Tuesday, October 10, 2017

down, swiftly

There's any number of ways to tell the story of a life, and one way that you could tell mine is the ill-conceived adventures I have had out of doors. We'd start with that time in third grade when I split open the back of my Hawaiian-themed jams on Field Day (formative memory - Mrs. Priester, teacher's aide and mother of my nemesis, stapling the jams back together, oh my god, still reeling from fucking Field Day) and discuss decades' worth of uproarious traumas up through this trip I took last August. This little Swiss town in the summer was just so beautiful and wholesome and brimming with people in good health, plus I was in an uncharacteristically optimistic frame a mind; it was enough to make me forget my place. I'm not so much white as borderline transparent, the type of pallor that could only be an evolutionary mistake. I should really stay inside.

On this trip I had not one, but two, ill-conceived outdoor adventures, the first being a tubing expedition down the river. I had been tubing once before, in college, and I remember it as a lazy afternoon spent floating gently down a river drinking beer. This was not that, as it turned out, which I maybe should've gleaned during the orientation. It involved a large swarm of Swiss and Italian people wearing aquatic shoes and hauling personal floatation devices in which they stashed all their gear. Some of them had their own rafts. The guy in charge gave that crowd two full seven-minute lectures, first in German, then Italian; then he turned to me and my friend (the only English speakers) and said "Always go left." That's it. "Just keep left," and then, when pressed, "If you go right you'll have trouble." With that, he gave us each a life vest and a little map of the river that was the size of a business card. We hauled our tubes on a 10-minute walk down a graveled path, the aquatic-shoed Europeans laughing at our bare feet the whole way. It was fair.

The tubing was supposed to take about two hours, and I suppose I'd pictured a scenic morning drifting down the river with my friend. I didn't bring my phone or my wallet because I was sure I would lose them--just my map and some sunscreen. My friend was supposed to pack her phone and some money for the Burger King, which was helpfully marked on the map like the object of a treasure hunt. One thing we didn't know is that this river moves. It has a very, very swift current that will carry you along faster than you can swim. We launched ourselves off a rock at the same time, but somehow only my tube shot down the river like a bullet. Within a couple minutes I was so far ahead I could barely see my friend in the distance. More worrying, there was actual white water (pulling me toward the right, naturally) and these tubes could not be steered at all. At. All. If you're tall enough you could sort of point your legs in the direction you want to go and kick really hard? I'm very short, though, and the tube was very large, so when I tried to do that all my limbs just sort of flailed in the air helplessly, like a dying bug. I pulled out my map (already soggy) from my life vest as a talisman against my inevitable drowning, trying to summon a sense of chill and well-being. Like that's ever worked.

Fortunately my friend is a normal human height, and after maybe 20 minutes she caught up by doing the kicking. She looked ridiculous, which made us laugh really hard. By that point death still seemed close, but I was feeling okay about it until we discovered she'd forgotten our Burger King money. A low moment. This story is probably getting boring--I swear it's good in person--so I'll just say there were still several more close calls after that, including almost being decapitated by a felled tree, and a lot of veering right. In fact at one point we veered so far right that my friend, who's a very strong swimmer, took off her life vest, got out of the tube and was like hauling our tubes to the left side of the river, while I was still flailing around like a fucking bug just wishing I knew how to do something--anything--right. I can swim, but not like that. I spend a lot of time wishing I were a more capable person.

The next day we went up a mountain for what was supposed to be a "gentle walk" between the restaurant where we were having lunch and the place where we would catch a bus. But we were running short on time and we ended up taking a shortcut down this path my friend's parents suggested, having taken it (as we later learned) some 35 years before. As you might imagine, this was a terrible mistake. The path was very steep. Verryyyyy steep. Lots of rocks. There was no shade, and it was sun was beating down. We walked single file like it was Lord of the Rings. No signs of life, save for the occasional wholesome Swiss person in full gear (including double walking sticks), who always flew past at 15x our speed. Somehow everyone was super elderly? Like if we had been in America, they were probably too old to leave the house. The most appropriately dressed in our band, I was wearing fashion sneakers. One of us was wearing what in Tennessee we'd call "church shoes," and my third friend was wearing shoes that had zero tread. We fell down a lot.

You know, there were these moments. Like all day, my friend had been talking about how he'd always gone to these mountains with his parents. He had all these fond memories of taking ski lessons with this guy named Benny. What do you know, in the middle of this nightmare trek we came across this cluster of weird hobbit houses and damned if Benny himself wasn't sitting on the patio drinking beer. He was like 90 years old, but perfectly preserved by mountain life (even though he'd only moved into his hobbit house quite recently...he hadn't actually lived there when my friend was a kid). Probably the most surreal experience I've ever had. They had this really animated conversation in German in which it was totally obvious that Benny was making fun of my friend's church shoes. We laughed and laughed. Earlier in the day (before the trek) we found this tiny one-room church where someone was getting married. Just amazing. But anyway for the most part it was us walking single-file down this treacherous path for about 3 hours, taking no breaks at all (except for Benny, or a brief pause when someone fell) because we were so worried we were going to miss this bus. I was worried I was going to fall (more), hating it the whole way, plus I also hated myself for hating it. Like why can't I just go with the flow, why am I always complaining, and how did I get stuck going down that fucking mountain, anyhow. I thought a lot about how I was really going to try not to be that person anymore--how I'd find some way to be more cool, more competent, and somehow grow a better nature.

Benny's crazy house
Two days later I flew home. It was a short visit. I'm always a little melancholy at the end of a trip, and this time I suppose I was extra sad. My friend who lives over there is one of my favorite people, but I don't see him very often. People moving away is one of the dumb tragedies of adulthood. The day after I got home I learned my sister is having a 'surprise' baby, and the day after that one of my parents was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes I feel this dreadful symmetry where it's like I'm trapped in someone's bad MFA story. Another mountain I don't want to go down...another day of feeling totally incapable and out of control, wondering if I can be better.