He was tall–about 7’2″, hence the name: Stretch. And when he grabbed those rocks, I should have known something was about to go down, literally.
For several years my two uncles, Rodney and Bob, and my father had embarked on whitewater rafting tours, leaving me behind because I was “too young.” They always returned to society refreshed somehow in a way I couldn’t understand. This year, they had eschewed their unspoken protocol; my status was upgraded from child to adult (I was seventeen at the time), and I was invited to go along.
“Jonathan, we’re going to Idaho,” Dad said.
“Okay,” I said. My mental response was: Great. Potatoes and flatland, and we will be floating down a glass-still river and I’ll be bored. You finally ask me to go after two years, and it is to Idaho. What happened to going somewhere like the Grand Canyon?
“Hells Canyon,” he said. Now we’re getting a little better. “The Snake River.” All right, you’ve got me. I’ll expect to meet Lucifer himself when we get to the river. It’s funny how the simple mention of an evil name drew me in instead of what God would hope. I was intrigued by the prospect of our family floating down the serpentine folds of a real-life river Styx, stumbling onto the very flame-kissed gates of Hades. At that moment, God seemed far away. It is in those weak moments of imagination gone awry that the sinuous flows of Satan are more interesting than God. I discovered later that Hells Canyon is the deepest river gorge in North America–some 8,000 feet down–and I thought it would be cool to skim the underbelly of the earth. I’d pay the rowman; the toll would be a little piece of my soul in exchange for an eventful trip. I’d been stuck in the pointless minutiae of high school for two years, and now I wanted to escape the city and see nature at whatever the cost–never mind that Dad was picking up the tab for this one. Bring it on.
It started like this: Boise was beautiful. It sat in the pocket at the foot of mountains, with the prairie rolling away to the east. The land looked like a series of giant buttered rolls, as far as you could see. We arrived by jet in mid-July, and the temperature registered with sweat on every hair on my skin.
Uncles Rodney and Bob met us at the hotel in Boise. We would stay the night and then leave with rafts, supplies, and other adventure seekers in the morning. There were four guides–two women, two men–with four rafts. Three of them would hold travelers I had never met. We all sat around the hotel swimming pool for the trip briefing. That’s where I encountered Stretch.
I don’t remember his real name. He was enormous, and the epithet was completely appropriate; it summed him up. He looked as if he had been a normal-sized man once, but one whose limbs had been pulled taut on a medieval rack. The scary thing was, he looked like he had actually enjoyed it. Freckles had been sprinkled violently and profusely all over his skin–like God had sneezed them on–and his hair and full beard were the orange of the sun at dusk. He said he was a miner in Nevada, and when he told me this, I laughed it off. The mines in Nevada must have taller shafts than their eastern brethren. His family–four other men– had decided to raft the Snake just ’cause.
I thought to myself: Could it be any more perfect? If anyone could lead us into the Snake River, it would be this flame-headed, taut-skinned, obelisk man; a minion of the underground who works closer every day to the real Hell than any of us.