I awoke to my alarm for the first time in over a month. The church bells melodically swelled up in volume, and for a moment, I forgot I was snuggled under a sleeping bag in a trailer. I could’ve been in my bed in Hancock Park, opening my eyes to see necklaces dangling from my dresser. Rob groaned that nothing was worth getting up this early for. It was only 7:00, but we’ve been used to the easy life of waking whenever we want to, eating whenever we feel like it, and falling asleep whenever our bodies tell us it’s time. That’s one of the beauties of being on vacation: not ever having to check a clock.
We checked out of the campground and drove back to the little canyoning shack down the street from us. The woman running the operation had called me the night before, saying that two other people had signed up for an expedition. I was very excited! As I explained, in the States it’s called canyoneering, but since I’m in Europe and this is what the Europeans call it, I’m going to use the word canyoning. I noticed immediately that the two other adults joining us were young, a guy and a girl, which seemed pleasantly unusal to me. Most of the people Rob and I have seen on this trip have been the newly retired and young families. You’d think we would have run into more college age kids, but maybe we just haven’t been going to the right places. Seeing this young couple made me feel happy, relieved that they weren’t older folk who would inevitably slow us down, and thankful also that they weren’t children who might fool around too much and not listen, making more deleys than necessary. Berndt and Karin were our teammates’ names, and they hailed from Munich, Germany. They also spoke English, which made it easy to make friends with them.
After a fourty minute ride in a van, we pulled over to an inconspicuous spot on the side of the road in the midst of the mountains and were instructed, “Take off everything but your swimsuits.” Then we were handed the thickest, fattest wetsuits I have ever seen. Mild dread filled me as I knew this could only mean one thing. We all looked pretty ridiculous by the time we were suited up, life jackets over our torsos, climbing harnesses strapped around our thighs and waists, helmets, neoprene socks, and neoprene gloves. Damn this water must be cold if they were even giving us socks and gloves!
We walked down a steep ravine to the river’s edge where Tomas, our sexy and capable guide, explained what was going to happen. We must always follow him in a straight line, one after the other, not taking any shortcuts; we must obey him implicitely for our own safety; after jumping down a waterfall or sliding down one of the canyon’s chutes, we had to signal that we were okay by tapping our helmets twice with a fisted hand; we had to belly flop on the shallower jumps, a “Superman Jump” he called it, and stay straight as a pin for the higher ones; we must keep our ankles and arms crossed when sliding down a chute; if at any time we didn’t want to jump from a high point, just to let him know and he’d be happy to abseil us down; and if we did want to jump, we had better do it with committment and without hesitation, as the most injuries happen from people who flounder on the cliff’s edge at the last milisecond and don’t push themselves out far enough from the edge. With that, Tomas proceeded to wade into the river, then abrubtly turned and tossed a big splash of water at me. I was stunned, both by the coldness and by the sheer audacity of a man I didn’t even know to splash my face with freezing river water without any warning. Then I laughed as he splashed everyone else, too. He probably didn’t want us taking our time to get into such a frigid immersion, his approach being to get it over with from the get go. It worked, and before we knew it, we were canyoning!
Canyoning is a combination of hiking, waterfall jumping, caving, spelunking, rappelling, abseilling, rock climbing, river-trudging, lazy floating, and cliff diving. It’s pretty much everything awesome about the outdoors! Our expedition began with some river-trudging over slippery rocks and a small jump followed by effortless bobbing down stream. The belly flop isn’t that bad when you’re wearing the world’s thickest wesuit, which was actually keeping me warmer than I expected it to. I was as happy as a clam, appreciating all the beauty that surrounded me as I waited for everyone else to make their jump and float over my way. Flat-faced rocks formed a corridore on either side of the river, and the sun filtered through the trees above me, bathing the blue water in patches of golden clarity. It was like being at Plitvice Lakes again, only this time I could actually swim in the alluring green and blue water, and this time, it was a lot colder than Plitvice had felt when I’d dipped my hand in. Nothing like glacier meltoff to wake you up in the morning.
The deeper into the canyon we got, the more beautiful it became and the more thrilling the stunts we had to do! Tomas was a very good guide in the sense that he explained himself simply and efficiently, but was patient if you had questions or needed reassurance. I trusted him right off the bat, so if he said jump, I jumped. If he said slide, I slid. The slides were the scariest part to me! When we came upon the first one, all I saw was the river narrowing over a threshold and rushing into a black hole, with only three feet of circumference room for a person to sit up in. The water was rushing to its plunge, making it too loud to hear anything but the simplest instructions. It reminded me of the moulins my sister cautiously showed me on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska, where she was an ice climbing guide one summer. The moulins, holes carved into the glacier by swirling whirlpools of icemelt, were known to suck into its endless tunnels any human being foolish enough to slip in, like the kid in the Willy Wonka factory who got sucked up the chocolate tube. Rarely are the bodies found if the moulin even bothers to spit them out of the glacier.
This slide that Tomas was directing me go down reminded me of those fearful moulins, but he hadn’t led me astray so far, so I sat down on the rock at the top he pointed me to. The slide was a slippery, steep stone whose wall curved to the left while its surface slanted sideways to the right, before it dropped off into a pool of green far, far below. I crossed my ankles, then my arms over my chest, and bugged my eyes out when Tomas told me to stay left. Stay left?! I wanted to shriek, How am I suppsoed to stay left?! I’m going to topple right off this slant onto the waterfall’s dangerous rocks underneath! What I actually said was, “You’re sure I won’t fall to the right?” He assured me I wouldn’t, which I just had to take his word for, and suddenly he was pushing me forward and I felt him guide the top of my life jacket toward the lefthand side. I screamed with glee as I whizzed past the wall, the waterfall rushing beside me, and for a few moments I found myself suspended in mid air before I plunged underneath the freezing water. I came up laughing and sputtering, tapping my helmet twice to let Tomas know I was okay, and realized that I was in a cave. It was a beautiful cave. Rob was there waiting, so I swam over to him and we watched Berndt and Karin take their turns. It was really cool to see from the after-perspective what you just put yourself through, and I felt very proud of myself. Normally I take a little more time in working up my nerve to do this sort of thing, but that day I was on a roll!
Abseilling is a little like rappelling in that you go down the face of a rock backwards, suspended by a rope from above that is clipped to your harness. Unlike rappelling, where you push yourself off of the rock’s face with your feet, dropping several meters at a time as you return to the rock to do it again until you make your way down, abseilling requires that you walk down the face of the rock without pushing yourself off. I prefer rappelling, as it’s faster, funner, and what I’m used to, but abseilling wasn’t so bad. Just slippery and blinding when the waterfall is literally right in your face. It was still a lot of fun.
Everything was fun! The high jumps, not one of which did any of us chicken out on; the laziness of letting the river’s current sweep you down to the next pile of boulders; the slipping and sliding, the climbing, all of it. By the end, I was shivering so intensely that I could hardly manage to take a sip from my cup of tea without spilling. By the time the van pulled back into the basecamp parking lot, and Rob and I were back in our RV on the road, I had warmed up. For two hours, I had felt like Indiana Jones, or like a competitor on that ninja challenge obstacle course show. It was a pretty badass feeling, one I could happily get used to and look forward to seeking out from now on in my travels.
When Rob and I were rental bike shopping, we talked about how cool, even comforting, it is to know that no matter where in the world he went, he’d always have friends in the mountain biking community. It’s like any subculture, from rock climbing to wine tasting. Every activity has its own lingo, its own celebrities that non-fanatics have never heard of, and its own crowd with their common wardrobe and tools of trade. Hanging out with my snowboarding sister in Colorado and her friends introduced me to phrases like, “Shredding gnar rails,” and “That was some sick pow.” The girls all wear their pony tails flipped upside down outside their beanies by the wide strap of their goggles. When I hung out with my (legally) pot-growing brother, I was introduced to the tools of climate control, essential to marijuana’s healthy growth, and I got a kick out of listening to him and his friends compare the best kinds of rotating fans.
Watching Rob talk bikes and gears and brands with the men and women in the shops made me feel almost lonely. I had no idea what they were talking about, and I honestly didn’t mind patiently waiting, but it struck me that I coudn’t think of a single international hobby or activity I would find my subculture in. I’ve never had many hobbies, unless you count reading and occasional baking. Is there a dedicated hub for introverted bookworms to gather at and silently read next to each other? Maybe, although I’ve never come across any other than public libraries, which I suppose might count… No, I don’t think they do. Libraries don’t have that connected-by-common-interest vibe to them, you know? They are for being quiet in, for studying in, not for bonding with new friends and chatting away. Besides, when you’re in foreign countries and the books are written in languages you don’t know, it’s difficult to bond with other readers. Therefore I wouldn’t deem reading an international subculture activity. If eating were considered a hobby, I’d be a champ at that, but everybody has to eat, so what is to distinguish a subculture of dining when it’s something so commonplace?
A lot of the subcultures I’ve thought of that would be universally bonding, as they need no words through the language barriers to share the experiences they offer (mountain biking, snowboarding, fishing, BMX racing, etc.), I don’t participate in. I’m not much of an athlete. As a child, I was a competitive figure skater, but that only lasted until I was eleven and my family couldn’t afford the new skates and blades needed to accommodate my rapidly growing feet. We also started moving around quite a bit. I was homeschooled until I went to college, and so never got into activies like track or drill team, the only two I would have even been interested in had I gone to high school. I joined Pasadena’s Community Softball League with a bunch of friends when I was 19, but my fun with softball ended when I got smashed in the face by a home-runner during the last tournament game of the season that took out two of my bottom front teeth and gave me a lip so swollen that I though I would have to be a character actress if it never went down. (It did.) I wouldn’t say I’m not a team player, but I do like only having to depend on myself for my own success and safety, and blaming only myself for my own defeat. Therefore the atheltic activities I have been drawn to have always been solo, like figure skating, bouldering, hiking, canoeing, horseback riding, etc. I hate anything that feels painful or involves work, like counting repitions at a gym while lifting weights, or even yoga, which is slow motion torture to me. I need to be having so much pure fun that I don’t even realize I’m getting exercise. Plus, I love being outside.
In canyoning, or canyoneering, I think I may have found my new hobby, my new subculture. When I’m back home I am going to try and visit every canyoneering spot within a weekend’s driving distance of LA. I want to learn the techniques better, become confident using the tools such as ropes, anchors, and caribbeaners. I want to travel from Costa Rica to New Zealand and bond with other canyoneerers in the universal way of other subcultures. Maybe I’m just really enthused by it all right now, having just done it, even as my muscles ache while I write this. Maybe I’ll get stuck back into my non-athletic routine back home, limited to hiking only and the occasional swim at a pool party, which is lame of me even to consider counting. But maybe not. Perhaps I’ll find a special spot near LA where I can really get it down! I’m excited to try, and excited to possibly join an international community of like-interested people.