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As the dry plains wheeled below, lined with writhing watercourses, I thought back on the years, the many family holidays, the dinners on the deck overlooking the bay with lights dancing on the water, the hurricanes — Andrew, Floyd, Frances, Jean, Irene — and their aftermaths, the seasons, the ups and downs, and came up with a moment that has stayed with me through the decades with startling clarity.

In late May 1995, the Dolores River boasted a healthy flow and a float through Slickrock Canyon was planned. Betty and Bill were in town, having come for their daughter’s commencement from graduate school in Boulder. We unloaded gear at the Big Gyp boat ramp, and while the others did the long shuttle to Bedrock, Betty remained to keep me company while I rigged the boats.

The boats were ready in good order and we enjoyed lively banter, Betty curious and full of questions, a river rookie at the ripe age of 67.


We went over river basics and I assured her of safe passage, guaranteeing that should she happen to go in the drink at, say, Bull Canyon Rapid, The Flume or the S-Turn, I would jump in and pluck her out personally. The sky was blue and spirits were high.

A group of young fellows rigged a raft next to ours. I noticed a lot of climbing gear, ropes and hardware. They said they were from Durango and wanted to try some of the big faces along the river, hoping for first ascents. They had just returned from Mexico, had a special bottle of tequila and passed it around before shoving off. They offered it to me, assuming that the old lady wouldn’t be interested.

An arm reached out assertively, quickly, not unlike the flick of a frog’s tongue, a confident hand grasped the square bottle and threw it back. And she gave it more than just lip service, did Betty: The bubbles flowed up along the glass of the bottle in jolly bouncing columns. And inside each happy-go-lucky bubble, backlit by the desert sun, was a small, perfect rainbow.

We gazed in awe. Betty handed back the bottle and proclaimed: “I’m ready for that river now!” As we cheered, a thought barreled into my head like a steam train: “That’s my future mother-in-law.” This, fleshed out a little, would be my toast.

After a magical week of swimming, great dinners and much music and laughter, the big night came. After cocktails, dinner and dessert came the toasts. In a rare attempt at politeness, I deferred to others. This was a mistake, as some of the tributes were a bit long-winded. It wasn’t nearly as bad, though, as the wedding recently of another of Betty’s daughters, where the partner’s father stood up before the gathering and proceeded to drone on and on about … himself.

And his career in aviation, and this plane and that plane, and their various specifications, making only cursory mention of his child, to the point that the crowd shuffled their feet and contemplated heckling. To make matters worse, the boyfriend of another of the sisters was inspired at this point to stand and discourse at length about … himself. And his love of flying planes and how he loved flying and the freedom of the skies and blah, blah, blah, to the extent that the bride interrupted him to remind him of the purpose of the gathering.