Sunday, February 16, 2014

A "Tubing" Disaster

 *New barn video at the bottom of this post

So I missed a few points in my last post, and I know it's boring to talk about yourself all the time. Let me just say then, that the real conclusion to the whole "I quit my job, boo boo boo, I have ADD" piece is that I turned that frown upside down. Routines, schedules, plans and I go together like oil and water. That's the beauty of it though, the very things that made me a poor fit in the public school system, make me a perfect fit for what I'm doing now. Every day presents a unique problem with a unique solution, zany-braininess is no longer a liability, it's an asset. My "different way" of doing things isn't jeopardizing my job stability, it's the very essence of it.

On that note, I feel impressed to share a funny story with you about the F.W. Willis way of doing things. I told this story in church today (2-3 members of our congregation are asked to present a "talk" each week, instead of hearing from the same person every Sunday). So many people approached me afterwords to tell me how they, "didn't fall asleep during [my] talk" that I thought you might enjoy the story as well. It's a true story about a tubing disaster.

About 6 or 7 months into our marriage, Brinn and I (mostly just I, actually) decided it would be a killer idea to have a Memorial Day tubing adventure. We had only lived in the area a short while, but I knew the best places to put in and take out of the river, figuring the trip couldn't take more than a few hours. We invited some friends of ours, a husband and wife with a 9 month old baby, and planned to park one vehicle packed without picnic supplies at the takeout point. Not having any proper tubes, I assured everyone there was nothing to worry about, all we needed to do was pick up a couple cheap, inflatable air mattresses from Wal-Mart and we'd be all set.

As I recall, we arrived at Jordan's Point Park in Lexington sometime around mid morning. I remember this because there was a guy just coming in from fishing, who stopped to watch the group of people in bathing suits blowing up their cheap, inflatable air mattresses from Wal-Mart at the water's edge. Somewhere in our brief exchange of words, he may have mentioned something about the water being lower than he'd ever seen it before, but I shrugged it off as "iffy" information at best from someone who, for all I knew, could have been a total idiot. With that, we set off, Brinn and I on one mattress, our friends and their baby on the other. At this point I should also mention, our provisions for this excursion amounted to exactly nothing, save for some sunscreen I had applied to my back and the one diaper the baby was wearing. Still, we weren't worried, because somebody knew someone else who's friends had done this very trip, and it only took them two hours. We'd be at our picnic in no time.

About an hour into our trip, we grew slightly alarmed at the fact that we could still see the bridge where we had put in. "Maybe we should start paddling with our feet or something", I announced to the group, "at least until we get through this slow part." I had walked along the river previously, at least far enough to know that the first stretch of water was almost stagnant behind the remnants of an old canal boat lock. The river tumbled over the remnants of the old lock, now a flood-dispersed field of massive water-worn stones, in a gently flowing rapid. "This is the fun part", I said as we approached the gentle rapid, "after this we'll probably zip right along". Not only did we fail to pick up speed in the rapid, we came to a complete stop. The water too low to carry us over the rocks, we picked up our mattresses and stumbled down to the next pool of slowly moving water. Gradually, we began to realize our picnic might be further off than we had planned.

Somewhere around the second or third hour, we encountered what seemed like the 400th set of riffles, or really long, shallow baby rapids for all ye land lubbers. In a canoe or kayak, these can be irritating, as you never quite know if they're passable until you get hung up, in which case you have to get out and drag your craft to more navigable waters. On a cheap, inflatable air mattress from Wal-Mart, however, they can be downright treacherous. So it went for us, on the 400th riffle of the day, as Brinn and I slid our way across what could have passed for a cobblestone street in a heavy rainstorm; WHOOSH, as we sank the entire 6 inches to the river bottom. Now, don't assume that 6 inches of water isn't enough to knock you off your feet, because I assure you, it is.

As I wrestled for balance amidst the tangled wreckage of our deflated mattress, I noticed our companions, close behind, about to encounter the same fate. Maybe I warned them to abandon ship, maybe they took the empty-sack-like appearance of our vessel as a clue; either way, they quickly found themselves struggling to shift from prone floating positions to upright standing positions amidst the current and slippery river stone footing. Maybe the husband got up first, which suddenly offset the mattress, I don't know. All I can say for sure is that somehow the mother wound up on her back, in the water, holding the baby up with one arm as she succumbed to the 6 inch deep current. I lunged forward to grab the baby, which I did successfully, but then found myself falling in like manner. By this point the mother was up on her feet and able to regain control of the baby. Somewhere in the melee I lost one of my flip-flops.

The cheap inflatable air mattress from Wal-Mart, as pictured on the company's website, apparently doubles as a magical, levitating hovercraft. I asked if this mattress could be "used a a flotation device" on their online Q&A forum under the pseudonym RiverCamper. Pending approval, my question should be posted in the next 24 hours.

Now we're hours into the day, down a cheap, inflatable air mattress from Wal-Mart, a flip-flop and a bit of confidence, and we had no choice but to carry on. The only real gauge we had for how far we'd traveled was that we knew I-81 crossed the river somewhere, probably about halfway to our destination point. Thankfully, we were beginning to hear the distant drone of semi-trucks crossing the massive river gorge. Attempting to calm every one's spirits, I knowingly announced, "That's the bridge, we'll probably see it in a couple minutes" every time we heard a distant truck for the next hour or two. Apparently, big bridges work some type of voo-doo physics over water or something to where they can be heard for hundreds of miles. I know this as a fact, because we surely traveled no less than 100 miles by the time we actually passed under the bridge.

What should have been reason to pause for celebration, only served as a mile marker of our pain. The other husband and I had resorted to clinging to the remaining cheap, inflatable air mattress from Wal-Mart while working a modified scissor kick in the water to propel the party forward. At one point, the baby's mother foraged a length of two-by-four out of the water and began using it as a makeshift paddle. All this, and the worst was still yet to come.

Some sort of geological shift occurs in the Maury River at or around the point at which Interstate 81 crosses over it. The most tell tale sign of this shift, evident in the rocky outcroppings viewed from the highway, is the presence of massive bedrock slabs along the river's floor. This bedrock, some sort of demon shale I presume, partially resembles a shark's scales, if they were 100 feet wide, one foot thick and placed the precise distance apart so as to allow a grown man's foot to slide down the backside of one before bringing his shin to a screeching halt against the jagged edge of the next one. Adding insult to injury, the water was just high enough to obscure these underwater death traps without giving any indication of their presence. Aiding the river in its mockery of our mortal foolishness was the sun, angling low in the sky, reflecting a cruel mirage of false security. One minute, we're scissor kicking along when BANG, a stone induced laceration to the shoulder. The next minute we're up, wading the un-swim-able minefield when SLIP, BANG, bloody shins.

By now, the only thing we knew for sure was that we were probably, hopefully, at least halfway to our picnic. Despite the fact that it was now approaching twilight, I think at least some of us felt we might still be able to pull the whole picnic thing off. As the sky continued to turn and the light continued to fade, we began talking exit strategies. We had reason to believe there may have been a road somewhere near the river, as we seemed to have heard the occasional vehicle pass by through the forest. It may have been headlights that tipped us off to the relative certainty of not only the road's existence, but it's distance from the river as well. When it seemed the road was as close as it was going to get, we all agreed to look for the best place to climb out, bushwhack it to the road and walk to our refuge or solicit a ride along the way.

Surprisingly, the first opportunity we found to exit the river, now flanked by steep, muddy banks, came in the form of some redneck's makeshift dock with an even more makeshift ladder leading up the -near vertical- bank to it. Being the first one to the ladder, I offered to take the baby up with me, in hopes of alleviating his mother's efforts to climb the ladder with him. Of course, everything was going smoothly until I was at about eye-level with the skimpy dock. Sure enough, CRACK, the makeshift ladder had detached itself from the makeshift dock and begun a rapid decent into the river. The only thing I could think to do in the moment, was thrust the baby forward and upward as I went down with the ladder. The baby landed safely on his butt atop the platform, while the ladder wedged snugly into the mud along the river bank, just a few feet below it's origin. I clambered back up, the others followed and we kissed dry land for the first time in about 8 hours.

Perhaps the most memorable portion of the whole day, was the five of us walking down a quiet, barren country road in the dark. With our bare feet on the weathered asphalt, we could still feel the warmth of the hot day's sun. The stars were out, they were beautiful and bright enough to light our way and I want to say there were fireflies, thousands of them; but that may be a construct of my imagination. The baby was quiet, I think the only time he cried the entire day was when I launched him onto the redneck dock. We walked in silence, only breaking it to mention how beautiful the night was until we came upon a man in his yard, hosing off a boat, or a truck, or some piece of equipment under the light of a lamp post. "Stuck in the river?", he asked, without giving us a second glance. "Yeah, you could say that", we responded. At that, we piled into the back of his truck and rode, with the night air cooling our soggy bodies, to the second car, parked with our picnic in the dark.

The End.

P.S., 7 1/2 years later, I started building this barn:


  1. I love this post. It is all too familiar. Where was your pull out spot? Ben Salem? Mikaela and I did the exact same trip, put in at Jordan's Point and left the other car at Ben Salem. Thought it would take about 3 hour, but after 8 hours, sunburn, dehydration, empty stomachs, bloody shins (those invisible razor dragon scales really are the WORST), and a thunderstorm that threatened to electrocute us, we abandoned the river and hitched back to the car, which was still probably a 3 hour float away. At least we didn't have a baby though, I can't even imagine that.

    1. Yeah, it was Ben Salem. A better place to park is at the washed out foot bridge, which you can't see from the river, but it's at least a little closer. I've done that stretch a bunch of times since in a canoe, and we always put in along the trail, further down from the East Lexington bridge.

    2. Those rocks! I thought water eventually softened and rounded the edges of rocks! Apparently not in the Maury river. I was so waterlogged by the time we got back I didn't even want to shower. I don't know when I've ever been so tired, burned, hungry, and helpless!