Never Let Pride Stand in the way of Not Drowning

(This is not the Firehole River. This is the River Shannon in Ireland. But it's water. And it's mine. So like, don't sue me because I can totally use this picture. Pretend it's the Firehole River. And pretend it has lots of rocks in it and trees and cliffs around it. And looks more like Yellowstone than Ireland. And is a whole lot more dangerous.)

Teenagers are the best conversationalists. On Memorial Day I found myself yammering and laughing with a bunch of teens at a lovely breakfast (mini-waffles, homemade apricot syrup, homemade current syrup, bacon, eggs, fresh orange slice salad, orange juice, and milk—the friend who hosted is a domestic goddess) while all the adults sat out on the patio and talked. I didn't think about it until later, but it might have been rude of me to eschew the adults. 

But, um . . . oh well.

The kids and I, we talked about everything, from the their future plans, to voice lessons and teachers, to boys, to embarrassing experiences, you name it. And it was all very energizing and fascinating. Mostly because teens have a way of cutting right to the heart of a matter and seeing it with irony, in a way that I think we lose a little bit as we get older. All that fresh-faced delight becomes a sort of sloggy cynicism which we ought to ditch in favor of the irony. Or at least the fresher face.

Take this story that I told them, for example. I've always thought of it as a harrowing-brush-with-death-and-oh-my-wasn't-I-stupid-whew-I'll-never-do-that-again kind of a tale. But when I told them? They laughed, gasped, and were all, Dude! You could have died! Next time scream for help!  (Like, in their minds of course there would be a next time. Of course I would try this again! Duh!)

So, I was nineteen years old and spending the summer as an actress in a summer stock theater troupe in West Yellowstone, Montana. It was a flat-out riot. Best summer of my life. The cast was small because the theater was intimate. We all became pals and little romances budded up everywhere throughout the summer. We had two-show nights and danced and sang and did variety shows, and performed 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which was a new show back then), and the melodrama Pure as the Driven Snow.

As a cast we took classes for college credit, got jobs waiting tables in the little one square-mile town, and spent a lot of time hanging out in the hills and towns in and around the park itself.

One of our outings was to the Firehole River–so named by trappers because it cuts near some of the biggest geysers in Yellowstone and gets all steamy, looking like the water is fire. We hit some of the lower sections of the river–might have been Firehole Falls or Firehole Cascades, but frankly I can't remember because my fresh-faced ironic brain has gotten too old–where the water gushed out of a fissure in the rocks. It then flowed somewhat smoothly in a winding path beneath a thousand foot cliff (at least it looked like that to those who jumped off. It was probably more like 30 feet. Or maybe 32) before it stumbled upon fallen rocks and churned into rapids. The whole thing moved incredibly fast and was frighteningly powerful and beautiful.

So we decided to throw ourselves in.

Because we were nineteen years old and that's what you do when your brain is still cynicism-free and stupid. 

First we decided to swim across the river just below the falls because there was a little tree on the opposite bank whose branches hung out over the water providing a perfect natural diving board. Then there was the added bonus that once you hit the water the rapids grabbed you, threw you downstream, and slammed you into the rocky ledge near where the van was parked and all of our directors (summer stock theater group, remember?) sat in camp chairs telling us not to kill ourselves because we had no understudies.

When I say "we decided" I mean "they" decided, and I had linguine-for-a-spine when it came to peer pressure. I couldn't swim. Like, I could sort of dog-paddle and do kind of a side-stroke-y thingie, but no one would call my spastic flapping around "swimming." And yet I found myself enthusiastically agreeing to plow across the roaring Firehole, clamber up a tree, fling myself overboard, and see where the water nymphs took me. Like any daft little athletically-challenged actress would do.

Well I was terrified. But I watched my castmates, and one at a time they all made it across the rapids without dying. Now, I am cautious by nature. With some things. Things that involve imminent death and/or dismemberment. With being a spazz? Not so much. But death? Yes. However I didn't want everyone to think I was lame. I didn't want to BE lame. So I sat there watching my friends and talked myself into believing that the Firehole River was a gentle-as-a-lamb rivulet waiting to caress me to its opposite shore.

Mmhmm.

My turn finally came. Everyone had gone. Yep. It was only me. So I stood there. Then I fixed the river with a stern gaze and told it not to mess with me. And I jumped in.

ACK! OHMYHEART! I CAN'T SWIM! WHATTHEHECK WAS I THINKING? I'M GOING TO DIE! LOOK AT ME! I'M STROKING AND STROKING AND I'M NOT MOVING! I'M FLAPPING AND PADDLING AND KICKING AND I'M LITERALLY GOING NOWHERE! MY LIFE IS FLASHING BEFORE MY EYES! SPOTS! I SEE SPOTS! AND I DON'T EVEN LIKE DOGS! AAAAAAH . . . wait. Hey. Look at this! I'm moving! If I calm down and go slowly suddenly I can move! 

WOW! So all you have to do is relax?  Dude! I am swimming! I am cutting through this water like buttah! Check me and my bad Michael-Phelps-self out! Even though he hasn't even been born yet! Woooo! I'm the man! I'm the woman! I'm the mermaid . . .

And then I made it to the tree. Afterwhich I shimmied up, jumped off, and was slammed safely into the rocks beneath our directors, who applauded blandly at me and continued talking about directorly stuff.

But did you see that? I totally did that! And I did not die! Why, I am full of confidence! I could probably do anything! Like throw myself off that 32 foot cliff everyone else is falling from over there. Well . . . okay. Maybe not the cliff. But hey! Isn't that a little cave at the base of the cliff? It is! Cool! It's probably full of Pirate booty! I should go find out. I think I shall!

So off I went. I struggled out of the river, trotted down the shore until I was opposite the cave, picked my way around my friends who were cheering and jeering each other into flinging themselves into belly-flopped oblivion, and lowered myself back into the river.

The water was much smoother here. It wasn't going to be any problem at all getting over to that cave. I could totally do it. So slowly, smoothly, sleekly, I dog-paddled to the center of the river.

Hmm. It's a bit farther away than I thought. And oh my, look downstream! Why it gets positively white-water down there! And wow, what happened to the water temperature? It's suddenly gone from pleasant bathwater to frigid glacier! Maybe it's the shadow of the cliff doing it. And maybe . . . hey. That cave looks awfully dark here out of the sunlight. Oh my. It looks creepy and . . . abandoned . . . and . . . are those red eyes peering at me from in there? I . . . I . . . aaaaaaaaah! 

WHAT THE HECK AM I DOING IN THE FREAKING MIDDLE OF THE BLINKING FIREHOLE RIVER? I CAN'T SWIM! I'M NOT AN EXPLORER! I DON'T WANT TO DROWN ON MY WAY TO SOME HAUNTED CAVE OF DEATH! I'M GETTING OUT OF HERE!

And then everything I learned about slow-and-smooth left my mind and I paddled like a hyperactive chihuahua back toward land.

Except . . . 

My muscles were so tired. And the cold water was sapping them. And the panic was killing them. And suddenly . . . I couldn't paddle any more. And I felt the river come to life and grasp me in foamy fingers, pulling me right down stream toward the rapids. I looked up . . . I wasn't fifteen feet from my nearest friend on shore, but it was like all that struggling had sucked my voice right out of my chest. I couldn't say a thing. Couldn't call for help. Couldn't save myself. Couldn't. do. anything.

I tried to swim, and flicking my eyes around saw that I was about to pass a decent sized rock. So with huge effort I flung my arms out and grabbed hold. Except, as I mentioned, this river was a powerhouse. And I wasn't. And the water did not want to give me up. It pulled on my worn out body until I was stretched out from that rock like a flag, fluttering and flowing with the river. My hands and fingers dug into the craggy stone, but I couldn't hold on. The water pulled and I slipped and struggled until finally I was only holding on with my fingernails. Literally. Which, in truth, was not going to last long. I'd always been able to bend and fold my silly nails. Just didn't have the catwoman-claw genes. So those puppies were not going to be my saviors. I closed my eyes. Felt myself about to be torn free, ready to head into the maw of white foam just a few yards below to be bashed and slashed into who knew where.

And then, I don't know how, but my skinny little arms said, "I DON'T THINK SO! NOT TODAY, PAL!" And this orchestra started playing from somewhere, and there were trumpets and cymbals and some sort of 21-gun salute, and I groaned and grunted and draaaaaaaggggged my little shaky self onto that lovely lovely rock of beauty. And at last I lurched into the fetal position at it's craggy apex, and I sat there. In utter disbelief that I'd made it on board. Trembling like, well, like that flappy little chihuahua I mentioned earlier. Breathing. Shaking. Staring at the backs of my friends a few feet away who never even knew I had just about been lost down stream.

And I never told them.

Just picked my way back, from rock to rock, making sure that no part of me touched that evil river until I made good solid landfall. Then we went home. And everyone sang and laughed, and I sat in the back of the van with my arm around one of our directors' four year-old son. 

The group went back to Firehole the next day. I stayed at the cabin. When they returned they told how one of the girls had tried to swim across the river and gotten too tired and couldn't make it back. So she screamed, I mean SCREAMED for help. And three of the guys dove into the river and saved her. Because, did I mention? She screamed. Out loud. With her voice.

Hmm.

I got no idea why I couldn't scream. Or hiccup. Or make some sort of noise to get those boys to come save me. It apparently is rather easy.

My little teenaged friends to whom I spilled this story? Pretty much figured I ought to think about getting over my inability to ask for help.

Then they moved on to talking about boys and running and jumping on trampolines and what they were going to do this summer.

Life is really pretty simple, isn't it? Long as our pride doesn't get in the way. Or our fear. And we stay away from Firehole.

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About Janiel 432 Articles
I have managed to keep the same husband for nearly three decades, and the same four children for almost that long - although one or two of them say it has been much longer. I have been writing since I learned to hold a pencil, and trying to make people laugh even longer. I hope to do some good in the world before I go the way of it. And if not, I'd better at least get to visit Ireland.

3 Comments

  1. Actually, JJ, you were in some final stages of drowning. When you are about to go under, one cannot make a sound. The angels were with you that day. I can’t believe you did that! We drove our RV along the upper road of the Firehole and that was a harrowing experience, as the road was about even in width as our RV, with cars parked insanely along the mountain side, there was no railing either. I love your writing style!

    • Okay, that officially freaks me out. It was a bit harrowing to not be able to do anything. Yeah. I can’t believe I did it either. Silly 19 year-olds. And I do believe in angels. Can’t believe you drove that road with your fat ride!

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