“Belly strap!” The shout fades quickly in a nearly empty boat take-out and a blue tail of tubular webbing flies over a stack of reinforced rubber and lands by Matt’s head. His hands are methodical and smooth as he twists the length into a Trucker’s Hitch and runs the end through two opposing carabiners. Using his entire body weight, he cranks down on the webbing and tightens the strap across the stack of four twelve-foot rafts, now poised for takeout on California’s Kern River.
Matt boards a repurposed white school bus which reads “Kern River Outfitters” across the side. He shucks his PFD (Personal Floatation Device) and slips his helmet off his shaggy blonde hair — wet from a day of guiding weekend warriors from Los Angeles down some of California’s best whitewater. He laughs with a few customers as the bus trundles up the windy service road towards highway 178, but is soon horizontal with eyes shut at the back of the bus.
Not quite asleep, Matt remembers the day. He smiles as he thinks about the thrill of charging down his favorite class IV rapid, White Maiden. He felt so certain about his line as the boat bounded over a four-foot drop and into the massive waves below. Surprise rattled his core as the boat was spun by recirculating water and tossed sideways in to the “Room of Doom”. Matt yelled. The downstream tube slammed against the Room’s wall and climbed quickly up the granite face as water flowed into the boat. “High-side left!” escaped his lips, but was heard too late as one body, then a second and third, and finally Matt’s own, tumbled over the edge and into boiling waters below.
. . .
“We are cruising on in to Wofford heights now folks and will be returning to the rafting center in just a few minutes!” jolts Matt from his restless memory. Back on the bus, his trip leader is briefing customers on returning their gear. A deep exhale calms Matt down. The flip wasn’t so bad really, his crew was okay and excited by the experience. Matt says his goodbyes and returns to the KRO Warehouse to clean up and debrief. His day of rafting started at 7:30 this morning, when he arrived to pump boats and prep gear. Now, at 4:45 in the afternoon, the temperature is a dry 95 degrees as Matt walks across the lot to his home, parked in the shade of an ancient oak with tired branches.
Despite the heat, Matt finds his Dodge Ram 250 Starquest fairly cool as he opens the side door, slips off worn flip-flops, and steps up and into his “living room”. His toes wiggle into blue carpeting as he deposits his cell phone and wallet into his Luno Headrest Organizer. He flops gratefully on to his Luno Air Mattress, which welcomes him like an old friend.
When Matt wakes up it’s dark. He reaches up for a wire and flicks a switch. A strand of ambient lights stretches back and forth across his ceiling and twinkles warmly. Time to go. A thousand miles lay between Kern River Outfitters and Idaho River Journeys — Matt’s next stop. Matt told Skip, the owner, he would be there in three days to start guiding weeklong trips on the longest undammed river in the continental U.S. Three days is a gracious time frame and Matt has put enough work into his van to make the journey luxurious. A custom fit air mattress stretches from wall to wall in the back of his vehicle, leaving room for his foldable turtle-shell chair. A comfortable carpet welcomes him home from every outdoor adventure, and his portable stove and cooking set coax him in and encourage him to stay just a little longer for hearty food and well-deserved rest. Life is good this way: always on the road, always at home.