By Bethanie Johnson
I was about to turn forty when I got the email that said something about adventure as well as the possibility of a summer job. Possibility of a job kind of rang in my ear, since it is difficult to find summer work if you already work in the school system. But the real appeal was I was turning forty and it had never even occurred to me to try white water rafting, kayaking, canoeing, or any other sport that involved the possibility of ending up trying to swim through swift moving water. Who would do that?
I was intrigued by the idea. I’d never spent much money on anything for my own birthday, but for some reason, I decided that this adventure would be worth the cash I would need to plop down in order to have it.
So I showed up at the orientation for guide school the weekend before my birthday. I was the oldest person to show by at least fifteen years and also the only person who’d never had any paddling experience. John Gordon (rafting manager at that time) was looking directly at me when he mentioned there was a learning curve, and that, “you know, it just takes some folks longer to learn this than others.”
He was right about that. I was terrible from my very first time in a raft. It wasn’t like I got out there and surprised everyone with my unbeknownst (even to me) talents. I didn’t make the few women (maybe the only one other woman…a P.E teacher for Charlotte Meck) think, “Wow, that lady is what I’d like to be like when I’m her age.” Plus, my arms weren’t very strong, so I kept dropping my end of the raft when it was my turn to carry it. In other words, there’s no warm fuzzy ending right here. I wasn’t miraculously good at rafting, and when it came time to get into a boat, it was just like choosing baseball teams in school; I was the kid who got picked last. Nobody wanted to be in my boat.
So here’s what I did about that. I kept showing up anyway. All my life I’d worried I wouldn’t be good enough at something, and that held me back from doing lots of things I thought about doing. So I said in my brain, “I’m just going to keep showing up and being bad at rafting. I’m going to let it be okay for me to be a bad raft guide.”
One of my most memorable days of guide school, the one where my turn guiding went so horribly wrong I thought for a while about not ever coming back, I let my boat get sucked into the pumps. Then, having no idea how to guide against that strong of a flow, I kept calling for my people (other guide school students, all rolling their eyes at the old lady and thinking about mutiny) to paddle. They paddled and paddled and paddled…I heard some of them talking about swimming for it, but I just kept calling for strokes. Finally, despite my being a terrible guide, we made it out of there. Nobody spoke to me at the end of the day. And definitely nobody wished me a happy birthday.
My arms were sore….my everything was sore., but I kept showing up. I eventually “graduated” from guide school. They told us to practice and “check out” when ready, so I could get my great job. And even though I thought there was hardly any chance at all that I’d ever get a job guiding, I kept coming to practice. I kept showing up. Then I was less sore. And even while I was still a very bad guide, I sucked less and less…and eventually I sucked so little that I was able to do my check-outs (live action testing with a qualified guide). I checked out. I was hired.
I was forty that year. I was such a bad guide that the first year I was hardly ever put on the schedule. But I could show up. I could “vulture.” Every day the first summer I worked there, I would show up and write my name on a list around 9 am. They often needed extra people to guide. Sometimes they would send me to work in another area (I’m sure some of the more experienced guides were saying, “Please don’t put her on the river today”), and other times, when management couldn’t be talked out of it I’d be on the river.
One day that first year, one of my coworkers flipped his boat off of mine because I pulled out of an eddy without checking traffic—it works just like on the road actually. My boat stayed upright thankfully, but when someone asked him after he righted his boat, what had happened, he said, “Bethanie! Bethanie happened!!” On one hand I felt awful for what I knew was my mistake, but on the other hand, even I thought that was a good line.
I’ve been working at USNWC for over four years now. Here’s what I’ve learned. Whatever happens, you will make it down the river. Sometimes things go badly on a trip. You have to stay in the boat, you can’t “swim for it.” You have to get your people down the river because you are their guide. I realized that the first season I worked, and it has helped me in my whole life. I actually wish I’d known about that a long time ago since I have a lot of anxiety and I used to freak out a lot when things went wrong. I still have anxiety, but now I can calm down by remembering that even if things are going wrong right now or something really unexpected has happened, I’m still getting down the river. I also learned that it isn’t ever too late to do something fun that you haven’t tried before. I learned for the very first time that it is okay to be bad at something for a while, and that you might need to practice a lot to get better, and that you might make mistakes and have someone say, “Bethanie happened!” I learned that I can be stronger now at 44 than I ever was at 34, or 24. I learned that if you stay around long enough, people will actually maybe like you even (in spite of yourself), and you will like them (in spite of themselves). I learned that males of any age can be inappropriate. In my class at school they have a lot of toilet humor, and guess what, the guys I work with? Toilet humor, all the way.
The most important thing I’ve learned is that I love to raft. Rafting is such a perfect combination of excitement, near misses, speed and hard work that it fills up every part of my brain and I don’t have room in there for a lot of the other crap that I might normally be thinking about. When I raft I feel what I like to call “oneness.” That may sound like a new-agey term, but I am at one with myself (not at odds). I am at ease. Even the bad days rafting are good days anywhere else.