We made our first mistake yesterday, Grace and I realized in the checkout line at Wal-Mart. Our sunscreen, inner tubes, and lifejackets beeped and passed into bags, but we relinquished our PBR tallboys to the imposing woman in the blue apron. For just a second, I considered trying to pay her off. We knew a recent legislative change now allowed alcohol sales on Sundays in Georgia. We did not know that you still could not buy alcohol before noon. The legislators did not want their churchgoing constituents to play catch-up. We would float down the Chattahoochee River in 107 degree heat without alcohol. The year prior, my then girlfriend, now wife, Grace, and I joined a group of friends and new acquaintances down the river during Fourth of July weekend. We purchased our own inflatables from Wal Mart to avoid the tube rental companies’ extortionate rates. We joined the throngs of Atlantans that make tubing the Chattahoochee River “shootin’ the ‘Hooch.”
We were well-stocked with food, sunscreen, and libations. Instead of a boring inner tube, I lounged down the river on an inflatable pool mat. When we ate lunch on one of the smooth rocks on the shore, I discovered an abandoned, orange life-vest and, in my uninhibited state, donned my find for the rest of the day.
By the time we reached the steep hills and cliffs of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area, our large group was divided into two flotillas. My flotilla lead the way. We approached long stretch of gentle rapids, and two park rangers waited in a boat beside a narrow pass that funnelled all the tubers. We neared the rangers, and I greeted them, nodded my head downward, raised my can of Bud Light, and tilted the can slightly forward in a pantomime “cheers,” as is respectful to do with law enforcement.
Other tubers passed the rangers without issue, but some were banished to the beach. We looked around and realized why all the tube rental companies had life-vests lashed to the sides of the tubes. The rangers were gatekeepers to the rest of the river, and they demanded personal flotation devices as their toll.
We pulled off to the beach to make sure our friends would make it through. While we waited, we watched other rivergoers jump into the water from nearby cliffs. They were not wearing lifejackets.
Our friends lacked our interpersonal savvy. The rangers pointed to the beach and demanded the other flotilla get out the river. As we conferred on the beach, I was told that someone had drowned on the river the week before.
This exercise of government power was the nanny state at its worst, an expenditure of public resources to deprive people the freedom to die in the recreation of their choosing. We were forced on an uphill march of several miles, carrying our inflatables, coolers, and supplies to the nearest parking lot. There, we waited for an hour for a cab to retrieve us and drive us back to our cars in shame.
The Chattahoochee River runs right through the heart of metro Atlanta. That is to say, it comes inside the I-285 bypass that is 20 or so miles from downtown Atlanta. With the right route, you can go under twelve-lane highways at least three times while floating on the river.
The river occupies a special place in the lore of Atlanta and the rest of parched-of-late Georgia. Alan Jackson, a country music singer from Newnan, immortalized the river in his song “Chattahoochee.” It begins:
Way down yonder on the Chattahoochee,
It gets hotter than a hoochie coochie.
Jackson, presented with a challenging rhyme in “Chattahoochee,” goes for the knockout punch on the opening bell by rhyming it with “coochie.” A coochie is a vagina for the unfamiliar. And its not just any coochie, it is the coochie of a hoochie, a promiscuous woman. The river is compared to a hoochie’s coochie in terms of its hotness explicitly and, implicitly, its humidity or moistness. The possessive is omitted for the sake of meter.
Grace drove us from our home in New Orleans back to our native Georgia for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. I called Jeffrey Weinkle, a friend and mentor that invited us to the river last year. I proposed that we right the wrongs of our last attempt to shoot the ‘Hooch – do it bigger, better, with lifejackets, without cabs. Enlisting his then girlfriend, now fiance, Jodi, we agreed to go Sunday, and I proposed a 10:00 AM start. If we went that early, we could beat the church crowds.
That weekend brought some of the hottest days Georgia had seen in fifty years. When we visited Grace’s parents, they did not try to dissuade us from our Sunday plans despite the projected high of 105 degrees. They tend to be more permissive and open to trial by error than my parents. Grace’s mother simply advised us not to put our faces in the water. Sewage is surely dumped upriver, and she surmised that it was the perfect temperature for breeding bacteria.
On Sunday morning, the alarm went off at 8:00 AM. That gave us thirty minutes to get ready, thirty minutes in Wal Mart, and an hour to make it to our meeting spot in Atlanta. Jeff and Jodi were responsible for food. Grace and I needed to buy tubes, duct tape for leaks, sunscreen, water, beer, and lifejackets for our party. We kept our inflatables from the previous year, but they were sitting in our storage closet. Why plan ahead when you can store more junk in your studio apartment that you never use?
As is often the case in that emporium of everything, I could not find the products I wanted in Wal Mart. I settled for a round inner tube instead a more luxurious float. The inflatable alligator, though tempting in its novelty, was not a practical choice. There were no standard orange life vests for appeasing rangers. We had to buy wrap-around lifejackets that had such little buoyant foam that they could only hope to keep small dogs and the Olsen twins from drowning. And of course, beer was strictly forbidden for another few hours.
By the time we fled Wal Mart with the products that we could purchase, it was already well after nine. I swore I would never go to Wal Mart again, as I do everytime I go to Wal Mart.
Our full party convened at the end of our route around 10:30. We left Jeff’s Accord coupe and loaded my Explorer to take to the beginning. I thought I was ready to go, but Jeff pointed out that I needed flip-flops on my bare feet to get in and out of the river. He gave me a pair of black Teva’s, and I squeezed my foot in, leaving toes and heel over the edges of swishy, black foam.
As we turned from Riverside Drive to the bridge on Johnson’s Ferry, we noticed a new place to get in the river. It was just upriver from a power station, but it had a paved ramp leading down into the river. To get to the river last year, we parked at the end of a road through a residential neighborhood, carried our equipment through the woods, and climbed down a muddy embankment to the river. This new spot was much more convenient, and there was no one else there to spoil our good time.
We parked and began inflating using one bicycle pump and four sets of lungs. As we made our final preparations, a black, 4-door Silverado announced its arrival with vibrating bass and “Flowmaster” exhaust. It was “lifted” and “chromed-out.” Three bros and two broettes in their early twenties climbed out of the truck. They plugged an electric air pump into their car and began inflating. A single float grew, like a blob consuming the energy from the downtown it destroyed. A giant Sea Doo raft manifested. It was so large that Peter Thiel might set one of these things out on the ocean and declare it a sovereign country. We rushed to get in the water and put distance between us and this crew.
We were in the river by about 11:30. Not a soul was on the water. The river at this point was wide and slow. The water was so cold that it shocked in contrast to the air. The power station meditated with a gentle hum and warmed the water with its cooling system. The warmer water helped ease the transition of our more sensitive parts into the river.
The hard work was over, and now we begin our day of extreme relaxation. Sure, for $27 each, we could have gone through a tube rental company and floated down the same river. They would provide thicker tubes, lifejackets, transportation to and from the river, and tubes for coolers (for an additional fee), but where is the adventure in that?
We couldn’t have been in the river for more than a few hundred yards when Grace asked me where my water was. I put a gallon of water and a can of spray sunscreen in a plastic Wal Mart bag. My tube had a rope with a plastic hook on the end that connected to the handle, and I attached the bag to the tube with the rope. The piece of plastic that latched to the handle had come undone, and the bag was gone.
I spotted something floating on the water upriver, and I began paddling. As I paddled, I cursed the Chinese children that had done such as shoddy job making my inner tube, as I do everytime I purchase a product from Wal Mart. The water was there, bobbing in the bag, but the sunscreen was gone. Fifteen minutes in, and we were down one can of sunscreen. Fortunately, Jeff and Jodi had another bottle. All was not lost.
By that time, the Georgian man-of-war was in the water, and it was gaining on us. Even though it was more than a football field away, we could hear every sound made on the raft. We discovered that our rival’s seacraft had a boombox. The smooth water provided no obstruction to the pop rap music and inanities bombarding our pleasant float. The chorus to “Ima Boss” blared for ten minutes straight. Members of their crew enlightened us with sayings such as, “Just because you’re on a diet doesn’t mean you can’t look at the menu.” When we were under a bridge with the raft, we heard the echoes of one of them saying, “This is the life.” I wagered $100 that someone was going to get a blowjob on that raft. There were no takers on that bet.
We were finding out just how hot a hoochie’s coochie could be. All the moisture dried out from this coochie in the blistering heat. Visibility was extremely limited. The ground-level ozone and the heat enveloped us in a fog that is well-known in the summer to sprawling metropolises like Atlanta.
We soon recognized the trip would take four more hours because we put it further upriver than planned. Because we got a late start, we were going to be out there during the hottest part of the day. The stillness of this stretch of river was working against us. The sun was directly overhead. The trees that reached too far over the river for sunlight had fallen into the river, and these victims of greed blocked our path to the shade of the standing trees. There was no alcohol to dull our senses. Avoiding church crowds at all costs is usually the right decision.
The size of trifold lifejackets became an asset. By opening up the jackets, we could create a three-by-five patch of shade. Grace and I alternated between sitting in the tube with our butts deep in the cold water with the lifejackets draped over our heads and lying on the tubes on our stomachs with the lifejackets spread over our backs. This allowed us to alternate roasting our shins and our calves. Jeff and Jodi had big, floppy hats, so the only needed to cover their legs.
The other raft punctuated time with yells of “I’m a boss” at ten minute intervals. Simply being a “boss” is not much of an aspiration. The night assistant manager at Burger King is a boss but does not have the social status or income to merit popular adoration. It wouldn’t hurt to be more specific about one’s desired managerial role.
We decided it was time to break for lunch. Grace and I paddled close to the right bank, but fallen trees kept blocking our landfall. When we came to a suitable spot, I hopped out of the tube to walk to dry land. As I walked, Jeff’s flip-flops slipped off my feet and started floating downriver. I handed Grace my sunglasses and started running after it in knee-high water. Despite my efforts to gain ground, the flip flops kept their distance, and my abandoned tube managed to keep pace. Grace started paddling after the flip flops as well. I got back on my tube and breast-stroked to the flip flops. By that time, we couldn’t get back to our lunch spot. In the meantime, Grace dropped my sunglasses into the river, never to be seen again.
Mount McKinley is the most challenging climb in the world. It rises 19,000 feet up from a plain that rests at roughly sea-level. Everest is for tourists. Everest base camp is at 18,000 feet. What really differentiates McKinley is that it only 250 miles from the Arctic Circle. Everest is balmy and equatorial by comparison. Its on the same latitude as Panama City Beach. Its the surrounding environment, not the size of the peak, that matters.
Tubing the Chattahoochee River in triple-digit heat is a feet of the same order as climbing Mount McKinley. Granted, you don’t have to huff and puff up a mountain for a month, but you are more exposed to the elements on open water. McKinley also does not have natives that press for your sanity. I wanted to finish this trip. I wanted to have that accomplishment to my name.
The river was quiet in the harshness of early afternoon. The birds were silent. The bugs were silent. Even the isle of undesirables was silent. Their float had a fatal design flaw; the passengers were completely out of the cool water. Without the refreshment of the river, the heat had taken its toll on their spirits. They were reduced from bosses to mere employees.
I layed on my stomach for what seemed like hour, staring face down into the water, nose centimeters away from the surface. My lifejacket covered my back from the top of my neck to the back of my thighs. My head blocked the glare so I could see underwater. The river was surprisingly clear. I could see all the smooth rocks on the bottom four feet below. I even saw a fish.
The river was moving too slow for the bro boat. They sent the lowest ranking member of the party into the river, and he pulled the raft with a rope. They yelled at him to pull faster, “Yah, dude, yah! [laughter]”
“Its fucking hard, bro.”
“You think this is hard? Wait until you get to basic training. [laughter] Yah!”
We eventually found another spot for lunch on the left bank of the river. We took turns pulling our supplies and each other up rocks that lead into the shade. When we were all up, Jodi pulled our sub sandwiches out of her neoprene lunch bag. They were soaked. The only viable food left was Cape Cod salt and pepper chips and mini chocolate chip cookies. We tore into the two bags and emptied them in minutes. Grace looked at the nutrition facts on both, multiplied the servings, and calculated that we had 1,100 calories for the four of us. Divide by four, 275 calories per person.
Jeff pulled his cell phone out of a waterproof bag. Jeff is an Eagle Scout. He checked our location. He estimated that we were about two hours upriver from our destination.
I was encouraged. We were low on sustenance and sunscreen, but we could do this. I tried to rally the troops. We are almost there. This isn’t so bad. Would you want to tell your children that you gave up when you had the opportunity to do something remarkable?
My compatriots did not share the enthusiasm. Jeff picked a spot just before I-285 where we could get out of the river and call a cab. We put on the rest of the sunscreen and got in the water for the final leg of the journey. Captain Ahab would not have his whale. He would go to his friend’s apartment and take a shower.
We floated for another thirty minutes to our revised final destination. It was an obligation cruise. The new take-out spot was a parking lot that was everyone else’s put-in spot. Parked cars spilled out of the lot and onto the side of the connecting road. Jeff called a cab.
“Are we closer to the beginning or the end?” I asked.
“The end,” he said.
I’m not sure that he was right, but taking a cab to the start would have undermined everything we accomplished that day.