Put me in, Coach—I’m Ready to Play the Game

If you are a professional river guide and you have been one for more than a half dozen years, then the life of guiding has very likely exerted a profound influence on you. Indeed, if we were foolish enough to attempt to list here in this issue of the bqr every influence that guiding has created in us, then this issue would have no room whatsoever for any other articles. So, in lieu of an exhaustive list of what we have gotten out of guiding, I want to focus on an overall gestalt that defines the “Grand Canyon River Guide,” one that can lead any of us into a fantasy land populated by all too real man-eating tigers.
What the hell is this supposed to mean? Well, please let me try to explain. First, most of us on our very first river trip get hooked by the Canyon’s natural beauty, by the challenges of mastering whitewater or difficult hiking terrain, by the freedom from telephones, malls, mailboxes, email, the banal, insipid values promulgated by television, and from the overall tyranny of the clock. We’re free down there on that river, maybe free for the first time ever. And as the full moon paints the soaring Canyon walls with impossible pinks and tans, we recline naked on our Paco pads and we thank that one visible lucky star that we managed to bungle our way in life at least well enough to stumble onto a Grand Canyon river trip.
Then we come back to the Canyon, maybe as a passenger, but more likely as unpaid crew. We marvel again at everything in that incredible world down there. Sure, this trip is not as amazing as our first one, but what the hey, everyone’s first trip holds the most lasting impact, and this second one is one hell of a lot better that everything out there in the world of commercial America.
Years pass. We put boats in a Lees Ferry, then we take them out out at Diamond or below. In between we have become the shepards, interpreters, and guardians of a slow parade of naive specimens of Homo sapiens fleeing America’s cities in the expectation of experiencing America’s number one-rated outdoor adventure. These people trust us with their lives. They admire us for our abilities and our knowledge. They envy our sleek, tanned bodies, our optimism, our no-worry, can-do attitudes, and our apparent freedom. They secretly tell themselves that they too could be river guides—after they lose forty pounds and learn to walk on uneven terrain. And after they decide that they’re willing to exist at poverty level and not know for sure where they will be living this winter. And after they convince themselves that it really is okay that they might be losing that relationship with that significant other whom they left back in town.
Some of these clients develop serious cases of hero worship. Of us. Of you. A few even decide that we should fulfill their sexual fantasies. And some—yes, this does happen—decide that we should father their children. A few even decide to buy the company and make us its manager. Hell, they might even make us part owners. All of this has happened.
And all of this conspires to convince us that we are some very special, very lucky people. We are living the best lives that anyone could. And, in so doing, we ourselves become transmuted from normal, everyday people to a special breed apart. We not only refine our leadership abilities, our communicative skills, our cooking talents, and our outdoor educations, we confront, analyze, and outwit lethal dangers daily. Our bodies respond smoothly on demand with exactly the right moves, much as might a ballet dancer, professional wrestler, or an nba starter.
We are conditioned athletes who play a very difficult and complicated game of psychology and physical challenge—and play it well.
We not only do all of this; we become all of this. And our identities incorporate all of this to define who and what we are. We are Grand Canyon River Guides.
Who among us has not, at least at one time or another, said: “I am a Grand Canyon river guide,” and not felt at least a flush of pride—however secretly?

As the years pass, we become ever more deeply a Grand Canyon river guide. That job of running boats down there is no longer merely the best job we ever had; it has become who and what we are. Again, it defines us. It is our life. Any other sort of life would be a poor substitute for this life.
Working out our launch schedule for the next season becomes a ritual of ever increasing importance, even though our outfitter may quickly pencil us in with a smile, accommodating our every request. We do a good job and he knows it.
The future remains wide open.
All we have to say during the winter is something like, “Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to play the game,” and then add for him or her the specific start dates we want to work.
Of course we do know that our profession demands that we maintain ourselves in reasonably good physical condition. This is so we can handle—and survive unscathed—the stresses of executing a last second pivot or of yanking a four-stroke motor in slightly more than a heartbeat before we destroy yet another lower unit. Our job means lifting heavy gear many times a day, every day. It means wrestling with emergencies in whitewater. It means hiking on torturous terrain while carrying extra water. And it sometimes means physically supporting clients who, if the truth were to be told, never should have been allowed to board a boat at Lees Ferry.
So we work out with weights or machines or yoga or whatever. This is because, after all is said and done and despite our knowledge, our skills, our hard-won wisdom, our really funny jokes, and our ability to produce first class meals, we are athletes. Like Joe Montana, our body is our weakest link.
And though we may vehemently deny it, there will come a day when we ask our outfitter, “Put me in, Coach, I’m ready to the play the game,” and that outfitter will tell us, “Sorry, you were great during your heyday, but that last injury (or mistake in judgement on the job) makes you a very bad risk. We have decided that you can’t do the job any more.”
We may be crushed by this—or merely feel indignant that anyone could say such a stupid thing.
So we polish up our resumé and trot on over to Company “X”, whom we have heard through the grapevine is hiring.
To our astonishment, this next outfitter, once she learns that our former outfitter did not offer us yet another “at-will” contract, tells us—tells you—the same thing: “Thanks, but no thanks.” So does the next, and yet the next.
All of us, someday, will not be able to wiggle or limp or fake our way back onto anyone’s commercial schedule as crew. This is not a maybe. This is a foregone certainty.
Ah, you may say, but I’m healthy and strong and smart and do one hell of a job down there. The year when I can’t get onto an outfitter’s schedule is decades away. By then I’ll have something else that I’ll be doing.
If your thoughts run in this direction, then my response is: “Fair enough, that sounds vaguely like a plan. Or at least like healthy wishful thinking. Or is it really nothing more than an idle thought?”
Our denial of the future is that man-eating tiger.
Why is this issue of longevity important? Because none of us can control all that may happen to us in that future. One bad injury on or off the job, one auto accident that was not even our fault, one failed drug test, one negligence suit by one of those rare but all-too-real evil passengers (America now boasts one million lawyers) and our career vanishes like monsoon rain into a beach.
Then what?

Michael Ghiglieri