The plan had undeniable appeal: a raft trip for women only -- girls' night out times three. We would float through one of the West's most spectacular stretches of white water, Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River, under the command of a respected female guide.
Four of us, three Coloradans plus myself, a New Yorker, had hatched all kinds of wonderful adventures in the outdoors over the years. This time, we would each invite some friends, so we could share our annual outing with each other's pals from around the country. We could show them a slice of high American desert as starkly beautiful as the Grand Canyon yet far more remote. And we could do it without interference from men -- sort of like Girl Scout camp crossed with Outward Bound.
We had not counted on RJ.
When 13 of us held our rendezvous in Moab, Utah, we learned from our guide, Sheri Griffith, that she had not been able to engage another female captain for our second boat. So RJ, alias Richard Jackson, taxi driver and licensed river guide, 200 pounds of linebacker beef dressed in swimming trunks, awaited us by the double-pontoon rubber rafts one late June morning as we hauled our gear down to the launch area.
Not that any of us had anything against men. Far from it; among us were married women, mothers with sons they loved and others who enjoyed male companionship. But the whole experience was supposed to reinforce our feeling that women relate to one another differently in "survival" situations when they do not have men on whom to lean. Besides, it's easier for a lot of gals to swear and drink beer and splash naked in the river when they are among their own kind.
So you can understand our consternation at the sight of this bearded, hairy-chested guy in a baseball cap loading Sheri's plump, gray oversized rubber boats. "I wanna be in Sheri's boat," everyone whispered in one collective hiss. We decided we might switch boats or personnel back and forth.
In fact, RJ's presence so preoccupied me at first that I nearly forgot a prime reason for my excitement about the voyage: For the first time in eight years, I was returning to the landscape of my dreams.
I had first visited southern Utah as a teen-ager in the 1950s. One look, and I was home. The harsh, forbidding masses of sandstone and limestone -- carved eons ago by geologic forces into fantastic rock formations -- took root in my imagination as nothing else had. A native of Brooklyn, I was convinced I had been a Pueblo Indian maiden in a former incarnation, so great an affinity had I for these acres and acres of pink and umber, sepia and maroon.
As an adult I had explored vast swaths of Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, but no trip could ever be the last. Now, ignoring RJ at the outboard motor in the back of the raft, I looked down at the swirling reddish-brown water, looked up at the cliffs sculpted by the winds of a million centuries, and realized that the topographical map of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, framed on my wall in Manhattan, had once again sprung to life. I popped the top of my first Coors. It was 10 a.m. in God's Country; it felt good.
Soon after our launch we floated past two other rafts laden with tourists. Their presence was not surprising. This particular part of the Colorado -- between Moab and Lake Powell -- cut through Canyonlands past several beaches and through some legendary rapids before widening into the lake above the Glen Canyon Dam. It was a popular run for commercial river trips, especially when the water was high.
The mixed-gender rafters in the other boats cast a suspicious eye upon us, all adult females, many in bikinis. We paid no attention; we were eagerly chatting up new friendships between sips of brew.
It turned out that from the beginning, we had something in common -- the incredulity of the outside world upon learning of our trip. When a 35-year-old teacher from Key West had described it to her fellow Floridians, one said, "A bunch of macho women, huh! I bet you'll have to eat chili out of a can." A Washington, D.C., psychologist remarked that men, even more than women, found the notion of a bunch of women on a white-water raft hard to picture.
Trading stories, we discovered that we ranged in age from midtwenties to late fifties (Sheri Griffith had brought along her mother, a manager of her raft company) and were all college-educated and athletic. We included a pair of sisters, two writers, one photographer, one realtor, a television producer, a geologist, a cross-country ski guide, a dietitian, a telephone ambulance dispatcher. But as the sun baked our bodies, we began to shed our professional skins. Concepts of time and careers seem irrelevant in an environment for which the word awesome was invented.
The magical scenery began after Sheri took us ashore some miles downstream to lead us through the sage and rabbit bush for an inspection of ancient Indian ruins. Back in the 13th century, while Europe was groping its way out of the Dark Ages, the Anasazi and Fremont tribes, ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, thrived here, growing corn, building great "towns" -- including Mesa Verde -- and developing artistically advanced pottery.
Winding our way through a maze of sandstone, we came across remains of a granary. Above it were simple, charming pictographs drawn by those people who had vanished by the time Columbus arrived. "You're slowly going over to a different space and time element," Sheri said in a matter-of-fact tone. "Try not to let your thoughts roam. We have a saying: 'Keep It in the Canyon.' " We were a pensive lot as we munched sandwiches on the embankment.
There were no rapids the first day, just a delightful float 20 miles from Moab to a site near Lathrop Canyon, one of the numerous side canyons that bisect the Colorado above Cataract. The placid, red-brown water meandered between low-lying sandstone cliffs that would suddenly jut up into massive eroded buttes. The most spectacular sight: the layers of Dead Horse Point, a broad mesa dotted with stunted trees that seems to keep a benign watch over all Colorado River rats.
Dinner was a stew plus lots of starch, cooked by Sheri and RJ. Among the latter's duties was setting up the portable chemical latrine, also called "the Groover," behind some rocks. Beside it were the essentials, toilet paper and a magazine -- Playgirl, to be exact. I wondered what our Washingtonian's friends would think if they could see one of us in this throne room.
We lugged our sleeping bags to various spaces on our small sandbar. "Keep it in the canyon," we told one another, until RJ unwittingly gave us a better slogan. Steering his dual-pontooned J-rig to shore, he yelled at those of us waiting to grab his line, "Watch my bump!" -- meaning, protect the noses of the pontoons from being punctured. The next time we were heading for a landing, all of us yelled "watch my bump," eyed one another's chests and cackled. (Sexist ribald humor overcomes even feminist rafters on trips like this.) From then on, the trip became known as the First Annual Watch My Bump Wilderness Expedition.
The second day was almost as gentle a float as the first, as Sheri and RJ powered us via the Mercury 20-horsepower motors toward "Spanish Bottom," our campground for the evening. The walls of the canyon were rising higher and higher. There were fewer beaches than the day before, and absolutely no signs of human habitation. For a city slicker it was profoundly moving to glide through an environment of elegant rock walls and storm-sculpted windows and arches, knowing that they must have looked much the same to the Indian women who had utilized those granaries as their pantries hundreds of years before.
At midmorning we moored at a side canyon called Indian Creek for an exploratory walk. Sheri stayed behind to prepare lunch, with special orders for lots more fruit and vegetables. ("I've never seen such active women!" she marveled as she realized we would consume far more of her supply than expected.)
The creek bed was muddy and shallow, the temperature easily 100 degrees. Within 20 minutes, we reached an exquisite series of waterfalls. Everyone peeled off shirts and shorts to frolic in the inviting pools below the cascades. A few had swimsuits on; others didn't.
Meanwhile RJ, in trunks and flip-flops, climbed to yet a higher waterfall. Giving each woman a hand, he helped a few of us up to join him. It was hardly long before all of us, ecstatically showering and sliding in the bubbly pit beneath the shaft of water, were unself-consciously undressed.
Somehow, miles from "civilization," the fact that one of us was male seemed not to matter. Especially since the male happened to look like a beached whale among rocks. We took photos to send to his fiance'. Maybe, we decided, this one guy would not disturb the integrity of the trip after all. He was behaving just like one of the girls. We picked out a nickname for him: Roberta.
Back on the beach Sheri had prepared an "Eat to Win" lunch that would have made Robert Haas proud: chicken salad, soft tortillas, nectarines, beer. The midday heat was so intense we were happy to push off without dallying.
A few miles downstream we reached a loop in the river, where a handful of energetic souls disembarked to hike a trail that led to the other side. The trail appeared simple enough, but by now the canyon walls were 400 feet high. We were a happy but weary group when the boats picked us up an hour later. As evening neared, we floated by one of the great landmarks of the region, the confluence of the Colorado and the Green rivers.
Our viewpoint was of a towering butte rising above the two rivers, one murky, the other clear. But Maj. John Wesley Powell, the pioneering one-armed Army engineer who had led the first expedition through these twisting contours in 1869, had described quite another view after climbing to the overlook that jutted out over the water hundreds of feet above. "It is curious," he wrote, "how a little obstacle becomes a great obstruction when a misstep would land a man in a deep chasm."
Spanish Bottom, a broad campground shaded by shaggy pin on and cottonwood trees, was the last stop before we hit the rapids. In high spirits, our thoughts now firmly "in the canyon," we sat by the cook fire after dinner trading off songs -- Girl Scout ditties interspersed with "Big Chill" tunes. The only thing lacking was a lyric sheet, since no one could quite remember all the words to "I Heard It Through the Grapevine."
The Silver Stairs, a steep path of rocks more suited to goats than humans, led from Spanish Bottom up to a section of Canyonlands National Park called the Doll House. I must have been convincing when I told my companions that the Doll House was the spookiest and most sublime natural wonder I had ever been privileged to see. Seven of them resolved to join me the next morning on a predawn hike to visit it before the boats left for the foaming rapids roaring within earshot.
Whoever named the Doll House must have read "Alice in Wonderland" on an acid trip. Spreading across a field of desert scrub hundreds of feet above the Colorado, its twisted, rose-hued rock shapes a hundred feet high loomed against the dawning sky like a Stonehenge from another planet, like a Brobdingnanian's chess set. Some of the "dolls" suggested gigantic Henry Moore figures. As with the other formations in Canyonlands, the Doll House was not built to human scale. I think that's why I love it; one's personal concerns are placed in the context of the universe, rather than one's own narcissistic world. It invokes terror . . . and calm.
On our climb down, we ran into a few of the group from the boat we had passed the first day. A man who had clearly been surprised by so many females remarked to us, "Now I'm convinced there is a nest of ladies up there."
"Watch our bumps," one of us replied.
But the arduous hike up and down the Silver Stairs to visit the Doll House was only the beginning of an extraordinary day. Before we knew it, we were on our rafts once more, the river churning us toward the first rapids, collectively known as "Mile Long." There was no fooling around here. We all had to wear life jackets, secure our gear and make sure there was a rope at hand should we need a quick grip to keep from going overboard.
Sheri did not oversell the danger, she merely recited it. Many boats had capsized in this place. But neither she nor RJ expected our response.
We had become a pack of daredevils, primed for action. Thirteen individuals who had started out as strangers, and who might otherwise be frightened by what lay ahead, were now a band of friends, our confidence feeding off one another. Annie, a 32-year-old from Breckenridge, Colo., slithered onto the lead pontoon and hugged it as if she were riding a rocket about to be launched. Someone else positioned herself on the opposite pontoon. "This is gonna be fun!" Annie shouted.
The rest of her comments were drowned out by the roar of the water. There were lots of delighted screams as the boaters careened through the Mile, expertly piloted by Sheri and RJ. Next stop: the most famous rapids in Cataract Canyon, the Big Drop. This time, there were actual arguments over who would get to ride shotgun. A serious Sheri and RJ, meanwhile, tied up the boats first to walk ahead along the rocky banks to eyeball the river's unpredictable swells, eddies and holes.
And what a swell ride it was! First -- Little Niagara, a nasty spillway, sucking up our boat as if it were bait, then spitting it out with just enough time to aim at the Marker, a whoosh of water craftily hiding two huge boulders that had dunked many a crew. And then Satan's Gut, a drop so deep our boat plunged forward, then stood nearly vertically on its tail.
Just as quickly as it had begun, the rapids were over. We had lost 29 feet of elevation per mile, a perilously steep descent. Everyone was drenched but exhilarated.
Sheri and RJ pulled the boats to shore, let their shoulders relax and reached into a special nook for some champagne. "It's such a good feeling when you hit it right," Sheri said with a smile. Once upon a time, there had been many more tough rapids through Cataract Canyon, but since the completion of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1964, the water building up behind it had flooded many side canyons and flattened Cataract's curves.
So that was the tough part? A few women who had been on rapids like those on the Snake and Salmon rivers actually thought Cataract's were a little, well, tame. But we all joined in the champagne toasts: "to God's Country . . . to friends . . . to Sheri and RJ . . . to women everywhere . . . to Roberta . . . to the Groover . . . to the first annual Women's Watch My Bump journey."
That night, our last on the river, we camped in Bowdie Canyon, our sleeping bags laid one next to the other. Sheri explained that traditionally this was "Talent Night," and everyone was expected to dress for dinner.
Sheri herself emerged toward sunset wearing a long evening gown -- with a bear-muzzle hat. RJ was in his usual black swim trunks -- and a black tie. A blender for whipping up daiquiris materialized on the raft, run by the emergency generator.
Everyone quickly got into the spirit. The two sisters turned up at fireside as Baryshnikov and Makarova, with the "male" in tights and a sock for a codpiece, the "female" in a leotard and long johns. With everyone humming "Swan Lake," they performed a routine learned in their adolescence. The producer put on the lace nightie she had included in her duffel bag. I dressed in my large Canyonlands topographical map. A foursome, after secret practice, gave a full rendition of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." And all of us cooked up a scheme to reward RJ for being such a good, nonsexist sport.
"Any of my crew would have gotten along with you," said Sheri. "But RJ does it with such style." Still, she continued, "what I'm so taken by is that you're such a group of competent women. Often we get young women with their husbands on these trips, and they're so dependent on the men for lifting things, helping with heavy chores. I say to them, 'Hey, I spent years working at this so you could take care of yourselves, and all you want to do is keep house for your man.' It's wonderful to see women who can take care of themselves."
RJ was just as complimentary. "That's what blew me away. This has been the easiest trip I've ever run. I had no concerns about you climbing to the Doll House because I could see you could handle yourselves."
Now, it was our turn. In an improvised ceremony, we made RJ an honorary woman.
First, the clothes -- a bra and bikini underpants. Without batting an eyelash, he put them on. Next the accouterments -- a tampon, perfume, one Valium and a contraceptive foam capsule. We had begun as 13 women. Now, with Roberta, we were an even 14. If there were more men like him around, there would be fewer battles of the sexes.
The final day's float led into Lake Powell, a placid reservoir in which we performed an impromptu water ballet. In almost no time, we were at a desolate dock, the place to unpack our gear and meet a small plane that would take us back to "civilization." Everyone hugged with real affection. Suddenly, we each knew that four of the most carefree days of our lives had rushed by, as swiftly as the water in Cataract Canyon.