store-bought Tevas and the perfect storm / by laurel

The first time I went white water rafting, I became reminiscent fodder for my friends for the next, oh, five years or so.

Drifting along the Santiam River in Oregon, wearing my store-brand Tevas and feeling pretty fantastic about it all, I couldn't have seen this coming. The water was calm, slow, deep. We were bobbing along the top of a placid surface, cutting into our own reflections with the precision and grace of a well-oiled machine.

Never mind that we had been trying to master the whole rowing thing for the past hour and a half. The point is, we'd gotten it down to an art: Slice deep into the river, press against the current, expel the oar with a defiant flip of water droplets. The sun singed our skin with a sort of apathetic viciousness. It was ferociously hot, but the sun showed no favor; it was as hot hiding in the shade as it was basking in plain sight.

The day had been uneventful thusfar; a smearish memory of discarded boulders, highways drifting in and out of view, and a barcode of pine trees, smashed together, reaching upwards. The turmoil had been light; a slight lumbar adjustment as the raft slid expectedly over surface tension on the water. But like most tragic stories, the climax was fast approaching.

We were positioning to drop into a class III squall, ominously called Spencer's Hole. The water foamed and spit, molecules at war with one another. It was thrilling, feeling the forward slide into Doomsday, the inevitable pull down the spiral. The boat pitched sharply to the left, slamming against the face of a boulder.

Smack. I don't remember having my eyes open, but I can recall the flurry of bubbles, the crystalline algae-green color of the water, and slow motion effect of thrashing against the current. It was as if the entire day--and certain parts of my entire life--had come to a dizzying finale, a cymbal-crash of instinct and terror.

Surface. Surface. Surface. Gasp. I sucked at the air, devoured all that was in front of me--both water and oxygen and life and pure exhilaration and utter fear and that hot, hot sun and the gently sloping highway, all of it screeching into view and then receding again, replaced by a curtain of pissed-off water.

Thrash. Kick. Gasp. Again, breath in. Take it all in, every last sound and smell and color. Suck the earth dry for all its crops and merits and offerings. Take it inside, take it hard, take it fast. Submerged again, and this time my mind cleared enough to wonder if the last thing I might see were air bubbles--sure poison if ingested, but containing life, submerged in a river at war with itself.

"Swim toward the raft!" I could hear the guide shouting. I could see my friends staring, some oddly calm for the chaos I was surrounded by. Was I imagining the imminent danger? "Swim toward the raft!" He shouted again.

Inhaling sharply, my voice squeezed out, pale, thin, threatened within an inch of it's life: "I can't!"

But even as I said it, the rapids were subsiding, my arms were fighting and pushing against the current and the boat was coming closer. Again I wailed, "I CAN'T!" And even as I clamored over the bulbous side of the boat, I muttered, again and again: "I can't, I can't."

This seemed to tickle my nearest and dearest to death, as I couldn't escape a social function for the next two years without hearing the vulnerable, exploited, raspy declaration as filtered through impersonation by my friends: "I Caaaan't!" (Dissolving into giggles).

I'll take one for the team. If only for the very reason that when I listen to Godspeed You! Black Emperor's piéce de résistance, "Storm: Lift Yr. Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven / Gathering Storm / "Welcome to Barco Am/Pm..." / Cancer Towers on Holy Road Hi-Way," I am reminded of the devastating, swelling, swirling feeling of being totally submerged in a maelstrom of water. In the same way, the slow, brooding build--layer upon layer of orchestral gasps and moans, driving, pulsating percussion, squalling, screeching guitar--sweeps you along with it.

If you allow yourself to be utterly digested by this giant, you'll find yourself beseeching that carefully constructed chaos, "Make it stop! Make it stop!"

And just like the Santiam River forgets its troubles just yards after the turmoil, Storm turns back on itself yet again, and becomes an ode to all things peaceful; a scorching day, the rhythm of rowing, the repetitive hum of crickets along the surface.

Survive the powerful tempest of Godspeed You! Black Emperor's uproarious sonic blitzkrieg?

Yes, I can.