Rafting on the river within

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

Has anybody seen my comfort zone? I can't find it and can't remember the last place I saw it. Maybe just before the hot-air balloon lifted off and I found myself floating a thousand feet in the air (roughly the height of the Sears/Willis Tower) in the middle of a vast open plain surrounded by the Rocky Mountains. That was in May when my son and daughter-in-law gave me a surprise 60th birthday present. I was terrified and thrilled and got to cross an item off my "bucket list."

Or maybe it was strapping on a life preserver and helmet and assuming my position at the front of a rubber raft on the Chatooga River, better known as the setting for Deliverance, filmed there 40 years ago. "There's a plaque right over there," our guide said, pointing to the shore, "but you have to bend over to see it."

The aging remains of the Quigley North High School basketball team, class of 1970, convened last month on this liquid border between South Carolina and Georgia to mark a rite of passage — the end of youth (or the end of denial about youth's departure) and the beginning of whatever comes next.

Although we seldom agree about anything (especially politics), we were teammates once upon a time, and settled naturally into collective, coordinated effort, all of us pulling in the same direction. Without planning it, the two guards ended up in the front of the raft, the center and power forward in the middle and the small forward in back with the coach … I mean guide. We did our best to prove to this free-spirited youngster that we were still capable — or at least capable of following directions.

At the first rapid, a precipitous 7-foot sideways drop, like food sliding off a table with the two side legs suddenly kicked out from under it, all five of us ended up in the drink, which immediately put to rest any delusions of control we might have harbored.

The Chatooga River was officially designated a "Wild and Scenic Waterway" in 1974. It is certainly scenic, and we were on one of its wildest stretches. Rapids are classified, ominously, like hurricanes and our trip culminated in the "Five Falls," most of them stage IV and V, during which the river descends 80 feet in a quarter mile. Our "backcourt" (which somehow translated into "front raft") re-entered the river on the first fall, and I had to grab a rope in order to avoid going down fall number two "au natural."

We went down fall number four backwards. Our guide subsequently noted, in the understatement of the day, that this was "not optimal." But, he assured us, "it would have been a lot worse if we had gone down sideways."

That left the final fall, class V, the trip's climax. We took a break onshore and just as the guide from the raft next to us was telling his crew that if they preferred they could easily walk around and avoid this rapid altogether, our guide bounded up enthusiastically and said, "You guys ready? Let's go!" Off we went.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, heading toward a class V rapid concentrates the mind wonderfully. Our guide said, "I'm going to give you a new direction. When I say, 'Get down,' that means get on the floor of the raft." We moved faster than we had since high school. Talk about male bonding.

We survived, and suddenly "Deliverance" took on a whole new meaning.

It doesn't take much insight to see parallels between whitewater rafting and the odyssey of life. We naturally view our lives as a journey, but a river journey focuses the metaphor further. I've spent a lot of time watching that river from the safety of the shore, but I don't often get in the raft and push off, leaving my comfort zone behind. The result is, I frequently feel one step removed from life — the fate of the chronic observer. As a journalist, I prefer to watch and describe what I see.

In the raft, on the river, heading for the falls, there is no remove and there is no comfort zone. You enter life. I also entered the river on two occasions. Capsizing can be deadly. A 58-year-old Nashville man drowned just last week on this same stretch of river. That news hit pretty close to home. Usually, though, getting intimately acquainted with the river is merely humbling (along with scraped shins). Whitewater rafting serves as a good reminder that you're not just a spectator attending your life.

We're all on an odyssey. As I watch the river of lives flow past me here in Oak Park, I see children just starting out and young parents a couple of decades behind me. I see the affluent and the obviously not, the healthy and the obviously not, the elderly struggling against their aging bodies, faces reflecting peace or joy or pain or something more complicated. Too often, when I was younger, I judged or envied these journeys. Now they fill me with wonder and I hope for the best for them.

Fear + wonder emotional whitewater beauty = the river within, the journey of our lives, the greatest journey of all.

Are we headed for some grand, dramatic climax of five falls, ending in denouement or deliverance? Is it deliverance from or deliverance to? We don't know. But part of the journey is recognizing that something lies ahead and discovering within yourself a strange sensation, a kind of fatalism, that allows you to continue paddling toward it, your mind wonderfully concentrated, knowing full well that, whatever it is, it's much stronger than you.

The only advice I can give is this:

Don't go into it sideways.

Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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