I can smell the sawdust from my dad cutting the pieces of plywood that would fit into the bed of his green Ford pickup. I think it was a ’76? Compartmentalized gear storage underneath and compartmentalized kid storage above it. Compartmentalized from he and his new bride that is. Soon after they married, bringing two kids each into a new family they decided a quest was needed to bond us all together in a common love, or loathing, of the outdoors. Us kids, ranging from about 7 to 15, two older sisters joining two younger brothers, piled under the topper of the truck with our pillows and blankets and a thick foam pad to make the ride from central Florida to Murphy, North Carolina and the Nantahala River Valley. I wish I could remember our detailed list of supplies, but I imagine there were boxes of Little Debbie Pinwheels, canteens of iced tea, GI Joe action figures- in the era of COBRA not the Barbie-sized doll man. I do remember throwing a tennis ball over and over at the rear window of the truck topper making the drivers behind us blink, and blink, and blink before roaring around us in 80’s road rage.
We had no concerns about seat belts, perched as we were atop a plywood launch pad secured by a fiberglass bubble. The only thing between us and the road its own self the caring hands of a cautious parent. I am sure the grown-ups worried some, but in the back of the truck? It was all party time. With a new little brother to lead astray, and an extra big sister to irritate, we had a lot going on. I am sure we whined through the pass-through when we needed to go to the bathroom, or re-stock the candy supply, but I remember it as an idyllic float along the American asphalt river.
We all remember my dad veering dramatically to the side of a mountain highway to shoo a bee out of his trousers. And we remember tumbling down the Nantahala falls under the direction of a fairly amateur guide. There we are in the picture, my brother’s tiny determined arm the only part you can see of him, while the rest of us hang on, mouths wide open, charging into the drop. All in one boat, headed down the rapids, no better metaphor for family.
This weekend I am headed north again to see the mountains, the humble hills of Cheaha in Alabama. I have a family of my own now, a plus one not including the dog and cat, but the quest remains the same. Get closer, think slower, and appreciate the magnificent taste of coffee by a campfire, and food eaten while seated on dirt. Whether by destiny or design, I can’t really say why there will be no pack of mongrel children in the back of the van. I just know I am lucky to be here at all, on this earth.
To have one person beside me, and a trekking tribe of friends to meet me there is more than anyone has the right to expect at birth so I will take it and try to remember the details.
Sappy ole Juancho