A few months back, I told you, in a Smoke Signals titled, “Hot Air,” about the two times I found myself, through no fault of my own (understatement), up in the wild blue yonder in a hot-air balloon. I might have even casually mentioned something about how BOTH OF THOSE BALLOONS CRASHED!!!
Anyhow, part and parcel of that “Hot Air” tale was a little tangential aside about a certain river-rafting trip I took the day after the second of those aforementioned balloon crashes. I believe I wrote words to the effect of, “ … but that is a story for another time.” Well, this being Mountain Gazette’s annual Rivers Issue and all, I guess there’s no time like the present.
To refresh your memory: I had been given an assignment by the editor of a long-defunct magazine named Adventure Travel to venture forth to the steamy reaches of north Georgia to pen a piece about a company that offered “Adventure Orgies,” which, provocative name notwithstanding, was nothing more than a different stupid adrenaline-based activity each day for a week.
On the very first day of my Adventure Orgy — verily, within the first few hours — I was surprisingly more-or-less Shanghaied to take a balloon trip with a crazy-as-bat-shit pilot that resulted in a crash-landing, a wildfire, guns being leveled at me, police being called and, of all perplexing things, a Chattanooga TV news crew arriving on the scene so quickly they seemingly were parked in the very field we set ablaze on the off chance that an errant hot-air balloon might fortuitously fall out of the sky and crash at their very feet. A news story from God, if ever there was one.
The scheduled second segment of our Adventure Orgy was a full-day raft descent of the Chattooga River, which straddles the border of Georgia and South Carolina. This is the very section of river upon which significant portions of the whitewater scenes from “Deliverance” were actually filmed. My guide, the man I was essentially profiling for Adventure Travel, assured me that the gnarliest scenes from “Deliverance” were filmed on the Tallulah River, which, I’ll admit, in my battered state, was something of a relief. For, you see, I had not recovered from that balloon incident. The deep gash on my right shin was oozing all manner of repugnant-colored fluids, my left shin was swollen so badly that it looked like some sort of Frankensteinian mad scientist had grafted a partially decomposed watermelon onto my leg and my tongue, which I near-bouts bit in two upon impact, was lolling involuntarily, like what you’d see coming out of a tranquilized rhino’s mouth in a National Geographic wildlife documentary.
We drove to the quaint mountain town of Clayton, Georgia, where we met our two partners in river crime: a sports editor from an Atlanta TV station and none other than Billy Redden, who, at age eight, was the banjo-picking boy in ”Deliverance,” though, as I mentioned in “Hot Air,” it was not he who actually picked those haunting notes that, to this day, strike fear in the heart of any non-Southerner who ventures forth into the more rural parts of Dixie. The national eight-year-old banjo-playing champion crouched behind Billy Redden, whose arms were literally tied to his sides, and slid his arms through Billy’s jacket and, without being able to see the instrument, picked the strings flawlessly.
It did not help mitigate any preconceptions that I might have held when, before meeting Billy, who works as a professional river guide for Adventure Orgy Guy, I was told how he “auditioned” for the part of the (non-) banjo-playing boy in “Deliverance.” “They went way up in the sticks and picked out the most inbred, retarded-looking kid out of the local elementary school. And there were a bunch to choose from. Out of all the available material, they chose Billy. Then, just to make him look even more inbred and retarded, they shaved his head.” Of course, based upon that vision, combined with actually having watched “Deliverance,” I naturally assumed that Billy Redden would be the walking, talking epitome of every negative Appalachia-based stereotype imaginable. I assumed that he would likely be a perpetual drooler whose best attempts at fundamental articulation would mirror those of Jodie Foster when Liam Neeson first made her character’s acquaintance in “Nell.” Ends up that Billy, by then in his 30s, while not necessarily the most handsome man I have ever met, was a totally great guy, witty and funny, and, if there was a drooler on the scene, it was I, due to my wounded tongue situation.
We partially inflated the two, two-person, 11-foot rafts right there on the sidewalk in downtown Clayton, where both Billy and Adventure Orgy Guy were well known. The 17,000 passersby — all of whom had a mouthful of chaw and were named Clem — who stopped for a chat (our raft-inflating procedures apparently being the most noteworthy event to have transpired in Clayton since the last summer’s Hog-Sloppin’ Festival) were surprised to hear that we were headed for the Chattooga. “All y’all ain’t gonna run Bull Sluice, are all y’all?” was a question pondiferously drawled by every single one of those 17,000 curious chaw-chewing Clems. And when Adventure Orgy Guy answered in the affirmative, every single one of those 17,000 curious Clems slowly shook his head, let out with a feigned nervous whistle, and said words to the effect of: “Well, best of luck to all y’all. Wouldn’t catch us’ns trying to run Bull Sluice this time of year.”
It will come as no surprise that these exchanges caught my attention, but I said nothing, at least partially because any attempts to speak all sounded like I was the guy tied to the chair with the gag stuffed in his mouth in a million Hollywood movie torture scenes, where, try though I might to spill the beans about where the drugs and money were hidden and where the torturers could most easily locate my cohorts, all I could do was grunt.
Once we got on the river — me with Adventure Orgy Guy, Billy Redden and the Atlanta TV sports guy in the other raft — Adventure Orgy Guy, after much apparent mental cud-chewing, said: “You probably heard all 17,000 of those Clems back in Clayton asking about Bull Sluice.” “Grunt.” He proceeded to tell me that Bull Sluice is one of two Class-5-plus rapids on the section of the Chattooga we were going to run and that it had claimed literally dozens of lives over the years. Forgive me that I am not familiar enough with death-based river terminology to describe this properly, but it is a very short and steep rapid — a waterfall, now that you mention it — that changes directions three times in about 100 linear feet — once at the top, once halfway through and once again at the bottom. You start out going over the waterfall at about 10 o’clock, then you’ve got to alter your heading to about 3 o’clock, then you’ve got to go back to 10 o’clock, all while you’re attempting to negotiate a rapid that, even if it didn’t have three major turns, would be dangerous as hell.
“Don’t worry though,” Adventure Orgy Guy said, reassuringly (at least in theory), we’ll be on the river a couple hours before we get to Bull Sluice, and, by then, you and I will be very comfortable paddling together. It’ll be great!” (This from the man responsible for placing me in a hot-air balloon that crashed-landed the previous afternoon.) The plan was for Billy Redden and the Atlanta TV guy to portage around Bull Sluice. Adventure Orgy Guy and I would pull over above Bull Sluice, walk downriver to shit our pants and devise an appropriate stratagem, return to our diminutive raft, clean our pants out, then tackle a rapid that might as well be named “Death Waterfall from Hell,” after which I would either have to clean my pants out yet again or arrive at the medical examiner’s office with skivvies full of caca.
Since we had a couple hours to kill before we ourselves were killed, I opted to chill with the scene, which was wonderfully mellow. Even though the first day of winter was literally 72 hours away, it was sunny and warm. The passing scenery was straight out of Appalachia central casting. We paddled by scads of overall-adorned, dentition-challenged men, who, stunningly, were also named Clem, sipping jugfulls of moonshine while tending to their stills. We passed veritable tribes of corpulent women — all named Bessie May and Shirley Sue — sitting on riverside front porches shucking corn and green beans and smoking pipes while stirring vats of possum gizzard stew (or something like that).
Captivating cultural distractions aside, the thought of Bull Sluice never completely left the back of my mind. Quite the contrary. Every time a squirrel farted on the riverbank, my eardrums translated the noise to the roar an impending life-swallowing rapid. Until finally, inevitably, we came to the spot where the roar was no longer a figment of my squirrel-fart-based imagination. We pulled over and, as Billy Redden and the Atlanta-TV guy started carrying their raft around the rapid, Adventure Orgy Guy and your humble narrator ventured forth to eyeball Bull Sluice with the idea of coming up with a plan that did not involve direct interfaces with mortality, or, better stated, did not involve direct interfaces with mortality for yours truly. My part of that planning process consisted, as predicted, almost entirely of shitting my pants when I laid first eyes upon the sphincter-puckering power of Bull Sluice.
As Adventure Orgy Guy was pointing out the myriad ominous hydraulic intricacies of Bull Sluice, all the while stressing the many, many potential fuck-ups that we, more than anything in the world, wanted to avoid because, even the slightest, teeniest mistake at any of those many, many fuck-up points would most certainly result in a series of soulful obituaries in the Clayton, Georgia, newspaper, I came to a realization that, while not exactly stunning — insofar as “surprise” is a necessary component of the definition of the word “stunning” — was at least a bit disconcerting on the self-perception front. When you’re an outdoor writer on assignment for a magazine named Adventure Travel to pen a story about a company that offers something called Adventure Orgies, you are vocationally, if not dispositionally, obligated to live up to certain big-balled personality stereotypes. And none of those stereotypes include overt displays of pants-wetting wussiness when faced with a mere Class-5 death waterfall. Yet, I realized, much to my simultaneous chagrin and relief, there was no way in hell my increasingly shriveling nuts were going through Bull Sluice. Mortifying though it might have been on several levels, it was actually a very liberating moment.
When I relayed, via a series of grunts and hyper-kinetic hand gestures, this non-negotiable reality to Adventure Orgy Guy, he seemed crestfallen. He also looked like he considered me to be a total pussy, which was just fine with me. The best stories are the ones you live to tell.
I, of course, thought that we would then portage our raft around the rapid and proceed upon our merry un-dead way. Ixnay. Adventure Orgy Guy beckoned Billy Redden to join him in the raft we had stashed upriver. “This way, you’ll at least be able to get some photos of us going through Bull Sluice for your story.” To say Billy Redden looked shocked would greatly minimize his contorted visage. Yet, Adventure Orgy Guy being his employer and all, he hung his head and dutifully made his way to the top of Bull Sluice. I stood below the rapid, camera at the ready.
A few minutes later, the little raft, which looked, against the fearsome immensity of Bull Sluice, like a toy boat bobbing in the surf of Oahu’s North Shore, shot into the maelstrom. There was no visual run-up — one nanosecond, they were not there, the next nanosecond, 14 kinds of fearsome hell were breaking loose. They entered Bull Sluice OK, but, at the 90-degree dogleg in the middle of the rapid, Billy Redden got his paddle caught between two rocks, and the force of Bull Sluice ripped it from his grip so intensely that the banjo-playing boy from “Deliverance” came within a single ass molecule of being pulled from the raft at a place that all but assured his doom. It looked at that frightening moment like his last above-water act was going to be a very wide-eyed, frantic arabesque penchee. The look on Adventure Orgy Guy’s face was a mix of fear and resolute determination that I will carry with me the rest of my days. He was down an engine in the middle of one of the most-notorious river rapids in the entire country, and, if he did not perform in extraordinary, superhuman fashion right then and there, fatalities were likely, which, while adding the potential for some spice to my Adventure Travel magazine story, would likely have negatively affected the overall vibe.
In the time it took me to snap off one photo, they were out of the rapid. Adventure Orgy Guy pulled it off and saved the day. Their raft drifted limply to shore, its occupants spent in a way that all but assures many weeks of deep introspection. Billy Redden wobbled onto shore and staggered downriver a few feet, where he plopped down on a rock, lit a cigarette and muttered to himself, over and over, “I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … I ain’t never going through Bull Sluice again … ” And I could tell he meant it.
Later that evening, on the long drive back to town, it was obvious there was something on Adventure Orgy Guy’s mind. It was just he and I in the truck, and we’d been drinking pretty heavily in silence for the better part of an hour. He finally said, “You know, you and I had been psychologically working our way up to Bull Sluice all day. I think if we had just gone through like we planned, everything would have turned out fine.” The implication, of course, was that, if Billy Redden (a professional river guide, I stress) had died in that rapid, it would have been my fault. I’ve got to admit, that observation rubbed me a bit wrong on numerous levels. But I really didn’t give it any further thought till I was back home, sitting in front of my computer, getting ready to write the Adventure Orgy story for Adventure Travel magazine.
Right then, as we were bounding down the darkening Appalachia highway, beers in hand, there was much still to ponder. After all, we had a horseback-riding trip planned the next day. And, after that, rock climbing, wild boar hunting, mako shark fishing and, should I live that long, ocean sailing. There was still much that could (and did) go awry. But all that’s a story for another time. And what a story it is …