In Wyoming, Paddling Upstream

By Nellie Perry
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 11, 2004

Friends tell me I must learn -- at well past 70 and with Parkinson's disease -- to just say "No." I tell them that all the good things in my life came from saying "Yes."

"Yes" has put me into some tight places, but none so tight as my pup tent beside Jackson Lake, Wyo., a couple of years ago.

A friend of my grandson's had said, "My wife and I want you to sign onto a kayak trip with us."

Caution whispered the negatives. "You in a kayak?" it demanded. "You have trouble getting out of a chair! Think you're a mermaid? You hold your nose in the shower."

To my grandson's friend, I said "Yes."

That July in Jackson Hole, a dozen of us gathered at an inn nestled near the Tetons in their Ansel Adamsesque splendor. Eleven kayakers knew each other, and they met me and my white hair with poorly disguised dismay. They looked at their friend who had invited me as Caesar must have regarded Brutus.

Our guides gave us waterproof seabags for our gear. I had to fit my purse contents into a rubber case no larger than a cereal carton, so my Parkinson's pills went in first. If they got wet, I would spend the trip trembling like an aspen.

Motorized rafts took us to a rocky shore for a picnic lunch. We were to go by kayak from there to an island wilderness where we would camp for four nights.

By the time we finished eating, we had sorted ourselves out -- five lawyers, three doctors and four noncombatants. To compound the mixture, three of my fellow lawyers specialized in medical malpractice claims. We could avoid open warfare only if we exercised our rights to remain silent. An unlikely exercise.

To my embarrassment, I could not keep my balance on the rocks underfoot. After watching me stumble, my fellow travelers found the stout stick that would be my constant companion.

The speedboat that brought our lunch departed. As our guides began the kayaking demonstration, the scattered clouds came together with sound effects and electricity. If we launched the kayaks, we would become a dozen floating lightning rods. We chose the rafts, loading ourselves aboard with extreme intimacy. We chuffed slowly into the curtain of rain, towing our kayaks behind.

Then it hailed. One of the doctors sheltered me under his jacket, and I found that danger dissolves hostility. We became friends. When we disembarked, my leg cramped and he lifted me to shore. Not wishing to say "I'm sorry" with every new problem, I smiled instead. He crowned me "Queen of the Nile."

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