floating down a river

Fiction, 2/17/12

Two summers ago, I had never before “floated” a river. By this I mean that I had never piled four days’ worth of supplies into inflatable rafts, driven them to a point twenty-one miles up the staid Yakima River, and pushed them in, hopping aboard at the last second. The thought to attempt such an endeavor had honestly never occurred to me. But I was invited to join, and it is rare that I turn down an invitation. My companions on this journey—two women, three men, all in their twenties—had tactfully driven two vehicles, parking one at the endpoint and taking one, laden with rafts and gear, to the sendoff.

The gear they packed was strange and sundry, an olio of items mostly practical, sometimes necessary, and sometimes decidedly impractical. There were tents, sleeping bags, waterproof stuff sacks, and tarps, for camping alongside the river each night. These were practical, and arguably necessary. There were fly-fishing rods, for the bountiful trout seen breaching the river’s surface. There was sunscreen, lip balm, and life jackets—all very practical things while floating the Yakima in June. There were vittles enough for four days and six people, and hand-operated water pumps to filter water from the river. This was all good and well. But there was also a nearly flat, half-finished keg of scotch beer, as well as two dozen stale, oatmeal-raisin marijuana cookies, both brought along “because they needed to be finished.” I had packed a pair of heavy, expensive binoculars, believing they would come in handy for birdwatching, but my fear for their well-being ensured that they stayed swaddled up inside my stuff sack for much of the trip.

We inflated our three rafts and arranged our supplies within them. It was blazingly hot by late morning, and by the time we were slathered with sunscreen and ready to embark, it was nearly one in the afternoon. We put the rafts in one by one, the largest sporting a tether attached to the floating keg. Our tumescent craft plied the water, carried along by a mostly languid current; if we used our paddles at all, it was only to steer away from the snags and shrubbery reaching out from the shore. I ate many cookies and was content to sit sun-drenched and high in the prow, ogling birds. “Hello tanager,” I murmured dreamily, “and meadowlark, swift, swallow, kestrel, kingfisher: good day to you.”

But—and this I admit rather guiltily—my ogling was not confined solely to birds. Wendy, one of the women in our flotilla—and wife to one of the men—had become increasingly eye-catching the hotter the day grew, and the less she decided to wear. I could not help but stare as she removed layers down to a bikini top and shorts, exposing tanned skin, long, slender limbs, ponderous breasts. I had already been taken by her soft gray eyes, her full lips, her wide, toothy smile and even wider hips. But now this—this was too much. Her near-nakedness was somehow unfair, a taunting mirage as ethereal as the wisps of sun-seared cloud above our heads. Even more frustrating was the fact that she continually engaged me in odd, almost flirtatious conversation. If I didn’t know any better, I would say she was hitting on me.

“Want to play farkel with us?” she asked one night, coquettishly batting her eyelids. We were camped on a small island in the river, covered with alders and dogwood and occupied by at least one great horned owl. “Hoot,” it said, but Wendy never took her eyes off me. “So whaddya say?” she pressed. I was powerless to resist, of course, the sap that I am. “Sure,” I said, starting to sweat a little. “Though I’m not very good at it…”

“That’s all right,” she giggled. “If you want, I can blow on your dice for good luck!”

By the last night I had reached a nadir of sorts. After three days of drinking, cookie-scarfing, and pointless dalliance with Wendy, I felt lousy, lonely, and depressed. The sun had cooked me thoroughly on the river, and my revelry of all things riparian had dissipated somewhere along the way. The group, however, was in high spirits, making the most of the final campout. After an extravagant feast of chili and macaroni I stole away from camp to go for a walk. It was approaching dusk, the still air was sumptuously warm, stinking of sagebrush, and the bats were waking up to feed on the clouds of insects that had materialized in the gloaming. I found a rough trail leading up the brush-covered hills and began to climb.

The trail was steep, and as I reached the plateau-like top of the hill I was panting like a dog. It was an amazing view: basalt outcroppings poking out from shrub-steppe, strewn across rolling hills as far as the eye could see. The sun was settling into the far-off Cascades. It felt great to be alone on that plateau, enjoying the quietude, endorphins coursing through my veins. “But,” I thought, apropos of nothing, “it would be even better if Wendy were here, in those short little shorts and that tiny bikini…” Suddenly my thoughts went from pure to prurient. I looked around quickly to be sure I was alone, and then I unzipped my pants for a little adventure-wank. “Uh-huh,” I grunted, starting to get into it, picturing Wendy spread-eagled on the ledge before me. “That’s it, Wendy…ohh…yes!”

A sound like falling rocks from behind me caused me to jump straight up in alarm. Putting my junk away and pulling up my pants, I crept over to a west-facing precipice, whence the sound issued. “Hello?” I called out, my heart hammering.

Three bighorn sheep started at my voice and scrambled further down the hillside. They were perhaps forty yards away, two ewes and a ram, and they seemed almost annoyed at my presence. Their tufts of tail flicked nervously, and their nares opened wide to give short, surprisingly loud chuff-ing sounds. “Pervert,” I imagined them thinking, “communing with nature, our asses!”

I laughed at the absurdity of it all. I watched them retreat over the far ridge, their hooves sending pebbles skittering down the hillside, and then I returned to my spot on the plateau. The sun had gone down, leaving the sky awash in pink and puce and magenta. Wendy crept back into my thoughts, and I refocused on the task at (in) hand.

Night had fallen while I trekked back to camp, and I arrived to a raging bonfire and loud, drunken carousing. My mood was vastly improved, to the point where partying actually sounded like a splendid way to end the trip. Wendy cornered me by the cooler, her eyes shining in the firelight. “Where did you go off to, hmm? We thought you were eaten by coyotes or something!” She looked even lovelier, somehow, and it was a little unnerving, her standing so close.

I turned to her and smiled. “I just needed some time alone,” I said slowly, and then, because I was feeling so jovial and impish, I added, “but I was thinking of you! You would’ve loved the sunset. And the sheep.”

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