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a different azimuth
the website of john neel

The Maury River and Me - Lexington Virginia
written a few years ago

This is what happens when I’m left alone to my own devices. Kim, should never leave home.

Sunday morning began as usual--sleeping in, and then deciding not to go for my run until later in the morning. I sat down and watched Hannibal, which I thought was very good. THEN (here’s where things began to go wrong), during the movie, Conor called to see if I wanted to canoe the Maury River. I said yes and invited poor Elise to go along with us.

I should have known better. Every time I’ve done anything in the Maury, it has had bad results.

My first time there, I rode the slide-for-life with the Class of 2001 Rats, and lost my watch.

The second time was the Recon, in February, for Ranger Company, where Major T, Major Gowan, and I capsized a canoe in freezing water, up against the new Hwy11 bridge pylon (the canoe had to be pulled out with a 21/2 Ton Truck).

The third was a swimming expedition with the 2003 leadership to test the Rat Crucible for Matriculation week. Not only was the water freezing, but I was supposed to be in Cameron Hall receiving an award for Cadet Mentorship. Nothing like having your name called out in front of the entire VMI community, and not being there to answer up.

The plan looked like this: Meet Conor at Jordan’s Point (just down the hill from VMI), drop off Elise’s Truck, drive down Hwy 39 to a good place to put in, have a leisurely trip down the river, get in Elise’s truck, recover Conor’s truck, all the while drinking beers and relaxing.

The reality became what can only be described as HELL.

The first phases of the plan went well. Elise and I linked up with Conor at Jordan’s Point after stopping by my office to get two life preservers and a throw-away-camera. We locked up Elise’s truck and headed for 39.

On the way, we took a look at the map and decided we could do the river from Rockbridge Baths to Jordan’s Point in about 4 hours. Our “time-distance appreciation” would prove to be miserably “off.”

We put in at the Baths, and immediately knew we were in for more than we bargained. The slow deep water was just what we had envisioned, but the rapids were only about ankle deep, requiring Connor and I to get out and push the boat. This doesn’t sound that bad, but the rocks were so slippery, that it was like walking on ice cubes…except for the odd volcanic pumice stone which was more like walking on (or jamming your toes and ankles into) a pine cone or rose bush. And, of course, I wore my Tevas, which look cool, but afford no protection except to the bottoms of your feet.

It was in these first rapids that I took my first spill, falling headlong into the water, under the boat, while my daughter made good use of the camera we’d brought along.

The day would be an endless series of deep water, followed by shallows; row for five minutes, push for ten. Sometimes, in the nice clear deep spots, we’d all go swimming to cool off and rest. We needed both, as the day would be the first sunny day in weeks, and the work harder than I could ever describe here. In one of these first rest periods, Conor and I cracked our first beers. He’d brought St. Pauli Girl, my favorite.

There were some rapids that we could go through and we did very well, shooting them and complimenting ourselves on what great boaters we were. It was right after the second one where we got sideways on a big rock and capsized the canoe. Away went the cooler, the thermos, one of the paddles, and other assorted equipment and clothing. I stayed with the boat, and Conor swam for the stuff.

We did this two more times during the day, always loosing at least one piece of equipment, later to be recovered, but somewhere at the bottom of the Maury are four St. Pauli Girl bottles and one camera. And I actually thought about bringing along my Digital!

During one of these “Capsizing Drills,” we got the boat, in what you’re warned about in canoeing class, up against a big rock with the topside facing up stream. In this particular configuration, I think the Canoe is supposed to weigh about a ton or something…well, somehow we got it off the damn rock, and kept going…stopping down river to get the thermos and Conor’s hat…again.

Two really good parts of the story occurred about half way through this adventure.

First, as we were negotiating a series of rapids, I caught site of this gigantic bird flying overhead. My first thoughts were that the buzzards were anticipating a nice feast when we finally expired from exhaustion. Then, I caught sight of the white head and tail…it was unmistakably a mature Bald Eagle, my FIRST! It was so cool to look at an eagle in the wild at such close range. Of course, they are carrion eaters too.

Also, about the same time, Elise asked if Mom had the other key to her 4 Runner. I didn’t think a thing about the question as we had been trying earlier in the day to figure out how I could get her oil changed before she left for Alabama. To her credit, about 5 minutes later, after (I’m sure) trying to figure out how to break the news to two, very tired, very pissed off, very large guys, she asked me if I wanted to hear a funny story. I said, “sure Baby.”

 She said, “I left the keys in Conor’s truck. Things went silent for a moment, paddles ceased paddling, and then two grown men began to laugh that maniacal laughter that you see in the insane. Let’s see, if, by some act of God, we ever do make it to Jordan’s Point, we’ll have to either hitch a ride or hike back to the truck. What the heck, it’s only 20 miles.

It was the last straw…the one that broke the proverbal camel's back.

Just when we had reached the limits of our endurance, we ran across Old Long Hair Naked Guy, sunning his buns (and worse) in what he probably thought of as a secluded spot on the river. He stood up in all his glory when he saw us and wrapped a towel around his manliness, but that was before we were close enough to tell if he was a girl or a guy.

As we closed in, the discussion quickly turned to how he got to the river, that there must be a road, did he have a truck, was he part of our Deliverance-style demise, and how we could end this pain right here and now. We weren’t sure where we were, but thought we might have been as far as Bean’s Bottom, which is a good place to get out.

Old Long Hair Naked Guy told us that Beans Bottom was at least two hours a way, but told us there was a house just around the bend. We headed straight for the house after thanking him and complimenting him on his overall tan and waist length hair.

Sure enough, right around the bend, was this quaint little house with log stairs leading up to a ROAD, with four little ducks swimming about, the ever-present Rockbridge County Mutt in the yard (who also looked like a carrion eater), and the prettiest little blond girl you have ever seen.

Conor asked the little girl (about 2) if her parents were home, and she responded with, “my name is Rachael,” and then began to tell us a story about her grasshopper. When asked again, she asked if we wanted to see her kittens. She was totally unconcerned with our predicament; she saw in us someone to play with and she would NOT be denied. While Elise and I distracted her, Conor made it to the porch and, God-be-praised, her folks were home, allowed us to use their road, and even took Conor to his truck. While Elise and I waited on Conor to return, we got to meet most of the animals around the house, were filled in on the two-year-old fashion scene (“I have a dress.”), and got to see all of Rachael’s toys.

The trip back was fast, but not so fast that I didn’t mark how far it was to Bean’s Bottom, and then to Jordan’s Point. I do not know what I was thinking when I told Conor I’d go on that damn river again, but I now had the presence of mind to let him know, that if he ever called again, for any reason, that the answer would be “No.”

So, if you are in the market, for a slightly chipped, dented, and gouged canoe (which I’m sure we’ll have to buy from the poor guy who loaned it to us), I know where you can buy one cheap. If you know how to develop film that has been submerged in river water for long periods of time let me know, because I’m thinking I’ll go down to Jordan’s Point in about a week and maybe by then the camera will have made it down that far. And, if you happened to see a St. Pauli Girl bottle happily bobbing in the waters along the Maury, recognize it not as trash, but as a symbol of a great idea turned sour by ignorance, shallow water, and an evil river, hell-bent on destroying one stupid old Paratrooper.