failure. But, it was hard to let the thought go that the possibility was there. It was harder when the thru-hikers came into the salesroom at Nantahala Outdoor Center, where she was always ready to stop and trade trail stories, help out with gear problems, and pass along encouragement and advice from one whose heart was out there with every thru-hiker, even though she couldn't be with them anymore.

By the time the thru-hikers made it this far, it was usually pretty clear to her who was going to make it and who wasn't. While she had the best of wishes for the people who were going to make it, she knew the hurt of having to give it up when your body wouldn't take you where your mind wanted to go. She'd been there and done that, too.

Back two years ago, when she'd made her last attempt at thru-hiking the trail with Diamond, it had all washed out right here, at NOC; the first attempt years before had washed out here too, and led directly to this job. Sometimes, it made her wonder what she was doing, hanging around at the scene of two of the lowest points of her life. At least, she ought to have the sense to do something else.

But what? She was twenty-seven now, working at what anyone in creation would call a dead-end job, making a minimum wage in the winter -- although better than that in the summer, when she turned into a raft guide and climbing instructor.

Get married? Yeah, right, she snorted to herself. Now, that was a real dead-end job. At least, she could get outdoors some in this business. Rafting a few months of the year was enjoyable, and she enjoyed it, even though she'd run the Nantahala so many times she was dead sure she could do it in her sleep, Nantahala Falls -- the white water people called it "Lesser Wesser" -- and all. And, she could do some climbing, even a little hiking, if she took it easy and didn't overstress her knees. It was satisfactory -- barely. The odds were that if she found someone to marry, she'd have to have a straight job, doing straight things like having kids.

And that, of course, ignored the point that it had been years since she'd found anyone she thought might be worth marrying -- or who might be interested in marrying a solid, short, chunky, not-too-pretty raft guide with a serious case of being an outdoor nut. Tinman? Well, that was years ago, back on the first try at the AT, but he'd hiked out of her life, and she'd never heard from him again. There were some neat guys who ran rafts in the summer, but most were college kids, and she was getting a bit old for them, now -- ten years older than some of them. Face it, Scoot, she thought, those pickings are getting pretty slim.

Scooter didn't smoke very much, but she did like cigars, at least once in a while -- ever since she'd been at the University of Virginia-Roanoke, long ago. Actually, they weren't cigars, but cigarillos, the junior version. Leon would blow a fuse if she lit one up in the showroom, but the place was dead; maybe she could go outside, light one, and take a few drags, while leaving the door cracked so she could listen for the telephone. They did relax her, helped her mind roll back. Besides, it would help kill a few dull minutes.

There was a partly-smoked one in her daypack, stuffed into a plastic case. They did taste a little rank when they were stale and re-lit, but hell, for just a few drags, she could hack it, be worth putting up with the bitter smoke. No point in wasting a good one on a sucky morning like this. The rotten taste would just go along with her rotten mood.

Outside, hearing the sound of the falls made her think of the rafting that lay only a few weeks off. She lit the cigar with a kitchen match, drew in a puff of bitter, strong smoke, and let it drift down toward the river in a thick cloud. She remembered how bad she'd felt facing her second year at the University of Virginia-Roanoke when she realized that she was so sick of sitting in classrooms that she just couldn't take it anymore. You get right down to it, she thought, I feel just about as bad now, but at least, back then, she'd had an answer. That was eight years ago, and in the fall, instead of going back to UV-R, she decided to go to a different school -- the Outdoor Leadership Training Academy in Idaho.

She was still a little surprised at herself for having done it, even though it had changed her life. OLTA had a reputation for being tough, a real Marine boot camp of a place, and it earned it. OLTA liked to pride themselves on how tough they made things, so they could be sure that their students could handle situations when they came up in the real world. Historically, it had proven to be a philosophy that worked, although a lot of people learned they couldn't cut it along the way -- which was part of the idea, too. They worked her ass pretty good, but she'd finished the course, she remembered with pride, and she learned more there in three months than she could have learned in ten years on her own, being a city kid and all.

She really hadn't been an outdoor bum when she went out there, although she liked being outside, but by the time she finally left, when the snow was ass deep on a tall giraffe, she'd become one. And, she'd pretty much stayed one, even though she couldn't get outside as much as she liked.

Get right down to it, she thought, even as remote as they are for the east, the Nanty and NOC are still pretty civilized. What would it be like to get out into some real backcountry? Maybe she ought to say screw this job, go find something interesting and different to do in the outside. But, it would have to be working at something -- there were a few hundred bucks in her financial reserves, not much to show for eight years of being an outdoor bum, although an employed one for most of it. Not enough to finance a major adventure trip -- especially when she couldn't hike.

OLTA had really been what sent her down this road. She'd gone back to UV-R the following semester, and found herself hating it just as much -- the Marine boot camp atmosphere of OLTA had changed her. She stuck it out through the semester, but spent most of the time looking for a reasonable outdoor job -- and found it, as a raft guide on the New River in West Virginia. She'd stuck the season out till the river got too chilly to run, then went home, took a square job for a few months with her mother bitching in her ear every minute about how she really ought to go back to college. That only lasted until the following March. She'd been writing back and forth to Tinman, a guy she'd known at OLTA, and between them they decided to try the AT. Together, they hitchhiked to Amicola Falls State Park in Georgia, and she started up the 2000 miles of Appalachian Trail to Maine with him.

OLTA had turned her into a pretty good hiker, and it was on the AT that she'd picked up the trail name of 'Scooter' -- she tended to hike pretty fast. She was a pretty muscular kid back then, anyway, and a summer of running thrill rides down the New had just added to it -- and to a desire to push hard, be something of a cowboy. But, she'd overdone the hiking, she realized now to her sorrow.

She and Tinman were still in their first weeks on the trail when her knees began to bother her, and she was really dragging her ass when they descended into Wesser, North Carolina and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. She decided to lay over a few days here, just to rest up her knees. While her knees had been healing, she'd gotten to talking with the NOC staff. Leon told her if she couldn't go on and finish the trail, on the strength of her summer on the New and her being an OLTA graduate, she could have a job here, running a raft down the Nantahala, and doing some climbing instruction.

It had been a trap, she realized now. A bad one, a mistake. She took one last drag on the cigar and set it on the window ledge to burn out while she went back inside to get out of the dismal rain. It had hurt like hell to have to leave the trail, to watch Tinman walk up the hill and what turned out to be out of her life, but she took the NOC job. She spent the summer rafting and hiking as much as she could, to try and build up her knees again. When fall came, they offered her a job inside, in the salesroom, since the kids who ran it in the summer had gone back to school. She took it, on the understanding that she'd be trying the trail again come March. That winter, she'd rented a little travel trailer in the back of a summer campground that was nominally closed for the winter, and had stayed there, trying to conserve her funds. She didn't have a car, then, or even now; she walked or rode a bicycle everywhere she went, trying to build her knees up again for the trail.

When March came, she quit NOC, and everyone there wished her luck and told her there'd be a place for her still, if she needed it, so apparently she'd done a good job for them. This time, she started up the trail solo, with her knees in better shape than they'd been a year earlier. And, she took it a lot slower, with hiking poles to help take the stress off her knees.

Between the hiking poles, knee braces, taking it easy and plenty of what the hikers called "Vitamin I" -- ibuprofen -- she'd made it to central Pennsylvania before her knees caught up with her. It was pretty damn painful, and she'd hobbled the last few miles before she realized she was going to have to take a break. With no idea of what else to do, she caught a bus back to NOC, and they were glad to put her in a raft while her knees recovered. In a month, she was back on the AT, knowing easier trail was ahead. She finally made it to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, the end of the trail, as the snow flew in late October -- no great time, but at least she'd finished the AT! That was something to be proud of, perhaps the high point of her life, standing there on top of Katahdin with the tears of joy running from her eyes.

A quick phone call from Millinocket, Maine, a couple days after she'd finished the trail, told her there was still a job for her in the salesroom at NOC, and that's where the bus took her. She rented the little travel trailer in the campground outside Wesser again and spent the winter, glad to have an outdoor job in hand, and not realizing that having that job would make it hard to get out and do anything like the AT again.

She wandered back inside and started to straighten some of the merchandise on the racks, not that there had been anyone in to mess it up in the days past. It was plenty straight; she'd done it yesterday and would do it again tomorrow. Goddamn knees, she thought. They hurt on a day like today. Maybe she ought to think of someplace out west where it was warm and dry, where these damp, cold days didn't happen very often, and maybe her knees wouldn't hurt so bad. Maybe I just ought to take off out of here, she thought, maybe next fall, and go out and hike for a few days in the desert someplace, to see if maybe I could hike again. Maybe the long-distance hiking is a dead issue, but a week, maybe two -- that might have potential, if I took it easy.

Damn, I wonder whatever happened to Diamond, she thought. Probably married that boyfriend of hers, turned straight. That would make her Crystal again. She hadn't thought of Crystal in some time, and now let her mind roll back.

The summer after she finished the AT, she was out on the Nantahala for NOC again. This time it was a little more interesting -- for a change of pace, she got to guide occasional raft trips on the Ocoee, over in Tennessee, not very far away.

It had been on the Ocoee one day when, in a crowd, her raft had been bumped into a place where she didn't want to go -- she'd run the river many times before and knew she didn't want to be there -- and they had flipped in a major rapids. Customers had gone flying every which way, and she looked on helplessly as one of them floated down river, face down. He was going to be a goner, she had been dead sure. There was no way she could get to him to help...

Then a miracle happened. Another raft guide, a big girl from Ocoee Adventures, saw what was happening, quickly threw off her high-flotation PFD, dove into the water, and took off after the floater like an Olympic swimmer. He wasn't breathing when the big girl got to him, but she rolled him over on his back and started CPR the best she could right in the water, and did it in the standing waves below the rapids no less. God, what a swimmer! In a minute or two, another Ocoee Adventures raft pulled up alongside the pair, and hands pulled the customer out of the water while the big girl scrambled aboard, and the two guides on the Ocoee Adventures raft did enough CPR to get him breathing again.

It still took a while getting everybody collected and the situation under control, and the guy didn't look good, but once Scooter's raft was back upright, the three rafts ran the safe routes down to the takeout, and called an ambulance. It was there that Scooter learned the name of the girl who had made the heroic swim to rescue the man -- Crystal Chladek; the raft that had collected them had been run by Noah Whittaker.

Scooter had been shaken by the incident and thanked the both of them profusely, and offered to buy them a beer -- in fact, all the beer they could drink. Noah turned her down -- it was just a neighborly thing to do to help out when someone was in trouble, he said, and besides, he was a ministerial student, and he didn't drink. Crystal said that she'd take her up on it some time, but they didn't have the time right now.

It was nine months before she saw Crystal again. She'd been sitting behind the desk at NOC bored to tears, just like today, when Crystal came in with a boyfriend, Randy. While the boyfriend poked around she and Crystal got to talking, mostly about the AT, which Crystal had plans to do in the future -- and Scooter admitted that she'd like to try it again sometime, to try to run it clean, straight through. The two of them made a note to get together the following summer, and they did. Scooter finally bought Crystal the beer she'd promised her, and over the course of the summer they became pretty good friends. Along the way that summer, they did some hiking, some climbing, and messed around together a little doing other things. She got to know Noah a bit that summer, too, and decided that for a ministerial student, he was pretty cool.

After a lot of talking about it that summer and the following summer, examining options, Crystal told Scooter she had definite plans to do the AT the next summer. Even with the knee problems, it was tempting, and she agreed to think about going with her.

Back to knee exercises, back to walking whenever possible, trying to build the fucking knees up to where they might be able to take the stress of another AT trip. Crystal dropped by right after the Christmas holidays, and they confirmed that they were going to try the hike together. Two months later, Crystal stopped by NOC with her boyfriend, who would drop both of them off. She warned Crystal -- her trail name was "Diamond" -- that she wasn't real sure about her knees, but was game to give it a try; Crystal's boyfriend hauled them to Amicola Falls and waved good-bye as they started up the trail to the AT trailhead on Springer Mountain.

It didn't go well. By the time they got back to Wesser, her knees were hurting pretty bad -- not as bad as Pennsylvania, or the time she'd dropped out at Wesser before, but it was clear that she wasn't going to be able to do the whole thing without slowing Crystal down significantly. The two of them had a long talk, and Crystal offered to stick it out with her, but it clearly wasn't going to fly. It was hard to see Crystal head up the trail alone, hard to go back to the dull, boring desk in NOC, but at least she had a job, and there was rafting in the summer, when it finally came around. But, she often wondered about Crystal, out on the trail, and wondered how she was getting along -- and she came to the realization it was futile to think about trying the AT again.

She heard from Crystal that fall -- just a postcard, saying that she'd made it -- but never another one, and that was going on two years ago now. She saw Noah last summer -- he'd given up raft guiding, but brought a group for a day on the Nanty. She was glad to run a raft with him; she learned that he was now youth pastor of Glen Hill Road First Baptist Church in Chattanooga, doing exactly what he had been working toward doing all those years.

Last summer, she thought. He's probably still there. Maybe she could borrow a car sometime, head down to Chattanooga and look him up. He'd always been pretty good to talk to; maybe he could help her figure out what it was she was supposed to be doing with her life. But then, he was a preacher, and there was always the danger that taking her problems to him might go someplace where she didn't want to go. Maybe not, she thought. It would be nice to see him, though, just for old times' sake, just to see someone different.

In the two years since Diamond hiked out of Wesser, Scooter had settled into the job at NOC, rafting in the summer, running the store in the winter. She loved the rafting, although the Nanty was now pretty boring after as much as she ran it, sometimes two and three times a day for months on end. She dreamed of hiking again, and would go out on day hikes, but knew that a long-distance hike was out of the question in the future.

And, in the two years that passed, Scooter spent a lot of time wondering just what the fuck she was doing and where the fuck she was going. You get right down to it, as nice as the people were, it was a lousy job -- she made ends meet, and that was about it. She did that only because she was still living in the little travel trailer and was without a car and not doing anything away and fun. But, on the long, slow days behind the desk at NOC, she'd begun to wonder if maybe she was ready to say the hell with this half-assed outdoor life, get a real job, maybe go back to school, maybe get married -- just turn square. But, what to do, how to do it? Whatever, it was time for a change.

Oh, get over it, she thought, giving up on the futile job of straightening for the umpteenth time merchandise that didn't need it. Let's face it, Scoot, she thought -- you're just about bored to tears. She wandered over to the book rack, which had tour books and trail guides for a lot of places, and grabbed one at random, just for something to get her mind on something else. She went back to the stool behind the counter and took a look at it -- The Colorado River in Grand Canyon.

Another fucking dream, she thought. Gee zow! She'd love to run the Canyon, even once. It was every rafter's dream -- two to three weeks between those high canyon walls, big water, real back country, the most awesome landscape on the face of the earth. But there was a hell of a long waiting list to do private trips, and she'd have a hell of a time getting a group together to do one. Living on a shoestring, there was no way she could afford what it took to buy herself a place on a trip. It was fun to think about maybe getting a job out there, but it was probably impossible. The Canyon had a reputation around the small world of professional rafting -- it was the pinnacle of the profession; the outfitters out there weren't big on women raft guides. They liked people to have lots of western river experience before they turned them loose on a raft, and all her experience was in the east. Still, maybe it might not be the dumbest idea she ever had to send out some résumés, even though she knew it was hard to get a job out there unless you knew someone.

Still, it was fun to leaf through the maps in the books, learning a little about the background. Maybe someday ... but probably impossible.

The phone rang. It was an extension, and probably the phone call wouldn't be anything. The most interesting calls they ever got in the salesroom were when mail order called, wondering if there might be something in the salesroom that they were out of stock of downstairs. Still, it had to be answered. She picked up the phone and said, "NOC salesroom."

"Good God! Are you still stuck behind that damn desk?" a voice asked. It took a second to recognize the voice -- Crystal! -- it had been two years, after all. What could she be doing now?

"Afraid so," Scooter said glumly. "I wouldn't mind doing something else."

"I got something for you," she heard Crystal say. "The guy I'm working for needs a couple experienced raft guides, bad. He asked me if I knew anyone back there good enough who might like to come out here. If you want to come, you got a job. Screw that three-runs-a-day jazz -- we stay out for weeks. Scooter, screw the damn Nanty. Get your ass out from behind that damn desk, come out here and run some real water with me."

"Are you sure it's going to turn into a job?" she asked. Crystal could be a bit, well, exuberant, and it probably wouldn't be the best idea to pull up stakes on a secure job, lousy though it was, chasing after some will-o'-the-wisp.

"Al's standing right next to me, and he says that if you're half as good in a raft as I am you're hired, and I know you're better than I am. Now get your butt out here. We hit the river Sunday, so we've got to blow out of here about ten in the morning. You'll have to do some qualifier trips, and the pay for them isn't real great, but you don't have to worry about a place to stay. When you get a raft of your own, the pay ain't bad."

By God, how about that for a ticket out of here! Whatever it was, it would be good to at least see Crystal again, to do something new and different. She still wasn't too clear on what the job was -- well, rafting, obviously -- but whatever it was, and wherever, it had to beat sitting behind the desk at NOC. "I'm on my way, Crystal," she said. "Just one question."

"What's that?"

"Where am I on my way to?" she laughed. "I have to tell them something when I buy the bus ticket."

Crystal laughed. "Shit, I didn't tell you, did I? When you get to the bus station, tell them you want a ticket to Flagstaff, Arizona. When you get here, call over to Canyon Tours, and someone will come pick you up."

Oh, my God! Scarcely believing her ears and helpless to stop herself she let out a gasp. "You mean, like the Grand Canyon, right?" she managed to stammer.

"Damn straight," Crystal told her. "We don't piss around with lesser canyons. How soon can you get here?"

Holy shit! She did know someone in the Grand Canyon, it turned out -- Crystal! How in hell had that happened? Well, she'd find out soon enough. Good-bye, NOC, I'm off to dreamland, she thought as she said, "Crystal, I'll be there as fast as Greyhound can carry me."

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