We lolled along, letting our fingers drag in the muddy water. The warm sun and cool breeze of a March morning were perfect accompaniments. Birds chirped and chattered and raised a ruckus in the green growth along the bank. They darted out to dip at the stars sparkling on the surface of the Rio or hopped along the shore picking at this and that.
Kay and I talked about the joy of living, even temporarily, in a place where nature ruled with such magnificence. There’s no bad view in Big Bend National Park. No matter where we camped, when we came out of the tent in the morning, we were stunned by some newly revealed cliff or peak or twisted rock formation. Or the sun would glint off something, making it shine or giving it a color it didn’t have before. It was so beautiful it made our eyes fill with tears and our hearts with wonder.
“Doesn’t it feel as though we’re the only humans to have ever been here?” Kay whispered with reverence as our raft entered the little canyon.
I agreed but my comments were hushed by the sudden shrill descending notes of a canyon wren. The sound was like nothing we’d ever heard. We didn’t know what it was but it was pure magic and not even surprising, given where we were.
To make a long story into a short column, I’ll just say that we were enamored of everything: the gentle downstream pull of a river that smelled like clean dirt, the bumpy-walled canyon, the peace, the blooming wildflowers along the shore, and the subtle lure of the foreign land drifting by next to us.
Suddenly we heard the loud sound of water pounding against stone. Never mind the assurances that it was easy and safe. Every scary whitewater tale I’d ever heard crowded into my brain. Then my relentless imagination kicked in and dragged me away with it.
“Rapids!” I screamed.
We panicked and paddled as hard as we could for the closest shore, which happened to be Mexico. We stood gasping and glad to be alive.
An old man crashed his way down an animal path and stood on the bank next to us. I spoke the only Spanish word I could remember under pressure, “Hola.”
He grinned and lifted his sombrero. “Buenos días.”
I returned the grin and felt stupid. I’d taken three years of Spanish in high school and one in college and “Hola” was all I had to offer?
There was laughter in his dark eyes, so he had evidently seen our mad dash to shore. That was embarrassing in any language.
In the manner of a true gentleman, he asked if we had a problem with the raft. What he said was, “You problem boat?” His English was not great, but it was better than my Spanish. I had a head full of his language, but it was as though I’d lost the password I needed to access that part of my brain.
Using a mix of English, mutilated Spanish, and mime, we explained that we’d heard cascading water ahead and were afraid to move forward.
He listened intently, nodding his head as we explained. Somehow he kept from laughing at us. “No is bad. You see.” He began walking and indicated that we should follow.
The “death-defying rapids” were a bend in the Rio where it widened and became shallower for a few yards. The rushing water tumbled over rocks and pebbles and caused the loud whooshing noise we’d translated into a dangerous waterfall. Well… I had translated it. My friend was innocent. I had failed to keep the reins on my imagination and it galloped away, turning a minor change in the river’s direction into a deadly obstacle.
Our Mexican friend wished us a good day and went on his way whistling. We walked back to our craft.
“That was stupid,” I admitted, “and embarrassing.”
“It wasn’t so bad,” Kay said. “Maybe someday we’ll write about our adventures, real and imagined.”
Yes. Maybe someday we will.