Fake thugs never last long.
- Method Man
There were seven or eight empty shooters on the floor of my truck. Like a frat party pinata had burst open in the passenger seat.
I called Scar from the liquor store parking lot because he'd always felt like a second brother and I needed to talk to someone who knew my proclivities, thought processes, and deep-seated insecurities. I needed to speak with someone who understood what it was like to want to be nothing but a source of love and light, and the difficulty of trying to do that while walking around with hot lead in your gut. Someone who had experienced loss and rage, and might get why my wrists were shaking and stomach tied in a knot. The only other Alpha, ham ‘n’ egger that I knew and was comfortable being vulnerable with.
We're both East Coasters, birthed by people who had to claw their way into a decent life, and have operated with the belief that hard work and a nose on the grindstone is the way. Both bred stubborn and independent, but sometimes held hostage by those traits.
We're similar in those ways, but different in others. I’m smart, he’s dumb. I played man sports growing up, like football and wrestling. He did sissy things. Diving and synchronized swimming, if I remember correctly. He can fix a Volkswagen, a lawnmower, grandma’s toaster, and probably your espresso machine too. I sometimes have a hard time remembering the difference between a flathead and Philips screwdriver. My hairline hasn't been strong since high school graduation, whereas Scar has shampoo commercial hair. I've got a busted-up nose and a bit of a belly. Scar has a very symmetrical face and the build of a gymnast. He would do better with an alias like McConnaughey Lite, but I'll never give that good looking prick the satisfaction of such a moniker, outside of this one instance. I prefer to call him Scar due to the slight resemblance he bears to The Lion King villain.
We'd bonded as whitewater guides, beside dozens of fires, where we'd slugged PBR and engaged in endless verbal sparring matches, shitting on each other and anyone in the immediate vicinity. It was a lightning fast, two-man improv show that often went on 'til just before sunrise, aided by carbonated accelerants, bottled bliss, and other illicit forms of social jet fuel.
But when I called, I didn’t want to bullshit. I wanted truth.
At the beginning of the summer, I returned to a river I'd spent three prior whitewater seasons on. Winter had left me near penniless, and I felt there was no choice but to return to the real-life Dirt Lot, where I knew I'd have guaranteed work, a place to live, and community. I ignored that internally, I no longer wanted to be there. I no longer wanted to be a raft guide at all.
While paddling had been my therapy and one of the few things that helped shut my brain off in the years following my father's death, I'd grown weary of dirtbagging.
When I first discovered the culture, it changed my life. I used to tell friends back East that I'd be a “dirtbag river guide 'til I died”. The community had provided me with a sense of safety and belonging I'd never experienced. The selflessness of the people and finding purpose in trying to ace a clean line on a stretch of whitewater had filled me up. The banter, the debauchery and the nonstop shitting on one another brought me tremendous joy.
I first found The Dirt Lot after moving to a new river in search of more technical, challenging water. It became one of the only places that’s ever felt like home. It's where I found a second family and where I ran in the weeks following my father's death. It was where I grappled with the loss, and the fact that even in the face of death, he couldn't summon the integrity to be good to his flesh and blood.
The place and the people had served and blessed me in so many ways. But I had outgrown it. However, I didn't see that clearly at the start of this season. I knew I wouldn’t be quite as comfortable as in years past, but with my financial situation being what it was, I thought it was the only option.
Willful ignorance intact, I attached myself to another season on The Lot, and brought a girl with me.
Admittedly, a small part of me wanted one more shot at guiding. I had begun taking trips down our Class IV section the year before. It’s one of the more difficult stretches of its caliber on the continent and I wanted to cement myself as a solid Class IV boater, then walk away triumphant, satisfied, and holding some half-baked legacy for myself as I readied for the next chapter. With that in mind, I adopted a feigned, almost pulseless positivity.
I'd get to show my lady the world that my identity had been tied to for the past six years. We’d paddle every stretch on this river, and then maybe take trips to other stretches around the state too, exploring each quirky mountain town along the way. There wouldn't be any live music missed, on my days off I’d become a proficient kayaker, and by the end of the season my bank account would be replenished, seeing as I was now closer to the top of my head boatman's depth chart than ever before.
We bought a camper, and the intention was to move off The Dirt Lot-- one foot in the whitewater world, and one foot out. Dirt Lot adjacent, if you will. We’d go to the big events and theme parties, and the fun floats too, but live a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle off The Lot, preparing for the next phase. A balance that would serve its purpose for the summer, and then it would be on to the ocean next.
But as quick as the summer started, it began to unravel.
The camper turned out to need substantial work. It had been infested with rats, and we spent two or three days shoveling out shit and sanitizing every surface. We had to rip down the ceiling and tear out half of the preexisting build. Ok, fine. No big deal. I had always been a workhorse and figured I could power through the renovation in a few weeks, then be off The Lot, on to somewhere peaceful, quietly living out the rest of the season in our quaint little camper.
I’d get off the water, have a drink, and go right to work. And every day, something new came up or went wrong, delaying completion, and the move I so desperately wanted. The process of renovation felt like taking a swan dive into an Olympic-sized swimming pool full of shit every afternoon. I made it a constant, looming worry, and the focus of nearly all my thoughts.
I had to make it comfortable for my then-girlfriend and myself. Had to do it right. Had to work fast. Had to get off The Lot immediately. I obsessed, ignored my fatigue, allowed the aggravation to build, and just kept hammering.
Some days, I wanted to set the fucking thing on fire. A grip of PBR while sanding ceiling boards, or a canned margarita while we screwed together the bed frame kept me going. God forbid I take a break to go somewhere and do something fun with people I enjoyed.
Despite the constant self-generated stress that I associated with making that aluminum-wrapped shitbox livable, I still had the water.
Still had paddling.
Still had her.
With peak water levels approaching, I took a boat out on the Class IV section with my girlfriend and a group of other guides. Big, fast and continuous, there’s very little time for breaks between the major rapids, and little to no breathing room. I had never been on the stick with it running that high, and my butthole was puckered from the moment we put on.
I bumped a rock here and there, but ran clean through the majority of it, barking commands at everyone on board as we approached the toughest of the major rapids. It’s where most boats flipped and where I had dumped five customers into the drink earlier in the season.
We made a smooth approach, pulse thumping in my temples, and then dropped the entry move. Through froth and foam and churning waves, we punched the middle section, adrenaline inducing a weightless, no-longer-tethered-to-Earth sensation as I realized we were slightly off our line. If I didn’t correct, I’d swim my girlfriend and friends in one of the worst spots on the river. Instinctively, I overextended for a massive, corrective paddle stroke. It put the boat where it needed to be, but came with a SNAP that sent me reeling and seeing white.
My shoulder had come out of the socket. It had happened the day before too, on a paid commercial trip, and after relocating it, I thought I'd be fine to keep boating the rest of the season.
I was screaming like a catheter had been yanked out of my dick, but there was very little time before the next stretch of technical maneuvering. So, I put it back in myself, for the second time in two days, steered us through another major rapid, and then handed over control to the next most experienced guide on board for the last mile and a half or so.
The hospital couldn’t tell anything conclusive regarding cartilage, ligament or muscle tears without an MRI. So, we went to the bar, where I began the healing and self-pity process with Modelo and well tequila. And then more tequila. And then PBR. And then whiskey. So on and so forth.
Because we were in Bumfuck-Mountain-Town, USA, I was weeks away from getting an MRI appointment, and knowing whether I’d be able to get back on the water at all before season’s end. Legally, my employers couldn’t allow me to take trips without a doctor’s clearance. Without an MRI, no doctor would grant such clearance. Without the ability to guide and earn tips, my income was cut more than in half.
I had been moonlighting as a bartender a couple nights a week, and had the opportunity to go full-time, but there was still the camper to complete, which was on company property. If I went full-time behind the bar, I’d be using company tools, resources and space without contributing in any way. And as it stood, we didn’t yet have a place to move. So, I took a job driving shuttle, getting paid peanuts, so that we’d have the time to properly finish the renovation, and somewhere to sleep in the process.
Weeks went by, driving shuttle and watching dozens of people come off the river I love, doing the thing I love, while I was relegated to driving the same stretch of highway, always careful to never break the speed limit in a company vehicle. Again, and again, and again.
I agonized over the idea that what was supposed to be my last hurrah might be over before it had even really started. My one outlet, the only effective method I’d found in settling my mind, had been ripped away. Peak water levels would come and go, while I was sitting in a van and turning the same negative thoughts over and over, as I waited for everyone else to finish enjoying my thing.
I couldn’t quit, because we might end up on our asses with a half-finished home, no means to complete it, and nowhere to tow it. I had to drive shuttle.
I accepted that I was shackled to The Dirt Lot and financially immobilized. The only logical solution was to double down on renovation efforts, get to a new spot as quickly as possible, and hope the MRI would bring good news that might salvage my last hurrah.
And so when I wasn’t playing chauffeur for herds of vacation-brained, slack-jawed tourists, I was in The Dirt. My girlfriend and I measured and cut and sawed and sanded and stained in the dirt. There was dirt in our shoes. Dirt in our ears. Dirt in every nook and cranny, crook and crevice.
I was surrounded by thirty or forty other people living a lifestyle I had outgrown. I was stuck with them. There was never silence or peace. Never any time for me to stop and think about anything other than home not feeling like home anymore.
Everyone would drink and rehash their day on the river, talking about moves and mistakes made in rapids I wanted to be on. Just a constant, nonstop reminder that the river had been taken from me. That the identity I’d clung to for six years, had evaporated, and I had been reduced to a driver who lived in The Dirt, with a half-finished camper, and none of the necessary skills to complete it in an expedient fashion.
Yes, I had outgrown the lifestyle, but I had wanted to walk from it on my terms. I wanted my last dance, and in the process, have the chance to share what had made the water so magical for me with my girlfriend.
My coworkers could get on the water. I couldn’t. I resented them for it, and I began to hate The Lot.
As we kept forging forward with the renovation, I made little space for friends, fun or leisure time. Had to finish the fucking job. Socializing stood in the way of that. So instead, I drank while we worked. I stewed more. And when the sun was too low to keep working, I drank some more, watched the folks around me living a carefree, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lifestyle that had once been mine, but no longer felt right, and kept feeding the bitter beast that was burrowing into my gut.
I judged everyone and everything. Half-in-the-bag most of the time, I began to believe that the culture of one of the only places I’d ever felt safe had completely changed. The majority of my inner circle had either exited The Lot for real-life houses, or moved on to other rivers. And so, the only conclusion my inebriated, stress-addicted brain could come to, was that the place had gone to shit thanks to the next generation, and a few holdovers from years past.
I saw them as an incestuous, overindulgent, throbbing mass of self-interest and contrived personality. The tribe I’d once had was dead, and in its place, vampires had come, sucking the life from my home. This one cheated. That one stole. The other lied. He was mean to her, and she was conning the next guy. They broke each other down and bullshitted as they built each other back up, congregating in a mass of Me-Monsters, holding hands in a ritual of taking and enabling. A world that had felt more real than anything I’d ever known seemed hollow now.
Mind you, I always had a drink in hand and was gacked out of my skull while casting these judgments— eyes bulging, jaw going, nose running, mind ablaze. Chief Justice in the Supreme Court of Hypocrisy.
Feeling homeless and hamstrung, I gnashed my teeth, furious that I was stuck there, and that I had marooned someone I loved there too.
Days passed as I embraced a spirit-strangling routine—Drive until it was time to clock out, then have a drink. Measure, cut, drink, sand, drink, break to piss. Hammer, drill, drink, judge, stew, hate, drink, bicker, belittle, criticize. Drink, put the tools away, drink. Then sleep.
But then there was a little light. We secured a spot off The Lot.
There was shade, seclusion and a creek just behind us. Silence and space to just be. With the renovation now complete, we could leave everything that was rankling my soul behind, I could transition out of driving, and salvage our summer. Maybe The Lot had changed, but we would now be adjacent, as was the plan from the start. I could scratch my river itch, so long as my MRI was positive.
Not long after settling into our new spot, I got the results. Torn bicep tendon, three quarters of my labrum torn from the bone, two minor tendon tears, a frayed rotator cuff, and a bone spur that was doing more damage by the day. As a bonus, there were two bulging discs in my spine too. Confirmation that the last month and a half of summer would bring no river time, the last hurrah wouldn’t happen, and at 31-years-old I’d gone from a boater on the rise, to a counterfeit carpenter, van driver, and drunkard-- a loser. My stress addicted rocket ship refueled and relaunched.
It was gin and tonic, tequila, lagers, pilsners, whiskey, margaritas and more. A snort here and there for good measure and an unwillingness to look at anything other than what had stacked up against me. Drink in hand, I railed against the world I was “trapped” in. The fucking Dirt Lot, the fucking people, the fucking culture. Fuck it all. I was being punished for having ever deluded myself into thinking this way of life had any merit or substance to it. I spat misery and screamed injustice at the slightest provocation. But I didn’t stop with The Lot and the whitewater world.
The reins came off and I saw the bad in everything.
The entire valley was shit. Ponderosa pine was a piss poor excuse for a tree. The mountains were just overgrown, glorified rocks. I hated the sun, the dirt, the water and the wildlife. Dirtbags, hippies, raft guides, fishermen, off-roaders, rock climbers, rednecks, the service industry, retirees, teenagers, toddlers, truckers, tourists, travelers and Texans pulling fifth-wheel trailers—fuck ‘em all.
I’d get into bed at night and sound like a shitty country song stuck on repeat, as I bemoaned my existence.
I didn’t want to see or do anything, engage or interact with anyone. Round every corner and behind every eye, disappointment and hurt lurked. The Dirt Lot had gone to shit, my body had been rendered useless, my identity had been burned to ash, and with it, my faith in anything. Except booze.
The liquor flowed, fueling my martyrdom. I wore the shroud of victim full time and conflict teamed with outward criticism to become my twin superpowers. I hardly acknowledged anyone, derided everything, bickered with my person about the most insignificant of shit, cooked up imaginary scenarios, watched all comers with a wary eye, and levied judgment in every setting. I got drunk and threw cold water on flames that I had once loved watching burn. And eventually, using liquor and misery for kindling, I lit a fuse that blew my relationship up in my face.
Boo hoo. Wah wah. So sad. How tremendously terrible the world had been to me.
When I made that call to Scar, I wept like a 50-year-old double-divorcee during the father-daughter dance at a rich girl's wedding. Drunk and sniffling, snot running into my mustache. I knew he would get what it was like to experience such a debilitating sense of weakness, and having to grapple with that after coming from a culture of overt masculinity that emphasized the ability to simply push through. I also knew that he wouldn't bullshit me.
We talked for an hour or so, only breaking when I needed to quickly run back inside to buy another shooter. Another dose of artificial control.
I don't remember exactly what was said (because I was drunk). I know he ran through his own process of dealing with loss. How it takes growing pains for men like us to heal and accept some things. He pushed me to start writing again. I think he talked me through some of my latent abandonment wounds too, and made me feel kinda ok with it.
The one thing that stands out very clearly in my memory though, was Scar's admittance that, yes, I had been through more in the past few years than most. Death, betrayal, financial castration, physical woes and a litany of other things. Shit from years past and shit that had happened just that summer had been hard and heavy.
However, it was time to stop squeezing it all together, and wearing it as a hat.
He was right. I couldn’t argue, but didn’t want to accept it. So, I did another 24-hour dance with tequila and powder. I stumbled around the high desert barefoot. I laid amongst the sage and boiled. And I sought a thousand opinions. Like a listless beggar on the street, I pined for safety and advice.
“Sir, could you spare some reassurance? How 'bout you madam? Any comfort you can part with? Does anyone have some sympathy they can share?”
But my closest circle all said the same thing as Scar.
When I woke, skull pounding, I accepted it. No more twelve-beer, eight-shot nights. Time to get sober and deal with this shit once and for all. But the how and the where terrified me.
To the drunk and dysregulated mind, dive bars are a source of joy. I once believed that proper dives housed this country’s most interesting mix of people. The traumatized and over energized, insomniacs and head-nodders—night owls, adrenaline fiends, the cocaine-addled and liquor soaked—miscreants and madmen, Pabst-pickled pigs in shit. My favorite dives were stuffed with cold beer guzzling alco-hogs. The best stories came out of those buildings, where personality oozed from the walls; where the lost, learned and lascivious gathered in droves, convening in a determined stupor—a mass of screamin’ demons with drinks in hand, laughing and giggling, totally unaware of when the tide would come in or go out.
In my first forty-eight hours without booze, I desperately wanted to go to one. I didn’t want the clear thought and reflections that sobriety unleashed. I wanted the distraction and to drink until I could laugh again.
Instead, I booked a therapy appointment. I journaled. I wrote out everything that had occurred, how it had gone wrong, and what I thought the next steps would be. I had to break out of the cage I'd locked myself in.
I realized that I had made a misstep in directing my maniacal work ethic solely on the completion of the camper and getting off The Lot. What if I had made the same commitment to renovating my heart and mind, therefore becoming who I needed to be for myself, and by proxy, who I needed to be for the people I loved? I needed to stop seeking validation and reassurance externally. I needed to make room for silence and to lean into whatever pain had been fueling all this.
I found a spot next to the river where no one would bother me and resolved to sit for the next few hours.
I breathed, thought and allowed everything to come up.
In the ensuing three hours, I puked, both literally and figuratively. First, it was a Subway sandwich that came up. Then my father. His hospice room, our battles, the letdowns, the betrayal and the heartache. I relived a 36-hour period from two years earlier, in which two different people had died in my arms. One wicked, and one innocent. One was Dad. One was a woman who I watched get hit by a Dodge, and then crushed by a landscaping truck, and who I had failed to save with a tow strap tourniquet and CPR. I saw her blood on my hands again and heard his last ragged breath once more.
Other repressed memories and things I had long forgotten surfaced. A stabbing pain in my stomach and a sensation of dizziness. I’ve had beer bottles and pint glasses broken on my face, taken boots to the back of the skull, had a guitar shattered over my back, and been stomped on by four different sets of feet at once. None of it compared to this.
I wailed and wept while a thousand simultaneous slideshows played in my mind; all the lowlights of three decades. I desperately wanted it to stop but I refused to get up and walk from the water. I felt everything without any chemical interference or distraction. I breathed between the tears and the hurt, intentionally and laboriously, until the projector wound to a stop, it had all passed through me and there was nothing but the sound of river over rocks.
Peace and an overwhelming sense of relief. In refusing the booze and surrendering for once, clarity came, and a self that my dysregulated body and mind had buried.
Alcohol cannot be blamed as the sole culprit for my missteps and faults in perspective this past summer. But it certainly made the fog through which I had to stumble thicker.
Booze, when abused, is an element that induces freezing. It negates the possibility for growth, something I had committed to at the beginning of the summer but used liquor to neglect. When you drink to disassociate, you lose yourself. And then you look for other people and things to blame that loss on.
Simply dropping the bottle and forcing myself to sit and experience my feelings without any interference brought about a seismic shift in perspective, and a lot of uncomfortable truth.
Dirtbag raft guide culture hadn’t suddenly changed with the advent of the 2023 season. It was just as chaotic as it had been when I fell in love six years earlier. What had changed, was that somewhere along the way in the past two years, I developed a misguided core belief that things were happening to me, because of me. The result of such a core belief is shame. Due to my inability to recognize and name that shame, or my unwillingness to deal with it, I fell prey to survival reflexes that coerced me into projecting it onto everyone else: my coworkers, my friends and my girlfriend.
The other guides were just people, each having their own unique, human experience. I had unfairly canceled out others for what I perceived to be defects in their character. I had been just as chaotic in the past. Everyone deserves a spin on the crazy carousel at some point.
My dislike of the Me-Monsters was, ironically enough, not about them, but about ME.
And the handful that I still believe are bad people? What did I care about their conduct? It had nothing to do with me. Buzzards gotta eat, same as worms.
It doesn’t matter who inhabits The Lot now, or if the culture has truly changed in any way. In the grand scheme of things, that place and those people have given me much more than they’ve ever taken.
It’s not my fault that conditioning caused me to consider everything in the immediate vicinity a threat. My body was dysregulated, and by extension, my mind. What is my responsibility though, is how I reacted to said impulses, and the actions taken.
In admitting that, I am overcome by a smothering embarrassment and cringe. I would rather shit my pants at prom than feel it. But I’m not numbing it with booze. I’m leaning in.
What happened, happened. What I did, I did.
I could have taken my stressors and reframed them. Perhaps practiced some gratitude and grace. Stopped, grounded myself, and just listened to the birds.
My best friend had tried to tell me that I was creating self-fulfilling prophecies by hyper-fixating on how shitty things were and what might happen next. She tried to tell me that my various woes had started to just sound like a laundry list of excuses. And she was correct on both accounts.
I could have shifted focus to all the good and the fun that had been present in my world this summer: A dirtbag water gun war. Watching early season owls and Rocky Mountain sunsets. Words of wisdom from a drunk veteran. The dog’s relentless paws. Shop talk, “Kick Me” Post-It notes on a friend’s back and the absurdity of Boatmen’s Olympics. Jumping out of a fucking plane and watching my sister fall in love. Blue eyes on brown, clumsy dance floor splits, and that ridiculously tasty sauce that came with every order of shrimp shumai.
But instead, I allowed a manufactured darkness to swallow me, and in turn, dimmed the light of those closest.
I took loving honesty for cruel criticism. I put my people and my person through pain, as I created a scenario that left them with no clear way to pull me out of my rut, and in turn, left no space for them to have their own feelings.
I thrashed about and looked externally for solutions or comfort. It was the equivalent of hiking the Appalachian Trail, asking someone else to carry my backpack, and then tying weights to their ankles too. Everyone in my world was locked in a pressure cooker. As my melancholy grew, so did theirs, as they tried to find ways to help someone who was acting emotionally dependent on them.
There’s a word for that—toxic.
I’m dropping the bulldozer mentality, and the hammer too, in order to surrender and start moving with the ebbs and flows of existence-- to rewire the mind and rejuvenate the heart.
It’s been more than two weeks off the sauce and I won’t be picking up the bottle again any time soon. I feel as if I’ve met myself again, and adopted a new routine, in order to bring more of that guy out with each day that passes.
I’m rebranding, as a self-love and mindfulness commando, rather than a miserable, codependent, stubborn fuck.
My mornings start with a breathwork practice. I don’t allow myself any idle time or distraction until I’ve put at least 500 words on the page. That’s resulted in 22,000 words total in just the past 10 days and the understanding that the problem was never being a raft guide. It was not allowing myself to be a writer.
In seeing what that moment beside the river gave me, I now devote time each day to intentionally triggering myself. I'm giving the pain a bear hug, by seeking out people, places or things that upset me, or writing out past traumas in excruciating detail. Then I breathe through it, allow the emotion to pass, and get a little bit better at reducing my propensity for reactivity each time.
I’m studying the nervous system, how the body stores trauma and different methods of manipulating the vagus nerve. I make myself read each chapter twice before moving on to the next.
I’ve doubled down on therapy, am forcing myself to learn some meditation, and I’m attending AA meetings too. I don’t think the meetings are a forever thing for me, but for right now, it’s part of the necessary work. The next time I crack a beer, I’ll be seated next to Scar at a California surfside bar, in a time and place where I am confident that I’ve finally got a handle on who I am.
It was never necessary to be the hard, stubborn, nonstop taskmaster, nor had it served me in any way. I see that now and feel much better for it.
Watching that woman brutally ripped from the world, her blood, fat, ligaments and muscle spread on the pavement around us as she tried to speak to me through a mouthful of blood, had altered my perception in ways I didn’t completely understand until now. Seeing her taken so swiftly, without the chance to speak to any loved ones, while my father had been allowed the luxury of dying a coward’s death, put a canyon-sized crack in my view of the world. My people can't fill that chasm in for me. So I've started shoveling it in myself.
I run on espresso, N/A beer, nicotine and conscious awareness now. And I’m enjoying the little things. Like teaching the kids in the car next to me at a stoplight how to headbang to Metallica. Holding court, belly-laughing and telling stories to some old friends from another river who passed through town. Taking the hand of a heartbroken, elderly woman at one of the spots where I’ve been tending bar. Swapping jokes with baristas, wrestling with the dog in the dirt, driving the backroads real slow and feeling the sun on my face.
This afternoon, a friend called and said, “Woah, it’s so great to get on the phone with you and not hear a mopey little bitch on the other end”. I think they call that progress.
The job isn't done. When I'm lying alone at night, I sometimes feel my father's cold hand grasping my right, and that woman's bloody one in my left. But I can hear the birds now. And I'm headed further West, towards the ocean, so I can hear the waves crash too.
Every now and then, the sun shines on a dog’s ass.