“You can do this.”

Matt Deighton | Colorado Basin

“You can do this.”

In 1995, and I was at my dream job of being a co-owner of bar and restaurant in Waco, Texas. That bar would become a legendary Texas landmark. Just like the Grand Canyon can be very wild and fun, so could Buzzard Billy’s. With live music three nights per week that would echo SRV style Texas Blues, and serving southern Cajun food. Soon I would be noticing how the Grand Canyon had it’s own majestic sounds. Sounds from harbors made from millions of years ago that held the sounds of fear.

It was in mid March that seven rafters, and five boats would depart Lee’s Ferry for a 19 day journey on the Colorado River. The river would be our highway through the canyon that earned the name Grand Canyon. The river was running on the average for a March expedition, and the weather was shall we say “Grand” as well. “Call NRS and they will send you a catalog” our trip leader told us some six months in advance. The original plan was to have two people on the 16’ AIRE that would carry most of our kitchen supplies, and main gear. My buddy Phil had to cancel out with only a 10 days notice. In those days landline phones were the norm for communication, and even snail mail. Once I got the phone call that I would be going solo on the AIRE, I quickly said. “Well thanks for calling, and letting me know, see you guys in a week.” Again I told myself. “You can do this.”

The softness of a sandbar could be heard in my ears as I started to dream even more about the big waters that I heard so many talk about. On every rafting trip since I started in 1987, there has always been someone telling campfire stories about how the Colorado could eat you up, and spit you out like wad of sunflower seeds at any given time. Knowing that I was going to be “Capt. Matt” of the AIRE had a tone of uncertainty. I quickly needed to be in better shape both physically, and mentally……. “You can do this” I told myself over and over. I trust my friends, and they trust me, or they wouldn’t of invited me. (right?) I can do this as there would be four other boats to fall back onto if something would happen to the AIRE. Anything can happen on the Grand……Anything!

Once we all gathered in Kansas, the convoy started to the big waters of the Grand. I was always one to learn fast, and in those first few years on the Green River in Deso, and Ladore Canyons, we would all learn the terms “HIGH SIDE” to “DAMN YOU SURE LOOKED GOOD ON THAT ROCK.” And with those Army surplus rafts (the kind you repaired at least an hour everyday once you reached camp) that keeped us going as a group of friend for 30 years. We phased out the borrowing boats from a 4-H Club in Scott City, Kansas after our first four years. Then as “8-D Rafting” we starting buying our own equipment, and gear.

Eight friends would become “River Rats” for a lifetime. “River Randevu” would be an annual appearance for us in Salida. We would listen to Georgie White sing her songs, and tell stories about a good life lived on the waters. It was fun trading rafting equipment with rafting guides during the two day event. On a river trip in 1991 the Middle Fork of the Salmon taught us what a “self bailer” was. After day two on the water we found the supply boat we rented had a issue of dragging way behind. It was floating anchor. “What in the hell did we rent?” If you inflate the floor they work a lot better. We learned so much every year. Relying on each other came the common core value for the eight of us. River permits would allow a maximum of 25 each year. “Who you bringing next year?” Each of us would send out invites to friends who we thought who would be “rafting material.” Campfire stories about previous years fortifies the saying. “What happens on the river, stays on the river.”

Any time a Hatch, or OARS group would come up behind us, we would let them pass. “Where ya camping at tonight?” (A question heard many times over the years.) We all learned what the rivers wanted to teach us. Even watching guides prep boats the afternoon before the airplanes would land their passengers at Sandwash with a beer in your hand was a given.

The 19 day trip in 1995 down the Grand would let us view the effects of a landslide that kept us from stopping at Phantom Ranch. Helicopters would be flying over us with buckets of concrete as the workers repaired the pipeline that carried water to the south rim. Teamwork was in motion both on the water, and on shore as we waved a quick hello and goodbye as our boats kept downward the might Colorado.

Granit, Hermit, Crystal, and the wave trains that would make you yell at the top of your lungs. Throw bags never left your side 24 hours a day. A sense of safety was everywhere at all times. To return everyone home to loved ones without stitches, or using crutches was a given. The Grand Canyon can give one doubt everyday she flows. You never forget the basic skills you learned from the beginning years. Now I was in the middle of the 19 day trip thinking how much of a fool I would be if I returned to the modern world. Or is the Grand Canyon modern, and we just don’t know it. How can I just stay, and live here never to go home. Sounds, and sights that can only described by only your eyes not your mouth truly over took my brain. “You can do this” was something I loved hearing myself say over and over.

For some reason on the morning we ran Lava Falls the coffee smelled really strong. I now think our trip leader made the pot extra strong that cool and damp morning. To be honest I am damn glad he did. After scouting Lava on river right, the first boat made a perfect run, and so did the second boat. The third boat (a 14’ Hyside Cat) went past the point of no return, and somehow came he came out rightside up. The lateral wave was ugly.
Now it was my turn to walk back to take my run. The river was so loud it was like standing on the wing of a 737 at full throttle up. I could not focus, and thank God one of my rafting buds followed me back to my boat to help me launch. Just before I stepped on the AIRE for the 37’ drop that Lava provides, my buddy grabbed me by the straps of my life jacket, and yelled in my ear. “You can do this.” This person happened to be my very first paddle boat Captain on Deso Gray. The caffeine was all gone by now, but the grip on the oars took over. I was lined up, and gave the last two on shore a big nod as I passed by them. “I can do this” over, and over in my head. The Lateral Wave slapped me as if I was a stepchild in the cookie jar. The force on my ankles as I stood to grip the thrust of the oars must of looked as if I was posing for a NRC catalog cover. My run was perfect, but you could not tell it by the boats down river as they were cheering me on so loud I thought something was wrong. No, it was cheers of joy that I will never forget. Within minutes the sweep boat would also conquer Lava, and two more days to Diamond Creek.

It was to be some 20 years later that I would return home to Kansas to give back to my aging parents. I would reflect on how the rivers in life made me a better man. My family needed me, and I needed them. The small town values of a one stoplight town is what I needed again in my life. A very tragic death of a family member only three years old, my dad’s passing of cancer, mom melting from dementia, and an EF5 tornado would prove that the river made me man. All these tragic events happened within 14 months of each other. I can do this I would tell myself, just like I took the AIRE on a “Golden Run” down the 227 miles of dirty water in Arizona.

The Colorado Basin has so much to give, and the same with other rivers around the globe. Using our National Park system must always remain a true access of life’s journeys. Friendships are fortified, and lessons learned on every trip we take. We just finished a great run this past August (2017) on the Green River. Flaming Gorge to Split Mountain gave us a great run, and the best meteor shower ever. So much to see. Over the years viewings would include deer, bears, moose, goats, sheep, snakes, comets, northern lights, and so many stars.

Once cell phone service was restored after the EF5 tornado in May of 07, my phone started lighting up like a Christmas Tree. It was loaded with calls, and messages from rivers past. What do you need? How can I help? Do you need me to come and help? That time in my life was very difficult as one would guess. To hear voices from people who you helped experience what the rivers can give, and now they were calling to check up on me. I blame this from the waters of many rivers, and most of all the Grand. Within a few weeks I would become the Volunteer Coordinator for the long term recovery process. Mother Nature left us a mess. “I am not sure we can go forward if we stay here in Greensburg Matt.” So many would say. I would always reply. “You can do this.”

We rebuilt Greensburg as the most sustainable small town in the world. Eight “Leed Platinum” designed buildings. Every home was rebuilt to high energy savings standards, and all with storm shelters. Teamwork was everywhere during the rebuild.

Soon the road out of the canyon would be a sad goodbye to the waters of the Grand Canyon. I would return just two years later in ‘97. This time I would not be so lucky at Lava. She chewed me, and my boatmate up like a wad of sunflower seeds, and spit us out 180 degrees with only one oar. Just like the man said she could do. As the echo in my said, “you can do this.”

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