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A Million Little Pieces Of My Mind

Standing Wave

By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 6/20/2024
Posted: 4/13/2006
Page Views: 6091
Topics: #AlienAbductions #GrandCanyon
All about how I brought, and lost, a date to Grand Canyon.

Okay. So I didn't really expect that David, the young man I met in Vancouver, was going to become my husband.

But I also wasn't ruling it out. All I was hoping for, was a fun rafting trip through Grand Canyon. And if there was a little romance, that would be all right, too.

I picked David up, as arranged, at Las Vegas' McCarran Airport. He kissed my neck at the gate in greeting, which I thought was sweet and also indicated that he was proudly "out"—a good sign. We got into the car I had rented and headed for Flagstaff, where the Grand Canyon rafters gather prior to the trip.

I told David about my previous three Grand Canyon rafting trips and how much I was looking forward to this one. I explained that my first trip, with my daughter, had only been the three day "Canyon Sampler", in which you fly into the Canyon by helicopter and "do" the last three days of the rafting trip. "Seeing the Canyon by helicopter is really special," I told him. "That's the only bad part about rafting the whole Canyon; you don't get to take the helicopter ride."

It's a bit of a long drive; when I got sleepy, I asked David if he would mind driving. He said he'd be happy to; so we swapped seats and I leaned back and closed my eyes. I was just starting to doze off when a severe bumping jolted me awake. My eyes flew open and I saw that we were off the left side of the road, heading for the ditch! David was staring, terrified, both his hands in the air as if he had already given up and was waiting for Jesus to take the wheel. I grabbed it with my left hand and wrenched the car back onto the blacktop. When we were safe again, I said, "Would you like me to drive for awhile?" David was so shaken I had to instruct him to remove his foot from the accelerator so the car would slow down and I, still steering, could guide it to the right hand shoulder.

With me driving again—and quite wide awake!—I asked David if he was all right, and what had happened? He told me he must have dozed for a moment. After all he had just flown from Vancouver, and hadn't really gotten enough sleep the night before. I said, "David, when I asked if you minded driving, why didn't you just say you were too tired?" He didn't have an answer. Mentally, I scratched off one point from the potential future boyfriend scorecard…a scorecard that David had no idea I was keeping.

At Flagstaff, we arrived at the Days Inn where the rafters meet, just in time for the pre-trip briefing. This was my fourth Grand Canyon rafting trip with the same company and I was hoping that one of my old friends would be giving the briefing; but it was given by a boatman I hadn't met before. It was the usual talk about what to expect on the river, which by this time I could have given; but, of course, was all new to David and he paid rapt attention. We were given our rubber dry bags and our metal ammo cases (for cameras and small personal items, not for ammunition) and told to meet again at six in the morning.

Back in our room, I was ready, after a long day, to hit the sack. David kissed me goodnight, and then kissed me again. Before I could say anything, he warned that he insisted on "safer sex". I mentally gave him back a point for that. He had told me, when we first met in Vancouver, that he was HIV negative, as I am; but it's a good idea to always play safe.

Dave and I at Days Inn

In the morning we brought our loaded dry bags and ammo cases down to the waiting vans parked in front of the Days Inn. We checked our luggage at the hotel, to await our return two-and-a-half weeks later.

The vans made the five hour drive from Flagstaff to Lee's Ferry, the put-in point for the rafting trip. I dozed most of the way, but David was gregarious and chatted with the other passengers. I did note with curiosity that, when asked, he told them he was 22 years old. He had told me 24 in Vancouver. But, I thought, he probably had a birthday coming up soon and had given me the age he was soon to be. Or something like that.

Lee's Ferry

At Lee's Ferry we found the rafts inflated and waiting on the bank of the Colorado River. We deposited our bags, and, as directed, located life vests from a pile near the rafts. I greeted Robby, the lead boatman and my friend from my first three trips. I had telephoned him the previous winter and told him I was gay. That was when I had made the reservations for the trip and expected Steve to come with me. "You don't think it makes any difference to me, I hope?" he said.

No, I responded. I just wanted him to know it in advance for when I showed up that summer with a boyfriend.

Now, here I was with a boyfriend candidate I desperately hoped would fill the void in my aching heart. Or not.

As the other boatmen secured our dry bags to the baggage boat, Robby gathered the passengers around in a little clearing amidst the tamarisk trees and gave us a final talk. He explained how the potty system worked; what to do if we needed to "go" during the day when it wasn't set up; how important it was to not discard any trash in the Canyon, and so on. Finally, he concluded, "If any of you has a medical condition, please let me know about it." No one responded, and he added, "You can tell me in private later, if you like, but it's important I know. For example, if you are allergic to bee stings, we carry epinephrine kits but if you don't tell me and get stung, I won't know to use one. If you are prone to epileptic seizures, let me know so if you should have one, we'll handle it appropriately."

People asked the usual questions: What if someone became seriously ill on the trip? What if someone died? Robby explained that seriously ill people could be flown out of the Canyon by helicopter from many places along the river. If anyone died, their bodies would be put in a body bag brought for the purpose (!) and they'd be lashed to the side of the baggage boat until the end of the trip. "Is that to keep them from decomposing, by keeping them cold?" someone asked. In fact, it is; the river water is a fairly constant forty-five degrees. But Robby answered with a straight face, "That's to make sure they go the whole way, so there'll be no talk of refunds by the victim's family," which made everyone laugh and got us back to lighter topics.

By now the rafts were ready; David followed me to Robby's raft for the first day. We pushed off, four passengers and one boatman per boat, and the current caught us up and began moving us down the river. The majestic, impossibly high and brightly colored walls of Marble Canyon slowly glided past us, as Robby broke the ice by asking each of his passengers what he or she did for a living. The other two passengers in our raft were a father and his son. The father was a doctor, and had flown to Flagstaff in his own, private plane. The son was too young to work, but told about his high school, where he was a freshman, and how his dad was teaching him to fly. I mentioned my work as an instructor of computer programming. And then it was David's turn. "I'm a drag queen," he announced. "I specialize in doing Diana Ross."

My jaw dropped. He had told me he was unemployed. He was also a muscular six foot three, and wore a neatly trimmed beard. "How does the beard work with that?" I asked, after a moment of stunned silence.

"Well, I haven't actually performed in about six months," he admitted. "I shave the beard when I'm performing, eh?"

And then, of course, Robby and the doctor and his son insisted on a demonstration, and as I tried to find a hole in the bottom of the raft I could crawl into, he began to belt out "Baby Love" at the top of his lungs, complete with sweeping gestures and nods in the direction of a set of invisible Supremes.

The worst of it was, he was actually pretty good at it.

On the river

"How's Cathy?" I asked Robby, to change the subject. Cathy had been a baggage boatman on my second river trip; she and Robby were a "couple".

However, Robby surprised me by saying, "It's over."

"What? You were so cute together!"

"It wasn't going anywhere," Robby said. "So, I ended it."

I was stunned. I really liked Cathy, and I loved that she and Robby were in love. Now it was over. Like Steve and me. It sucked.

Mountain goat

After lunch and a few hours further down the river, we stopped for a short hike. David was eager, at first; but the trail wound its way onto a minor cliff, snaking about five feet above a dry stream bed. Walking in the bed itself would not be a good idea, partly because it was rocky and uneven, and partly because, in the case of rain up on the rim, a flash flood could well fill that stream bed up. But David was very nervous about the height. Now, I used to be afraid of heights and am still nervous about standing on insecure surfaces. But David was so apprehensive he was nearly immobilized. He couldn't move forward or backward. "I'm afraid," he whimpered.

"Grand Canyon is about facing your fears," I told him matter-of-factly. I gently talked him into taking a step, telling him to close his eyes and keep his hands on my shoulders as I led the way. He couldn't complete the hike; we had to return early, to my disappointment. David had just lost more points.

Then I overheard him speaking to the doctor's son. The boy, apparently, had asked David how old he was, not having ridden in the same van with us to Lee's Ferry. I was a distance away and David didn't know I could overhear him, or maybe he didn't care. But the answer he gave was "21", a year younger than he'd told Robbie and three years younger than he told me when we first met. At this rate, David would be a fetus before the trip was over.

For some reason, it never occurred to me that David might actually be 24, but rounding down to others for some reason. (Maybe he was already fearing old age?)

I had come to realize how very important honesty is to me. And so, I had to hear from David how old he really was. I didn't care what the answer was, well, as long as he was at least 18; but I wanted the truth. That night, as we lay on our sleeping bags in front of our tent, I brought the conversation around to the concept of honesty, and why it meant so much to me, and how a man must be trustworthy if he intends to call himself a man. I also allowed as to how, sometimes, people make mistakes and that I was willing to accept the mistakes of others as long as they own up to them, as I hope others will accept mine. He listened and agreed enthusiastically, yet he seemed to have not one shred of an idea of what I was talking about.

Which of course made me wonder if I had heard correctly. Maybe he had told the doctor's son "24" and it just sounded like "21" over the distance and the rush of the river.

The problem was, as important as I thought honesty was to me, I wasn't being completely honest with myself. I had barely met David before the trip; I still couldn't say I knew him well. It was foolish, even creepy, for me to be thinking in terms of any kind of long-term romance, especially so soon after being dumped by Steve. And yet, I was. And I was so afraid of a repeat of the broken heart Steve gave me, that I was being entirely too vigilant to really enjoy myself.

The next day the boatmen led another hike, and David insisted on going. He apparently had set his mind to overcoming his fear of heights, and, to my amazement, ran along a trail that was far scarier than the one from the day before. Okay, I thought to myself. He's capable of working to overcome his weaknesses. That regained him a couple of points.

David hiking

The next few days went similarly. The other passengers, somewhat to my surprise and certainly to my relief, were perfectly comfortable with having a gay couple on the trip. One woman in particular, Celeste, who was there with her boyfriend-candidate, found in me a kindred spirit and we chatted a lot about what we wanted in boyfriends, which flaws were terminal, and which we could overlook. Her river date, Eric, was very much in love with her but she was planning to dump him. "We aren't better together than we are separately," she said. "So, what's the point?" I felt terrible on behalf of the extraordinarily personable Eric.

On the seventh day, we came to Bright Angel Creek and Phantom Ranch. This is the only civilization along the river, and we enjoyed the novelty of buying T-shirts, postcards, and calling our families. David called his "Mum" in Newfoundland. "This is the most wonderful thing that's ever happened to me," he told her. "It's changed my life."

That night, I discovered something else that must have changed David's life. It was Robby's turn to cook dinner and I had offered to help. Robby seemed to have something on his mind. Finally, he spilled it: "Doesn't it bother you," he blurted, "having a boyfriend who's HIV positive?"

I was taken aback. "I don't know," I said finally. "I've never had one."

Robby stopped stirring and looked at me, blushing. "I guess I shouldn't have said anything," he said. "I thought you knew." When I looked at him blankly, he explained, "The first day, when I asked the passengers to tell me about their medical conditions, David came up to me and told me he was HIV positive. I thought you knew," he repeated.

Thank God, I thought. Thank God we had never done anything that could transmit the virus into my system. Thank God I've always insisted on safe sex…and no wonder he did.

He had lied to me, though. He had told me he was HIV negative.

Later, while eating dinner, I confronted him. "I hear you're HIV positive," I said. "That's not what you told me in Vancouver."

"No, no! I told Robby I might be positive," he replied. "I was worried, so I took the test, but I haven't gotten the tests results, yet. I just thought Robby should know, in case."

Wouldn't Robby be a more accurate reporter than that? Or had he simply overreacted when David told him he might be poz? David had now lost all his points. It had been too recently that I had, I felt, been betrayed by Steve; I now didn't feel I could trust David, or possibly anyone else, ever. I had demanded a date to bring to Grand Canyon and I had gotten one. But the Universe wasn't about to let me off so easily. The date I had been guided to find, was one I couldn't fall in love with and wasn't at all suitable as a life partner—not because he was HIV positive, which I could have worked around, but because he seemed to be inherently dishonest.

Or was I being tested? Maybe David was the perfect man for me; maybe my standards were too high. I decided to withhold judgment. We still had a week and a half to go. Robby often said that couples who go through the Grand Canyon either get closer or break up. At this point, it could go either way.

And, I kept reminding myself, This is only a date with a new friend.

As the days passed, David got more and more into being in the wilderness and less and less timid about things like heights. He even took a turn rowing, as I did.

And so, each day we floated a few more miles down the river (we averaged 20-25 miles a day), stopping here and there to hike and see cool stuff that wasn't right on the water, like Clear Creek, which actually included a sideways waterfall.

Clear Creek

Then there was the day we took a side trip with the rafts, to the mouth of the Little Colorado River, which is a tributary to the Colorado River we were rafting. We hiked up a mile or so, then played in a natural flume for hours.

Playing in the Little Colorado River Eric and I learning to ballroom dance.

That night was the last one for the one-week passengers. The rafting company traditionally has a party that night, a farewell for the folks who are leaving us. Scotty, one of the other boatmen, took out a small Walkman and speakers and played Sixties music while we danced. David and I danced as a couple; and then people started mixing and matching. Celeste decided to teach us all to ballroom dance, and Eric danced with me while she danced with David. Eric seemed perfectly relaxed about it and no one else had a problem; in fact, one of the other straight guys cut in before the dance was over. It was the way things should be, and I had never suspected could be.

I didn't know it then, but it would be David's and my last night together.

The next day, having taken on a new set of passengers, said goodbye to Eric and surprised to find that Celeste had spontaneously decided to extend her trip another week, we approached one of the larger rapids.

Hance Rapid is big and nasty. You can hear it thundering from half a mile away. Its standing waves make it visible as soon as you turn the canyon corridor in which it is located. David and I were riding with Gray, a new boatman on his first licensed trip in the Canyon. David and I, in the front of the raft, hung on properly to the lines as did the two passengers in back. We watched Robby, as lead boatman, take the rapid first. His raft was tossed up and down like a leaf in a hurricane, before being spit out into an eddy, where Robby and his passengers waited for the other rafts to come through.

Going through a rapid

One by one, the rafts made the same trip through the gauntlet: To the right here, to the left, around that hole, dodge that standing wave. Then it was our turn. Gray entered the rapid perfectly. He made all the same moves the other boatmen had. When we got to the standing wave, however, it suddenly doubled in height, folding our raft in half like a taco shell, before releasing it and spitting us out.

At the ocean shore, the water stays still and the waves move. In a rapid, the water moves and the waves stand still; hence, they are called standing waves. They might vary a little in height, but only by inches; they are permanent parts of the rapid and, as long as the flow of water is unchanged, the standing waves remain steady.

It was not normal for a standing wave to suddenly grow like that. It had taken Gray by surprise but he had recovered beautifully, not letting it tip or flip us. I grinned at David. "How was that?!" I yelled, giddy with the thrill. But David wasn't smiling. He was grimacing in pain. When the raft folded, it had crushed his leg between the air tube and the metal oar frame. Now he couldn't move it.

We pulled into the eddy and explained the problem to Robby. Gray feared he'd done something wrong, but Robby assured him otherwise. "I never saw a standing wave do that before," he said. "It's like it had David's name on it." Even though David wasn't bleeding, Robby subtly gestured to Gray to put on surgical gloves before examining him. I winced. Robby may not have had a problem with gay people per se, but he sure didn't know much about HIV transmission. He was exhibiting the unreasoning terror of the disease that I'd hoped people had pretty much gotten past.

David's leg continued to swell, and he still couldn't move it. The doctor and his son were still with us, but without X-ray equipment the physician couldn't guess how much damage had been done. The safest course, he said, was to airlift David out of the Canyon, to receive proper medical care. "The alternative," he said, "is to risk losing the leg."

Robby had to make a command decision. David wanted to stay, but he was in pain and frightened and willing to take the advice of others. Robby may also have feared that, somehow, David would infect someone with HIV just by being injured. And, of course his reduced movement would require someone—me—to tend to him, bringing him his meals, getting him to the bathroom, and so on.

Robby decided to radio for a helicopter.

It arrived within the hour. Robby warned the paramedics to wear gloves, but once they realized David wasn't bleeding, they removed them. They strapped him to a stretcher. I laughed shakily. "Looks like you're going to see the Canyon by helicopter, after all." We hugged goodbye, the paramedics loaded him into the chopper, it rose into the air, and then he was gone.

David waiting to be helicoptered out of the Canyon.

Gone. As if he'd never been there. I was alone again, naturally.