Original artwork from @Sonja_Tierney on Instagram. Follow her, or the Editor-in-Chief will eat his fucking dog.
One half-crushed can rolls over sand and stone, an aluminum tumbleweed carried forth by an indignant wind, creating the only sound audible in Shantytown.
Early morning UV rays barrel through the windshield and cook your skin as the comforting caress of sleep recedes. The roof of your mouth has a sandpaper finish over it, and as you rub the pain of last night’s indiscretions from your eyes, you can smell the psilocybin dust still stuck beneath your fingernails. You realize that if you don’t hydrate and wash away the grime of last night from your gums and tongue immediately, you may yack.
With trembling hands, you unlatch the decrepit van’s door. Wind whistles and grains of sand ping off your vehicle-turned-home.
Camp is quiet and it appears you are the first guide to wake, despite having retired at 4:00 AM. You glance about at the sea of tents, trailers, trucks and vans that have been beat to shit beneath a high alpine sun, day after day, since the early 80s.
Soon the miscreants shall rise, and the riotous routine will begin.
In the shop, you set a pot of coffee to brew, then pick up a Nalgene bottle that isn’t yours and fill it beneath the leaky tap. As the coffee slowly dribbles down the glass, you impatiently pile up gear, pulling straps loose, flinging soggy socks toward the garbage with a THWAP, and dropping a weather-beaten PFD to the floor—a tinkling of buckles and carabiners against cold concrete.
The coffeemaker gurgles out its last drop and the pot is filled (as is your heart at the sight of such hot, liquid decadence).
You pull the first mug you can get your hands on out of the sink and don’t bother to see if it’s clean. The dingy lightbulbs hum overhead as you fill it to the brim with steaming, brown brilliance.
You accept the burn on your tongue with great pleasure, and feel at peace in the quiet, scanning the walls, admiring the yellowed photos of paddlers who came before, and feeling grateful for those who are here with you now. The stench of your coworkers’ unwashed gear coalesces with the coffee in your mustache, and comfort grips you tight.
From outside the shop, that one yappy dog barks, and you can’t help but smile. It’s almost 8:00 AM and the orchestra is beginning to warm up.
As you expected, there’s a metallic BANG, and the old crusty in the corner of camp has kicked his camper door open in a rage. In the distance, you hear the spring of his BB gun uncoil and compressed air spit out of the barrel, followed by a yelp, a canine whine, and a mispronounced uttering of “fucking dog!”
Just a matter of time now.
There’s another BANG as the shop door shuts behind the head boatman, who shuffles in smiling, and nods your way. Moments later, he’s sweeping up dust and debris created by you and your compatriots. You sip more coffee and listen to the broom’s bristles tickle the concrete. Driven by sheepish guilt, you set your mug down to pick up stray cans and hope he notices you tossing them in the recycling.
More dogs begin to bark outside, more angry curses take off into the alpine air. The head boatman grins, sets the broom aside, and retires to his office.
Another BANG and a few guides stumble in, giggling over the events of last night, two dogs panting at their heels. One turns to you, hacks, spits into the garbage can, and smiles.
“Good morning, shithead!”
BANG— the safety kayaker is there now too, saying offensive things about everyone’s mother and scratching his scalp.
BANG— three more guides, stinking of Pabst, red in the eyes, desperate for water.
BANG— the oldest of the crusties arrives, cheerily mumbling good-mornings and how’s-it-goings to guides and dogs alike.
BANG— the long-haired guide in a t-shirt depicting cartoon pigs in various stages of copulation slides in, calls you an idiot for no apparent reason, and sets about making himself breakfast.
BANG— it’s the crusty with the BB gun, muttering something about euthanasia and stalking off towards the fridge where he finds that someone has used up the last of his coffee creamer. He launches into a profanity-laced tirade that sends everyone into a fit of giggles.
The door slams what feels like a hundred times more and the shop fills with dirtbags in various states of confusion, withdrawal and glee.
The calm is now gone from this place, and it won’t return till the wee hours of the next morning.
Dogs grunt and growl as they play tug-of-war with cam straps. The fridge opens repeatedly with a tinkling of condiment bottles and the soft suction sound of its seal. Spent coffee filters full of wet grounds are dropped to the bottom of the trash barrel with a soggy sounding SLOP, as four different pots are brewed and made to disappear almost immediately. Vulgarities dance through the air, last night’s bonfire is recounted in a fit of cackles and offensive detail, sandwiches crafted with leftover cold cuts are torn apart with unbrushed teeth, and river gear is tossed about in a careless, haphazard way.
The guide with the mutton chops, fuzzy belly button, and Daisy Duke denim shorts bursts in, Double IPA on his breath as he rains chuckles down upon everyone within spitting distance. He finds that his PFD is missing and instinctively checks the freezer. Not surprisingly, it was dipped in booty washing water and frozen overnight.
With a vengeful grin, he strides across the room and farts in the safety kayaker’s face. A mug shatters, a spiderweb of lukewarm coffee spreads cross the concrete, and a half dozen paddles clatter to the floor as they fall into a nipple twisting Battle Royale. You and your coworkers cheer on the melee, and for a moment, the shop is transformed into a Coliseum full of spectators that demand titty blood.
As the two combatants break apart and insult each other’s hairlines, the laughter fades away. A small crowd clusters around the whiteboard, where each guide’s daily destiny is determined. They analyze the schedule and bicker over how many boats need to be blown up, calling each other horrific things and struggling to complete elementary level math.
The head boatman steps out of his office and a hush falls over the mob. He is wielding the ultimate instrument of power—a black dry erase marker. The sea of guides parts to make way for the aquatic Oracle. He wordlessly steps to the board, taking a moment to look it over. The marker is uncorked with a CLICK. A rookie guide gasps.
He returns to his office and the crowd frantically rushes forward to see what’s changed.
It will be Eric C, not Eric L, who will be taking the Boy Scouts on the 10 AM half-day trip. Everyone cheers. The prematurely balding guide from Jersey tries to kick Eric C in the testicles. The dogs bark their approval.
Then the clock strikes 8:30, and on cue, the dirtbags erupt in a chorus of mismatched tones and cadences, though they are all saying the same thing.
With another BANG, the shop door flies open, and two dozen stinking animals pour out— a stampede of the deranged and giggly, their hooves wrapped in weather-beaten Chacos.
The wheels of a few Bic lighters spin and click. Cigarette smoke envelopes the scene. Someone puts Sugar Magnolia on the Bluetooth. Another guide utters a curse and changes it, then the dirtbags get to work.
The heavy tin doors are wrenched open and river-crazed orangutans rush in, climbing stacks of half-inflated boats that whine in protest beneath their weight.
Rafts are peeled from stacks that are five boats high, with an almost sickening sound, like duct tape being ripped off bare skin.
The first boat is dropped in the doorway and the air pump fired up. Its whir bounces off the tin walls, and suddenly the place sounds like an airplane hangar as the jets are being scrambled. Two guides wielding hoses move from one valve to another. The rest bicker over the noise.
Once the first boat is filled, its tubes are tested with a few overaggressive slaps, and the longhaired fool in the oversized purple hoodie (that’s really more of a dress) utters a call to action, using far too many syllables.
“Leeeeeeeets get some ha-AH-aaahh-aah-ands on this rubber!”
The dirtbags set to movin’ (save for the veterans who are smoking Natural Spirits and pretending they’ll lend a hand once they finish their butts). They are half-mad little worker bees, squinting beneath the sun as they haul the first boat from the tin whitewater cathedral to a splintered trailer with one working brake light.
Another raft is slid into place where the first sat a moment ago, and with assembly line efficiency, the dirtbags fill and then haul it away. The stack builds on the first trailer, as two-hundred pounds of rubber is lifted overhead, then tossed to the top with flawless precision.
Bassnectar thumps out of the Bluetooth, followed by Ted Nugent, then the inevitable Grateful Dead song that is, thankfully, once again, skipped.
Two dozen feet shuffle over gravel, and rocks are inadvertently kicked into the boathouse walls with a merciless PANG. Janky trailers rattle over divots and rock with painful metallic clangs, as one bus replaces another, exhaust pipes belch, and fumes blend with cigarette smoke that just won’t fade away.
Boats are filled to the brim, and after the customary slap of rubber, there is a call for “HANDS!” every thirty seconds or so.
More cigarettes are lit. More stacks are built on trailers that certainly wouldn’t pass state inspection. More buses and vans pull into precariously tight spaces. A dog is almost hit, and is then kicked back in the direction of camp. A seamless ballet occurs, you and your coworkers spinning and twisting round one another, as the veterans stay leaning against the boathouse walls, smoking cigarettes like the cool kids who cut class in high school. Occasionally a boat is dropped with a THUMP, and the offender is chastised or shoved over for having such a sissy-handed grip.
There is a whirlwind of dust and chaos and gravel as the last bus pulls into place. Its gears grind as the driver forces it into park and the yellow behemoth lurches to a stop. In rapid-fire fashion, your coworkers build a four-stack upon the trailer.
You join the crew on the last boat, a guide at each corner handle, lifting it off the sand like a rubber suitcase requiring four hands. To the trailer you go, twisting till you're parallel to the four-stack already in place. With a clean and jerk, the boat is overhead, all of your arms straight in the air, everyone’s palms pressing against its black bottom. A fifth guide dashes beneath the boat and climbs the stack with haste, gripping perimeter lines of rope like a jaguar as she goes. She hangs from the topmost rope with one hand and squeezes her body down tight as you and your crew pitch one side up.
She steadies the top side with her free hand and your crew of four slides beneath the bottom edge, hands pressed tight into the rubber. On the count of three, you extend all of your arms in unison and heave your collective force towards the sun, sending the raft skyward. The monkey placed herself perfectly on the stack, but your toss was off its mark.
There are two thumps—two-hundred pounds of rubber colliding with her skull, and then with the sand. Through the cloud of dust that blasts forth from the ground, she signals that she’s alright, and everyone regroups to try again. This time, you take your time with the count, and the boat sails through the air like a dove on a heavenly zephyr. It lands with a delicate thud, perfectly in place.
She's unharmed and scrambles towards the front of the stack, grabbing the topmost boat’s bow line, gripping it and dropping to the ground like Spiderman from the Chrysler Building. Guides unroll straps and toss heavy metal buckles over the stack, calling “HEADACHE!” as a warning to those on the other side.
The boats whine beneath the pressure as the straps are pulled tight with a swift ZIP, fingers crimp over buckles, and hitches are yanked solid to secure the straps in place.
You pull the bow line through the loop in the trailer and thread a trucker’s hitch. You test the line with a hooked finger, and take deep satisfaction in the TWANG that reverberates through the rope, confirming that yes, she’ll ride.
A collection of buses and vans, thirty-five boats— an armada ready to roll.
You wipe your brow. More cigarettes are lit. More mothers are insulted.
A pale tourist in a tacky golf visor and ill-fitting polo shirt stumbles ‘round the corner.
“Do my kids need to wear lifejackets?”
“Sir, I’m gonna need you to check in with the office first and fill out a waiver.”
And now, the show really begins.
Apparel made by river folk, for river folk. Click here and visit their website.
Follow the RCO team on Instagram @RiverCompanyOutfitters