Late summer of 1994, I was headed off to Lewis & Clark college.
I had signed up for a freshman orientation rafting trip on the Deschutes as a chance to get to know some people before school.
My parents and I pulled up in front of the College Outdoors building to a group of kids with all of their stuff spread out on the ground while our guides pointed at the things we wouldn’t need.
Flip flops? Gone.
Multiple jackets? Gone.
Too many extra clothes? Gone.
We were going to have three boats. Two with people and one with our supplies so space was at a premium. Everyone got a single waterproof duffle bag and everything had to fit in it.
I was ruthless in getting rid of stuff. Ruthless to a fault, in fact. I ended up having to borrow a fleece jacket during the trip because I didn’t pack enough warm gear. I also dumped my sandals and destroyed my favorite pair of canvas shoes over the course of the week.
At that age, all I wanted was to prove to everyone how I didn’t care what they thought about me. Of course, all I ever thought about was what everyone thought of me.
The fleece jacket I borrowed was bright pink and I was terrified people would tease me for wearing it. No one cared.
I’d taking to painting my toenails black in high school. Now that I was in college, black toenails seemed silly. I spent the first afternoon on land unsuccessfully trying to scrape it off in the gravel. Once again, no one cared.
We settled into a groove after the first couple of days. Being on a river all day and camping out at night has a way of bringing people together. You find out about people when you’re in a boat together all day.
My friend Murray and I were banned from ever talking about Monty Python after spending an afternoon reciting Monty Python and the Holy Grail verbatim.
I don’t remember any of our guide’s names or who they even were. Were they older students? Employees of the college? I have no idea, but they were wonderful.
One guide had long hair and glasses and he and I spent an hour playing in the eddies across the river from our campsite. You could drift downstream into a couple of tiny whirlpools that would spin you around, dunk you underwater once, then spit you out again.
He would read to us every night before bed like we were little kids. First from this bizarre Australian book that was a satire of a children’s book. There was a guy in drag with a muppet on the cover and the stories were about sex and shark attacks written in Dick-and-Jane style.
My favorite was when he would read sections of The River Why by David James Duncan. It was so compelling for a book about fishing. I bought a copy as soon as I got to school. I sat down and it read it three times in a row before putting it down. Aside from Ender’s Game, I think it’s the book I’ve reread the most.
I carried my copy of it everywhere until it was ruined in a flood in Ecuador. Then I went right out and bought it again. I haven’t read it for a while. I’m more comfortable in my own skin now, but it was just the thing for an awkward teenager trying to find himself.
Some of the girls on our trip would sing to us at night. Laying in bed even now, I can hear soft voices singing The Gambler or The Rose over the soft crackle of a dying fire.
It felt so good to have friends at the start of college, but it didn’t last long. We used to go to each other’s rooms. Then it was just saying “hi” in passing. Then friendly nods, then nothing.
We got to know our roommates and the other people in our dorms and we didn’t need that safety net anymore. But I’m grateful to all of those people, all those moments on the Deschutes.
A single step in a far-apart series that made me feel not so alone anymore.