Whitewater Hitchhiking

Memoir/Travel, Nonfiction

I’ve had many “first experiences” in these past weeks. Seeing the North Dakota oil fields, sleeping in a semi truck, riding in a car going a hundred and ten miles per hour for half an hour. But the most unexpected was whitewater rafting.

Outside Buena Vista, a girl a few years younger than me pulled over. “I can take you as far as Noah’s.” She wore her blond hair in a messy braid.

“Is that on the highway?”

She nodded. “It’s a few miles down the road.”

My driver

I hadn’t seen anything called “Noah” on the map, but I got in her car, anyway.

“I’m Kenzie.” We shook hands.

“Josh. Where are we going?”

“Have you heard of Noah’s Ark?”

“The one in the Bible.”

She laughed. “It’s a rafting company. My parents own it, so I’ve always worked summers there.”

Besides whitewater rafting, Kenzie explained, Noah’s Ark offers backpacking and hiking, rock climbing, canoeing, fishing, and an elaborate ropes course. Her parents started the organization in 1983, and the number of customers–usually youth groups, families, and church teams–has grown ever since.

Noah's Ark's high ropes course
Noah’s Ark’s high ropes course

“I wasn’t going to stop,” Kenzie said, “but then I read your sign. I’ve only picked up three other people. Two were hikers on their way back to the trail, and the other one was a girl.”

“I’m honored.”

“What does your sign mean?”

I’ve heard that question enough to develop an elevator pitch: “Hitchhiking is all about trust, on everyone’s part. I’m trusting drivers, and they’re trusting me. And I’m trusting God, too, I’m realizing more and more.”

“I prayed before I picked you up.”

“That’s probably good.”

“We have staff dinner in an hour, if you want to come. I’ve brought random people before.”

I had ate a late and large lunch of Mexican food, but hitchhiking without money makes binge eating my preferred strategy. I accepted.

“Is Noah’s a Christian company?” I asked.

“Not officially. Most of us are Christians. Maybe all of us. But we take all sorts of customers and don’t do organized prayers for them or anything. I mean, we don’t hide it, but we just try to be good examples.”

Noah's Ark Whitewater Rafting Co. and Adventure Program Ltd.
Noah’s Ark Whitewater Rafting Co. and Adventure Program Ltd.

We pulled into the camp, six miles from where Kenzie picked me up. She introduced me to her father, who seemed suspicious but accepting, and then she gave me a tour of the grounds. I found a shower and, once clean, rejoined Kenzie and the cooking crew.

“You can find a place to hang out until dinner,” Kenzie said, “or you can wash dishes, if you really want.”

I decided to scrub cooking pans. After days of depending on generosity, working felt immensely satisfying. I washed with a high school senior, who showed me how to operate the camp’s sprayer and sink system.
“Where do you sleep while you’re traveling?” he asked.

“Usually I go a hundred yards or so into the woods and pitch my tent where no one can see me. When there’s no woods, it gets rough, and I either camp in plain sight or just go in my sleeping bag and cover myself with bug spray. But about a quarter of the time, someone invites me into their home or trailer.”

“Are you scared a lot?”

“Always.” I laughed. “But not much. I’m always a little on edge, but after the first few days, I found out people who stop for you just want to help.”

The questions kept coming until it was time for dinner, and then I volunteered to join the servers. I dished salad onto the plates of those who didn’t protest. Even among healthy, athletic rafting guides, salad is not popular. Halfway through a series of “no thanks” and “I don’t have room” and “who are you?”s, I recognized the girl serving spaghetti. We looked at each other, turned away, and looked back again.

“I know you from somewhere,” she said.

“I know, and I can’t figure it out.”

“Did you go to Calvin?”

“Graduated this May.”

“Me too.”

I learned about Dutch Bingo when I came to Calvin. When two Dutch-blooded strangers meet, they inevitably start working out common relatives and friends. “My aunt’s brother’s niece was your father’s high school chemistry teacher!” After spending four years in Grand Rapids’ Dutch community, I am now proud of my ability to play Dutch Bingo as an honorary Dutchman.

The spaghetti server–named Susan–and I compared dorms, housemates, majors, and clubs. No overlap. We started naming friends.

“I spent semesters in England and DC,” I offered.

“You lived in DC with Lauren, right? In that big house?”

I nodded. Lauren and I, along with thirteen other students, had shared an eight-bedroom house last spring.

“I visited there!” Susan said.

A few Calvin students had slept in our basement during their spring break. I tried to imagine the tanned girl in rafting clothes as a cold weather, city-dressed tourist.

“We played that board game.”

The memory came back, playing Settlers of Catan on the other side of the country. “It’s good to re-meet you.”

Susan and I ate dinner together, and I told and retold my story to dozens of teenage and twenty-some rafting guides.

“You should come rafting tomorrow,” Susan said. “I’ll probably have room in my boat.”

I hesitated. I had never been whitewater rafting, and besides, I had already detoured up Mt. Elbert the day before. “Can I camp here tonight?”

“I’m sure! I’ll ask, just in case.”

Both parts–camping and rafting–passed approval. But rafting depended on how full Susan’s boat turned out to be.

“If you don’t have room, I’ll take him,” another guide volunteered.
“Or in my boat,” someone else said.

The sunrise from my campsite
The sunrise from my campsite

So I pitched my tent and spent the evening talking with Noah’s Ark staff and their customers. The next morning, I watched Kenzie, Susan, and the other “river rats” prepare the rafts, waiting to hear who, if anyone, had room for me.

Minutes before launch, Susan’s boat had an empty spot.

“Boots or barefoot?” I asked. I had no other shoes, and no time to borrow something else.

She grimaced. “Boots.”

I scribbled out a release form, grabbed a paddle and the closest helmet, and jumped into whitewater rafting.

Susan and I shared the raft with five Texan girls and their leader, who were enjoying the recreation half of their week-long homeless ministry. They laughed and screamed and sang as Susan guided us through 3/3+ rapids. My helmet–two size too small–squeezed my temples, and water splashed into my boots and pooled there.

But soggy socks and a sore head didn’t matter. The Arkansas River was beautiful. I passed cliffs red and brown and gold, saw rock formations as abstract as New Mexico clouds, and all the while savored sunshine and the smell of sage and conifers.

The Arkansas River
The Arkansas River

It’s easier, I think, to find new experiences through strangers, when you’re already entering with an open mind and a readiness to learn about someone new. As I grow closer to someone, I ask fewer questions. I content myself with maintaining our level of friendship, or focus on having fun instead of learning about his life, or decide I know enough about her and that a challenging discussion would only make things awkward. With someone I know, I play it safe, except in those rare, open moments of tragedy or emotion.

Strangers, though, are fair game. There’s no consequence to prying, no cost for full disclosure. And because they are new, they somehow seem inherently more interesting. I’ll gladly spend an hour listening to a new-to-me photographer talk about her artistic philosophy, but when I’m with a friend, I keep the conversation to topics where I can participate through more than just questions.

But acquaintances like Susan are more than Dutch Bingo partners. Each houseguest has passions and experiences and stories to share. Friends offer more than mutual interests and activities. Even immediate family has “before I met your mother” stories and knowledge that doesn’t come up at the dinner table.

No, my Aunt can’t take me rafting, and my grandpa didn’t dodge the draft by living out of a backpack in the Canadian Rockies for eight years. But they do have their own interests and stories that I’ve never cared enough to ask about, and some of those are just as interesting as what I hear on the road.

I hitchhike to learn about life and people. But when this trip ends, my learning doesn’t have to slow. I can go paddleboarding with my uncle. I can ask my friend about the Australian music scene. I don’t have to avoid the people who graduated high school with me when I spot them down the aisle in Fred Meyer. I don’t need strangers to find new experiences. They just make it easier.

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