A few years back, I went on an eight day Grand Canyon whitewater rafting adventure with my family. This trip offers not the bird’s eye view that most people get from the rim, but a hands on, way down there in the canyon, right on the river experience. It also took everyone out of their comfort zone.
Our boat was one of two large motorized pontoon rafts that departed together at Lees Ferry. We embarked down the river, propped on board in our Keens, quick-dry gear and life jackets, our possessions tucked away in dry bags and strapped down for the weeklong journey. We started off as a merry party, piloted by an expert crew of experienced boatmen who commandeered the rafts and guided us through the rapids. We learned about the geology and the natural and human history of this awesomely beautiful place. Each night, our crew found a comfortable piece of shoreline on which to set up camp and cook our meals. We slept under the stars and watched the Milky Way move across the evening sky. It sounds idyllic and it was.
But it was also harsh and uncomfortable at times. The temperature went from extremely hot while we were floating, baking in the sun, to shivering cold after we passed through a rapid, drenched in freezing water from the Colorado River. For anyone used to creature comforts, it was an adjustment to go without a shower for seven days, to sleep outside every night, to share a portable toilet for an entire week. We suffered through mid-day rain showers, an all night sandstorm and a midnight thunderstorm. By the third day (frankly, when everyone got comfortable with the portable toilet) everyone relaxed, and we became a tribe of sorts. It was a testament to the human spirit to see how well everyone, including me, adapted to our new environment and learned to thrive.
About mid-morning on the third day, we stopped where the Little Colorado meets the Colorado River. The Colorado is a freezing, cold, relentless river, but the Little Colorado is its gentler, warmer cousin. The water is temperate, more appealing for swimming and wading, and the Navajo tribe generously allowed us to spend a few hours there. After a group of us hiked upriver to enjoy the views, our guide suggested that we all jump in together to form a chain and float back downriver. Sounds like fun, eh? I was terrified.
Let me explain. I am not outgoing or athletic. I am not a risk-taker. I am also practically legally blind when not wearing my glasses. Having given up wearing my contacts on this trip, due to the harsh elements and constant sand, to now jump into the river required me to take my glasses off and hand them over to someone who was not jumping in. I’d have to navigate staying afloat, while hooking my feet under the armpits of the person in front of me, while also grabbing the feet of the person behind me, so we could form a chain and let the current carry us downriver together. All of this without being able to see much more than the blur of people on shore and the head of the person in front of me. I anticipated injuries and drowning and God only knows what. I balked.
But then a little voice inside my head said this was a fleeting moment. There, with my river tribe, standing on large rock overlooking the rushing pale river below, this moment would never come again. If I didn’t do this thing, then I would regret it for the rest of my life. I weighed the fear of blindly jumping against the idea of carrying the regret. In the end, the tipping point was the awareness that if I started to drown, my tribe was there to save me. I believed in them, and then I believed in myself. When they counted to three and jumped, I jumped with them. I didn’t drown. I laughed my ass off while I floated in that human chain down the sparkling river. I was exuberant, triumphant.
My parents, who are in their early seventies and thankfully did not make the jump, later commented to the tribe and the crew that they were seeing a whole new side of their daughter on this vacation. My best friend, also along for the trip, teasingly called me Adventure Kim. There is no doubt about it; I grew as a person on that rafting trip. I was a different person when we disembarked via jet boat at Lake Mead, eight days after we started. It occurs to me now, years later, that this was a glimmer of what was to come, when I decided to make an even bigger leap and take a chance on myself as a writer.
I began that rafting trip feeling a little frightened of the uncertainty, scared of what the journey would entail and whether I would be able to handle it. But I trusted the experts to guide me down the river, feed me, and give me the critical information as we navigated the terrain. I learned that I am adaptable and can be quite adventurous. And when I am required to make a leap of faith, not able to see what lies ahead, I can trust my tribe to encourage me and pull me up if I start to drown. Sometimes you have to let go of your fears and let others carry you along on the adventure.
And it always helps to have your mom hold your glasses for you, too.