On My Own

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Last Thursday evening, I drove into Fayetteville, W.Va., to set up camp for the weekend. Still on the road to recovery after the head-cold-from-hell, I had finally regained enough energy to get out for a quick bike ride the day before. Even so, I wasn’t feeling 100%, which was terribly irritating given what the weekend lay in store.

Gauley Fest, Craggin’ Classic, the New River Gorge SUP Race. Paddlers and climbers from near and far were, like me, flocking to Fayetteville at that very moment in anticipation of an epic weekend.

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And the weather looked epic too. Mid-60s and dry.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen a 0% chance of precipitation in the New,” I kept hearing in town.

Climbers were stoked. Paddlers could really care less. They’d be getting wet anyway and really, what fun is a kayaking festival without a downpour?

I could feel the adrenaline in the air as soon as I passed the green sign off the side of Rt. 19 denoting Fayetteville as “the coolest small town.” Adventure-mobiles of every type lined the streets, loaded down with boats and bikes and coolers and lawn chairs (my rig certainly felt in good company). Quality restaurants, locally made beer, good music, world-class rivers and rock. I’ve lived and guided in the New for a couple seasons before, so I may be a bit biased, but I’d say that “coolest small town” decree (made in 2006) hits the nail on the head. The people here, whether they’re first-time visitors or year-round residents, come for the mountains. It’s a fact – cool small towns attract really cool people.

So why had it been such a struggle to get any of my friends to join me for the weekend?

School. Marital obligations. Vacations. That head-cold-from-hell. It seemed everyone I asked had one excuse or another for why they couldn’t make it to West By God for the last weekend of summer.

Herein lies the issue with traveling solo: people are flaky. The week had started out with the usual array of vague commitments – the “I’ll see you at the put-in” and “Let’s climb!” But by the time Friday morning rolled around, my last hope for a climbing partner fell through and I was left, alone, to begin picking up the scraps of what I thought was sure to be an awesome weekend.

Gene and Maura Kistler, two of the brains behind Water Stone Outdoors and the nucleus of the local climbing community, very kindly let me set the Go up in their yard for the weekend (thank you!). If I could describe these two in three words, it’d have to be generous, selfless, and freakin’ awesome (okay that’s four). ** Warning: tangent. Bear with me.

There are a few “scenes” in Fayetteville, the largest two probably being the climbing and paddling communities. They’re friends with each other, there are a few folks who cross over into both realms, but mostly, these two mico-villes have their own potlucks, and, per this weekend, their own events. I never got to know the Kistlers during the two summers I worked in the New River Gorge, but they’re the type of good people that make you feel like family the first time you meet. They were some of the original shaker-movers in town who moved to West Virginia in the early ’90s and saw the potential in Fayetteville. They are super-involved in everything, from planning committees, to green initiatives, jam circles, and community events.

Consequently, they were up and at it early that Friday morning, busy with preparations for the Craggin’ Classic festivities. My friends in town were already at work in the restaurants or on the water. I was beginning to feel very much like everyone had something better going on…except me.

I dutifully sat down at the Kistler’s kitchen table and began plugging away at writing, returning emails, making phone calls. Given the cloud of disappointment looming over my shoulder, I remained relatively productive until lunchtime when I could no longer ignore the turquoise-blue skies and warm sunshine. But what to do? I’d never had this problem before, finding a crew, especially in the New River Gorge where most everyone would rather play hooky than work.

And then, as if the Universe had had enough of my moodiness, in walked Karen.

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“Hey! Want to go climbing?”

What. I stared at her wide-eyed for a second, wondering if I had somehow hallucinated this apparition of a woman who just solved all the complaints I’d been whining about in my head. I’d never met her before, but she stood there smiling at me like we’d been friends for years. She told me she was in town from New York to visit her boyfriend Paul, the local AAC campground host and a stout-climbin, mandolin-playin fool. Unbeknownst to me, she had also been cranking out some paperwork and was ready to get outside and climb.

“I’m meeting some friends at Bridge Buttress – you’re welcome to come,” she said, smiling brightly.

I about leaped out of my chair. Things were starting to look up.

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Though I only ended up on a few top rope climbs, my earlier feelings of self-pity waned with every minute we spent at the crag. Perfect weather, new friends, and fun routes kept our little group occupied until the sun sank below the tree line. In the evening, we crowded underneath a tent and drank beer and looked at gear and listened to podcaster Chris Kalous interview local New River Gorge climbing legends Kenny Parker and Mikey Williams.

I found myself enjoying, for once, the novelty of showing up to a niche-event solo. I sat there among the salty crew of climbers as they talked about the weather and their summer projects, drinking my Bridge Brew IPA and feeling no particular need to contribute my pathetic history of climbing (or, more appropriately, following and belaying). Instead, I was just happy to melt into the crowd and ride the vibe.

And then I got the text. Two words.

Upper. Gauley.

While I certainly enjoy climbing, I’d rather be on the water. After stepping it up on a few runs this spring and summer, I’d decided that I wanted to check off a run down the Upper Gauley in a hard boat, something I had yet to do. I never thought it’d be feasible though, given that 1) this was the one weekend I’d likely be around for the release and 2) none of the people I paddled with regularly were in town. Like the climbing partner I’d quit searching for that morning, I’d also abandoned any notion that (heaven forbid) I might actually paddle the Upper Gauley during this year’s Gauley season.

But there it was, falling straight in my lap, the chance to paddle the Upper Gauley. How could I say no?

Immediately, my relaxing evening was over. A gnawing pang in my stomach that would grow to a raging nausea over the next 12 hours distracted me from the beer in my glass and I tossed the remaining half of it. It’s a familiar feeling to me, that nervous energy. Its side effects can often include (but are not limited to) loss of appetite, feigning physical illness, inventing prior commitments, and occasionally bailing. I’ve resorted to this once or twice before, particularly in the wintertime.

But I’d been talking to everyone about running the Upper Gauley this year. I wanted to do this. I was ready for this. Right? Sure, I didn’t know the people I’d be paddling with, except for my WFA instructor Jason (!!), but they supposedly knew the lines. Plus, I thought to myself, I can read water and roll…what can go wrong?

By 8 o’clock the next morning, that conviction was becoming harder to stand by. I packed up the camper and force-fed myself half of a peanut butter and honey sandwich. It was all I could do to swallow, but by the time we were at the put-in for the Upper, I was glad I’d managed to down something.

In total, there were four of us in kayaks and a couple in a shredder. The parking lot was packed with kayakers, open boaters, rafters, shredders, river boarders. Paddling enthusiasts of every type were there. Crews of men were even wrestling creature crafts into truck beds. From the newbs (like me) to the Demshitz crowd, everyone was there for that little slice of whitewater heaven. As I slid into the water and took a few strokes, my uneasiness started to edge away.

“Which rapid is this?” I asked Sarah, one of the kayakers in our group, shortly after we put on.

“Dunno,” she said, smiling wide.

Incredulously, I paddled silently beside her until I could no longer fake my fear. It returned, full force, and I floated to the rear of the pack to berate myself for making such a careless decision.

What am I dong out here? I thought. What if these people are terrible kayakers? Would they help me if I got in trouble? Was I going to have to save them? But I don’t even know the lines!

Panic set in. I scanned my brain in vain for the rapid descriptions I’d stared uselessly at the night before. Before fear could sink its teeth in too deep though, we were suddenly sitting above Insignificant. Jason gave me a little beta, something about a hole in the middle and some holes at the bottom to stay right or left of… I struggled to retain anything he said, but when he peeled out into the current, I followed suit and purposefully took one stroke after the next, downstream into the unknown.

I hit that hole at the top, rolled, got off line (if I was ever on it) and proceeded to punch most every hole after that (I think they call that the hero line). Still, I made it, and I let out a “hell yeah” at the bottom eddy.

In general, that was the theme of the day – nervously sitting above a rapid or scouting from the bank, vaguely hearing Jason describe his plan, crashing through the biggest waves and holes I’ve ever seen, then laughing hysterically at the bottom. In all, I had good lines with the exception of Pillow, in which I shot straight into the eddy above the Room of Doom, flipped against the wall, had my skirt implode, then swam with shame into the pool below. As if that embarrassment wasn’t enough, of course Eric Jackson himself would be the one to rescue my Mamba.

“What happened man?” he said.

“Skirt implosion,” I managed to stutter in between gasps for air.

“Bummer,” he said before cartwheeling back out into the current.

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By the time I’d made it to Sweets Falls though, I couldn’t have cared less that my skirt imploded or if EJ thought I was a beater or how many friends bailed on me that weekend. Maybe it was because I was too exhausted to even lift a can of Devils Backbone to my lips, but I think that mainly, I was just high on life.

Sure, sometimes it’s hard to roll into town without so much as a plan on where to sleep, but that’s when the adventure really starts. As I sat there among a group of people I’d just met that morning at the bottom of one of the most iconic rapids in the world, I couldn’t help but be proud of me. I could finally see that I was the one who made this moment happen. I felt very much in charge of my life, like I’d successfully grappled that fear of being alone by the horns and kicked it to the dirt. When I ditched my comfort zone and charged full steam ahead, I realized that I’m bolder, braver, and a little crazier than I give myself credit for. I saw, for the first time, that being on my own isn’t a hurdle and it’s certainly not a weakness. It’s an open door.

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Check out these photos from the SUP race, which I did not participate in. Sunday was very much my recovery day. Great event, Mel!

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