A month ago, my friends convinced me to take the plunge and go river rafting on the danger-spewing hellwater known as the Tuolumne. Luckily, I don’t feel puny emotions like fear, no matter how many people supposedly met their demise in this river and regardless of the fact that the rapids enjoy a difficulty ranking just 1 point below “unraftable.”
The Tuolomne is apparently not located in San Luis Obispo, so I have to drive north to a super secret predetermined rendezvous spot: the Sunnyvale In N Out. I get there around 10pm, at which point Brian, Zack, and I pile into one car and set off for the motel room Brian’s dad (Andy) had booked. Everything looks like it’s going to go swimmingly, which is perhaps not something you want on a rafting trip (PUN). But since I’m writing this blog post, you, being the discerning reader that you are, know that trouble awaits.
In fact, just as we’re pulling out of the parking lot, Brian gets a frenzied call from his dad: “So this motel is—static static—service doesn’t really work—static static—because there’s no gps signal. Just make sure to turn when you see a—static static—if so, then you know you’ve gone too far—static static—and remember—static static—white mailbox.”
Luckily, I once earned a merit badge in Orienteering, so with my expert navigation skills, we’re able to immediately miss the onramp. Undaunted, we find an alternate route to the freeway and speed into the distance…only to accidentally exit and go 15 miles directly out of the way. No big deal. We’re having fun. We just backtrack 15 miles to where we went wrong.
Turns out we’d done it right the first time.
It was supposed to be a two-and-a-half hour drive, but by the time one in the morning rolls around, we’re only halfway there. Plus we’re on some windy, backcountry road in the middle of nowhere with only a tenuous belief that we’re heading in the right direction.
For many miles, the only non-plant-thing we zoom past in the darkness is a single building surrounded by dozens of parked cars. You know, since we’re already so late, maybe we should check it out. We’re men of adventure, and who knows what this place is! Dive bar? Strip club? Secret meeting place for the occult? Plus we’d already pulled so many u-turns, we figured we should try to set a record. So after yet more backtracking, we park and stumble straight into an after-hours redneck convention, or at least a community of people tremendously dedicated to fulfilling their stereotype. Everyone sports tattoos of skulls or tractors or other hick-things, and one guy had even shaved the back of his head to look like a beard.
Not sure what we’re doing here (besides boosting our egos and feeling out of place), we figure we’ll let the bartender decide for us. Let him express his creativity, right? Apparently he’s in a bad mood, because he hands us raspberry vodkas mixed with seltzer water, a concoction so feminine and so vile that I think it actually took hair off my chest. Not wanting to get beaten up by the women who now had more chest hair than we did, we drained our glasses and got the hick out of there (PUN).
Brian and I need something, anything, to wash away that horrible flavor, but after miles of empty, barren darkness dotted only with the occasional murder-shack or rusted car, the only thing we can find that’s remotely food-like is a 7-11. We burst through the doors and immediately lay our eyes on two wrinkled and unappealing hot dogs who had clearly spent their entire existence rotating on those endlessly twirling spits, waiting behind that scratched and foggy pane of glass, hoping against hope that someday they’d be freed and could fulfill their destiny: ingestion. Unable to turn down something so clearly horrible (and really feeling for the hot dogs’ plight), and pleased that they’re only a dollar apiece, Brian and I go full-on Kobayashi.
A choice made deadlier and more exciting when we happen upon a machine that sports a single red button labeled “Push for Chili.”
We push. Chili oozes out in a constant stream of uniform, moist goop. What could this chili possibly be made of that allows it to remain unrefrigerated indefinitely, and how can chili have such a slimy-smooth consistency? We gloss over these questions and skip straight to the more important question: who can eat more “Nozzle Chili?”
Minutes later, the question morphs into “By the burning entrails of Prometheus, how do we end this soul-consuming stomach pain?”
Unable to find an answer, we crawl back into the car and press on. After getting lost about a dozen more times, we finally take the last left turn we can remember reading before our gps cut out. The dark forest road greets us with a giant “No Trespassing” sign.
We ignore it.
All we know about our destination is “white mailbox” and “a left turn into a driveway,” but nothing looks too promising. Then again, Brian’s dad is one o’ them hippy types, so it’s perfectly conceivable that he booked a room at some crazy person’s cottage in this valley of death purely for the eye-opening meditative experience it would provide.
We finally see a few huts shambled together to form a makeshift house. There’s a white mailbox in front, and the driveway is a left turn. Huzzah! Except there’s no lights on anywhere, and Andy’s car is nowhere to be seen. “Maybe he rented a car,” we tell ourselves.
We drive through it once.
Not too promising.
We drive through it again.
It can’t possibly be the place. But if that’s not it, then where the hell are we supposed to go? We decide to investigate on foot. One shamble-hut looks the most like a guest room, so we walk up to it, using our phones’ last remaining battery power to combat the darkness.
We creep to the door, shine our lights, and, just as we’re about to peer into the windows, we hear a shout.
“Fredbert! There’s somebody at ma’s place!” Followed by some gibberish I interpreted as “Grab the shotgun! And don’t leave any witnesses this time.”
“No, wait!” I shout. I can see her eyeing us from behind her door, licking her lips as she imagines the sweet taste of man flesh. “We’re lost, I swear. We’re trying to find an inn, one with a white mailbox.”
“Don’t know nothing like that round these parts. Now, if you’ll just move a little bit to left; that pillar is blocking my husband’s line of sight …”
Or maybe she just shrieked something about returning to the main road and never coming back…Either way, we were too busy sprinting to the car to pay much attention.
Turns out the place is only like two blocks farther down the road and is a very upstanding and obvious motel with a giant white mailbox. And we made it with three hours to spare before we had to be on the river!
In the morning, we roll out of bed minutes before we’re supposed to be at the launch spot. We scramble to our destination like eggs in a pan (SIMILE PUN), and right before we’re going to get on the water, our guide drops some serious knowledge on us: we’re not allowed to bring glass on the river. “But Andy,” we cry, “you told us a six pack per person per day.”
Andy shrugs innocently, as if he would never have said such a thing. Look around, he gestures. No one else brought any beer. At this point, it’s all too much. The travel, the lack of sleep, the perfectly good beer that will spend the trip in the trunk of Brian’s car. We sit down, the wind ripped from our sails. But then, in a moment of inspiration, we realize that rafts don’t even have metaphorical sails!
In our car lay a gallon of water. Why not turn that into…a gallon of beer!
And thus, the River Brew was conceived.
We empty every variety of beer we’d brought into that jug, then pack it away and hope for the best. And what a best it is! When we arrive at the campsite, we dig a hole in the river and submerge the jug. After it’s been cooled to perfection, we whip out our concoction and take a swig. Consensus: delicious.
Things were really going great. I mean, no one had even fallen out of the raft that day. And falling out is a seriously nerve-wracking prospect. Sure, you could die, but we weren’t too worried about that. The truly horrifying aspect was that we’d all agreed: whoever falls out first is required to eat a wrinkle-dog absolutely drowned in Nozzle Chili.
The trip itself was kinda fun too, I guess. We surfed rapids, played bocce, hiked into an abandoned mine full of centipedes and bat (singular), and enjoyed that rare adrenaline rush that comes only when you know you could float to your doom at any moment.
But the only doom we ever faced came when we were docking for lunch on the second day. We’d pulled in at a problematic angle and were starting to float downriver. One of the guides yelled “Somebody get out and grab the ropes!” I bravely rose to the occasion and attempted to step out of the raft, only to slip and faceplant into the water.
It was the closest any of us came to falling out, and let me tell you, to this day, I have not recovered from that second Nozzle Chili dog.