American River

“And one last instruction, my brothers and sisters, before we travel together the roiling white path of this river of crazy,” said Toobmaster. He was standing on a picnic table, with a blue ‘T’ painted on his bare chest and a small inner tube tied around his forehead. “Keep your butt up…” he intoned.
“…and keep your beer high,” said Toobhedd, who was half a length shorter. Below them, 65 souls awaited immersion in the American River. Our lifejackets were snug against bellies full of Toobhedd’s campfire pancakes. We were ready to follow them into the rapids.
“A-men, Brother Toobmaster.”
“I bee-lieve.”
“Say it with me: beer high.”
“Buddup! Buddup!”

Some just slapped their rumps and raised their cheap suds reverently as the leaders climbed down. If only all paths were as simple as theirs.

We had huge truck inner tubes, some of which had swollen into tortured croissants under pressure from the compressor. We had duct tape, body paint, spangles, and rope. All morning, each campsite had improvised, improving on black rubber and air. We experimented with handle designs, rejecting Shea’s suitcase-style prototype for Gareth’s loop, through which you could hook a foot or an elbow or even an extra beer. We pitched our successes to other tubers–talking up a design that conserved materials (because it turned out that only Toobmaster had remembered to bring duct tape), or one that worked even when the tube flipped. We debated the platonic form for an ass-basket, to cradle the main concern of our journey downriver. And what would it take to build a floating spit, for barbecued chicken? Gareth tied on our mascot, Ducky. Next-door, they made sparkly blue superhero capes and bikinis, and tarted up their tubes with paint.

“We need someone for the front of the beer train.” Someone stepped forward and took hold. They had lashed five coolers to five inner tubes, and now the strongest voyageurs carried them sideways down to the bank. The rest of us followed, ducked under our tubes like dung beetles. We laid them in the sun–a few burst spectacularly–and climbed up on the rocks to watch the dozen who had decided to start the trip with a run through the Troublemaker rapid before joining our caravan.

Bright yellow rafts, bright blue and red kayaks, inflatable beer coolers with built-in cupholders: the river was full of bath toys made in China. The South Fork of the American River is the most popular rafting run in California, and all morning, professional rafting operations had paddled clients through. Troublemaker is the highlight, a Class III+ frappuccino that makes the punters squeal. Just below, the outfitters have built a wooden platform on the rocks, where a photographer waits to catch the rubber-ducky bounce of each vessel. The guides perch at the back of the rafts, shouting “Left! Go! Go!”

The rafting companies traffic in thrills for the deskbound, so it can’t be good for business that tipsy tubers can bob through Troublemaker ahead of them, trailing intrepid beer coolers. Troublemaker mostly keeps you on the straight and narrow, and even if you offer yourself up in an unsteerable rubber doughnut, you’ll likely do okay. The guides are good-humored about these traffic jams, though, catching tubes on their paddles like SpaghettiOs when the occupants get flipped. “Butt up,” we shouted from the bank, but it’s bad advice for the face-down.

“It’s not as interesting as kayaking,” complained Tim. “You can’t see anything from the tube.” Or, in his case, out of it. He missed the exit and kicked to shore fifty yards beyond, where a furious man waited on a deckchair.

“This is private property,” he yelled, and it was, though it would have taken them seconds to leave. Instead he kept them for fifteen minutes, loosing the anger of a day and a lifetime. “Thirty years I’ve lived here. Thirty years. And you fucks have ruined the river. I can’t enjoy my house any more. Yesterday two people nearly drowned in that rapid, and let me tell you, I’d just as soon they did. Keep more of you Bay Area assholes away. Fucking flatlanders.” Where Tim comes from, there were mountains two billion years before these upstart California rock-pimples, but it seemed better to nod.
“Peace, man, peace,” said the other tuber who had washed up. That would calm anybody down, of course.

We all reunited below the rapid and made ready to set off. There’s no graceful way to get into an inner tube. You back up to it, legs splayed, and lower your backside like a pregnant woman hitting the sofa on a Friday night. Kathleen took my hand. I draped a leg across Natasha’s tube and tucked a foot in her armpit. With my free hand, I held Shea’s Teva sandal, and he grabbed the handle of Gareth’s tube. We drifted.

“That stuff will kill your ambition” Robert DeNiro tells a stoned Bridget Fonda in _Jackie Brown,_ in one of my all-time favorite movie exchanges. Fonda looks up from the couch and exhales.
“Not if your ambition is to lie on the sofa and watch television,” she points out. Tubing is like that. It’s at once very American–the long roadtrips, the gear, the preparation, the activity–and then fundamentally not. Unlike rafting, with its frenetic paddling and cheerful teamwork, tubing takes a bit of getting used to in such an active culture. We get to just…lie here? And drink beer in the middle of the day? And eventually we’ll get where we’re going?

Natasha had left three toddlers in San Francisco, and now she flopped her head back. “When you have kids, you don’t get to be yourself. You have to be this person who keeps telling people to do things they don’t want to do. This is so unbelievably nice.”

“Rocks! Separate!” someone would call from from time to time, but the sociable ones ignored it, preferring, like true loves, to hold on through the rocky patches. What harm if a few of us always ran aground? Why not hang out with friends, trying to wobble ourselves free while cool water rushed past? Eventually, we would stand up and stagger through, holding our tubes by duct-tape leashes, while the rafters gawked. Easy for them; they had paddles.

Sometimes our lack of ambition kept us in an eddy for minutes before we noticed we weren’t moving. But we yo-yoed around the faster rapids, spinning backwards, then forwards, six of us joined by feet and hands. “Butt up! Butt up!” we howled, as we were smacked against the rocks. When Shea’s ankle slipped out of my reach I broke into “My Heart Will Go On,” only the latest in a dripping medley that had included “Reunited (And It Feels So Good),” “Islands in the Stream,” “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and of course “California Uber Alles.” When I am queen, there will be karaoke-tubing for everyone.

We fantasized about opening a bar where you could sit in circles holding your friends’ feet, swiveling in and out of chats as the mood took you.

We persuaded Shea that he could stand on two inner tubes, rodeo-style, and he managed to get a knee on each one before they popped him up like toast. “Like a harp, Shea. Those tubes are just playing you like a fuckin’ harp,” we told him, making fun of his Chicago-Irish street toughs.

We imagined our grandchildren’s complaints about Gen-Xers. _Mommy, I don’t wanna go to Grandpa’s house. Old people smell like Tevas and chai lattes. Daddy, why does Grandma give us Red Bull?_

The takeout point was a little beach under a highway bridge. Last year Kathleen had missed it, and the others had to send a posse to rescue her and the beer cooler before they went to Sacramento. Mindful of this, we aimed in early, with splashy kicks and weak swipes at the water below. Before long all the tubers were gathered on the bank, passing out the last of the bad beer while the hardy ones jumped off the bridge in another tradition.

The bridge was 40 feet high, maybe more. A rope hung from one of the girders, and each raft that passed below it had a customer balanced on the bow, waiting to grab it. They climbed a few feet if they had the arm strength, then dangled, then dropped into the water, where the others waited, paddling backwards. We watched our jumpers. Only one spot was deep enough for a safe landing, and they paced up and down trying to pick it, while the crowd directed them.

“You can’t think about it,” Toobhedd explained to me, safely below. I had no intention of thinking about it. “Just doesn’t help to look down and start thinking. Pick the jump spot and step off, feet together, arms by your sides. Hit the water like a pencil and you’ll be just fine.” Above, some jumpers yawped and pedalled like Wile E. Coyote. One guy, new to the tubing weekend, did a hummingbird’s backflip, and word quickly went around that he was a stunt diver up from L.A. An old-timer stayed down “long enough for people to look forward to seeing me,” then popped up, waving, with his sunglasses and bandana back on. We winced as Gareth smacked the water, arms out. He waded out with sore, pink hands.

A girl with ringlets climbed up the bridge path, twirled her yellow bikini top with a whoop, then let it drop to the bank like a gingko leaf. Her breasts were pretty, but she immediately thought better of showing them, because she clutched them and ohmygodded for a bit. Her friends coaxed her over to the jump spot, stepping sideways, still holding her breasts as though they might fall off. We could hear the two guys encouraging her, and the bankside tubers cheered her too. Eventually, she took their hands and climbed onto the railing. A few cars on the bridge slowed. Someone raised a countdown. “Ten…nine…eight…” She lifted a foot, testing what a leap might feel like, but squealed and shook her head instead.

One woman groused. “This Girls Gone Wild crap. I hate the way it changes the tone of everything. _Ooh, look at me._ And, yeah, you know what? They will. It’s bullshit.”

“There are children up there. Not cool,” said someone else.

The girl peered down, in her little yellow boy-shorts. Most of the tubers were chatting now, debating when exactly the pot cookies had really kicked in, and the strengths of the Black Eyed Peas. “Wait, whaddya mean you don’t know _London Bridge?_ Don’t you ever listen to the radio?” If her free spirit didn’t extend to freefall, they were no longer interested. One of her two companions dropped her hand, and jumped. Midway through the third loyal countdown, a fire truck stopped and the driver got out. She hopped down, and made for the river path. We could see the fire chief still wagging a finger.

A couple of high school boys had somehow climbed across the bridge struts to slouch on the support pillar. “Hey, is the water hella cold? Like, hypothermia cold?” one called eventually. It’s okay, one of our jumpers shouted back. He shrugged and pitched himself into the water, forty feet below. His dripping skate shorts hung even lower.

“I’m a mother of three,” Natasha warned the guy who was set on getting her to jump with him. “You’d better be right that I’ll come out in one piece.” She did. Twice. “It wasn’t even scary,” she said, shaking off the water.

It was the 19th year of the Toobing trip, which started with a few college friends and has kept going long after they’ve started driving new cars and buying homes in Tahoe. Every year they welcome friends of friends, like me. Toobhedd and Toobmaster book the campsites, buy the tubes, rent the vests, arrange shuttles, count heads, paint chests, and check off spreadsheets. They are the cheerful mayors of the campground. Toobhedd cooks bacon, eggs, pancakes, and toast for every single hungover camper. That’s the Bay Area way, from Craigslist to Burning Man, and I’m still getting used to it. Pitch a tent, pitch in, take your shirt off, share your intoxicants, share your munchies, light fires. Forget the zillion-dollar fogbound house you’re paying off, and sit around a campfire with your friends instead.

I like it.

This barn-raising mindset is more generous than my own. “Give it away now! It’s a natural thing,” their invitation had said. “So bring your special something to share with everyone. Past years have included body paint, baked treats, lipgloss necklaces, paint pens for toobs, flaming sambuccas, etc. Ignite a new tradition for 2006!” All weekend, people offered up vodka jellies, cookies, fruit, firewood, costumes, beers, and buttons. Tim had brought a generator, a compressor, and fuel to share, and the backwoods know-how to use them all, but I sat behind my acrylic camping wine glass, hoping that these strangers would stop embarrassing me with kindness. I had brought pounds of Marcona almonds and pistachios, but had no clear sense of how to distribute them beyond my own little gang of familiars. Though I can write fat checks to charity, and pamper friends and family once in a while, I have pinched, hoarding instincts around hors d’oeuvres and strangers.

As if to teach me, a man with German glasses visited every twenty minutes to offer platefuls of melon cubes and peaches. His superhero cape sparkled, but his eyes were sad. I took his melon first gratefully, then guiltily, aware of the peaches that filled our coolers and–oh shoot–the melon that sat, uncut, on our picnic table right in front of him. But Melon Man seemed to want to give, and looked for nothing.

I guess we’re supposed to be scared these days. Scared of the quake, the terrorists, the warming ocean that will rise and turn San Francisco’s hills into islands. Scared that house prices will fall–or that they’ll keep going up. Scared of another tech bust, in this whitewater working culture. Scared of the panhandlers who own the Tenderloin and would sell it for a rock; of the immigrants taking either all the jobs or all the social services, or both. Some days I feel it too, but mostly I’m still fascinated by this country, by all these cultures I haven’t learned. There is still much more to love than fear on this American river.

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