Okay, so yesterday's memo, while interesting, was really just a digression so I didn't have to write about what I'm going to write about today: my happy little dunk in Yellowstone's Firehole River.
It was stupidI'll admit that right up front. Remember, I can't swim, as I learned the day I lost my magic feather in the middle of the swimming hole and my cousin Steve had to tow me in to shore. But for a few critical minutes I forgot that, and I just about didn't live to regret it.
This was one summer when I was twenty-two, although I don't remember whether it was 1989 or 1990. (I was born in August.) Our stake's Young Adults (the Mormon Church's social organization for unmarried folks between the ages of 18 and 30) had taken a trip to Island Park, a pleasant spot in Idaho where relatives of Shauna Torontoan exceptionally attractive young woman who served as one of my ward's Young Adults representatives, and about whom we will hear more in a later memokept a large cabin. One of our many activities that weekend was to take a daytrip into Yellowstone National Park, the Western entrance of which was not a terribly long drive from Island Park.
We saw a lot of cool things that dayOld Faithful, the Paint Pots, and so forththough nothing I hadn't seen before. But for most of our motley crew of rambunctious yet painfully straight college kids, the highlight of the day came when we stopped off at the Firehole River to do a little swimming and tubing. I say "we" in the loosest possible sense, of course. Swimming was never my intention.
The Firehole is not much a river, really. It's more of a glorified creek winding through a narrow rocky defile with sides no more than ten or fifteen feet high. What gives it both its name and its popularity, however, is the spot where the defile suddenly widens out into a broad natural pool about fifty feet in diameter and thirty-five to seventy feet deep. The water in the pool is perfectly warm, perfectly clear, and perfectly calm. It a great place to swim, if you're the sort of person who happens to like that kind of thing.
The insidious thing about the Firehole, though, is the fact that the section of creek leading up to the pool is swift and rocky and deep enough to make it fun for floating down on an inner tube. Before my mission, I had floated down Utah's Weber River in an inner tube with a church group and had a grand old time. Even earlier, when I was 13 or 14, I had rafted down the Green River and had the time of my life. I knew how much fun it could be.
But the Weber River was shallow and tame. And on the Green River I had a life jacket. Neither condition held true there at the Firehole. So I determined to watch from the lip of the defile while everyone else tubed and swam, but I refused to participate myself.
Until Shauna Toronto started telling me how easy and safe the tubing was.
I won't detail all the mental and emotional gymnastics I went through trying to keep my resolve. But it looked like such fun, and Shauna thought it was safe, and maybe she and I could ride the river in the same tube . . .
So I agreed to give it a try. Through a quirk of fate, I ended up putting into the river upstream not with Shauna, but rather sharing a large inner tube with my friend Craig Topham, and diminutive fellow with an enthusiasm about twice as big as his body. We were both pretty much fully clothed, shoes and all. The plan was to run the river (a short trip of one or two hundred or so feet), then float lazily across the pool and get out on the far shore.
That was the plan, anyway.
The first half of the river run was great. Then we snagged on a rock, the tube tipped up, and we were both dumped into the torrent. We tumbled ass-over-teakettle down the river, trying to hold onto the tube or each other or the rocks all around, but the current was too swift. It swept us along like leaves. And then the defile widened out, and we were dumped into the pool.
We had lost the tube somewhere along the way. All there was to hold onto now, as the river bottom suddenly disappeared and there was only seventy feet of water beneath my feet, was Craig. Craig, fortunately or unfortunately, kept his head a lot better than I did, and he disentangled himself from me as quickly as he could, then stroked for one of the sides. We were maybe a third of the way across the pool by then, and suddenly I was all alone. There were still sounds, but it was like hearing a television from a different room. It wasn't real. The only thing that was real was the water, my sodden clothing dragging me under, the utter fear that filled my stomach.
I misspoke earlier. The pool doesn't really have a shore to speak of. There are rocky ledges and outcroppings on a couple of the sides, but other than that it's pretty sheer from the surface of the water up the sides to ground level maybe twenty feet higher. I'd have to cross the pool to get to any of those outcroppings. I seemed pretty much fucked.
Of course, the outcroppings were densely populated with the other members of my party. There were a dozen or more of my friends and acquaintances watching as Craig and I tumbled out the mouth of the creek and into the drink. With so many people around, so close but so far away, it seemed natural to fall back on old, old patterns. And what alternative was there, really? So, just like that day at the swimming hole in Liberty when I didn't think I could make it back to shore, I hollered for help. And what do you think happened.
I'll tell you. Not a damn thing.
Oh, everyone watcheda few even stood up and got closer to the edge of the outcroppingbut there wasn't a one of them who dived into the water to help. Some of them were asking if I was all right. Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick.
So it was up to me. I couldn't seem to make myself swim in any sort of proper fashionI was far too panicked for thatbut I thrashed and kicked and bucked and fought the water for the remainder of those nearly infinite fifty feet to where a wide fist of rock jutted up from the water at the lower end of the pool, shouting for help every time my mouth was out of the water, and several times when it wasn't. As I neared the rock, what seemed like hours later, a different Craig (whose last name I can't remember) reached down and hauled me up onto the warm stone like a fish. I was gasping for air, snot was running down my face, and one of my sneakers was missing. But I was alive, by God. And all I wanted to do was cling to that warm rock and never move again.
But somehowI don't remember howI was led from the rock to the larger outcropping and then up to solid ground. A lot of people tried to apologize to me, saying they didn't know whether or not I was really in trouble, or they thought I was kidding around, but I wasn't in much of a talking mood. (Kitty Genovese, had she survived her public stabbing, probably wouldn't have been, either.) In fact, I kept pretty much to myself the rest of the day.
I had saved my own life this time, but that didn't exactly comfort me, because I knew what a close thing it had been. But even so, from that day on, I think I stopped believing that anyone else was ever going to help me when I was in a jamup to and including God, because I can honestly report that I never felt as if The Big Guy gave me a hand out the water, and I was certainly never tempted to relate my experience with streaming eyes in a testimony meeting. I've since learned somewhat differently about relying on certain people, but the basic tendency not to ask anyone for help is still there, pretty deeply ingrained.
So, I made it out of the water that day . . . but the water didn't make it out of me. It would be two or three years before I realized this and finally started to cough it up. More tomorrow.