Life is filled with defining moments, and a few weeks ago I had one of my own as I stared down a challenge to kayak the L.A. River with steely determination.
OK, so that’s a bit dramatic.
Read Part One of this L.A. River expedition by clicking here.
For this challenge, Barry explained that we would have to navigate an even narrower space between two rocks and then immediately "rudder right" (whatever that meant). Again, I went last, hoping to identify any pitfalls beforehand, and again everyone went ahead of me with no problems whatsoever. When my turn came, however, the winning streak came to a close. Through some miracle, I made it through the passage, but that’s where the good news ended. I had barely crossed the threshold of the rapids before my arms were flailing and I was moving wildly out of control over the rocks. Of course I finally hit one of those said rocks, turned over, fell out of the kayak again, banged my knee and cut my hand open. I was now bleeding. Red Flag #6. Was the universe trying to tell me something? I wondered. Seriously, I wondered.
Barry and Lou helped me get my soaking wet person back into the kayak yet again, and I drifted on to meet the other kayakers, whose earlier pity had now given way to words of support like “you’re looking better” and “you’re doing fine." Of course I knew they were lying. I understood perfectly well that I looked utterly ridiculous sitting there dripping water from my helmeted head to the tips of my now-ruined sneakers, while they were all perfectly dry and looking as breezy as they did at the beginning of the journey. What was I doing here? This was not luxurious!
A calm patch of river followed, and I was able to keep up well enough for another 10 or 15 minutes but—yep, you guessed it—it wasn’t long before the most challenging rapids yet came into view. Barry again launched into his instruction for crossing the latest natural obstacle, but this time around I looked at Lou, who must have seen the sheer terror in my eyes because without me saying a word he offered to walk me across the next waterbound hurdle. I of course agreed without hesitation. This did not, however, turn out to be the panacea I had hoped it to be. Walking through rapids with slick, uneven rocks proved to be almost as perilous as my attempts at maneuvering a kayak across them.
As I stumbled across the algae-covered stones, water rushed between my legs and into my sneakers, and I thought, “In what world is this fun?” My wandering thoughts ended when I saw the veritable obstacle course of stones and rocks that lay ahead on the next length of river. Imagine taking a driving test after maybe two driving lessons and then being asked to drive backwards in and out of about 20 traffic cones for about 2000 feet and you’ll understand about one-tenth the level of anxiety I felt. Surprisingly, however, I braved it. I was totally and disastrously unsuccessful right out of the gate, but I really, really tried.
Once again, Barry was forced to assist me, but this time he brought along the big guns. Coming to terms with my hopelessness, Barry attached a rope to my kayak so that he could “give me a tow” through this treacherous leg of the adventure. Aside from being humiliating, this turned out be the worst part of the whole adventure, because as Barry whipped along in front me, my kayak twisted and turned erratically behind him, hitting and getting stuck on more rocks than before. I had no control, and so, as you might expect, 10 minutes into this leg, my kayak hit a huge rock and, for the third time, I was thrown from the kayak into the raging waters.
This time I lay there for a few seconds as the cool water rushed over me. My resolve to see this thing through was at an all-time low. Once again I eyed the wall and the walkway above. When I regained my footing and clambered back up, I asked Barry if we were nearly at the end of our trek. He replied, “No, we’re only about a quarter of the way through.” I laughed, because I was certain that he must be kidding. But Barry wasn’t smiling as he fidgeted with the rope that connected our kayaks.
“You're kidding, right?” I asked, trying to sound as calm as possible.
“Nope, I’m not,” Barry said without even looking up at me.
That was it. I had snapped. There was no way I could take another hour and a half of this.
“I’d like to walk the rest of the way,” I said.
“Over this whole part?” Barry asked eyeing the river.
“No, all the way to the end of the course,” I replied flatly.
Barry and Lou looked at me somewhat incredulously before conferencing between themselves. I later learned that no one had ever asked to get off this wild and crazy water ride before, so this was a bit new to them. Lou eventually came back, grabbed my kayak and told me to follow him as he stashed my kayak on the island that divides the river. Lou powered through the thick brush and greenery of the island to get me through to the other side and back to the bike path. I felt like I was in an episode of Survivor as I brushed past cobweb-covered trees and felt god only knows what jump across my feet. I couldn’t see what was in front of me or what was behind me. I couldn’t see where I was stepping or what I was stepping in. I didn’t even want to think of what was on that island. I just wanted to get to the other side. I wanted out. I wanted to be free of the L.A. River forever. This may sound a trifle melodramatic since dry land was never beyond my eyesight, but it is completely authentic.
When we got to the other side, Lou told me to walk up the wall to the bike path and then to walk about a mile and a half to the kayak drop off point. I thanked him, shook his hand and began the happiest mile-and-a-half walk of my life. I was still completely drenched and covered with algae and tiny branches as I limped along the bike path with my shoes squishing water at every step, but I was overjoyed to be back on dry land. I didn’t care that cyclists and other people on the path looked at me like I was a homeless person or that small children seemed to recoil in fear at the sight of me. In fact I was almost oblivious to the stares because my mind was elsewhere.
On that quiet, solemn walk, I came to understand that the last few hours had been a defining moment for me. I realized for the first time that in travel, as in life, you have to know who you are. Who I am is a luxury travel writer. Who I am not is an adventure travel writer. And that’s OK. Go Bear Grylls and Anthony Bourdain! I got nuthin’ but love for ya. However, for my part, I’ll stick to elegant pursuits in controlled environments. I’ve found my lane and I’m going to stay in it from now on.
[Note: Nature lovers and L.A. River clean-up supporters, do not hate me or barrage me with negative comments. I am not begrudging you the river. I support you. Go forth and prosper. I wish you well. I will not, however, be joining your efforts anytime soon.]
Follow Duane Wells on Twitter @theduanewells, on Instagram @therealduanewells, and on his website at theduanewells.com.