I suppose the goats might have been an omen.
But really, who would expect an omen to come along on a Friday afternoon? Right there on the Dwight D. Eisenhower Highway, a bumpy stretch of asphalt choked with commuters and glacier-dooming exhaust?
I was with Buford and Rico—old friends—all of us part-time river guides with much more good humor at our disposal than river skills. Buford is a welder, Canadian Club drinker, and a man with a merciless wit. Rico I’ve known for the great majority of my life, and I can say that during most of that time together we were laughing about one thing or another.
We were on I-80, somewhere between San Francisco and Placerville. People with real jobs were jockeying around for the exits of an endless string of suburban gems—San Pablo, Pinole, Hercules, LivingHell. We, on the other hand, were on our way to kayak and otherwise fritter away another weekend of our precious lives on the South Fork of the American River.
Buford was driving, clipping along at 70. I can’t say why except to chalk it up to the screwy power of omens, but the three of us glanced over at the car next to us at the same moment. Just spitting distance away was a Ford Country Squire station wagon. It was an old car, sun-bleached and rusty in places. A beaten down, 60-year-old white guy was driving. I was transfixed by him, and yet wholly unable to form the thought of what I was seeing. Rico, even more voluble than I, seemed equally perplexed. Finally, Buford, ever the man to unveil an elephant in the room, proclaimed, “Goddamn, that car is chock full of goats.”
Indeed, there were 20—maybe more—live goats stuffed in the back of the Country Squire station wagon, all standing stem to stern, packed like so many sardines in a can. Equally unnerving, the fellow driving seemed absolutely nonplussed by it all. He was idly staring off into the middle distance, as if he were pondering whether he had left his stove on at home.
A carload of goats? Theories came to mind: a relationship gone sour? Had this poor bastard finally mustered the courage to leave a soul-crushing marriage, just packed up his goats and left? Or—it was a stretch—but could he be involved in some sort of bizarre animal trafficking? These did not look like particularly rare goats—something, say, worthy of trafficking. But, then again, could I pick a black-market tortoise from of a lineup of house turtles? Probably not.
And then the basic logistical questions came to mind. How did he get them in the car in the first place? What could the inside of that Country Squire possibly smell like? Did he have food in there for them? Having suffered a summer at an Idaho river guide house with a goat named Achmed, I know a thing or two about goats. One is that they eat incessantly, and it doesn’t seem to matter if it is of this Earth or not. I suppose it was possible that this guy pulled over at rest stops and let them graze a bit. But, really, how did he manage that? And where in God’s name was he going with a carload of goats? It was all so puzzling.
It was puzzling but great fodder for the rest of the drive. That was all it took with the three of us: one weird little moment and we could launch into hours of bantering back and forth, each of us trying to out-funny the other guy. And this, it has occurred to me over time, is really the heart of river guiding. In fact, it is the enduring memory of my working on rivers for much of my adult life—not the whitewater, not the stillness of river canyons, nor the space-blue skies under which I have been sheltered for so many days. Rather, it is simply the relentless pursuit of laughter. It might start with someone finding a decrepit bone in camp, say, a raccoon or a marmot jawbone—nothing regal, certainly. And though they may be otherwise intelligent people, river guides will spend hours trying to make each other laugh with that stupid little bone. The effort is unremitting and exhausting, but as much fun as anything I’ve ever done.
By the time we reached the guide house, we had played out every imaginable goat scenario. The air had finally cooled, and we settled in for dinner with a couple of other guides. The house, which was as close to a commune as you might experience during the Reagan era, did, in fact, have a spectacular perch over the South Fork of the American River. It also had a scratchy green carpet, furniture a smart man would never sit in, and dust—all the dust of Ethiopia in one little house. By the time we had had our fill of cheese quesadillas and leftover beer it was 11 p.m.
“How about a quick pop at the Round Tent?” Buford said in his usual peppy way. “Last call and all.”
The Round Tent was a bar in Placerville and not one at which river guides were particularly welcome. Hard, tough men living with a bit of a bitter taste in their mouths drank there. We were the antithesis of all that: soft and weak, full of laughs and bright futures. Still, we knew our way around a bar.
Chris, a young and strapping guide, eager to be a part of the fun, chimed in, “Is it alright if I come?”
We all considered the moment, though perhaps a little longer than we should have. Again, it was Buford who broke the silence.
“Chris, I like to drink,” he said sternly. “So does he, and so does he. And when we drink together, we really like to drink.”
“Oh, I’m in,” Chris said. “I AM IN.”
Of course, last call wasn’t technically last call. There were shots that went around—Canadian Club, tequila, ouzo. There were beer chasers and Kahlua nightcaps. And miraculously, as if the hand of God had reached down and touched us, there we were in the Round Tent Bar in Placerville, California, the four smartest and funniest guys in the whole wide world. Certainly, we needed a bigger stage.
Along the winding road to South Lake Tahoe, Nevada, Chris discovered some ugly truths about the life of a river guide. After he threw up the first time, we pulled over and cleverly put him in the back of the pickup. There was a camper shell and plenty of fresh air, but that was about it. And for fear he might be a sleepwalking drunk, we locked the camper shell. That was that; our woes were literally behind us. We carried on, as if we were people with something vitally important to do.
Caesars Tahoe at 2 a.m. was everything we had hoped—loud, fun, full of crowded craps tables and pretty women to flirt with. Even the pit bosses seemed cheerful. We were winning money but not enough to alarm anyone. Nobody in the casino was having more fun than we were. Bernadette, a tall and pretty black woman, was quick to notice and sidled up to us.
She said she was the headline comedienne at the casino, though it occurred to me she wasn’t all that funny. Nonetheless, she seemed to think we were amusing, so that was something. My suspicion and deep fear was that she might be a hooker with a nasty pimp and that, somehow, this was how the fun would end. We’d wake up on some dirt road outside of town, toothless and broke.
But lovely Bernadette proved me wrong. She simply thought it might be fun to throw in with some mildly entertaining fools for a bit. And who were we to refuse the company of a beautiful woman with access to all the comps a casino had to offer?
After several rounds at the craps table, Bernadette invited us to a party in her suite. Granted it wasn’t Las Vegas, but it was quite nice—spacious, big hot tub in the living room, views of the Tahoe strip. As the night wore on, all sorts of people rolled in and out of the suite. Presumably, they were Bernadette’s friends, but who knows who they were? There was plenty of champagne, dancing, soaking in the hot tub. Room service appeared more than once. We ate eggs and bacon, French toast, lox. Someone ordered a roast chicken.
When I woke up, I was heartened to discover that I was not face down in some meth head’s crappy little yard. All 32 teeth were in place, and, as far as I could tell, I hadn’t been robbed. I was, in fact, still in Bernadette’s suite, folded into an over-stuffed leather chair.
In the floor-to-ceiling windows, a giant orange sun was rising over the Sierras and the middling high-rises of South Lake Tahoe. It was beautiful and not a bad way to wake up after an all-night party. Rico was across the room sleeping in an odd little Roman couch. Buford was in the king bed, snoring like only a welder can snore. Bernadette and friends were nowhere to be seen.
At that moment, I remembered Chris in the Caesars parking lot. Locking the camper shell seemed brilliant at the time. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
“Shit, we’ve got to go,” I announced to nobody in particular.
Happily, we had only our wits to gather—no bags to pack, no bills to pay. Four minutes later we were marching across the parking lot. The Caesars marquee towered above us, Bernadette’s name spelled out in little round light bulbs.
All of us were a little nervous as to what we would or wouldn’t find in the truck. Buford unlocked the camper shell. Mercifully, Chris had not choked to death on his own vomit. He was sleeping like a teenager on the metal truck bed. He didn’t seem to know or care what he had missed. He did seem concerned that he was due to lead a commercial river trip in a few hours and here he was with us in a casino parking lot, a river nowhere in sight.
As much as Rico, Buford, and I wanted to while away the day playing Keno in South Lake Tahoe, our consciences got the better of us. Chris had a trip to run; we had to get him there. Albeit grudgingly, we filled the truck with gas and hustled back down Highway 50 to Placerville. We dropped Chris at the river put-in with a hearty handshake and a tall cup of coffee.
Two hours later, after our second breakfast of the morning, Rico and I were on the river. Kayaking was the perfect hangover recipe: refreshing and quiet. Our day moved along swimmingly—that was until we approached Troublemaker: a class III, sometimes class IV rapid. I had an inkling things weren’t quite right when I started to see people clamoring about on both sides of the river. We paddled into the eddy above Troublemaker. I could hear country music playing out of boom boxes.
Clusters of people were gathered around the rapid. Some were in lawn chairs drinking beer, others climbing over boulders. Toddlers were on the shoulders of their dads. It might have been a lovely summer barbecue except for one thing: the ropes. Ropes were stretched across the river from both sides, all connecting at the Troublemaker rock, the heart of the rapid. There, plastered to the rock with the full force of the river, was not one boat but two boats. It was the perfect double wrap.
My heart sank. There, scrambling from one side of the rock to the other, sweat spilling off his brow, was Chris. He looked spindlier than before, and there was a desperate look in his eyes. It was the look of a man willing to do just about anything to change the trajectory of his life.
Over the noise of the rapid, men were shouting unintelligible and, no doubt, unhelpful instructions to him. Dusty little kids were chucking sticks into the river; dogs were fetching them. And the Placerville heat, dry and crushing, seemed only to magnify the confusion. It was awful—the river guide equivalent of being stoned to death in the town square.
Rico and I were still in our kayaks, bumping around in the eddy, as yet unnoticed by the crowd. Rico turned to me, “Dear God. The poor bastard. We should do something.”
“Oh, I think we’ve done enough,” I said.
And with that, we slipped out of the eddy. Heads shamefully bowed, two snakes in the water, we paddled out into the rapid, past Chris and the ugly snarl of gear, ropes, and humiliation.
Though I never saw him again, I know Chris got off that rock. I’m sure he went on to become a fine man, to meet better people and have a better life. It wouldn’t have taken much.
Rico and I paddled down river another mile or so and had lunch beside the river. There was a big oak there, so we lay down under it to nap for a bit. I fell into a half-sleep, and my mind drifted back to the goats. I wondered how they had fared. I suspected that they would reach their destination safely. It might take days, but the Squire—dependable, if weary—would deliver them. No doubt, it would be a bright morning when they arrived, the sun spilling over the hills. Someone young and hopeful would see the car roll to a stop, then sprint across a great field, fling open the tailgate. In a shining moment, a carload of goats would bolt for freedom, each and every one leaping for a life in some verdant land far away.