GRANDPA AND THE GATEKEEPER Written by Steven Calaway Brown As the current picks up slightly, Grandpa and I finish another beer and laugh at some joke he told me a thousand times before about twins and getting a second opinion. I glance downriver and the smiling Gatekeeper catches me by surprise. I didn’t realize we were so close to Boulder Garden and wish I hadn’t drunk that last beer. It’s usually best to wait until after the rapids, but Grandpa and I live in the moment. When your best friend is seventy-five years old, the moment is all you have. At this moment, however, the current pulls us closer to the roaring future. Boulder Garden is the loudest, rowdiest section of the Gunnison Gorge and we hear its chaos from miles upriver. The screaming water amplifies as we slide into the smooth realm of the Gatekeeper. I slow down time with a few strong backstrokes and secure the raft. I zip my fishing pack, fasten the cooler, tighten gear straps, pull in the drag bag, and check the spare oar. I tell Grandpa to finish his beer and put on his out-dated, undersized life-jacket. And “Oh yeah, hold on tight because that son-of-a-bitch is smiling again.” **** The son of a bitch is the primordial Gatekeeper, standing in the water, waiting for us. He towers over the right side of the river and casts a dark shadow between canyon walls. His giant profile reveals the left half of his face and body. His head is tilted downward like the grim reaper and his back is hunched. His forehead is large and his brows are furrowed. His hands curl and are small in proportion to his body, like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. His protruding jaw exposes sharp, jagged teeth in a gaping mouth. He has been eating giant boulders for breakfast for over three billion years.
To the unsuspecting eye, the Gatekeeper is just another clump of ancient granite piled on the riverside, fallen from canyon walls. But for those of us who know him best, he is the guardian of Boulder Garden. Rocks get names where accidents have occurred and every rock in Boulder Garden has a name: Big Blacky, Queen of Spades, The Three Aces, Flipper, and Sally the Bitch. All the current surges into Flipper, whose curving shape causes boats to flip. The first time I took a paddle crew I dump-trucked on Flipper, sending all four clients into the rapid. I recovered everyone in the pool below, but will never forget the looks of terror in their faces, especially from the lady I pulled out from under the boat. She prayed for survival with Hail Maries the rest of the trip. Asking the Gatekeeper for safe passage through Boulder Garden is more than just a superstition, it’s a means of survival. Depending on the sun and the shadow across his face, he is smiling or frowning; and at a certain time of the day he is doing neither—straight-faced and holding his cards. I used to think his smile was a good omen, foreshadowing safe passage through Boulder Garden. However, experience leaves the smile gapingly open for interpretation. The Gatekeeper is the hell-child of the Black Canyon, spawned from the process of time. **** Grandpa, on the other hand, is the child of Molly and Joe from Arkansas. Grandpa is only seventy-five years old and together, we are a century. Our favorite thing to do is drink beer, go fishing, and chase girls. He is an expert at all three. I have a good handle on the first two and learn more about the third from the Master himself all the time. The way he makes girls blush, smile, and who knows what else, is truly an art. He is a handsome blend of John Wayne, OO7 (the Sean Connery version), and Rodney Dangerfield. He flirts with every woman in sight, and his vision is 20/20. He takes advantage of his age and walks a fine line between harassment and chivalry. And most of the time, he gets away with it. When we go out to eat he starts off dinner with, “This is the breast restaurant in town!” or “You’re my third favorite waitress in Colorado.” She says, “Why not first?” Without skipping a beat Grandpa says, “The other two work together, but maybe we can try for a three-way tie!” Just as I’m sure he’s about to get slapped, they wink, smile, and give him a free beer. Grandpa makes an art out of getting free beer.
“Scuze me darlin’, but a tall Indian rode in here on a white horse and drank my beer when I wasn’t lookin’!” “How awful,” she smiles, “damn that Indian and his white horse--we’ll just have to fill ya up!” This stuff only works when Grandpa says it. When I try, it’s: “Too bad kid. Tell the Indian to leave a couple of dollars next time.” Grandpa and I used to play golf several times a week. He charmed the beer-cart lady into delivering us pitchers of beer for free wherever we happened to be on the golf course. I remember an evening when the western sky was on fire with a sunset as we approached the eighteenth hole. We spotted the beer lady driving over the green horizon on a perfectly mowed fairway—you could see her smile from hundreds of yards. Her bouncing hair jumbled at the rhythm of the splashing beer, twinkling in the sunset. Grandpa too, noticed some bouncing. “Wow Stevie,” he smiled, “Look at those beautiful boulders bouncing this way—praise the lord!” ***** Bouncing boulders helped form Boulder Garden in the Black Canyon. Giant rocks boil the flow and make a prehistoric river garden. The wild roar drowns out the whistling echo of the canyon wren, replacing it with sounds of screaming, laughing, talking, wailing, and singing—all a the same time.
Red streaks of pegmatite slash deep veins through solid black boulders, telling the tale of ancient volcanoes—some more ancient than others. The rock appears impenetrable, yet the river cut a massive gorge two thousand feet through its heart. Everything intrudes everything--it’s just a matter of time, or timelessness. The boulders are solid evidence of elemental carnage. Earth, Fire, Wind and Water boiled and toiled with Time—spawning a legacy incomprehensible to those of us who are made of flesh and might live as long as a century. Creatures of all shapes and sizes live and die by the second hand while the canyon endures millennia. Floods and droughts bring life and death to the story without end or beginning. Boulder Garden is older than the Garden of Eden and will live longer than any of our children’s children’s children, longer than the entire human race, long enough to call forever. **** Grandpa won’t live forever but I can’t imagine him gone. From the very beginning he opened gates to the outdoors. He rescued me from the city and took me fishing when I was too young to escape on my own. I remember fishing at a private lake in northern Colorado. . .It was still dark and the birds weren’t singing yet. We were the earliest people up in the world and life couldn’t be better. He packed a lunch, strapped the cooler down, rigged the fishing poles, and wrapped me in an over-sized lifejacket. We motored to the middle of the mountain lake, chummed the area with raw hamburger meat, and waited. After a few anxious moments, hungry trout circled the boat. Grandpa threw a juicy night crawler dangling on a hook into the trout frenzy and handed me the pole. Tug, Tug--Wham! The underworld pulled my line for the first time, lit up my soul, and nearly dragged me in. I was instantly addicted to the primal tug of the wild. “Again, Grandpa, again!” **** So here I am at the Gatekeeper with Grandpa in my boat. I feel the cyclical confluence of everything as I tighten up his undersized jacket and prepare a rod. I tie on a number 8 Rogue Stonefly, crimp the barb, gink the hackle, pull some line out, adjust the drag, and hand my five-weight rod to Grandpa. One-hundred and eighty degrees is a dramatic shift in our relationship, but somehow leaves us in the same boat. Grandpa gulps the rest of his beer as I point to the Gatekeeper. The rock-demon shows all of his teeth with a blood-curdling smile. “See, Grandpa, how that son-of-a-bitch is actually grinning?” Our boat slides through the shady slice of his darkness. My neck hair stands on end and my body wiggles with the heebie-jeebies. “Grandpa, we are about to enter Boulder Garden. Fish the top section because the biggest fish in the river are there. When we get towards the bottom where it looks gnarly and you see Big Blackie, the biggest rock in the river, reel in your line and hold on tight.” I continue to slow down time with strong backstrokes and survey the rapid for as long as possible. My boat creeps into the entrance of the Garden and the time is now. With more at stake in my boat than ever before, I drop into the gauntlet of monster rocks and raging white. Grandpa makes one swift cast into a swirling eddy on the left and draws a giant Brown trout from beneath a freshly grown boulder. A wild fish with red and golden spots shoots to the surface, inhales the Rogue Stonefly, and disappears into the circulating eddy. “Fish! Grandpa, FISH! Set the hook and let ‘em run! Let the line go and pull him along the best you can! Keep ‘em away from the boulders, he’ll try and snap off! Holy smokes! Grandpa, he’s HUGE!” I spin the boat one hundred and eighty degrees so Grandpa can look up river and fight the fish with a clear view. To avoid breaking off, he lets line rip off the reel, making the sound of angry bees. He is well into the backing, the rarely used reserve line for long distance fish encounters, as we enter the middle of Boulder Garden. I lessen the distance between Grandpa and the fish by holding steady in the center of the Garden. The center is surrounded by enough boulders to corral a circulating pool where you can eddy-out. Eddying out here is like parking the time-machine, holding still in massive flow. I dry my wet and blistering hands, check the spare oar again, and tell Grandpa to “sit more in the middle, and remember—falling in the boat is way better than falling out!” The fish takes a powerful run towards the boat and shoots down river. I shift gears with my oars and release the boat into the current, chasing the fish into the future. Grandpa’s rod is bent like a rainbow and the primal tug of the underworld is at his fingertips. His glowing smile makes him look like a child. I see the child-face on many fishermen I take down the river, but this one is just like mine. We are the same gleaming child with the same smile and the same blood. Big Blackie comes into focus as I maneuver the boat through the center of Boulder Garden. Big Blackie is the size of a two-story house and shaped like a prison. The current wants to splatter you straight into him, which could result in crucified drowning between a rock and hard place. I attempt the essential power strokes to avoid Big Blackie and am attacked by a horsefly from Hell. It takes painful, bloody chunks from my hands and inserts a wicked poison that causes my hands to swell with venom. The fly continues to bite me so fast and hard I can’t even row. I let go of the oars to smack the flying demon and it bursts into a bloody volcano. By the time I regain control of the oars, we are swirls away from Blackie. I force the boat to the right with aggressive backstrokes, ramming us into the Three Aces. The Three Aces are Big Blackie’s inconspicuous sandstone cohorts hiding river-right, waiting to punish for over-compensation. They preach the law of action/reaction by slamming me back into the prison-house. The raft piles up against the granite wall of Big Blackie and waves of water surge in, pinning the boat with unmovable force. Nightmare becomes reality. Grandpa’s fish breaks off and flushes down the river. “Fish got away, Stevie!” Grandpa yells. “No matter Grandpa, just hold the rod with one hand and grab a strap with the other, HOLD ON TIGHT!” We are broadside against Blackie and taking in massive amounts of water. “Wow, Stevie! This is like a ‘Perfect Storm!’” Grandpa jokes with a trusting smile. I try wishing the whole scene into a bad dream, begging to wake up. Time slows down and allows for delusional hopes. This can’t be happening, this can’t be happening. The raft fills with even more water and random things wash away from the boat. First go the unhooked water bottles, beer cans, water-bucket, and fishing net. More river surges in and loosens the cooler, sucking down soda cans, salad dressings, squash, oranges, whipped cream, tin cups, plates, forks, spoons, knives, and even the brownie-cake! This can’t be happening. Both of my oars are swallowed by the river and pushed into the depths of her belly. I pull my spare oar from the right side of the boat just in time to get it sucked away also. Delusional hopes wash away with my last oar: this is happening. I have no control, and the boat is moments from flipping, wrapping, or even worse—sinking. Middle of the rapid: rapid thinking, rapid movement, rapid decision-making, rapid consequences--in slow motion. Don’t panic, never ever panic. The river keeps time in its current and holds us still. We are blocked from the future and banished from the past, pinned in the horrific now. “Stay in the boat, Grandpa! Stay in the boat! If this thing flips, keep your feet downriver and use them to push your body from danger. Woody is downriver with rescue ropes—if you see the yellow rope, grab it, hold it over your shoulder, and you’ll swing right in!” Grandpa is hard of hearing, so I scream everything. The broadside of the boat is pinned against Blackie and climbs up the rock as the other side takes on water and sucks under. The more water we take in, the higher the boat climbs. We are about to flip and I am flipping out. Something rings in the back of my head, something I explain to all of my clients but never have to do. . . something about high-side, HIGH-side, HIGH-SIDE “Grandpa, HIGH SIDE! HIGH SIDE! HIGH SIDE!” “What do you mean, Stevie? What should I do?” “We have to climb up the high-side of the raft before she flips, NOW! Come-heeeere, climb up the boat, and help me get the high-side down, she’s about to go!” Grandpa weighs an easy 225 pounds, so our weight makes a difference. We lunge for the high-side of the boat and teeter-totter together on the brink of insanity. I relinquish my last attempts of control and become empty—there is nothing I more I can do, I was never in control anyway. Illusions of control in such a forceful canyon are finally washed away and I’m ready to go wherever it takes me. Decisions are made, not by Grandpa and me, and the raft inches towards the black side down. Our weight and the grace of the River-Gods push the raft back into its horizontal position, unfolding the taco of destruction. We pivot off Blackie and spin back into the flow of the Garden. We are a floating, reckless bathtub, barely above water. Our tub slams from boulder to boulder as I stand behind Grandpa with my arms wrapped around him, water up to our chests. All I care about is sticking to him. If he goes in, I go in. If he drowns, I drown. It all becomes that simple as I tighten my embrace around my best friend. Giving in to the river is almost relaxing--a relinquishing of responsibility. Without the ability to steer we bounce through the Garden, high-siding on every rock. Our only maneuver is to shift our weight to the high-side, barely keeping the boat right side up each time. I hold on even tighter to Grandpa as we slam broadside into the rocks near the exit. Just as she is about the wrap in the final move, the river spits us out. The yellow rope of safety flies across my boat and I tie off to the oarlock. In the calm pool below the storm, Grandpa and I are pendulumed to safety. “Grandpa,” I manage to say, “are you OK?” Grandpa laughs. “Ah, didn’t seem like any big deal to me. I’ve been through war. . .If I was meant to go here, then so be it. Besides, Stevie, you were in control the whole time.” I, on the other hand, am white as the foaming rapids and can’t speak to anyone. We camp next to Boulder Garden and my fellow guides cook dinner without me. I set up Grandpa’s tent and tuck him into bed. Grandpa sleeps like a baby in the Boulder Garden of the Gatekeeper. For Grandpa, the night song of the river is a lullaby. The sound of the raging river keeps me from sleeping. Human screams boil up from the waters and bounce off stone. The screams I hear tonight are an orchestra of my inner fear, Indian cries, tragedy of the past, and a future with no promises. Human suffering is just a feather in the wind for the Black Canyon, but remembered and prophesized by its echoing screams. I lay awake--staring at the stars. ********* A few summers later I was floating by the Gatekeeper with clients in my boat when I remembered the question my friend Jamie Wheal asked me: “Have you ever thought of giving the Gatekeeper an offering? If he gives you so much trouble in Boulder Garden, why don’t you leave him some kind of offering and ask for safe passage.” I pulled my boat over to the Gatekeeper and tied off to a rock. An offering couldn’t hurt. I opened up my ammunition can and looked for something meaningful. Under a headlamp, knife, lighters, matches, candles, sunscreen, tiger balm, nail clippers, wire, duct tape, spare shades, and several random flies, I found two rocks: a piece of pyramidal-shaped turquoise from Mexico and a larger triangle-shaped piece of granite sheathed with lichen from the Black Canyon. Both stones were given to me by close friends and I kept them in my ammo-can for good luck. I reached my arm deep into the heart of the Gatekeeper and found a little stone alter for the turquoise. I placed the turquoise inside the Gatekeeper and covered up the entrance with the lichen-granite. Both rocks fit perfectly and are hidden from the unsuspecting eye. Every season I check to make sure the offering is still in place. Since I filled the Gatekeeper’s heart with turquoise, Boulder Garden has been a breeze. I extend the turquoise offering to all Gatekeepers—mentors, teachers, students, friends, and family who open possibility for us. The Gatekeeper Chronicles are dedicated to these people. In loving memory of Grandpa Bill Calaway Rice