Having a company that exists to help people have fun has got to be the best type of business. The behind-the-scenes work is daunting, though. When customers return raving about their trip, that’s not an accident. Every single thing you do is aimed at that result.
I assumed I would get to do a lot of “free” river trips, right? Wrong. I worked hard, but one bright morning a young trainee stood in front of the desk in our office. I wished her well because I knew she was going on her final “check out” run through the Rockslide rapid in Santa Elena Canyon. That meant she’d be alone in a raft. Senior guides would be with her, but not in her boat.
I should mention here that this was back in the day when the Rio carried plenty of water. We didn’t know how fortunate we were.
The new guide was tiny and beautiful. I remember her name well, but let’s call her Anne. She said, “They don’t think I’ll make it.” “They” being other river guides: big, strong men.
“That’s ridiculous,” I said, “of course you can do it.”
“Why don’t you come with me? Please. It’ll be fun—just take a day off.”
What I’d meant as a pep talk turned into a case of putting my money where my mouth was. I had to go. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.
As we glided along, my worries evaporated. I don’t think it’s possible to listen to the steady gurgle of the Rio Grande and feel stressed. Water slapping gently against oars has a lulling effect. We passed turtles sunning themselves on rocks or sticks along the bank. Wildflowers nodded their heads in the occasional breeze. The weather was perfect, not hot or cold. It was a show-off day in Big Bend. As if that wasn’t enough, we rounded a bend and a steep slope on the Mexican side was solid purple with bluebonnets. There were so many the smell was cloying.
“Wow,” Anne exclaimed. “Aren’t you glad you came with me?”
At that moment I couldn’t imagine how anything could ever be more important than spending the day on the Rio Grande.
Anne did fine, as I expected. We talked about various things, including the ways in which women were underestimated by men. Mostly, we laughed. It was hard to care about anything serious on a day like that one.
I don’t remember whether the Diamond-Beaked tale came before or after the Rockslide. It must have come after because Anne was relaxed. She had showed everybody how a tiny woman runs a rapid like a boss.
Then, of course, the lying started. River guides are full of knowledge about the area, but they’re equally full of fun. It’s hard to separate facts and fiction when their mouths start moving.
Santa Elena Canyon has one surprise after another. I’ve been through it forty times or more and it’s never the same; you never see all of it. I commented on a pocked wall on our right, the Mexican side of the canyon.
A straight-faced Anne said, “Those pockets are caused by a rare bird that drills into the wall to make a nest.”
My river guide radar went up.
“It’s sad,” she continued, “because people kill them for their valuable beaks. They’re not protected in Mexico.”
She paused a moment before coming in for the kill. “They’re called the Diamond-Beaked Rockpecker.”
“I know you think I’m pulling your leg, but I’m not. I can’t believe you haven’t heard of it before.”
Why was I surprised that Anne would lie? She was a river guide!
“I wouldn’t lie to you,” the liar insisted.
How many times had I heard that?
When we arrived at the takeout, the company’s star birder was our shuttle driver. How perfect; I’d fix my clever little guide.
“Anne has been telling me about the Diamond-Beaked Rockpeckers,” I said, thinking he’d set her straight pronto.
“Did you see one?” He acted excited.
“Of course I didn’t see one. They don’t exist.”
“It’s a shame you didn’t get to see one.” His expression was sad. “They won’t be around long if people keep killing them for their diamond beaks.”
What was the use? They’re all a bunch of liars.