Imminent Death and Bathrooms (a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon)

Jay rowing in rapids.

When my husband Jay and I were dating, we had the first great adventure of our lives together, a twelve day rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, an improbable adventure for two middle-aged people who had never rafted before.  Jay had never camped before either—except when he was in the army.  And he hadn’t liked it.

It had come about by accident. George, a geology professor at Union College where I worked, spotted my friend Sigrid and me buying lunch.  Apparently we looked especially gullible that day.  He was planning another trip through the Grand Canyon—he’d made umpteen trips already—but was looking for a way to finance it.  That’s where we came in.  If he could inspire a few colleagues to become fellow adventurers—and if he rowed the supply raft—he could travel for free. We said we’d think about it. After all, it was a year and a half away.

In the end, ten people had a Union connection, half the people on the trip: John, an engineer; Dave, a chemist, and his wife and teenage sons; Sigrid, who taught German; George the geologist and his daughter; and Jay and me.

We women had our worries, mainly about how we would go to the bathroom and about sudden death.  George, the geologist, assured us that everything was easy, safe, and great fun. We’d love it. Dave, the chemist, had done the trip once before.

He warned, “If your raft capsizes, be careful not to get trapped underneath.  You will die.”

He explained other ways people die on the Colorado River.  He described near escapes. He told me his family would sleep in their own tent, the better to be safe from the snakes and scorpions. And he told me the truth about going to the bathroom. (I will spare you the ungodly details.)

Before the trip, we had to buy stuff, all indestructible, most of which I’d never owned before:  water bottles, river shorts, Teva sandals, kerchief, flashlights (preferably the kind that attached to one’s forehead), dangling things you hang from your glasses so they don’t fly into the river, carabiners so your water bottles and other belongings don’t fall into the river either, a sunhat with a flap on the back that makes everyone look dorky. We clipped our hats to our tee shirts, so—I have a theme going here—they didn’t fall into the river either.

We met the guides and the other members of our group at Lees Ferry, just down river from the Glen Canyon Dam.  The river flowed gently enough with little hint of the drama we’d face ahead.

All the guides loved the canyon and the river, hated dams that changed the environment, hated the motorized rafts (so did we), and hated people who didn’t respect and take care of the river.  Most on our trip were women: tough, crude, gutsy, funny, and smart.  They peed standing up; I hadn’t known it was possible.

The guides gave us little metal boxes to store the things we’d need during the day and two big, heavy black rubber bags each, one for a sleeping bag and ground cover, one for our clothes and other personal belongings we’d need when we camped each night on shore.  They showed us how to wear our life jackets and assured us that they would prove utterly necessary for survival. Our bags were stowed in various rafts, many on the one that our Union colleague George would be rowing. If we didn’t roll the bag tightly, properly, they warned, our things would get wet if the raft carrying it overturned.

When George’s raft went sideways, backwards, and upside down through one of the monster rapids, it turns out I had not packed one of my black bags carefully enough. Everything inside was soaked with muddy Colorado River water. My  camera and my shrink-wrapped tins of curiously strong mints were destroyed. I spread everything else, including my underwear, on big rocks at our next evening stopping place.

Twelve days and not one man shaved.  In fact, all were all darned proud of their scruffiness.

“Are you going to shave?”

“Nah. Are you?”

“Nah, Me neither.”

None of the women brought lipstick. We did nothing with our hair except comb it down in the morning.  We were not a stylish lot.  We crouched in the river in the morning and washed as quickly as we could in the cold water, craving only a smidgen of privacy and warmer water. Once or twice, in the warmer shallow water of a tributary, we poured water over each other, shampooing our hair gleefully.

Jay was the oldest person on the trip.  To my pleasant surprise, since we hadn’t yet traveled together, he was a trooper. It was he, not I, who took the oars going through one of the rapids, small rapids, but rapids to be sure. At sixty-five he had more reason to be concerned about the exertion and the heat.  And he had to make more trips than most to the river in the dark of the night. (It was on one of those middle of the night trips that he injured his leg and got the infection—but he was ok, eventually, a few weeks after we got home.) Jay was facing surgery for prostate cancer after the trip, and he was determined to enjoy every minute of our adventure.

We became part of a different world of deep cold river and hot canyon walls. We swam in pools in the streams that flowed into the river and slid on rocks behind waterfalls. We hiked up canyon trails that scared me half to death. I hadn’t known I was afraid of heights until I stood at the edge of dizzy-making, rocky precipices overlooking the river below.  Once Matt, one of the guides, had to take my hand and talk gently or I would have spent the rest of my life somewhere on a ledge jutting precariously near the river and the jagged rocks. The teenagers on our trip scrambled up and down as if born to the life.

Twelve days on the water. Twelve days to float past mile high, ever changing canyon walls, punctuated by brief, laugh-out-loud, oh-my-god thrills of unimaginable drops of twenty-five feet and more into churning water.  Once I found my body stretched out in the rapids in the Colorado River, my only connection to the raft my fingers clutching the rope that circled the top.  I had made a resolution that if the raft remained right side up, I would remain attached to it.

In calmer waters, Matt, the same guide who talked me down the canyon trail, taught me how to yell out loud.  Yee haw doesn’t come easily to me.   He called on me to perform at our farewell get-together, and in my opinion, I did well. I may have forgotten how, one gets rusty.  If you ask, I’ll say no.

At night we’d scramble onshore, drag up the rafts, help unload the supplies and search out soft sandy spots for our sleeping bags. Once while we were setting up camp, a small rattlesnake slithered three or four feet from the head of my sleeping bag, the second snake we’d seen in five minutes.

“Don’t worry. They’re not aggressive; they won’t hurt you,” the guides assured me, too quickly.

I knew those guides.  They also thought the daily canyon hikes were a piece of cake.  But if I were fumbling for my glasses and flashlight in the night, preparing for a trip to the not-to-be-discussed bathroom facilities, and if I accidentally whacked that snake on the head, he’d strike, and I would die far from medical facilities.  We were still days away from the possibility of a helicopter rescue.  I slept in a tent that night. (My friend Sigrid later admitted to me that she had wanted to sleep in a tent too, but didn’t want to be thought a wimp.  I didn’t care.)

But other nights I slept under the stars, a zillion stars hanging in the sky between the dark canyon walls while below, benign shadowy bats darted above our heads.

Each morning a guide would walk around our camp, yelling that it was time to get up and drink coffee. By the time we had washed up a little, rolled up our sleeping bags and ground covers tightly enough to fit into our waterproof rubber bags, dressed in our shorts, tee sheet, Tevas, and sun hat, breakfast was ready.  Lots of it, laid out on folding tables. Juices, fruit, eggs, french toast, pancakes, bacon, sausages.  We piled our plates.

I was amazed the rafts could carry enough food safely for a twelve day trip. George’s raft held the food cold below the water level.

Lunch was usually make your own deli-style sandwiches.  Salami and cheese and ham. Two or three kinds of bread.  Fruit.  Pasta salads.  Cold drinks.  Hearty cookies. My most memorable lunch was served on tables set in the middle of a shallow stream flowing into the Colorado River.  We stood in the scorching sun, up to our knees in cool water.

Dinner was salmon or chicken or steak or pork tenderloin.  Once the guides cooked upside-down cakes in cast iron skillets over the grills.

One night, after dinner ended with watermelon, and the guides had probably downed too many beers, they stuffed a watermelon with oily rags, set it on fire, and sent it down the Colorado river, a magnificent sight.

We ended the trip on the Havasupai Indian Reservation, We pulled the rafts out of the water and helped load them onto the trucks that would carry them away.  We were a mess.  The cotton tee shirts we wore on the trip were never clean again, dyed brown from the sand in the river.   Bedraggled though we were, we were presented with a feast of a brunch, fit for people far spiffier than us, brought down the canyon by other, cleaner rafting staff.  Salads. Fruit. Cold cuts.. Cheeses.  Pastries. Wine. All beautifully laid on tables with tablecloths and wonderfully free of sand.  We had never seen such a meal or enjoyed a meal as much, the pleasure tinged bittersweet. These were the last moments of a mind-boggling, life-changing, and, for most of us, once-in-a-lifetime trip.  We had come to feel intimately connected with our dirty fellow-adventurers.  And this lovely meal was the last time we would break bread together beside the river.  When we’d eaten our last fresh perfect strawberry, it would be time to climb into the four-wheeled vehicles and go back to motels in Flagstaff and then to our other lives.

In Flagstaff, Jay and I took our clothes to the laundromat, washed them several times, and threw most away, too stained ever to wear again.  We flew home happy with the trip and with each other. Jay’s leg healed. His cancer was successfully treated. And soon after, we married, confident that this would not be our last happy adventure together.

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Tam Lin

Neidlpath Castle in the Scottish borderlands

Intro: This story has its origins in an old ballad (with many variations) from the Scottish borderlands. I think of it as a fairy tale for grownups.

Long ago in Scotland, in the days of castles, and knights, and fair young maidens; long ago, when fairies were commonly seen in the countryside; there lived a girl named Janet, daughter of the lord of a great castle. She was beautiful, with her golden hair in a braid down her back–but proud and impatient. Too proud, some said, for her own good.

One hot summer day, Janet was bored: with needlework, with her music lessons, with the gossip of the other maidens in her father’s castle.

She announced to the others: “This afternoon I’m going to go walk on the cool green grass of Carterhaugh.”

The other maidens were shocked: “You can’t go there. No, never! You can’t have forgotten! In Carterhaugh, Tam Lin, the fairy, walks about. He will steal your gold rings. He will steal your green cloak. Likely as not, he will steal your maidenhood.”

But Janet only laughed at their fears. “I am afraid of no man, nor fairy either. And I will go wherever I choose.”

And soon enough she was there, bending over the path to pluck a fragrant red rose. She stood up to find herself looking directly into the eyes of Tam Lin.

Quietly he said, “You dare to steal a rose without asking my permission?”

“How dare you suggest I need your permission?” she stormed. “Carterhaugh is land that belongs to my father. One day it will belong to me. I ask no man’s permission. And no fairy’s permission either.”

Tam Lin didn’t answer. He just looked long into her blue eyes with his eyes of gray. He touched her green cloak. He held her milk white hands. And he laid her down on the cool green grass. And she didn’t say no. And when she went home much later that day, she was a maiden no longer.

Before long, it was plain for all to see that Janet had changed. She was moody and often ill.

An old knight guessed the reason and laughed.

“It seems to me that Janet is with child. And which one of us will be blamed for it, I wonder?”

Janet heard the old knight gossiping. “It was none of you and never could be.” And she paused only a heartbeat before she added, “The father is the fairy Tam Lin.”

Everyone was silent. Finally, the old knight spoke frankly, “What good to a woman is a fairy baby—or a fairy husband, and him away in fairyland all the time? Better you should eat the white berries that grow in the rocky places of Carterhaugh and lose the little baby growing inside.”

Janet spent many days in mournful thinking. And then, sadder then she’d ever been, she returned to Carterhaugh.

She searched among the rocks. She found the small white berries, enough to fill the palm of her hand. Just before she could bring them to her mouth, there before her stood Tam Lin. He was furious.

“How dare you pick the white berries to lose the child that is mine–that is ours?”

“Who are you to tell me that I should not?” “What good to me is a fairy baby? And what good to me is a fairy father–and you lost to me always in fairy land?”

But Tam Lin looked again in her blue eyes and spoke softly.

“My Lady, I am no fairy. I am a mortal man, born of a mortal man and woman, no less than you. I was only a child of eleven when the queen of the Fairies found me sleeping on the grass and carried me away to her kingdom. I have been held by a spell ever since.”

“You could release me from my spell, Janet, if you would, if you dared. Tonight the fairies go riding at Miles Cross, and I ride with them. Hide in the bushes near the path. First will come the Queen of the Fairies, on her black horse. Let her ride past. Then will come the troop of fairies on their brown horses. Let them ride past as well. I will ride last on a white horse. I will wear a crown on my head with a golden star because my father is an earl. I will wear a glove on my right hand, and none on my left, so you can know me. When I am close, pull me down from my horse, Janet, and do not let go, whatever dreadful thing may come.”

That night Janet hid near the path at Miles Cross. When the moon was high, she saw the Queen of the Fairies coming on her black horse, and she let her ride past. She saw the riders on their brown horses, and she let them ride past. Last came a rider on a white horse with a crown on his head with a star. He had a glove on his right hand and none on his left, and she knew he was Tam Lin.

She waited until he was close beside her, then leaped up and pulled her lover down into her arms. And she did not let go.

The fairy queen wheeled her black horse around to face them and shrieked in dismay,” The girl has taken my Tam Lin!”

Straightaway, Tam Lin was changed into a writhing snake with poisonous fangs. But Janet did not let go.

And then he was changed into a wolf with long, sharp teeth and claws. Again she did not let go.

And then he was changed into a red hot lump of coal that seared the palms of her hands. Still she did not let go.

Finally Tam Lin was changed into a mother-naked man, and Janet drew her green cloak around him.

Bitterly the Fairy Queen spoke,

“Oh, Tam Lin, if I had known yesterday, what I know tonight, I would have taken your heart of flesh and turned it into a heart of stone so you could not feel. If I had known yesterday what I know today, I would have taken your two gray eyes and turned them into eyes of wood, so you could not see.”

Turning to Janet, she said, “You have stolen the best of my company.”

In the next instant, the Queen, all the other fairies, and all their horses disappeared, leaving Janet and Tam Lin alone, in the darkness, together.

Nanaimo Bars, Canada’s Contribution to World Cuisine

Nanaimo Bars

Intro: I’ve forgotten most of the names of teachers, schools, and childhood friends.  But I vividly remember almost everything I’ve ever eaten.  I suspect it might mean I’m shallow. For example, I still feel nostalgic about a chocolate cake that my mother cooked–once–when I was nine years old. It was made, surprisingly, with spices and mashed potatoes and baked in a 9” tube pan. Gone forever, like the names of my childhood friends.

For those of you who are not as shallow as I, it may seem odd to put posts about food in a blog about stories.  What can I say…lots of my memories are about food. This post is to honor one of my favorite sweets: Canada’s own Nanaimo Bars.

In 2006, Canadians voted to designate “Nanaimo Bars” Canada’s Favourite Confection. (Coffee Crisp chocolate bars came in second place.)

If you’re reading this in Canada, you are not surprised. A colleague of mine, originally from Toronto, called them “Canada’s contribution to world cuisine.” You can buy them everywhere in Canada: on the ferry going to Vancouver Island off the West Coast or in some out-of-the-way corner store in Newfoundland off the East Coast. Buy them from your neighborhood Tim Horton’s donut shop, pick up a mix from the grocery store, or use the recipe your mother handed down to  you.

If you’re American, you probably never heard of them. A pity. If you’ve always thought the the expression “can never be too rich” applies to sweets, these Canadian treats are for you. A bottom layer with graham cracker crumbs, cocoa, nuts, and coconut.  A middle layer of creamy butter icing.  A top layer of melted chocolate. They’re easy to make; they look hard; they keep well; and almost everyone loves them. What recipe is better than that?

When my son Raj was about four he was eating a Nanaimo bar and said, “Mommy, when I am very, very, very old and just about to die, give me one of these. I will eat it…quickly.” I don’t recall him ever being so impressed with anything else I ever made.

My son, Raman, in Kansas City has made them his specialty. I remember him trading some years ago with a colleague for a truly outstanding apple pie.

I first tasted them when I was in elementary school in the 1950s. My Aunt Dorothy got the recipe from her friend, Mrs. Layton, and passed the recipe on to my mother. And for most of my life we called it “Mrs. Layton’s recipe.” We liked it very, very much.

According to Wikipedia, Nanaimo Bars were invented in the early 1950s by a woman named Mabel Jenkins who lived just south of Nanaimo, British Columbia.  She submitted them to a fund raiser cookbook called the Ladysmith and Cowichan Women’s Institute Cookbook. Later the recipe turned up in other cookbooks, sometimes called Mabel’s cookies.

Since then, variations have appeared: mint nanaimo bars, peanut butter nanaimo bars, mocha nanaimo bars.

In 1986, the city of Nanaimo had a contest to find the very best Nanaimo Bars.  Out of a hundred contestants, Joyce Hardcastle won.  Find her recipe and several variations here at the website of the Buccaneer Inn, Nanaimo, B.C.

The only literary work I’ve found (so far) about Nanaimo Bars is called “Sex, Life Itself and the Original Nanaimo Bar Recipe.” It’s written by Kim Blank, a professor in British Columbia, who also writes about Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. I haven’t found it on amazon or in Chapters (Canadian book stores). But I’ll keep on looking.

Finally, here’s my recipe, or rather, Mrs. Layton’s recipe. It’s not quite traditional: it doesn’t use custard powder or vanilla pudding and it uses unsweetened chocolate on top. Heresy, but equally delicious. Enjoy.

1/2 cup butter (1 stick)
1/4 cup sugar
5 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1 cup coconut
1/2 cup walnuts
1/2 cup butter
2 cups icing sugar (confectioner’s sugar)
milk (as necessary)
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 squares unsweetened chocolate squares
1 tablespoon butter

1. Melt stick of butter.  Add cocoa and sugar..  Break in egg and cook one minute over medium-low heat.  DO NOT BOIL.

2. Add graham cracker crumbs, coconut, nuts, and vanilla.

3. Press down hard in 8” X 8″ pan.  (If you want thinner slices, use a slightly bigger pan.) Chill.  If this layer is well chilled, it will be easier to spread the next layer.)

4. Melt 2nd stick of butter.  Beat with 2 cups confectioner’s sugar and vanilla.  Add a little milk if necessary to make a spreading consistency,  Spread on first layer.

5. Melt unsweetened chocolate and tablespoon of butter.  Working quickly, Pour over squares, tilting pan to spread.

6. Chill in fridge.  Cut into squares. It helps to dip the knife in hot water before cutting each row.

Copyright by Margaret French (narrative)