Return to the river, and how I met my wife
|Angus, in the slalom.|
|Abel in Adventure Camp on the Tuck, with me...|
|and in the Cullowhee Slalom|
THE SUMMER OF 92
In 1992, I was halfway through my last full-time stint on River Staff at the center the day I met Sloan. It was mid-July, just after her 18th birthday. I was having a pretty good summer by all accounts, cutting loose from Charleston, South Carolina after a classic undergraduate college experience punctuated by not only a privileged humanities education but also late nights, old bricks, great food and youthful gluttony, lots of beer, part-time jobs, fast friends, endings of things, sometimes sadness, toward the end more early bedtimes along with training and sobriety, and not a strong enough sense of place. It sounds cliche' to say I was trying to find myself, but I was definitely searching for something, and making progress.
I graduated from the College of Charleston with an English Literature degree in 1991, unsure of what to do next. I'd casually offered up law school as a standard answer when anybody asked, but I lacked the confidence and purpose to really pursue it. It didn't feel right. I'd worked on the river and at Boy Scout Camp but got bored with the endless repetition of greeting and facilitating the experiences of others, raft guests and kayaking or merit badge students, unique and new as they might be to each individual. I worked in my older friend's bicycle shop long enough to know that 40 hour weeks of retail sales was a grind, no matter what you sell. It's another story entirely, but I'd discovered a graduate degree that would let me work on college campuses. That was a safe-feeling extension of college, and intellectually fun, so I was headed to USC after one last summer at the river.
That summer, meeting anybody new who didn't work or play in the gorge was unlikely. I was paddling less (like never) and beginning to get serious about racing. After two Assaults on Mount Mitchell in 1990 and 1991 and taking out a Category 4 license, I had just wrapped up a gap year working full-time in the bike shop and racing with Coastal Cyclists all over South Carolina and neighboring states. I'd upgraded to Category 3, a sub-elite but still pretty fast classification that fed my ego and delusions of grandeur. I had a shiny, still-new steel and chrome Italian Pinarello with gearing better suited for flat road races and fast criteriums, not steep, long Appalachian climbs. I had time -- Angus Morrison, namesake to our Angus, was head guide and in charge of scheduling. A massive 1972 Olympian (flatwater sprint canoe), he was sympathetic to my obsession with training and gave me minimal work in return for my pledge of ultimate flexibility. My morning ritual placed me in his field of vision at Slow Joe's every morning, with coffee and a newspaper, available to pinch hit, fill in, substitute, or otherwise help if he needed me. But on most mornings, I was given a green light to leave and go ride my bike, so I led few trips and met proportionately fewer guests that summer.
THE RAFT TRIP
On that morning in July 1992, I was headed out to ride my frequent 50-mile loop from Wesser all the way around Cheoah through Stecoah, Robbinsville, and Topton in the intermittent rain, but Angus stopped me. We had extra walk-ins, and he needed somebody to lead a large church group from Lake Junaluska. Highly effective future NOC Head Guide Robin Pilley was on the trip training to become a TL (Trip Leader), and she just needed me to "check her out" or conduct a final observation, so I'd have little real responsibility. Because of my standing deal with Angus, I said sure and started checking guests' PFDs while Robin prepped her trip talk. A group of girls, led by blonde-haired Sloan in a coral-colored t-shirt and purple soccer shorts, pressed forward and asked me to please "check" them which involved yanking on side straps and tugging shoulder material to ensure a snug, safe fit. She knowingly told her friends that she was scared, wanted to be in my raft, and that safety definitely required her to "get to know her raft guide." She repeated it enough times to get my attention. I asked Robin to make sure they were assigned to my raft.
Boarding the bus, her church group advisor along all the way from home, Miss Maggie, pitched forward in her bulky lifejacket as I passed her seat, leaning her T-grip-topped paddle away toward the window, and whispered pointedly, "That's our Sissy you were talking to. SHE is SPECIAL."
On the water, there was some discussion about "the lifeguard." Sloan "got" me, and her friend Holly would have dibs back at the Lake Junaluska swimming pool. She and her friends liked my shaved legs. The high school guys up front let out some nervous, probably homophobic snickers but weren't uglier than that because maybe they were actually nice boys or possibly because they were pretty much under my command. Sloan flirted, and I flexed and postured -- I don't really speak French (like she does, now) but played on my last name with a practiced, "Je m'appelle Jean-Michel des Peaux" (pronounced "Jawn-Meeeshell DAY-PO") which was met with some more American or colloquial expression of the desired, "Ooh La La!" from the girls in my raft. I was never so "on" in my own mind, or so lucky in just about anybody's.
As we beached and guests were herded toward the equipment wash area to drop their stuff in soapy disinfectant, Sloan casually offered to trade and teach me to waterski at her parents' lake house back in South Carolina. I said that I'd love that and turned to load the rafts. She and her trip melted into the wet or waiting tourists milling around the dusty gravel parking lot cluttered with tightly parked or circling cars, raft busses, and families with new t shirts. The sun had come out. I'd go ride, still, and went to get my car, a black Honda Accord with Yakima roof racks, sporty still and newish -- I looped through the guest parking lot, and there she and her friends had just returned from across the river and the store with a Ben and Jerry's ice cream bar. I rolled the window down, leaned across, and asked for her phone number so I could go skiing after the season ended and I went back to Columbia for grad school. She obliged, and I stuck the small slip of paper in my dash along with all the pocket change, receipts, Powerbar wrappers, and debris accumulated over a season of nomadic travel and outdoor activities. That was one of the most irresponsible things I've ever done in my life, and it could have resulted in unknowable loss, except for that streak of luck.
OUR FIRST DATE
So, after another month at the river, I went home to Easley, SC. While packing my stuff to move to Columbia, I recovered that number, and I dialed it on the telephone. She didn't answer the phone, but her brother did. I don't recall the discussion, but he wanted to talk with me. Then, I was passed to her mother. She did, too. Then I think I was told she'd call me back but that she wasn't at Furman moving in after all -- she would be going locally to Francis Marion where they gave her an even better (absolutely full, and then some) scholarship. Furman's loss.
We connected, and decided that the next weekend I'd meet her in Sumter, where we'd eat dinner and then I'd follow her to the lake house for the weekend.
I got to the Applebees parking lot first, dressed in khaki shorts and a white shortsleeve Patagonia knit shirt that was clean. On a late August afternoon in lowcountry South Carolina, it was still warm in the long shadows of the building and cars and would stay comfortable through the night. At the river where I saw her last, there'd be some chilly air, but not down here. I saw her wheel in, driving an aging but sporty little Datsun with a 280Z engine but bad mufflers, announcing her arrival. She got out and we met. She was wearing a bright green dress with bare, suntanned shoulders and this haircut, the picture taken just months before...
|Taken within a month or two of the day we met in 1992, I've carried this photo in my wallet for a little over 24 years, now. While the picture fades over time, she gets prettier in person every day.|
Dinner was electric, as only first dates between young people can be. I remember we went to a store afterward so that I could buy flowers for her mom, and she wrapped her arm around my arm and said that she hoped I didn't mind but that she was a "tactile person." I didn't mind but had trouble saying so because my heart was racing and words weren't easy. Touch is a pure form of expression, and her fingers gripping my arm felt really right.
I followed her from Sumter. There was a bit on the highway, then some interstate exit businesses and lights, then two-lane county roads, some intersections, lots of straight sections, live oak trees, scrub pines, straight rows of tall planted pines, cotton and tobacco fields, deep sandy ditches, trailers, American and rebel flags, lots of trucks. As it got dark, the roads got smaller, and the weeds seemed to grow closer. Finally, a narrow chip and seal road turned to sand, we passed through the pitch-dark umbrella beneath some massive antebellum live oaks, drove under some leaning light poles, around and through some trailers and shacks on a grassy unpaved path, and stopped beside a red-wood-sided double-wide house built into a solid peaked roof with an attached shed running the length of its back and a chain-link shack full of tools and steel counters. It smelled like fish and gasoline. Cars and a Little Debbie step van were parked on the grass. Anthills, pine trees, paint cans, and lawn mower parts offered hazards in the dark. When the engines stopped and we closed our doors, the cessation of harmonized motor noise punctuated by two sharply abrupt, soft, familiar slams didn't preclude silence. Katydids and air conditioners made their solid wall of noise all around us, although there was a sense of a vast open, quieter space out in front where I'd later discover a front yard with picnic tables and a Pawley's Island hammock, a boat house, a beach, metal tracks, and two long wooden docks walking out into the expanse of Lake Marion.
"Je m'appelle Jean-Michel des Peaux"
Sloan said, "Now you get to meet my Momma and my Daddy" and led me around on the short grass, up onto the deck, and through the light metal screen door and white window-paneled door inside into the cool.
She crossed a dimly lit living room and I followed close. It was dominated by a square folding table and four straight chairs, men sitting all around. They looked like that which they were, farmers, route salesmen, and plant managers recently or partly retired, or on vacation. Big men with barber chair haircuts, trucker caps, cargo shorts or jeans and light short-sleeve dress or Hawaiian shirts, solid brown shoes and cheap sneakers. They played cards, with cold cheap red-and-white-labelled bottled beers on the table, maybe two smoking cigarettes and darkening the space with their blue haze.
The biggest man was seated with his broad back to the door. He looked truly massive, although I'd discover later that he was merely huge at about 6'2" and maybe 300 pounds. That's 6'2" but with a 30" inseam, short powerful legs and an extraordinarily long torso, like a gorilla, appearing to have the height of a linebacker or professional television wrestler when seated. Used to be that body type was described as "tall in the saddle."
His head turned revealing a profile silhouetted against smoky lamplight. His graying hair was full and thick and swept over his ears and over his collar. A walrus mustache scowled above a stubbled chin. I couldn't see his eyes beneath the low-pulled brim of his hat although I could feel they were fixed on me. Even on his large body, his head was imposing -- I'd learn later he was nicknamed "bighead" at the railroad where he worked as a brake mechanic in his younger days.
"Je m'appelle Jean-Michel des Peaux," I'd said on the river. Everything I'd said, she'd repeated when she got home from church camp. Also, "he's the one I'm going to marry." I think these things got his attention.
As I came around the table, he leaned back. The rounds of "Hello Sissy" and calls for her mom who was in the back simmered down. Gazing under his hat, holding his cards with both hands over his open shirt and sunburned chest and belly, Sloan's dad held the floor. His first words for me in a deep, measured, lowcountry South Carolina PeeDee accent, were maybe menacing, definitely memorable. Without introduction, inflection on the first word and the last one, he said,
"BOY, tell me about this Pepe le Pew BULLsheeit."
|Only one thing to do...|
There was total silence in the room, even as her mom, usually a constant vocal presence, had entered and wrapped her arms around Sloan's waist. Everybody was watching me, or nervously glancing at him, still and waiting. Time stood still but only for that instant. I crossed the rest of the room and extended my hand and chose to eschew the respectful but subordinate "Mr. Evans" or the culturally normal "Mr. Jack" and said, "It's nice to meet you Jack. I've heard a lot about you. I'm Michael."
It was a great weekend getting to know him, her mom, her brother, and her neighbors. I learned to ski, sort of, although he drove the boat and was happy to increase the speed until I hit the water like concrete, over and over again. Sloan (Sissy to her family and everybody at the lake) was a masterful athlete on everything from a slalom to a surf board onto which she could step from the end of the dock. That was our first date, and how I met my father-in-law.
|Sloan can slalom! This was taken years later...|
|Before and after: Sloan, her brother Slade and I on a late-August trip back to the river only weeks after our first date in 1992; then, Sloan, me, Abel, and Angus, September 2016|