Journal of American Whitewater

It's nice to be reminded from time to time that I am actually a published writer. It's a nice tree limb to cling to when the hurricane of what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-myself hits. 

Check out the article I wrote for American Whitewater- it's out right now! (Update: the link I included before doesn't work, turns out the online edition is only available currently to AW members. Sorry!) 

Facing East

One more announcement before we return to normal programming. This video, Facing East, won first prize in the International Reel Paddling Film Festival. It was co-directed and filmed in part by Tino Specht, my wildly handsome and unreasonably talented friend and New River Academy co-worker. It's playing TODAY at 12:30 pacific time, and also on the 16th at 8:30.

Facing East [NBC Universal Sports AD] from Vital Films on Vimeo.

Tino- I'm so so so proud of you. NBC Universal is broadcasting your movie! You're on TV, motherfucker! Hell yeah!


Happy birthday, Tino! If I were up on the Ottawa right now with you, I'd bake you an entire carrot cake and then we'd sing some James Taylor. Perhaps wear some sponsored clothing and take a stroll through a death camp or a surf town, then run a waterfall. At night we'd hit up a Chilean carnival, get on a death inducing spin ride and hold on for dear life. Oh bro, it'd be so sick! Happy birthday to the sickest bro I know.

In Print!

Click here to view this photo book larger

I abuse my photos. I print them out and stuff them in albums, and then come back two days later to pry them out for use in some sort of crafty thing. But the crafts never- ever- get completed, and the photos are never seen again. So I decided to make a book out of my Chile photos from the past year, and have them professionally printed. Shutterfly was having a 50% off sale on their hardcover, 12" by 12" photo books, so for four spastic days I did nothing but re-touch photos and arrange pages on Photoshop. I hit 'order' at midnight, about 4 minutes before the offer was up. And then, the waiting commenced.

Well, it finally arrived at the post office! I ripped it out of the cardboard and paged through the whole thing: it was glossy, pristine, and perfect. For a whole 20 minutes. As I was bringing it in from the car, the two corgis attacked each other in the yard. Hitting them with the chuck-it stick was not effective, so I had to put the book down in the grass and pull them apart with my hands, which was sort of terrifying. When I picked up the book again, the cover was stained with dog blood and had a few deep scratches in it. Sadly, I'm not lying.

The book has 50 pages, each one 100% photo- there is not one bit of white. I included lines from Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet I taught in my World Literature class- and one Avett brother lyric at the end. There are no other words besides those.

And, why yes, it is called "Chile: The Wild Coast". I may have only ever had one idea- but hey, at least I'm consistent. Enjoy!

(My favorite part, the back cover:)

The coat rack

Lorenzo is, to the best of my knowledge, the most handsome man in all of Chile. He was raised in the valley of San Alfonso del Maipo, in a home hung on a hillside above the river. He and his three brothers served as our unofficial guides to the area, navigating us through the hydraulics of the Yesough and the Maipo, leading us to high altitude waterfalls and the bones of Pinochet's death camps. This past semester, he became the full time Spanish teacher at New River Academy.

During graduation dinner, the teachers -Tino, Lorenzo, Callie, Andy, Matt and I- headed to the porch for a momentary escape from the swarm of parents and students. As we passed through the decorated hallway, Lorenzo spotted an antique coat rack nestled into the corner. It was black wrought iron made from four thin, flat bars that joined at the base to creat its trunk, and then separated at the top like petals opening in all four directions, curling into spirals.

"Wait a meenute-" said Lorenzo in his thick, stacado Chilean accent. He stood studying the coat rack for a minute, and then removed his suit jacket. We were all dressed up for the occasion,
I had straightened my hair and let the girls paint smokey circles around my eyes and layer mascara on my eyelashes so that my cheeks tickled each time I blinked. We all watched as Lorenzo held up his coat in front of his face, measuring the distance of some space evident in his mind, but not ours. "Eet iz on my check leest of thzings to do in my life, to do thzees-" he said, and he tossed the coat across the width of the hallway towards the rack. It hit one of the curved arms and stuck, and under the momentum of its weight the rack wobbled sideways for a moment, as if it were making to fall over. In a moment that seemed unreasonably full of suspense and importance, we drew a collective breath. But at the apex of its unbalance, the rack swung instead back towards us and rested again on all four iron feet. The coat pendulumed sideways for a minute, and then hung still.

Looking satisfied, Lorenzo moved forward to take it back, and as he did he opened his hand, gripped an imaginary pencil with the other, and moved it against his palm in a check motion. "Check!" He said, with obvious triumph. Then he took the coat off the rack, threw it over his shoulders, and proceeded outside.

Some time later, as dessert was served, I sat down next to Lorenzo and informed him that I, too, had a check list, and that mine oscillated between the lofty- a completely sustainable existence- and the trivial- biting a tube of lipstick completely in half (accomplished, age 19, totally worth repeating). I inquire as to the rest of his list, and he replied with such fluidity that I really believed that somewhere, maybe under his bed in the Maipo valley or buried in a box beneath his family's mountain horse pasture, there existed a detailed, hand written list that he had meticulously created, written out again and again until it was complete, and then committed to memory.

"I will have four cheeldren," he said, " and write a booook, and be on thze world champi-ohn rafting team, and work for a seazon in Alaska on a fishing boat."

He asked on the contest of my list, and I rattled them off in a similar fashion- "Restore a farmhouse, write a boooook" (it was hard not to pick up his heavy, beautiful accent) "drive across the country, have three children." He nodded in appreciation. We kept talking, he ate his dessert, and I tried not to throw up.

The first time I met Lorenzo, I was tanned and strong and we were riding in the back of a pick up truck near the Argentinian border. The day after, I ripped out a page from a book of Pablo Neruda love sonnets, rolled it up and threw it into his hand. Then I turned my back on him and ran as fast as I could back to the car as he called "thzank you, thzank you", and then I drove to the airport and flew home.

The second time I saw him, 6 months later, I had just awoken from my night's sleep. I was staying in the tower room at his parent's house, and I emerged from the small room at the top of the stair case just as Lorenzo was walking past on the floor below. Feeling self conscious but pretty in a relaxed, tousle-haired way, I said "good morning" in Spanish, and then fell down the entire staircase.

All the way down.


In front of Lorenzo.

Only Lorenzo.


It's funny that we bother to make life lists at all, for all its manic unpredictability.


I'll tell you one thing: the past seven or so years have endowed me with the quality of acceptance- not fully, because complete acceptance can sometimes look a lot like giving up- but sometime recently I have learned to appreciate the elegance of just letting go.
It didn't hit me easily, or all at once, like a stone falling out of the sky into your waiting hand, but slowly and diligently, the way an ocean whittles at its shoreline.

I remember the one defining break up of my life- the one after college, a really nasty one- as being like major surgery. The dread and pain, the agonizing recovery and the feeling that you can't do the things you used to do, at least not in the same way.

In my last days in North Carolina, I felt none of that. I just felt tired, with no desire to try and make sense of anything. Maybe the sadness swam way down beneath language, maybe it wasn't there at all. I was overcome with the need to go, to push forward to whatever was next.

The morning after I stayed up all night with Sarah, wrapped in her blanket on the porch, I packed up everything I could still call my own, and I left. My goodbyes, the ones that found me, were quick and seamless affairs. If I had it my way, I wouldn't have said goodbye to anyone. In a world where everyone is constantly either coming or going, goodbyes seem superfluous, a drain on limited emotional resources.

I drove North towards West Virginia, through deep valleys of immense green and glory, and wretched stretches of highway with billboards admonishing me not to kill babies or I'd burn in hell, signed GOD, each letter as big as a man. A thunderstorm hit in the third hour with a barrage of rain and bursts of lightning, and by the time I pulled into Fayetteville around 7pm, I was consumed by a strange, unreasonable energy. I burst into Pies and Pints, the one palatable restaurant in the small town, and found each table occupied by my former students and their families, up for the weekend of graduation festivities. I scurried between each table, sitting briefly at each one as I said hello, my toe tapping frantically against the concrete floor. One of the mothers put her hand on my back and pressed on it. "Slow down," she said, "you're not in the car anymore. You can relax."

But it wasn't the long drive that was jolting me, it was something else loose inside of me, creating this intense desire to move and talk. Maybe it was being shot out of my quiet life in Boone and cannonballed backwards to this previous life as a member of the school, or the fact that I could just as soon pretend I'd been with them the entire time and never have even moved to North Carolina, for all I had to show for my previous few months. It was unsettling, best not to think about too deeply, and it made me want to remain in motion, as if I were a tightly wound, mechanical thing, ready to spring.

I sat with the staff and a handful of kids, the latter completely involving themselves in a conversation regarding whether or not a dollar had been stolen between them two months ago. The staff looked worn out as always and didn't say much. They fixed their eyes on a television set mounted television set above the bar and made a handful of comments about the peculiar snow sport being broadcasted. I thought about myself a year ago, at the same table in the same restaurant. I hadn't wanted to speak to anyone. I had wanted to sleep, or run away, or somehow disappear entirely. Of course, that had been under very different circumstances.

I went back to the school house for a little while after dinner, watched part of a movie and swung on the hammock with the girls. I went into the little attic room where Tino and Lorenzo slept, the whole place littered with twenty different boxes of Tevas. "Sent to my by my sponsors," Tino said, picking up a box and casually removing a shoe. "What could anyone do with 20 pairs of Tevas?" I asked, and he shrugged, put the box to the side of the mattress and picked up his guitar. We sang Sweet Baby James and The Fox and "Dragon Wheel", Lorenzo's Chilean-pronounced version of Wagon Wheel.

Then I stood up, said goodnight, drove to a friend's house to sleep, and threw up.

And that is how I spent the entirety of the weekend. I threw up all over Fayetteville, in many different locations, wearing many different sun dresses. The daylight hours of Saturday were spent on Lower New; all the kids and staff kayaked and the parents rafted down through the big water and sizable rapids of the gorge. Even though I'd been looking forward to it for weeks, I wisely stayed behind. I had once before been in a vomit studded river run situation and found it undesirable at best and unwarranting of repetition.

Lying on the damp cushions of an outside couch, alone at the house of a friend who in reality is 99% a stranger, knowing everyone else was enjoying themselves out on the river in the ridiculous heat, I felt like the world's most pathetic human. At one point it crossed my mind to walk down to the gas station and buy a ginger ale, until I remembered with a sudden stab through my haze that the last time I had visited that gas station, I had driven away with the gas pump still in my car. The woman behind the counter - who, judging from her appearance, was about three years post mortem, - was livid, and upon her insistence I gave her my name and phone number. Whether or not she called regarding the damage I will never know, because both name and number were invented on the spot, with the one downfall of the plan being I could never set foot into the Little General again. No big shakes.

Until now, when I needed it badly, with its wealth of packaged crackers and refrigerated soda pops.

I did manage to attend the graduation banquet, and the graduation itself, knowing I'd be able to jump ship during both engagements if the need arose. And did it ever. I stood in front of the crowded dining room at Fayetteville's historic White Horse Inn, presented Taylor with the photography award, accepted her long, tight hug, then quietly back stepped out of the room, ran to the bathroom and threw up in an antique toilet. Twenty minutes later, I accepted my own recognition as being a great and dedicated teacher who mysteriously quit, accepted my brand new NRA sweatshirt and shorts and a long, tight hug from my boss, then ran to the bathroom and threw up. And that was only in the first hour of a marathon evening.

Towards the middle of the evening, I began to wilt, perking up momentarily when a parent announced he was splitting his bonus check amongst the teachers. Other than that lofty moment, I couldn't summon the will to remove my head from the table where it lay heavy on my folded arms. I could feel the roaming eyes of parents, who in the scant hours they had with us teachers- we who led their children to third world countries on a slalom course through earth quakes and volcanoes- always considered us with an eye of extreme scrutiny. Understandably so. Those parents who compared my jittery, manic temperament at dinner the night before and juxtapositioned it against tonight's slump and misery may have drawn the conclusion that I was coming down off some spree of drug use and other outlandish behavior. May they always wonder.

By the time of the actual graduation on Sunday morning, the worst of my flu had worked its course and I was feeling a bit more on solid ground. Regardless, I missed that wonderful moment where the seniors throw their caps and then hug each teacher in turn, because my dog was misbehaving. I had spent the majority of David's speech hissing bad dog! bad dog!! across the balcony to no avail, and I had to run across the stage, grab the dog from her tied up perch, throw in her the car where I whispered that I hope she rotted, and returned just in time to see everyone filing out, full of energy and excitement, the ceremony over.

All in all, graduation did not go as I had anticipated.
Zoe sobbed for two days straight because it was ending. I adore her.


It took a full day for me to recover to the point where I could face a day's worth of driving. Tuesday morning I again tied down the boats to the car and headed North. During the 16 hour drive I could eat nothing but milkshakes, which is not as good as it sounds.

Picture me, 11 o'clock at night, finally shoring up in the verdant, lilac covered hill of my home in New England, staggering out of the car and hitting the long overgrown weeds of my lawn in a heap. I looked up at the hot, white stars and almost couldn't bring myself to feel the relief that poured through me, so precious and powerful did it feel. At that moment, all the events in past week felt so pale, and distant, as if they were fiction, stars shooting randomly through the sky with very little relevance to me at all. Here I was, back at home, where I always ended up no matter what transpired previously. My life felt like an ellipse, always ending up here, the point where I had begun. I'm here, I'll always be here, I've always been here.


. . . chilling out with the New River Academy down in the Nantahala Gorge. And though I thought it would be just me and them, rough-housing and telling ghost stories around the fire and paddling like normal, it turns out I was wrong. We were in the midst of a big competition, the NOC shoot out, and the kids, normally isolated in the rugged backwoods of Nowheresville, in the region of Bigwater, in the country of WayOffthemap, well, they were excited.

There was music playing all day over the wave, and people all over the place. We paddled in water that was excruciatingly cold; when it got to be too much, we sat by the riverbank and watched it all go down, or we lay on our backs in the grass and took naps while the sun beat down on us and the whole scene just floated by.

I ate lunch with the little monsters, who bought me iced tea and ice cream. They lectured me on leaving, why I shouldn't have left.

Zoe and I went for a walk, Zoe who used to be a sloucher and a mumbler, Zoe who used to be 14 and homesick and scared....

Zoe said, "You know how you told me last semester to speak up, and walk straighter, and hold my head up, and get people's attention when I wanted it?"

And I said yes and I held my breath....

"Well," she went on, "I haven't forgotten that. I live by that now."

Yeah, it pretty much felt like a thousand champagne bottles were being uncorked inside my head, and every good teacher I've ever had was toasting me.

It was so easy to forget how much I missed my dog when I worked with the school, and how much I missed real coffee, and how much I wanted quiet and time and space and all the elements....and just how hard it could be...when the kids all looked so bright, and happy, and excited to be competing. They transformed from kids who play video games over lunch. . .

into kids who shred. . . .

And when night fell, the lights came on, and the music kept booming, and they kept on shredding....

When finally the lights went out and the river started going down, the kids went to sleep in their hammocks, swinging from the trees. I stayed up late and drank beers with some of the staff, talking about the time we outran a volcano, the time we sat in a lodge near the Argentina border as it rained for seven days straight, the time we nearly lost our minds by the ocean.

And then Tino and I went to sleep in the tent, and stayed up late killing hours with words, talking till our voices turned edgy and cracked and eventually faded, and then we slept.

I left the next afternoon. I could have stayed another day, but there didn't seem to be any reason. Everybody was doing so well, and I had things to get home too.

Moving forward is the only way to move. The river teaches us that. Rest assured there will always be things waiting for us downriver.

And that every time you trade in, you trade up. No matter how it might feel at the time. Because it's only natural to go forward.

Every time you run away from something, you're actually running toward something else.

It don't pay to live like that

I thought I'd just spend one night down in the gorge, but I ended up staying a few. It was good to be living like that again, the river on the left and the fire on the right, sleeping on the hard ground. The first night I g on rail road walks, one-on-one with nearly all of my former students

We jump in the van and drive around the off beat towns of North Carolina, buying food to throw into tin foil and cook over the fire, shouting at each other over the music. In the front seat Tino says to me, "Those kids are overjoyed to see you."

At night, I drink wine from a water bottle, it's calm and quiet out and everyone is asleep. I lie back on one of the picnic tables thinking & thinking & thinking. Later on I crawl into the staff tent and lie down on my sleeping bag, spread out next to Matt and beneath Tino's swinging hammock. We're whispering- when we remember to- and Matt and I talk for a long time, until he's asleep, and I'm hovering close to it but still I'm thinking & thinking...

It would be so easy to roll away with this river life. To take a job teaching kayaking here at NOC, live in a tent or a house made of plywood and glue, live off of beer and sun, maybe develop of a taste for liquor. Spend the whole summer encased in the Gorge, surfacing in Asheville every now and then, a long 70 miles away.
Dog, sure. But me? I don't know. That's the thing, I DO NOT KNOW what I want.

Working at New River was like trying to teach algebra to a three ring circus. There were earthquakes shaking and volcanoes erupting all around and we had to navigate ourselves and someone else's kids around them, down big rivers and through customs at the Santiago airport and into the Canadian border, and try to give them an education and try to get some sleep at the same time.

Now, it's so easy to just drop have all the time in the world to play and paddle and run around and take walks and listen to do not have to plan for classes or teach them, or file discipline reports or do endless food shopping or worry about logistics or vans breaking down or study halls. And the kids are nice to me, you know? They're in good moods. Clay even gives up Shotgun to me without a fight. Without a word, even. Rest assured, it is not always so easy.

But being a visitor into your old life poses its own risks, I suppose-

Shoot-out surprise

Last week, I put a boat on the car, and a sleeping bag in the back, and the dog in the passenger seat, and drove South. Spring had exploded in a party time uproar down there, and each tree was either white with popcorn blossoms or purple with candy beads.
The school was just in West Virginia and I visited them just last week, killing a possum, exploding a bird on my windshield, hexing myself and driving away from a gas station with the gas pump still in the car (which led to the tongue lashing of my life from a West Virginia meth head) in the process. But now....there they were in North Carolina! My state (my current state anyway). I had to go visit them again, and this time hope less roadkill, black magic and people yelling at me. Let me advise you, if you ever have a friend or two (or 16, in my case) in the same corner of the country, take a day off and drive down to see them . . .
Under normal circumstances, the world's most alternative high school exists within its own world, alone on the banks of some rural Chilean river or packed like sardines into the little house in Fayetteville. Under normal circumstances, it's just us....making our own entertainment, causing our own trouble.

. . . this was no normal circumstance. It just so happened to be the big Shoot-Out at the NOC. . . a freestyle kayaking rodeo competition that boasted a 10,000 cash purse. The place was just crawling, literally crawling with kayakers and pros and big names and friends and strangers and people 'in the industry', a huge sound system boomed over the cold, cold river, there was beer and liquor all over the place, and at night there was a garish light thrown over the wave so we could paddle till midnight.

It was a you can imagine....

more to come....

Real Time

I talked with my friend Ammen yesterday, who mentioned that he loses track of where I am and what is 'real time' on this blog. The truth is, I usually write about something a few days after it occurs. There are a few reasons for that. Time being one, photos being another, and taking some time to process everything being the third. If I wrote everything in the heat of the moment, I'd never be able to edit anything out, I'd want to keep it ALL in there because it's ALL SO important! The wilder coast would be terribly boring.

But today, I am writing in real time, as I sit here writing down directions and waiting for CDs to burn.

Today I'm driving to the Nantahala Outdoors Center for the first play boating of the season. Also, to see these guys:

I'd better get moving.

My Curse

I'm driving through the foggy dark of a mild spring night in West Virginia. Tino is in the passenger seat. We're talking so fast we haven't touched the radio. Behind us is the little house in Beckwith, the base for our strange little school. Across the hammocks, beds, couches, floors and porches, the kids are falling asleep for the night. Or so we presume. Teenagers have their own secret world, and when the lights go off, who knows. Who knows.

We are driving towards town, to some basement rafter's bar where Tino and I will drink beers and catch up on the months and miles between us. I haven't seen him since we said goodbye one early morning in Chile. He was half asleep, I hugged him in his wooden bunk and headed towards the Temuco aiport. We were both bruised by exhaustion. I was shaking with both sadness and relief to be leaving, deep in the fog brought on by one life quickly running out, and another poised to begin. Tino stayed behind, ran bigger waterfalls every day and fell in love with a Chilean girl named Canella.

Tino and I are both native New Englanders; we grew up with seperated by only a stretch of highway 91. We met in Chile as teachers for the school, I was 24 and he was 20. We've shared two long trips to Chile, two trips to Canada, two trips around the South East of the US. Sometimes our days together seem as if they could fit inside the space between heartbeats, other times, it seems like we shared half of our lives.

He is the kayaking, survivalist trained son of an herbologist and a Unitarian minister. He knows how to break hearts across the world, pose for a camera, and play the guitar. He's a lot of fun. And I miss him so much.
We drive down the road, high beams spotlighting the dilapidated houses on either side of us, roadside souvenirs of an area of the US that is dying. And then I see an animal in the road. At first I think it's just a shadow, but as we approach it, the lines darken and solidify into the shape of a heavy, grey and black body and a long, pointed nose. I hit the brakes and we are thrown forward. The animal freezes, then jumps up. It jumps up, as if to meet the underside of my car. Which it does. There is a thunk.

"Oh GOD!" I yell, taking my hands off the steering wheel and holding them out in front of me. "Oh my God oh my god ohmygod!!" Tino reaches over and grabs the wheel. "Oh man, you got him!" He shouts, laughing. "You got him!"

We continue driving this way, my foot on the gas peddle, Tino's hands on the wheel. I continue to say "ohmygodohmygodohmygod!!!"

"If it's any consolation," Tino shouts over my hysteria, "you hit the ugliest animal I've ever seen." He was right. That long, pointed nose, that fat body, that grimmace. "What was it? What was it?" I ask.

He says, "I think it was a badger."

Eventually, I regain control of myself and the vehicle. We drive into town and sit at the basement bar, peeling the labels off of our bottles as we talk. On the way home, he points to a slouched figure on the yellow line, says "there's your animal!" and laughs.

Later on, I fall asleep listening to the girls late night whispered conversation, the raspy sounds of someone watching a movie, someone snoring. These are the sounds that used to drive me crazy as I tried to fall asleep after the long days. Now, I welcome them as I drift away, invite them to permeate my dreaming. I am so happy to be back in the secret, hushed symphony of a regular night at the school I love so much. The badger I killed, just a detail melted into all the other details, is forgotten.

Until yesterday. I am back home from West Virginia, back to my safe, square little house. I wake up late, as usual, and shuffle downstairs. I put something on the stove, flip through a magazine on the kitchen counter. And then I see it. Actually, I almost trip over it.

There is a skull on my carpet.

As far as skulls go, this is a particularly hideous one. This is not something to be mounted over the counter of a Phoenix, Arizona bar. This is not the stuff of porcelain white bone, sun bleached and anonymous. This is the skull of something that died recently, and viciously. There are bits of black and white fur clinging to the long, pointed nose. It's teeth, still filled with plant and animal decay, are twisted downward into a sneer that clearly says, I was killed before I should have died. This is the skull of a badger.

First I blame the dog. She's lying on her side in a puddle of sunlight, peaceful, and she's obviously annoyed when I wake her up in the rudest of manners. I yell and pretty much drop-kick her outside. I grab a hand towel and, which my eyes closed, pick up the skull, fingers in the eye sockets. I run through the house and toss it off the porch. It lands with a sickening thunk. A vaguely familiar thunk.

I go about washing my face and hands, violently scrubbing under my fingernails. I'm not a stickler for germs or cleanliness or any of that, but I feel as if I need to cleanse myself of any trace of that skull. It was not a friendly thing. I think of that time I was in San Alfonso del Maipo in Chile, and we drove up into the mountains and found one of Pinochet's death camps. "Do not touch anything, or bring anything home," said Lorenzo. "This is a bad place."
Then I quickly pack up my things, give one last shiver, and start the car. I go into town to write, listen to music, and forget. I take the dog with me.

When I return in the evening, the skull is back. On the carpet, in the same spot, with its gaping eye holes and grimacing, clenched mouth. The living room smells like a carcass.

This time, I can't blame the dog.

I'm not entirely sure, but I think I've been cursed.

Oh my God, what was I thinking that day I turned 25, in the gloom of a Vermont mud season, when I decided to make this year my year of magical thinking? And why did I ever put it out there into the universe by writing this:

This is the year to blur the lines between what is fiction and nonfiction, what is possible and impossible. Magical thinking is like positive thinking in HD, Native American spirituality blended with American pop psychology. I am going to see the power, the potential, and the meaning in all things. Life will be luminous, studded with the unexpected, rich in omens, visions, unexpected wisdom.


Oh, that's right. Studded with the unexpected, rich in omens. Then that post goes and wins an award, and gets a lot of publicity, further pumping that extremely silly message into the world. I really thought magical thinking would mean more fireflies and sunsets and candlelight and train tracks and things just falling into place, la la la. Instead, it seems so far to be my year of dark magic, power animal digestion, skulls on the carpet, money magically disappearing. Not my intent whatsoever.

As I am writing this, my girlfriend Abby walks through the door into the cafe. Abby is one of my most precious discoveries since moving to Boone. Blond, beautiful and full of color, she laughs as she talks in such a way that she sounds just like a sweet, exotic bird.

I close my computer screen and give her the details of my weekend, including the story of my curse. I list to her the things that have gone wrong already since the skull befell me. Headaches, lost possessions, more money concerns. Trivial things, maybe, but this is just the beginning of my curse. Trivial things so far. (Duh duh DUH!)

"My year of magical thinking isn't going too well," I conclude, leaning back in my chair, only half joking. "I'd say it's going quite darkly."

"Don't worry," she says in her bird way. Although the story of the skull made her eyes get big and round, she tries her best to sound reassuring. "This is just life. Sometimes there are bumps in the road."

"Sometimes, you're right, I guess." I say. And then we both pause and say at the exact same moment, "and sometimes, those bumps turn out to be badgers." We're laughing and it's just so ridiculous. But then she leaves. And my coffee is cold. And I am left to sit here, staring at the computer screen, thinking. This is what I can conclude so far:

Sometimes there are bumps in the road. Sometimes, those bumps are badgers, and you kill them. Sometimes, those badgers exist in purgatory between the dead and the undead, and they haunt you and leave their mangled skulls on your carpet.

What next? I wonder.

And I do wonder.

The last hoorah

I'm outside the city of Pucon, Chile, on my hands and knees on the dirt on the side of the road, fingernails digging into the dirt, throwing up. The tension in my skull is momentarily relieved. I can open my eyes without the evening sun gouging them. When I climb back into the car, Matt, Dave and Andy are silent. Someone rolls down their window.

I don't mind vomiting from a migraine. Besides providing a slight- albeit temporary- relief, I find it proves a certain point that is difficult to otherwise get across: just how cruel the pain inside your head really is. You can be curled up in fetal position on the couch, a sweatshirt tied around your eyes, hands clenching and unclenching in some sort of primal pain response. You can be crying, silently, and breathing in quick labored breath, or sitting in a cold shower with the lights off and your clothes on and still you get the same response: Headache? Do you want an Advil?

There you are, brain swelling until it bursts over and over, and someone offers you a pharmaceutical normally taken for muscle aches. It's is ludicrous. If you could, you would remove the sweatshirt and tell the person politely just how misguided they are. If you could, you'd ask them to go get you a hack saw so you could cut open the roof of your skull, give yourself a skylight into the brain, to relieve the pressure. You really would. But you can't talk, and you can't move.

But when you throw up, it's a new ball game. Your migraine thrusts itself rudely into the lives of others, comes out in the open. It's especially poignant when you are sharing a confined space with other people, such as a car, especially when you are driving back to another small cabin with a shared bathroom. Especially when your having to pull over and double over on the side of the road is making them late for something. Suddenly, they have to deal with your headache in a very real way. It's sort of satisfying.

Back at the our cabin, the 9 kids running around with sticks and a BB gun shooting at dogs, I walk with a scarf tied around my eyes to my bed, hands out in front of me, feeling along the walls. The kids want me to come play with them. I tell them no, as usual, that I'm not feeling well. As usual.

The modicum of relief allowed to me at the sacrifice of my dinner is gone. My head is filled with metal butterflies beating their barbed wings, banging around my skull looking for the way out. I can't help but buzz with bad metaphors. This thing in my head wants to be named, wants to be recognized. Just as I think the butterflies cannot beat their wings any faster, they open terrible mouths and sink their rows of shark teeth into my brain.

The butterflies are sharp and vicious- the stabbing, the fine bladed knife etching a story into my gray matter one letter at a time. But there is also another kind of pain, the dull, pulsing pressure. Picture a ball, the size of a baseball or a fist, rolling around the base of my skull. I tilt my head to the right, just the slightest bit to reposition on the pillow, and ball of pain rolls to the right, bangs to a stop. I turn my head to the left, it rolls heavy to the other side.

A parade of images is marching through my head. The dog I saw on the sidewalk today, blood seeping from a hole in its head. The dog wasn't exactly dead yet. It made the flies happy. There is sand in the sheets and the hot water is broken. Yesterday Andy washed his clothes with a stick in a bucket, later on I stood shivering in the same bucket throwing teacups of cold water over my hair. I think of stupid, irrelevant things. The bones in the chicken we were served at the Achibueno, the way I picked around them, the ligaments that we pulled out of our teeth. The time we ran out of gas on the highway and Dave, Andy and Matt ate from a bag of leftover turkey and bread, grease everywhere, using the hood of the car as a picnic blanket. I had lay in the grassy ditch near the highway, hungry, a headache swirling behind my eyes. I began to think, I'm losing my edge for this lifestyle.

The bloody crusade in my brain continues and I'm helpless. Tino opens the door a crack to check on me but I whimper for him to shut it, the slice of light seeping in unbearable. He goes away. I kept thinking about the girls, how they stayed home from the river one day to bake with me and I was late, I had forgotten all about it even though I had promised them. I think about the way my heart scurried like an animal in my chest the time I was stuck in an eddy about a huge, unrunable rapid in a canyon, how I spit with fear and cried.

I try to take control over my thoughts. I count the days until I go home- 7 days? 8? If I have to lie here in my bed until then, I will. I think about my home, clean sheets, evening light on snow. Everything clean, cold.

When it's dark enough, I take a sleeping pill. I wilt into a strange sleep. The headache lasts for three more days. On the final day, we throw a birthday party for Clay. We're at a hotel in Villarica, playing croquet and making ice cream. It's a lawn party. There is wine barrell hot tub, still cool, the water heated by a wood stove. I curl up in it, lay motionless under the water for three straight hours. By this time the water has warmed sufficiently. The kids join me and we're all having a good time.

By this time, of course, I've come to a realization. For a year I have been travelling with the school throughout Chile, Canada, the Southwestern USA. I'm so good at my job. I've been so happy. But I'm not up for it anymore. I don't feel good, ever. Something must be wrong with me, and I have to go home.

My Vegetables

I've discovered my superpower, and it's got nothing to do with kayaking. I seem to have the ability to break down the distance people cloak themselves in to mask their self consciousness, and allow them to just relax and enjoy themselves. And this case, pretend to be a vegetable soup.

After 12 months of traveling with New River Academy, I hereby present my greatest accomplishment. One of the boys in here even refuses to smile for photographs, but here he is, under my influence, pretending to be a root vegetable.

This is no joke. This truly is what I am most proud of in all the world.

Live to Wimp Again

(C) Matt Hill
It is raining and cold. A cloud of mist accompanies every word I speak. I bought a thick wool scarf in town, threaded with iridescent silver, and I wrap it around my shoulders as if it were a luxurious fur. The students sit in a ring around the tremendous fire in the Quincho and play Hearts and Uno. When it rains, the rivers rise into giants, and we draw inwards.Except between the hours of 3:00pm-7:00pm, approximately. That is when we seal ourselves into creek boats the bright, speckled, tangerine and lime colors of jelly bellies, and we go and play with the giants. They toss us with their powerful arms, or we slide down their throats into their canyon stomachs: David Hughes runs Gargantua del Diablo, "the Throat of the Devil" on the Rio Claro (C) Matt Smink

Los Nevados is a full on class 5 committed canyon run that is pumping right now and we're not doing it. But we are running the entrance rapid, a 100 foot slide that is frequently featured in paddling magazines because of it's sheer size and mediagenicy. A 100 foot bumpy slide like a wild toboggan ride, mostly clean, that you can hike up and run again and again, with no worry of the dangerous canyon that follows. Incredible.

So I power up the camera and push the delicate lenses into their foam bedding in the Pelican Box. I pull on fleece pants and contemplate the upcoming trauma of pulling on a broken dry top, already soaking from three days hanging from an Ash tree in the rain. Then I spy Matt and Andy slithering from their room to the couch in their sleeping bags. The door opens and David steps inside, hair plastered to his forehead from the downpour. He says something about maybe taking the day off from the river. And then the bomb drops: Andy's got Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince on his is Ipod.

A few minutes later, Tino comes out of his room suited up in a dry suit, looking like a power ranger. "You guys ready to go?!" He's all motivated and then he sees us lying on the couch in different positions of comfort. He stops in his tracks. "WHAT?" I decide to slink off to the kitchen to avoid this confrontation. Tino is the coach. He has to go kayaking every day, no matter how freezing and miserable it is. The rest of us are not the coach. We don't have to do anything. "YOU ASSHOLES!"

I wait till Tino is out the door before returning to the living room with my hot chocolate. Unfortunately, he is not yet out of hearing range when I jump on the couch and say "Alright Andy, Harry Potter me!" The door yanks opened. Tino sticks his helmet-head inside and says in barely a whisper, "Did you just say...Harry Potter?" We look at him. The guilt in the room could crush us all.

"...and the Half Blood Prince." I reply.

Matt, David, Andy and I remain dormant for the rest of the afternoon, half asleep in our goose-down sleeves watching magical movies, rain drumming the tin roof. A few kilometers away at the entrance to Los Nevados, the slide is running record high. The kids zip down with madcap lines. Eric hits the rooster tail, does a mid-air cartwheel and crash lands on his head. The video camera collects rain under the lenses and is rendered useless. Taylor's elbow knocks against the rock wall and fills with fluid.

In life, there are some times when you have to push yourself. Then there are those times when you have earned your rest. (Unless you're Tino: no rest for the weary. Good on ya, buddy.) Learning that balance, the perfect ratio of sleep to waking, whitewater to greenwater, is the key to life. My cousins taught me early on their NOLS course motto: Live to Wimp Again. Some advice you just have to take to heart.