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Wagon Wheel State of Mind

May 22, 2012

I have been to 25 states. With much thanks to driving across the country twice as a child (no, I have no idea what my parents were thinking driving across the country twice with four children), I have had the opportunity to see so much of this country. So go on and ask, you know you want to. What is my favorite state? That is so easy.

West Virginia.

If you think I am crazy for saying that, you have either a) never been or b) have absolutely nothing in common with me.

I mean besides having one of the best songs of all time written about it, West Virginia also makes room for the most breathtaking freshair you can imagine. And let’s face it, when you live in a city that makes your lungs hurt from time to time, it is other worldly when you step off the propellar plane on top of a mountian in Charleston, WV to an ongoing sea of forest. You take that first deep breath and without a doubt, feel home. Take me home, country roads.

When I landed, I made the all too familiar mistake of not savoring the breaths I was taking. I was meeting up with 3 of my closest friends from college to go white water rafting on the New River – an adventure we have been annually attending for 4 years. Tom was waiting for me at my gate when I arrived and we both noticed that we literally landed on a mountain. While I am unsure of the significance of that fact, it felt pretty awesome and made me think that perhaps Charleston, WV trumps Charleston, SC.

After an over abundant “party” at Wal-mart (because that’s what people do on Friday nights in WV, they all go to Wal-mart), we made the hour drive deeper into the Appalachian Mountains to Oak Hill where River Expeditions calls home. We met Emily and Matt along the way and prepared for a weekend of camping in a plywood cabin by drinking talking and catching up. To be clear, while I see Emily often (she’s practically my sister), I have not seen Tom since graduation or Matt since my vacation to Thailand last summer. Meaning, I miss them on a daily basis, get over it.

We were also lucky enough to have planned our trip the same weekend as our old student organization planned theirs. Meaning it was us four “alumni” and 60 college students staying in cabins in the middle of isolated mountains. Nice. The most interesting conversation that arose throughout the evening was water level. Since there was not much snow throughout the winter, we were worried about low water levels (low water = less fun) but there was also a lot of rain so there could be very high water levels (high water = best time ever). It really could have gone either way. And after a few more interesting conversations and broken styrofoam coolers, we hit the hay for some well needed rest to prepare for this:

Early in the morning we found out the dreaded water level. 6-10. (I didn’t know what it meant either, don’t worry.) But apparently anything over ten is considered equal to a “religious experience” and is supposed to give you the best ride of your life. As we hit the water and travelled the first few miles of the trip, I made a decision that this may be the most uneventful trip yet. The rapids stood in the mere class 2 or 3 and the white water hardly entered the raft, let alone threatened to scare. (Rapids run from Class 1 to Class 6 – Class 6 being deadly to even the most advanced riders.)  The chatter on the boat was to a minimum most likely due to boredom but our guide, Buck, assured us the water would be “meaty” entering the second part of the day. As we ate lunch with the flies and the ants on the sandy shore of the river, the sun began to make it’s way into my skin. I took it all in. The birds, the heat, the breeze, the nature. It was beautiful in the valley. Truly nothing compares to this state.

Soon after lunch, we realized what Buck was talking about. We hit the Keaney rapids strong and paddled through the class 3, 4, and 4 consecutively inching our way to the end as gallons and gallons of water pelted our raft from side to side. Middle Keaney proved to be the “meatiest” and shocked us all but indirectly prepared us for the future. After a quick Dudley’s Dip, we truly thought we could withstand anything thrown at us. Well, anything except for Double Z.

Because I have no idea what is actually happening with the rocks during this rapid, here is an exert from American Whitewater:

After Dudleys you will end up in a huge slow moving pool. If you look down stream on the right hand bank, you will see a rock that looks just like a pyramid. This tells you that you are in the pool above Double Z. This is the most technical rapid on the New, and one you also must run. There is no easy portage. After floating or practicing flat water tricks thru the pool you will see a rock that looks like a thumb sticking out of the water about 50 ft from the right bank. This is called “Thumb Rock”. You will start your run just to the left of this rock. Go around the rock and head to the right bank. There is a pourover that you are tring to miss with this move. Once to the bank you must then ferry behind the hole to the middle of the river. Then turn downstream and paddle HARD with right hand boat angle, you will need to punch a large and powerful curling wavehole. If you punch this then you are home free. Paddle down thru the confused water making sure you stay away from the downsteam rocks as they are undercut, and you WILL go underneath them, boat and all. (Don’t ask why I know) This is the “double z” move. If you did not punch your hole you have more work to do. You need to roll as fast as you can because you are headed for Table Rock, and that forms Chair Hole. Roll and head to the right bank.

The part that I bolded in there, yeah, we didn’t do that. We hit the wavehole and the right side of our boat (my side) flew up to a vertical. As I looked down at Emily’s face all I could think about was the Titanic. You know the part when they are laying on the iron watching everyone drown in front of them just before the boat goes into the lifeless water? Yes, that is what I thought about as I watched Emily and Tom flip into the water and eventually go in myself.

Now, I can only give my account to these events and I am sure the others have different thoughts. At the exact moment when I hit the water, my mind went numb. While the guides are very good at telling you exactly what to do in the event of “swimming”, when it actually happens, you can’t even begin to think about words – or thoughts. You just get to the surface. So I tried. But I was deep – I was so deep and I had to keep swimming. Up, up, up. Until finally I saw the water turn a lighter blue from the sunlight. But then darkness. Something was blocking me and until I felt the softness of the raft, I didn’t know what. Since the raft was completely flipped over, I was able to come up in a pocket of darkness and catch my breath. The hardest part was knowing that I was going to have to go back under the water to get away from the raft. I forced myself to hold my breath and promised I would come back up. Back under the rapids, the reality set in. We were in a bad place – somewhere between rocks that could suck you under and keep you there until life gently falls away and a raft filled with air you can barely reach. As I came back up to grasp the air for the second time, the sun reached my eyes. I was able to control my body enough to turn to see where I was in reference to everyone else. Tom, Matt and Emily all had ahold of our flipped raft with me drifting a few yards downstream heading straight into another set of rapids. Once the water began to overtake me again, I felt more confident (in my life vest, not myself). I moved my legs and kicked as hard as I could to get downstream. While I had no plan and was unsure if I was heading to safer water or another treachorous rock, I knew I had to move downstream. When I spotted the other raft in front of me, the plan materialized and within a few seconds I had caught up and was clinging for dear life onto the side strap. When I turned to my right, Emily was right there. As I looked onto the men on the raft, I noticed they were throwing rope out to someone but I was pulled to safety before I could tell who the rope would save. Once Emily and I were seated in the back of the raft, I watched as Matt was tugged in and caught Tom’s eye on the next raft. All safe. But when my eyes moved down river, I noticed another series of rapids approaching. Emily and I were handed paddles quickly to help manouver the raft safely to the other side. We watched as Buck flipped our raft back over and climbed back during the next break.

It’s sad to say, but I think I was smiling the whole time. Maybe it was adrenaline, I don’t know, but it was fun. Exhausting, but fun. Unfortunately for another girl on the raft, she did not have fun. Buck had to calm her down in the midst of tears as she hyperventalated about the expereince. All she could say was “I’m done, I’m done. I need out of the raft.” But there was no where to go except down river – through 5 more class 3 and class 4 rapids. Anticipation and silence filled the air. We were all so tired but knew there was still so much more paddling. So to lighten the mood, one of the rafters simply said, “I need a beer.” And with that, the waves came easy because the end of our adventure was near. I’m not sure that girl had ever been so relieved to be on land.

And the first thing we all did when we got back to the camp was grab a beer at the Red Dog Saloon. (Doesn’t that just sound magical?) We watched the video that was taken by River Expeditions, ate some ribs for dinner and then prepared to listen to a great band for the night. Switch played a lot of great songs but the one that truly stands out, and always will, is Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show (the chorus written by Bob Dylan). I could seriously listen to this song on repeat for weeks, if need be. We danced, met new people, chatted with our old friends and then called it night at midnight – because we are old.

 Some additional pictures of fun:

Another unforgettable trip in West Virgina for the fourth year in a row. And we have two take aways from the trip: The Motto by Drake and That Sh*t Crazy by Kanye. Two songs I haven’t heard before this weekend that  apparently everyone else has. The Motto is a terrible song with a good message: YOLO meaning You Only Live Once. Kanye is just CRA.  It’s so easy to say it is by far my favorite state and state of mind.


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