Because It’s There

By  |  August 25, 2020
Photographs by John Lusk Hathaway, from the series One Foot in Eden. Courtesy the artist Photographs by John Lusk Hathaway, from the series One Foot in Eden. Courtesy the artist

 

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ome years ago, novelist Mark Powell sent out the call to about a dozen other Southern male writers: we would spend three days rafting down the river made famous by James Dickey’s novel Deliverance and John Boorman’s film that followed. Three days battling the shoals and troughs of the Chattooga River, three nights camping and carrying on, three days and nights reenacting what it means to be, you know, men—at least in our estimation. It was the same impulse, of course, that sent James Dickey’s characters on their doomed adventure down the river he called the Cahulawassee. We were counting on better results. Everyone signed on; everyone was ready to plunge down this mythic wild river. Until it was time to get in the boat. By then, a number of Southern writers who were celebrated, sometimes self-celebrated, for their intrepid masculinity had found reasons to be otherwise occupied. In the end, standing on the South Carolina riverbank were three novelists—Mark Powell, Charles Dodd White, Jon Sealy—and me. We pulled on our life jackets, fastened our helmets, and got in the boat. And the four of us have been making this annual excursion ever since. 

Before that first trip, we had all read Deliverance and seen the movie countless times. We understood that by retracing that archetypal journey, we were admitting, like Ed, the narrator in the novel, that we wanted a little deliverance from “the feeling of the inconsequence of whatever [we] could do.” For Dickey, and possibly for us, that feeling gets associated with all things urban, sedentary, mediated. The backcountry, by contrast, represents the real, the authentic, the immediate. As the survivalist character, Lewis, prepares Ed, an ad man, for the river trip, he tells him, “It’s not going to be what your title says you do, but what you end up doing. You know: doing.” We too were ready to commence doing, though unlike Lewis, we didn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we might attain some lost version of Homeric heroism. Nor did we want to. We are men who make a living reading, teaching, and writing books. And we like it that way. But for a few days, we wanted to follow the same impulses of the four men in James Dickey’s novel and see where that might lead. 

The Chattooga comes alive at the sheer face of Whiteside Mountain near Cashiers, North Carolina, and drains an eminence known as the Blue Ridge Escarpment. Most of the river forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina. As one might imagine, all manner of harmless invectives have been volleyed across the river from both sides. 

For our latest trip, our quartet gathered at a put-in on the West Fork of the Chattooga in Georgia. We were joined there by Mark’s younger brother, James, who was supplying most of our gear and planned to lead us down the river in his kayak. Mark assured us that James, a high school principal, was the best waterman he’d ever known.

Beside us stood a group of twenty-somethings blasting John Mayer and pumping up a bright green, self-bailing raft. James’s vessel was, by contrast, an old-school “bucket boat,” so called because it requires a lot of bailing in the kind of white water we would soon see. James bought it cheap off a local outfitter who was retiring his fleet, and he unapologetically described the bulky black boat as “a piece of shit.” But as far as I was concerned, for our short journey this craft would be the Argo, with all the attendant obstacles and comradery. James passed around helmets. Mine was purple and had a My Little Pony sticker on it. I liked that. It would subvert any notions I might harbor of taking my sportsman persona too seriously. When we got all of our dry-bags lashed together in the bow, our crew climbed in and shoved off.

I took up the captain’s chair on the right side of the stern. Within a few hundred yards, our prow was bumping against a dead tree that had fallen the length of this narrow stretch. James hauled his kayak over easily while the four of us tried to balance on the tree and wrestle the loaded-down raft over it. A quarter mile later we hit another deadfall and had to do it all over again. 

“At this point, 99.9 percent of Americans would turn around,” James averred. 

Certainly the pink-complexioned salesman Bobby Trippe from Deliverance would have. In his book Chattooga, John Lane wrote that Dickey’s four characters, all Atlanta suburbanites, “dream that they will be somehow delivered from the day-to-day. Their nightmare is that they are.” In the novel, Lewis breaks his leg and kills a man, Ed kills a man, and Drew gets shot to death. But it is the rape of Bobby, bent over a fallen tree at gunpoint, that has resonated down the years and permeated American popular culture. 

When I was a latch-key kid growing up Louisville, Kentucky, in the seventies, the movie Deliverance was on cable TV all the time, and I remember watching it more than once in our basement TV room with no adults around. I didn’t really understand what the toothless, sinister locals were doing to Bobby, played by Ned Beatty, and I didn’t understand why at the end Ed, played by Jon Voight, was crying at the dinner table in the rooming house while the other guests stoically stared at their food. But I knew something terrible, if incomprehensible to me, had happened. 

Years later, when I did understand, I found myself angry at James Dickey and John Boorman. They had taken two things I cared a great deal about—the natural world and the culture of Appalachia—and made them into terrifying spectacles. They had made a whole generation of Americans afraid to go camping, or canoeing, or walking in the woods. I agreed with what farmer and writer Wendell Berry once said to me: “James Dickey had a pathological fear of country people.” As for Boorman, I began to think of him as making artistically beautiful compositions of the people he was simultaneously exploiting. What responsibility does an artist have to a region and its people?

We paddled on through smooth water while James, in his kayak, circled our raft like a dragonfly. Water maples and ironwood leaned over the river, writing their reflection in the clear, green water. Tall white pines and large rhododendrons hugged the banks. The size of the latter had particularly impressed the botanist William Bartram when he came ranging through this region in 1775. 

After a gray, wet winter, I felt quietly elated to finally be out on a river under blue skies with a breeze idling in the pine tops. When I was seven or eight, my grandfather taught me to paddle on the inlets of the York River in Tidewater, Virginia, and the repetition of that act, at least on slack water, has always induced in me a kind of meditative calm. But when I grew up, I did most of my paddling alone. Neither my wife nor my academic friends had any interest in it. Once, tired after spending a few days on a lake in Maine, I was struggling to get my heavy, two-man canoe back on top of my truck cab. I asked two college-age boys for a hand. As they assisted, one of them said to me, “Where’re your buddies?” 

Well, here they finally were. We cracked open four beers and wedged them between our feet. A startled wild turkey scampered up the left bank and into the woods. There was no cell service. 

“That’s what I like about it,” Mark said from the other stern seat, “the pure attention of everybody. No one’s checking their phones.”

“You can’t multitask the river,” added Charles. 

Mark: “This is the granularity of life that you miss otherwise.”

Or as Ed says in the novel, “The world is easily lost.”

Charles and Mark both have military backgrounds. Charles drove tanks in the Marines. During an amphibious landing drill on a beach at Camp Pendleton, his M1A1 Abrams’s engine stalled and water started pouring into the tank. It rose to his chest, but the hatch lever had jammed. Not until he was completely submerged did water pressure force open the hatch, allowing him to scramble out and swim for the beach. Which is to say, it would probably take more than Class V rapids for Charles to lose his shit amphibiously. As for Mark, he might be the only person alive with degrees from both the Citadel and Yale Divinity School, which strikes me as perfect training for an American novelist. 

A few miles later, we reached the confluence where the West Fork opens onto a wider floodplain of the Chattooga proper. A Cherokee settlement that historians would later call Chattooga Town once stood in a clearing up above the left bank. The word Tsatu’gi, used by the Cherokee but ultimately of unknown origin, means either “drank by sips” or “has crossed the river.” It’s likely that the Cherokee did transport goods across this part of the river from South Carolina to Georgia. In 2002, hikers discovered a thirty-two-foot pirogue, probably carved from one tree, buried in the sediment of the Chattooga. Carbon dating put it at two hundred and fifty years old, well before the official Cherokee Removal in 1838. 

At almost sixty miles in length, the Chattooga is one of the longest and last free-flowing rivers in the eastern United States, and mile for mile, it covers a steeper vertical drop than the Colorado River. Yet growing up in nearby Walhalla, South Carolina, Mark admitted he barely knew it was here. Few did until the film version of Deliverance landed in 1972 like a psychic explosion within the collective consciousness of this country. Georgia’s governor Jimmy Carter saw Deliverance at its Atlanta premiere and shortly afterward made arrangements to canoe the Chattooga. Environmental advocates Doug Woodward and Claude Terry guided him down the river, and Carter and Terry made a successful dive through the daunting drop known as Bull Sluice, a fourteen-foot drop into unpredictably churning water and the largest falls on the Chattooga—in an open aluminum canoe. (Reader, pause here and try to imagine Donald J. Trump paddling a wild American river in an aluminum canoe; the mind reels.) Carter, a former submarine commander who as president vetoed sixteen dam projects, returned year after year to run the Chattooga, and Woodward credits Carter’s advocacy with finally winning the river’s protection under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. That piece of legislation protects the Chattooga as a “vestige . . . of primitive America.” And there aren’t many. Of the 3.5 million miles of rivers in the U.S., less than one percent are designated Wild and Scenic. 

“‘Ain’t nothin’ but the biggest river in the state,’” Mark inflected as we floated into the mainstream. It’s a censored version of a line from Deliverance that one of the locals uses on Lewis when he takes a wrong turn toward the river, and it’s one of about ten lines that inevitably gets quoted at some point during our own passage. 

For a couple more hours, we pushed on downstream as long shadows began to fall from the Georgia side. When we reached a boulder garden called Big Shoals, James led us into a tongue on the left and we bounced through the run unencumbered, then dug across the tail waves toward a small beach. We hauled our gear up a ten-foot bank, using exposed roots as stairs, then began pitching tents on a narrow bench above the river. 

Charles and I rigged up our fly rods and waded out into the frigid water below the shoals. We cast about for a while with a zebra midge fly, but the trout weren’t fooled. Mark was hurling aspersions from above, and I was beginning to feel in my nether regions what E. B. White called the “chill of death” in his essay “Once More to the Lake.” We abandoned the cold river for the warmth of whiskey. 

The others had gathered fallen pine branches and started a respectable fire. The night before, Mark’s mother had cooked us a couple pounds of pulled pork. We set the aluminum pan over the fire and circled up in our camp chairs. The night went pretty much like the first night for the characters in Deliverance: eating, drinking, reviewing the day. 

Jon, who recently undertook the heroic task of founding a small press, Haywire Books, is by far the most sober and retiring member of our entourage. He speaks when he has something to say, a quality I admire but never seem to learn from. Still, when he approached the fire for his fourth helping, he let out into the night, “I can’t quit eating this pork!” 

Someone produced a bottle of Elijah Craig, a bourbon named in honor of the Baptist minister who (so it is said) invented the amber elixir on the banks of Hickman Creek, a few miles from where I live in Central Kentucky. The bottle circled a few times, then we all crawled off into our tents. 

 

No one sleeps late on the ground. The camp was quiet except for birdsong as we each broke down and repacked our gear. Jon rekindled the smoldering fire for coffee and added air to our raft using a foot pump. With everything once more strapped down, we headed toward the treacherous Section III of the Chattooga. 

James circled back to us in his kayak to say, “Most of the canoeing scenes in Deliverance were shot in Section III.” James has been paddling the Chattooga since he was a teenager and probably knows it as well as anyone. 

“He’d never tell you this,” Mark said, “but once James paddled Section III at midnight, under a full moon.”

“That’s badass,” Jon said, shaking his head. 

Shortly after we set out, a National Forest ranger motioned us over to the South Carolina side and asked if we had a permit. James produced it from his life jacket and the ranger studied the document for several minutes before sending us on our way. A little farther down on the Georgia side, two men and two women were unloading a day’s worth of picnic supplies from the back of a Jeep, laughing with another ranger. This irritated James because allowing cars that close to the river is a clear violation of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. But, he said, many rangers only enforce the parts of the act they want to. Mark provided commentary: “We’re floating down the river and that guy’s going to check our permit. You drive a car down to the river and you’re not suspect at all. That’s what you do; you’re an American.”

We meandered for a few miles and moods lightened. The sun had begun to eclipse the trees on the eastern bank and throw across the green river a shimmering silver light. A breeze scattered a profusion of swallowtails around the raft while a belted kingfisher let out its distinct rattle and sailed upstream. The water level was perfect at 2.5 feet. We all agreed it was a day that could not be improved upon. As we paddled under a tulip poplar in full, gorgeous bloom, James said, “Just to be immersed in the river and see nothing but wilderness . . .”

He didn’t have to finish the thought; we all could feel in that moment exactly what he meant. It was what we came for, at least one of the things. Yet we came from urban places. “Wilderness” itself is an invention of urban poets and thinkers, from the German Romantics to the British Romantics to the American Transcendentalists. And it remains a central tension in Deliverance. All of the mountain men the suburbanites meet in the fictional town of Oree want nothing to do with the river. You rarely romanticize, after all, something you see every day. And with their poverty on clear display, they have no time to romanticize it. That was an urban luxury, an urban extravagance. 

When a local mechanic asks Lewis why he wants to paddle the Cahulawassee, Lewis replies, “Because it’s there.” That seems to me a good enough answer, but the mechanic counters, sensibly and prophetically, “If you git in there and can’t get out, you’re goin’ to wish it wudn’t.” Still, we have something Dickey’s characters didn’t—namely, James and his white-water expertise. But James still echoed the character’s sentiment. “This river kills,” he said. “A lot.” Within two years of the film’s appearance in 1972, at least twelve people had drowned here, almost all paddlers who had come to the river with no life jackets, no helmets, and no experience.

The Chattooga began to narrow between steeper banks. The water started to churn. As we hit a rapid known as Warwoman, James led us twisting from left to right before we busted through a hydraulic at the end of the drop. After that, we navigated a rock garden featured prominently in the film. In fact, we eddied under the great sloping piece of granite—it looked like the tilting sail of a sunken ship—where Drew’s corpse is found pinned under the rock (the actor Ronny Cox could do a double-jointed trick where he folded his right arm behind his head to make it look broken). In the novel and the film, the mountaineer who escaped Lewis’s arrows shoots and kills Drew from a cliff top above the river. By then, Lewis had already killed a man and the four men from Atlanta had fabricated a story about knowing nothing about it. If they showed up in town with Drew’s corpse, they’d have a lot of explaining to do. So Ed ties a stone to the body and sinks his friend in the river that would soon be dammed. 

“You were the best of us, Drew,” he says by way of eulogy, standing in the river with the body. And in fact Drew was the only one who never disparaged the locals they encountered. When Bobby witnesses the famous dueling banjo scene between Drew and an albino boy, he mutters, “Talk about genetic deficiencies.” But after they finish playing, Drew exclaims, “Goddamn, you play a mean banjo!” and tries to shake the boy’s hand. But Bobby only mutters, “Give him a couple of bucks,” as if he could monetize the differences Drew was trying to transcend. With the rape scene, was Dickey punishing Bobby for his urban derision of Appalachian people? 

Maybe. But then again, Dickey’s narrator, Ed, also shares Bobby’s attitudes. “There is always something wrong with people in the country,” Ed essays. They were “hookwormy and ugly.” Which then raises the thorny question: Is Ed a stand-in for Dickey? While they have a similar advertising background and a love of archery, it’s a fool’s errand to conflate an author’s beliefs with those of his first-person narrator. Had I been a fool to blame Dickey for perpetuating Appalachian stereotypes and biophobia?

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Deliverance is based on a real canoe trip Dickey and two friends took on the Coosawattee River in Northwest Georgia. On the second day of the trip, they flipped their boat in some rapids and had to drag it to shore. A teenage boy named Ira Gentry was standing there. He asked if they were lost. They said they were and Ira offered to show them an easier way off the river. In his 1962 poem “On the Coosawattee,” Dickey changes the boy’s name to Lucas and refers to him as “the strange woods boy” who “may have been the accepting spirit of the place / Come to call us to higher ground . . .” In real life, Ira (whose surname Dickey affixed to the fictional Ed) matter-of-factly led the men to his family’s modest home where his father plied them with whiskey and treated them kindly. At the beginning of Deliverance, Dickey returns the favor by having Lewis tell a similar story about mountain self-reliance to counter Ed’s prejudices. 

So how did the story of a welcoming stranger turn into a horror story within the course of the eight years between poem and novel? An easy and obvious answer is that a novel needs a central dramatic conflict that a poem does not. Dickey maintained, “I had to put the moral weight of murder on the suburbanites.” He wanted to show they could be killers too. In the end, we’re not even sure if Ed shot the right hunter, or if Drew didn’t intentionally dive out of the boat to commit suicide, so sickened was he of their cover-up scheme invented by Lewis. Dickey leaves it ambiguous, and in that sense, his point of view in the novel is far more complicated than I had first believed. 

I began to realize that my real beef was with Boorman’s version of Deliverance. By the time he filmed the rape scene, Boorman had kicked Dickey (the screenwriter) off the set for repeated drunken interference. But Dickey convinced him to keep on his son, Chris, who was working as a stand-in, so he could learn something about filmmaking. Boorman agreed, but Chris was horrified when he watched the actual filming of the scene—the monumentally inglorious line “Squeal like a pig!” is not even in the novel—and Boorman made the actors run it over and over. After that, according to Chris, the gregarious Beatty turned quiet and sullen for the rest of the filming. 

He called his father that night to say the story was being hijacked. “In the movie—it was becoming what the movie was about, it was the thing everybody was going to remember,” he wrote in his memoir, Summer of Deliverance. Dickey told his son he didn’t know what he was talking about. Chris was quickly proven right. In the public imagination, Deliverance became a film about feral, pig-fucking yokels, and little else. 

Did Dickey ever accept any responsibility for the negative repercussions of either the film or the novel? When I spoke with his younger daughter, Bronwen, who maintained a relationship with Dickey long after he and Chris became estranged, she told me her father only wanted to write a survival story and that he had significant regrets later in life about the story’s collateral damage. That’s fair, of course. No writer can be held completely responsible for a book’s reception, for readers’ reactions. But I still can’t shake the feeling that Dickey, the life-long Southerner, should have understood the effect his portrayal of an already marginalized region would have on both Appalachians and the urban filmgoers who recoiled at their representation. He should have known the danger of trafficking in the same imagery that had kept so much of Appalachia poor, neglected, misunderstood. 

Past the boulder garden, we dug and bounced through Three Rooster Tails, a series of Class III standing waves. Each wave almost stood us up as we crashed into the fountains of water. Charles was guiding our raft today and doing so with a kind of exacting military urgency. If he wasn’t seeing proper zeal from the crew, he let us know.    

Soon we reached one of the most beautiful spots on the river, Dick’s Creek Ledge. The creek itself was pouring a fifty-foot avalanche of water down from the surrounding mountains. We stopped on a flat boulder in the middle of the river to scout the run. Class IV rapids thundered to both our left and right. There is really only one line to run here without broaching. James could maneuver it with a sharp S turn around a huge rock in the middle of the fall, but he told us we were just going to have to crash into it and hope to bounce out and down into the sluice. 

Ahead of us, James quickly carved up the turbulence with a few deft strokes. Next we ran to the meat of the ledge, dropped over an eight-foot slide, then T-boned the aforementioned mass. A wave of bracing water washed into the boat leeward. 

“Don’t stop paddling!” Charles shouted over the roar of the water just as the current and our own frantic response to orders spun us off the rock, down the chute, and into a recovery pool.

A number of long Class IIIs lay ahead, but when we finally reached a beach called Sandy Ford, Cliff—the younger brother of James and Mark—was waiting with essential provisions: a resupply of cold beer and ice. Cliff, a bachelor who looks fifteen, was a Russian-literature student before he realized how lucrative the South Carolina real estate business could be. He said he’d like to stay and chat but had a million-dollar home to show in the afternoon. Jon, a freelance writer with two young kids, quietly cursed him.

After Sandy Ford, the terrain changes dramatically as the Chattooga enters a deep gorge with vaulting granite and gneiss walls on both sides. This is the Narrows, a squirrelly funnel of water with a sieve on the left called the “eye of God” for a reason—it’s a gateway to heaven if you get trapped there. We charged right until the current led us to beach our boats on a small stretch of riverbank between a conflation of massive boulders. We scuttled up one of the rocks armed with beef jerky, canned herring, packets of tuna, and hard-boiled eggs: lunch. Tough pines and rhododendrons still found a foothold in this craggy terrain. The flora of Southern Appalachia bears a strong resemblance to that of Southern China—right down to the tulip poplar, a tree found only in these two biomes. I thought of those ancient Chinese paintings where soaring mountains and plunging cataracts dwarf the humans one barely notices walking down below. 

James, apparently, was thinking something similar: “No matter how many times I sit in the Narrows I always feel like I’m in a sanctuary carved out by time and water that is still hidden away and only shared by those that take the voyage down this river.”

We had one major obstacle left for the day—the largest, called Second Ledge. It’s a six-foot drop with a blind horizon line. We followed James as far river-left as we could get. Charles lined it perfectly, and after digging as hard as we could into the nick point, half of the raft went airborne and we were suddenly in freefall, paddles above our heads, staring down into the roiling plunge pool. We landed the way a raft should land, forgivingly. The backwash immediately shot us forward into flat water as we all hooted and hollered. 

“We styled it!” shouted Jon. 

“We boofed it!” added Mark. 

James paddled over to the raft. “That moment right before you go over,” he said, “where else do you get that feeling?” He was right. With a roller coaster, there’s certainly a rush of adrenaline, but it’s also predictable: you know what’s coming and you know you won’t go off the rails. Going over a falls in the wild is something entirely different. The fact that you might not succeed makes it all the sweeter when you do. And you played a role in that success: you read the river, you hit your line. Unless you didn’t, but then as a friend of mine says, the value of failure is learning. 

We paddled through a stretch of easy water called the Doldrums. Wild pink azaleas, what Bartram the botanist called “floriferous fragrant shrubs,” were blooming on the banks. The river picked up again as we neared Painted Rock, so named for all of the helmets that have scraped the overhanging boulder at the bottom of the drop. Like those predecessors, we started too far left, but with a hard pry-stroke—and the inevitable command to “Dig!”—Charles got the raft back on line and we hit the chute, with our helmets missing the other paint marks by inches. 

“We almost bought it,” I said. “Almost.”

Our crew drifted into camp at Thrifts Ferry around four o’clock, twenty-two miles from where we started. 

“Rarely do I go to sleep in the woods and wake up in the woods,” James said to me as we gathered firewood, “and everything in between has been wilderness. That’s a rarity in today’s society.”

There was no fancy dinner fare the second night. Just brats on sticks over the fire. After making quick work of those, we settled back into our camp chairs. And after we exhausted the topics of the best local IPAs, the sorry state of our union, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the talk turned to the subject of masculinity and what it even means, or is allowed to mean, today. What were we doing out here? Were we trying to perform, cling to, some fantasy version of lost masculinity? And anyway, what is masculinity? A social construct? A genetic manifestation? I honestly couldn’t care less. I do know that what the five of us are dramatizing here is friendship, wilderness adventure, and, sure, an element of risk in our “cushioned, well-curated, middle-class lives,” as Mark put it. 

James added, “If someone breaks a leg at Second Ledge, you’re in a wilderness situation right there. There’s no road near you. Nobody’s coming to help.” 

Which is to say, out here we rely on each other in ways we never would, or never do, at home. 

Charles picked up the thread: “One of the things about this trip is it allows men to pursue a genuine connection to other men where there’s no performance.”

“My life has gotten very small,” Jon said from the dark side of the fire. “I have a four-year-old and a two-year-old. Just the rhythms of living with them is my world most days. And coming out here gives you a little perspective on the minutiae.” 

James pulled his stick out of the fire and foisted a brat into a bun. “Tomorrow we’re going to drive twenty minutes out of here,” he said, “and as soon as we get cell service, my phone is going to blow up. And that’s fine. But this resets everything. It says there’s way more to life than answering this call and paying this bill.”

That reset is what the main characters of Deliverance went looking for as well. The difference is the five of us aren’t living in a novel, and so our weekend wasn’t fraught with foreboding and human wreckage. We got what we came for. 

 

Early Sunday morning, everyone is already half-thinking about what their phones will have to say in a few hours and about the long drives back to where we came from. We break camp quickly and head for Bull Sluice. To get through it, you have to navigate a trough called the double drop. The second part of the drop sends you down a narrow chute between two ominous slabs of granite. One is called Decapitation Rock, or Decap. Since the filming of Deliverance, eleven people have died trying. We unloaded all our gear beside a scouting rock on the Georgia side of the river. A small group of hikers had stopped along the high riverbank to watch our run. A couple had pulled out their phones for pictures. It made me uneasy. James paused in the eddy above Bull Sluice, did two quick pirouettes in the slack water, then paddled toward the horizon line to the left of Decap. He sailed over the falls and dropped so gracefully he barely made a splash. He looked like a veteran pilot casually landing a plane. The people on the upper bank clapped. Mark said, “Well, Charles, what do you think we should do?”

“I say we paddle wide to the South Carolina side, then let the current carry us down into the eddy. From there it should be a pretty straight shot.”

Jon and I climbed into the bow seats; Mark and Charles took up the rear. We started paddling slightly upstream and around a boulder pile. But just as we were about to complete Charles’s trajectory, the raft clipped the last rock, which instantly spun us around. We were suddenly careening backward toward the rapid. 

“Dig right, back left!” Charles yelled.

Furiously, we did as told. And just as we hit the first drop, we spun back forward. But we had veered too far right by then, and when the roiling water flung our boat down into the chute, it pinned us between Decapitation Rock and the opposite monolith. Water gushed into the raft. We were folding like a taco. Jon and I instinctively rose up.

“Don’t get out of the boat!” Charles shouted. “Get down and push off.”

The hikers now stood directly above us on the ledge, and I swear I saw a few of them smirking. 

We stabbed the boulders with our paddle blades and heaved our bodies forward. Finally the hydraulic released us like a champagne cork and we shot down into the foaming backwash of the lower river. 

Mark reached for our empty bucket and started to bail. The rest of us used our helmets. We drifted out into still water. It was again time for one of us, me, to repeat another of our favorite lines from Deliverance. It comes near the end when the sheriff (played by James Dickey in the film) leans into Ed’s car window and says, “Buddy, don’t ever do anything like this again.” 

Ed tells the sheriff that he certainly will not. But we will. We always do. 


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Erik Reece is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Lost Mountain and Utopia Drive, and is the founder of Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation. He teaches writing at the University of Kentucky.

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