Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Love at First Sight--Valley Girl meets River Guide

What happens when a “Valley” girl with 3 inch painted nails and 5 inch high heels, who has never slept on the ground before, takes a Grand Canyon River Rafting trip? Well, there I was, a single, 31 year old Vice President and Branch Manager for Coldwell Banker Escrow, Beverly Hills, CA, wanting to see the Grand Canyon, and have a whitewater river rafting adventure. So, I called my travel agent, and had a choice of Georgie’s Royal River Rats, or Canyoneers. For Georgie’s trips you had to start in Las Vegas. For Canyoneers, you met in Flagstaff, AZ. Well, I didn’t think a gal traveling alone should go to Vegas—not that I was a prude, mind you! It’s just that I had been to Flagstaff a year prior with my younger brother. We went skiing at the Arizona Snowbowl. That was my first time in Flagstaff. It was a great little town with spectacular landscapes! So, Flagstaff just seemed like a better starting point for my great adventure! I got in on a last minute cancellation for a trip departing the first week of August, 1978. It was a 7 day, full canyon, two boat, motorized trip with 36 passengers. The weather was perfect: blue skies, warm and just a slight breeze. Everyone was so friendly. After the short trip briefing, I went to my hotel room to pack my dry bag and ammo can. I was so excited I couldn’t really sleep that night! I thought morning would never come, but it finally did. Our group met for breakfast and to load up our bus, and then we were on our way to Lees Ferry—magical Lees Ferry where you get your first real glimpse of the Colorado River. Right there in the midst of the hot, high desert and colored cliffs flows the grandest river of them all, the “mighty Colorado”! Images of John Wesley Powell, the Mountain Meadow Massacre, and the early settlers sprung into my mind. I had done some reading before my trip. The history of the area is full of real adventure, colorful characters and the wild, wild west. 

The sight and sound of the river thrilled all of the passengers. We couldn’t wait to get underway. Our Nava Hopi bus driver, Tuffy, helped us unload our gear and we headed down the beach to our rafts and our guides—and oh what guides they were! Our trip leader was Jim Norton: tall, bronze, full beard, and capable of “leaping tall buildings at a single bound”!  Jim Protiva, a cute young fellow with a huge  heart, was Jim’s crew mate, and on the other boat, was Bill and Marty Gillenwater, the Ken and Barbie dolls of the real world!! Bill could have been Mr. World without the excess muscle and Marty, his bride, was the most beautiful gal I had ever seen, not to mention one heck of a co-pilot! the two were terrific story tellers and great educators. Both were school teachers, and Bill went on to become a principal. They would dress up in costume each night to present that night’s tale. It was surreal and wonderful.

After our life jacket demonstration and a few words from Jim Norton about  Lees Ferry, we were finally able to board the rafts, get underway, and into this most magical of canyons, the Grand Canyon. The air was crisp, there were just enough clouds in the sky to make it look like an oil painting, plenty of sunshine, colorful cliffs rising before our eyes, and our first riffle (small rapid) just ahead of us. I can remember that day, actually that entire week, as though it were yesterday. It was perfect. The rafts were large, but felt small on that big river. It would take all of us a while to get the hang of moving about on the rafts, but once we did we all felt like pros.

Our first night in camp, as I was setting up my camp site, I looked down towards the waters edge and spotted a sight almost as grand as the canyon. It was this guy, about 6 foot 1, very tan, extremely handsome, wearing blue jeans, a levy shirt, a black cowboy hat, and all alone! I had no idea he owned the company. Because I got in on a last minute cancellation, I had never seen the brochure with his photo. I noticed that there was a big hole at the knee area in his jeans, and another hole at the elbow in his levy jacket. I don’t know why I noticed this. I just did. My mind was humming at the speed of light as I tried to figure out how I could meet this guy without appearing to be too forward. I mean, I didn’t want him to get the wrong impression! So, I made my way down to the waters edge in my hot pink bikini and flip flops with a tooth brush and tooth paste in hand. 

As I approached, I asked my mystery man where he thought was the best place along the river to brush ones teeth (today Gaylord tells people I asked him where the water was! but that’s not true!!) Anyway, he said “follow me”, and as I did, I kind of tripped over a rock with my flip flops. He reached out his hand to catch me from falling. Electricity flowed through me, and I was never the same thereafter! I thanked him and after a few minutes of conversation, went back up to my campsite. Because I had never camped out before, I was terrified of everything. I had heard about snakes and scorpions! I put my sleeping bag down in the center of the greatest number of passengers for protection. And even though it must have been 80 degrees at night, I slept inside my sleeping bag with arms inside, and the bag zipped up to my neck. It was sweltering, but I figured the snakes and scorpions couldn’t get me that way. I had a vinyl ground sheet under my sleeping bag, and every time I moved, the ground sheet crinkled under me, and I thought it was a snake!

The only thing that took my mind off my fear of crawling critters was the magnificent sky. Being a city girl, I had never seen so many stars—and so brilliant! I could see the Milky Way, all kinds of constellations, and shooting stars, too many to count. I wished on all of them until I fell asleep!

The next couple of days were filled with extraordinary scenery, multi-colored cliffs that rose up around us as the river cut down through the Canyon, big horn sheep, deer, ring- tail cats, snowy egrets, blue heron’s the canyon wren, and so much more that your eyes could never sit still for fear of missing yet another very special image. The side canyons revealed ancient Indian ruins, petroglyphs and pictographs, secret waterfalls, pools and streams, blooming cactus, and the most delicate flowers that grew right out of the sheer rock! I’m pretty certain we were getting a preview of heaven.

On the third day, we came to the Little Colorado River. It was an incredible multi-blue colored river flowing down a side canyon into the mainstream of the Colorado River. It was clear and swift and looked very inviting. However, I had a problem! Never having camped out before, I was not comfortable with the toilet facilities. By day three, I knew I’d have to try something. The crew had set the portable toilet facility up along the path leading to the Little Colorado River so anyone who wanted to use it while we were exploring the Little Sea and its side canyon, could do so. I figured that I would have plenty of time, and privacy, since everyone else rushed up to that inviting water and a hike along the river bank that took you to Beamer’s cabin, a very well preserved, old miners cabin.

So, there I sat, in what felt like 100 degree heat, in the thistles, with flies buzzing over my head and ants marching around my flip-flopped feet. At home I would have read a magazine. Absent that, I picked up the Planters peanut can that had been filled with dry bleach and had little holes punched into the plastic top of the can. It was used as a toilet deodorizer. When you were done with your business, you would just sprinkle a little bleach into the toilet bowel and mask the smell! It is then that I discovered that Planters Peanuts are manufactured in Illinois. It may not be Charles Dickens, but by the time I finished reading the ingredients, the patent information, and any other writing on that can, the experiment worked! Success! And, in spite of the sweat rolling down my forehead, the Kamikaze flies at my ears and the relentless ants at my feet, I felt great!  Now I was ready to take a dip in the beautiful Little Colorado River. I started up the path, hoping to hear some of my fellow passengers. As I was heading up the path along the Little Sea (as it is often called by guides), I happened to notice someone sitting in one of the sparkling pools against the rocks—all alone. And then I realized who it was! It was Sir Galahad from the first night’s camp. And there he was, all alone in this serene, picture perfect setting. I didn’t have my toothbrush this time, so I just waded over to him and said “Hi”, “Where is everyone?” “They’re up the trail checking out Beamer’s Cabin”, he said.

By now, I had discovered that Sir Galahad was Gaylord Staveley, owner of Canyoneers. We spent quite a while at that lovely pool telling each other about our past, and then Gaylord took me up the trail to Beamer’s Cabin just about the time all the other passengers were making their way back to the boat!

 I did not put my sleeping bag down in the middle of all the other passengers that night. In fact, that night, to get to our campsite, Gaylord led me through tall brush, around great bushes, over boulders, and God knows what else, all to seek privacy. It’s funny how the thought of snakes and scorpions had all but vanished from my mind! That night the shooting stars were more spectacular than even my first night on the river. And I cannot figure out, to this day, where the sound of fire- crackers came from, but I’m sure there were 4th- of- July- style fireworks over my head! That night Gaylord told me he was going to marry me. I didn’t want to believe it. I mean, there was no doubt that I was smitten, but this had to have been a river guide’s line—right?

Well, the next morning, Gaylord took all the gear off the boat he had been on, and came over to the raft I was on. The rest of the week was perfect, even the hail- storm that hit us one afternoon out of the middle of nowhere. I hiked everywhere, took a thousand photos, listened to every geology talk with great interest, marveled at every glorious sight the Canyon unfolded, showered under every waterfall, helped make meals and set up camp, and felt I must be in a dream.

When the trip came to an end, and the passengers had to get on the bus back to Flagstaff, I had tears in my eyes. I didn’t want to leave. No one did. We had run some 200 thrilling and exhilarating rapids, had hiked the most beautiful side canyons in the world, had seen a myriad of plants, animals, fossils, ruins, waterfalls, pools, streams, caves and pristine beaches. We sang songs, shared stories, helped each other over rocks and through stream beds, and by the end of the trip laughed about our pit stops where the ladies went upstream and the gentlemen went downstream! By the end of the week, no one was too shy anymore! We learned so much about the Canyon’s history, geology, biology, pioneers, archaeology, flora and fauna that we felt college credits were in order. But most of all, we made memories to last a lifetime. The last night in camp we had a talent show and gave out awards. I was awarded a special rock. On it was written: “Miss tiny bikini 1978”. (I wore a different hot- color bikini every day of the trip). And Gaylord’s rock said: “Mr. Casanova 1978”. It’s funny, but up ‘til that night, we really didn’t think any of the others were aware of our relationship. I guess love is blind!

When we got back to Flagstaff, Gaylord and I talked over coffee. I missed my flight out of Flagstaff, so he drove me down to Phoenix. I flew Republic Airlines back to Los Angeles the next morning, a Sunday. Monday morning, I got a call at my office in Beverly Hills. It was Gaylord asking if I would meet him in Phoenix for dinner that night.  A girl-friend drove me to the airport that evening. Gaylord picked me up at the airport. That night he officially proposed marriage. I accepted. We were married the following month at Lipan Point, on the south rim of Grand Canyon National Park, overlooking the section of river where we first met. That was thirty years ago. That was the luckiest moment of my life! 

Authors note: Gaylord began running rivers in 1956 with Mexican Hat River Expeditions, the offshoot of Nevills Expeditions that began in 1936 . After a few years, Gaylord purchased Mexican Hat from it’s owner, Frank Wright, an old Nevills boatman. In 1970, Gaylord incorporated the company and changed its name to the present day Canyoneers, Inc. Gaylord and Joy have been running the company together since 1979. In the early days, Gaylord ran 23 day long trips in little, two- passenger, wooden cataract boats. Today, Canyoneers runs both motorized and rowing trips in rubber rafts that hold from 5 to 20 passengers and trips that last from 3 to 14 days. Canyoneers is still based in beautiful Flagstaff, AZ and is a licensed concessionaire of the National Park Service.