The Washington Post - July 2004

washpostlogo

In Wyoming, Paddling Upstream

by Nellie Perry

Friends tell me I must learn -- at well past 70 and with Parkinson's disease -- to just say "No." I tell them that all the good things in my life came from saying "Yes."

"Yes" has put me into some tight places, but none so tight as my pup tent beside Jackson Lake, Wyo., a couple of years ago.

A friend of my grandson's had said, "My wife and I want you to sign onto a kayak trip with us."

Caution whispered the negatives. "You in a kayak?" it demanded. "You have trouble getting out of a chair! Think you're a mermaid? You hold your nose in the shower."

To my grandson's friend, I said "Yes."

That July in Jackson Hole, a dozen of us gathered at an inn nestled near the Tetons in their Ansel Adamsesque splendor. Eleven kayakers knew each other, and they met me and my white hair with poorly disguised dismay. They looked at their friend who had invited me as Caesar must have regarded Brutus.

Our guides gave us waterproof seabags for our gear. I had to fit my purse contents into a rubber case no larger than a cereal carton, so my Parkinson's pills went in first. If they got wet, I would spend the trip trembling like an aspen.
Motorized rafts took us to a rocky shore for a picnic lunch. We were to go by kayak from there to an island wilderness where we would camp for four nights.

By the time we finished eating, we had sorted ourselves out -- five lawyers, three doctors and four noncombatants. To compound the mixture, three of my fellow lawyers specialized in medical malpractice claims. We could avoid open warfare only if we exercised our rights to remain silent. An unlikely exercise.

To my embarrassment, I could not keep my balance on the rocks underfoot. After watching me stumble, my fellow travelers found the stout stick that would be my constant companion.

The speedboat that brought our lunch departed. As our guides began the kayaking demonstration, the scattered clouds came together with sound effects and electricity. If we launched the kayaks, we would become a dozen floating lightning rods. We chose the rafts, loading ourselves aboard with extreme intimacy. We chuffed slowly into the curtain of rain, towing our kayaks behind.

Then it hailed. One of the doctors sheltered me under his jacket, and I found that danger dissolves hostility. We became friends. When we disembarked, my leg cramped and he lifted me to shore. Not wishing to say "I'm sorry" with every new problem, I smiled instead. He crowned me "Queen of the Nile."

The sun came out in time for us to put up our tents in daylight. I was the only camper without a tentmate, so the others helped me. Again. Surely they were tiring of me.

Watching our guide, Yoli, prepare dinner made me recall the aroma of coffee perking over a wood fire. I lost my sense of smell with the onset of PD (Parkinson's disease), but my olfactory memory is acute.

Yoli performed culinary magic each night with supplies she had stowed on the raft. I named her "Kali" after the goddess with many arms.

Nate, our college-student guide, searched for "micro-trash" after each meal. Walking with head down, he picked up the smallest crumbs. "Any food will bring bears. If they get used to hanging around people, the bears have to be destroyed." He said we would take all our refuse out of camp when we left. Only later did I grasp that statement's full meaning.

That first night, we began the best routine of the trip. We opened our folding chairs around the campfire, and our conversations ranged from pragmatic to philosophical, from lewd to lofty. The towering Tetons had a calming effect -- on our voices and our argumentative rhetoric.

Late that night my grandson's friend sat with me at the campfire as we stirred the embers and tallied our losses. John was grieving his mother's recent death. We shared memories of my grandson, Will Hancock, who died the year before in the crash of an Oklahoma State University basketball-personnel plane. John and his wife then named their infant son Will, and in his own eloquent eulogy, John told me why.

It was impossible to sit by the ageless Tetons without making silent but cosmic connections and being grateful for this unspoiled place. My disease, incurable and progressive, demands that I treasure every moment as a gift. Wondering when the darkness will come makes me pay attention to the light.

Thus, John and I watched, in silent and heart-stopping wonder, as the crescent moon, accented by a brilliant evening star, appeared between the Teton peaks.

Nate jolted us from moonlit magic to mundane fact. "We have to take these campfire ashes out with us when we leave." He said that we must also carry out the solids from the makeshift unisex latrine hidden on the hillside.

What? Surely I'd heard him wrong. He repeated his earlier lecture that I'd managed to miss: "Urinate beside the latrine. Use the receptacle only when depositing solids."

Nate pointed to the tortuous path leading upward through underbrush and rocks. He showed us the large bucket holding toilet paper and a container of lime. We were to take the bucket with us when we went up the hill. The next guy, dancing in the woods, must wait until the bucket was replaced at the bottom of the path, as a sign that the latrine site was unoccupied.

Nate's instructions caused my bladder to pucker -- and I did not have to go.

Later that night, in my tent and in extremis, I realized that I could not use my stick to navigate that hazardous path, aim the flashlight and simultaneously manage the cumbersome bucket. Unlike Kali, I did not have enough hands.

For the first time in my life, I experienced penis envy. I'd read somewhere that fittings had been devised for women in combat, but I had not followed up at my friendly Army surplus store. What would I ask for? "Please, sir, do you sell, uh, never mind."

Need breeds creativity. I had some Ziploc bags. Despite the restrictions of my gimpy leg and layers of clothing, I filled two bags and sealed them without spilling.

My friends greeted me next morning with hugs. I tried not to draw back, but I worried that an identifiable aroma might waft from my sloshing pockets into the morning air. The line to the latrine was lengthy. I did not know if my Ziploc contents would classify as micro-trash and I hated to ask Nate.

I stowed the bags under my tent floor. Way under. When I got my turn at the latrine, I had other things on my mind. I forgot the hidden treasure.

The second night, I misplaced my flashlight and two of my new pals leapt from their chairs to help me search. Before I could say "Ohmygosh, never mind," they were rummaging through my belongings on the tent floor. One said "Feel under the tent" and started to reach.

It took a full confession to dissuade him from the search.

That week, the campers treated me to some spectacular rides on the water. I did not try to solo but paddled along with a series of sturdy partners in a two-seater kayak. I learned to accept the help that most younger folk want to give. But first Pride had to go with Caution. To the winds.

When I had trouble crossing the rocks from kayak to shore, a pair of guys hoisted me on their locked arms. As Queen of the Nile, I dubbed them "Knights of the Ziploc Order."

I have a new hip and my gimpy leg is much better, thank you. Old PD remains a shadow on my horizon. Not yet a cloud.
This year, I'm saying "Yes" to Acapulco. I have a reservation that includes indoor plumbing.

But I will take Ziploc bags. I take them everywhere.

I traveled with O.A.R.S (209- 736-4677, www.oars.com), a California adventure travel outfitter. The "Grand Teton 5-Day Combo" trip costs $828 per person, which includes four days of seakayaking, one day of rafting, meals and two-person tents. Sleep kits are an additional $25. Excursion is offered on a weekly basis.

Nellie Perry is a freelance writer and retired lawyer in Hobart, Okla.