the stout, leathery limbs of someone who rolls boulders through the countryside in their spare time.
He gave no name.
But the guides piloting the other rafts here on the Gauley River in West Virginia-fit twenty-somethings-called this elder riverman Buddha. Sitting with paddles at the ready in his looming, gumdrop shadow, we noticed a vague resemblance to the ancient sage. We imagined, however, that the name pointed towards something more than mere appearance.
He ordered us to paddle and our boat entered the current.
“I”m from right here, a West Virginia hillbilly”, he informed us after bringing us through the first rapid. “A long time ago, my brother convinced me to take a raft guide training course with him. I found myself falling in love with the river. My brother dropped out of the class. He works for the phone company now.”
“Falling in love with the river….” We were on a brown stream through chopped-up, nameless hills; the smoke of distant coal stoves hung in the air. This was not the Colorado or the Nile.
To profess one”s love for it seemed extremely noble-considering most river guides are young guys just looking for a good time and perhaps a temporary escape from real life. Buddha, on the other hand, had made this river his life. He described the world-class white water in Africa and New Zealand and told us that he hoped to run it someday-but he hadn”t left yet. One could tell, as he looked at the shale cliifs running for miles through the riverside woods, that he had assimilated more information about this valley than we could even imagine was present for
“That cable up there is all that”s left of the old miner”s bridge. There was a ferry here, but it was too expensive for most miners. So they built themselves a bridge. Tied up their horses on one side every morning
and walked across. Then hiked up to their mines back in the hills. Sometimes for miles.”
Things hadn”t changed much. Every year when the river season ends, Buddha told us, he follows the valleys south, up to the high-country christmas tree farms of North Carolina. With flurries swirling down, standing on a sidehill at three-thousand feet, he spends the winter chopping Firs and Spruces for the Home Depots of the world.
All for another season on the Gauley.
He was, it seemed, a Real Man of the Interior. The type of person one only encounters in the mountains, on the prairie or perhaps on the open ocean. By never lifting his feet from his home range, he had paradoxically
“The New comes down from Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. The gorge in West Virginia is two hundred miles distant. But she”s under the sun that entire time, so she”s mighty warm if you happen to fall in.”
long enough- like Buddha had- and the local river becomes a giant snake, sunning itself across three states. A conception that would make the Australian aborigines proud. But not one a person would ever learn from the voice in their GPS.
Buddha was too expert of a guide that day. Instead of the advertised adrenaline buzz, we came instead to river”s end with a deep sense of relaxation. A celebratory round of beers with the day”s other rafters and guides only added to the hypnosis. As an old bus carried us back upriver-rocking on spent springs through minor mountain passes with the wind throbbing in the windows- everyone finally surrendered to the hot-eared fizz that comes of spending a day between water and sun. A burbling stream of aimless conversation filled the cabin. A guide napped with gaping mouth. The driver held his hand against the low orange sun, his beer still waiting in the cooler. And in the seat right behind him sat Buddha-alone. He had removed his skullcap, revealing a cropped, native-style mohawk. His hands were clasped in his lap and he stared straight ahead through the windshield.