Last Stand of a Tough Guy

The blood of machismo runs hot in the Colyer family. From as far back as I can remember being a tough guy has been first and foremost in my clan.

My earliest memory is of my father riding off with his buddies on his motorcycle. Many of the early stories of my father and grandfather were of how brave and tough they were.

If you consider that in 1991 at age sixty-eight my dad became overall fifth place national champion in the slalom Jet Ski competition, not just in his age group, you might begin to see how being a tough guy has been a necessary part of my upbringing. A side note: My mother took a national eleventh place for women in that same year of competition.

You might also understand that most of the men during my formative years were tough. I lived in a world of competition, of winning, of give it your best no matter the cost.

The year of my half century, while my father was still racing Jet Skis, while my peers were rafting down raging rivers and running twenty-six mile marathons, I found myself napping in the middle of the afternoon, and forced to move slower and with care.

“A rare form of heart disease,” my doctor said, though I prefer to call the Idiopathic Hypertropic Subaortic Stinosis a condition.

“You must take this little pill to slow your adrenal systems,” he said, “or some day you will wake up dead.”

“What are the odds,” my tough guy asked.

“An eventual certainty.”

What he failed to mention was in order to slow the adrenals, I also had to slow my energy levels.

Running at thirty-percent efficiency has left little for my ol’ tough guy to grab onto lately. Most things that needed done around the house flew south for the winter, leaving me with my twenty-five year love affair with my guitar, the ability to create jewelry to pay some bills, and thank the Gods, the ever-present written word.

Before we begin, I want to say that the following story is not a figment of my juicy imagination, but actually happened; which takes us to the last stand of a tough guy.

If I was to name this, my fiftieth year, I would call it a year of letting go and the latest of these letting go’s has been my prowedness as a river goat. For twenty-six years, I prided myself as one who danced over the boulders and rocks of the Yuba, a cascading river coming out of the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains, a few miles from my home.

My Billy goat abilities were unequaled. If there were ever a river rock running race, I surly would have been a contender.

In my fiftieth year, just getting over the rocks was a major achievement, especially in the heat of the summer when being in the cooling waters of the rivers is the only relief from the heat of never-ending triple digit days.

After enjoying a delightfully easy-going morning, my wife and I decided to go to Oregon Creek falls, a tributary to the middle fork of the Yuba River. We sat along its shores at a special bend in the creek. The falls; a thousand gallons a minute blue column of fresh snow melt, cascades over five million year old white granite boulders, into an emerald green pool, wedged between narrow vertical cliffs, under a dense overhanging forest.

We basked in the heat of the afternoon watching some young people swing out over, and drop into the lower pool on a rope that had been hanging from an old Madrone tree for as long as I could remember. Since it was obvious that those young people didn’t have the finer points of the swing, my tough guy decided to show the younger generation a thing or two.

When the swing was vacant, I strutted over and leapt into thin air, grabbed the rope and swung over to the vertical stone wall, pushing back onto my original platform position. I spent the next five minutes attempting to swing out and land on an upper ledge, something which I’d successfully accomplished many times, even as late as the prior summer. After the tenth failed attempt, with a pounding heart, wounded ego, and burning upper body muscles, I finally gave up and sat exhausted on an upper ledge. For the first time, I couldn’t make that critical leap to the highest platform.

I sat, what seemed like forever, considering my wounded ego and realizing that I was too exhausted to use the rope for an easy return to the lower platform. I let the rope swing back to its neutral position, just out of reach.

Not until my heart rate slowed, and light headedness faded, that I saw the rope swing as the only viable way back across the creek to my wife who was basking in the sun on the boulders.

After careful consideration, and a lot of sitting around catching my breath, the only way left to cross the creek would be to scale along one wall of the vertical cliff, then cross the creek at the top of the waterfall.

Having been a rock climber in an earlier time, I felt confident that with slow deliberate three point climbing technique, I could free climb my way out of that predicament and save face by not having to ask for help from that handful of svelte agile youth.

Iscaled the thirty-foot wall without incident, or loosing any of my viral male pride.

When I reached the far side of the cliff, with sewing machine legs and aching arms, I stood on the sandy shore looking across a six-foot wide column of water gushing past me and over the waterfall. In the middle of the water peeked the tip of a heavy boulder buried in the scatter of boulders along the upper lip of the falls. Like most white granite rocks kept clean by the constant flow of water, dry, I knew it would be like course sandpaper. My foot would not slip as I stepped across the relatively simple two three-foot stretches of water. Compared to the precarious cliff I had just scaled, that simple little rock protrusion was a no brainer.

I extended my leg non-chalantly and stepped out onto the dry, exposed tip of the boulder.

In retrospection, and I can only examine those few seconds in hindsight, I imagined that some well-oiled, sun block slathered, greased to the hilt, sunbather had sat on that rock earlier in the day.

My foot landed on the greased rock, slipped on the snotty surface and I tumbled into the water.

I have to admit that over the years, I have on rare occasion, slipped on a rock and found myself in unexpected water. The water always cushioned the fall and more often than not saved me from broken ankles or banged elbows. That situation would have been no different, had I slipped and slid into a cushion of still water. Unfortunately, I was sliding into a column of water that was rushing over a waterfall down onto very dangerous boulders.

In that split second, I found myself ankle, then knee, and waist deep in the water and the force was carrying me over the falls. I grabbed for the one solid object within reach, also my nemesis, the rounded top of the greased boulder protruding from the water. I reached out and clamped my right arm around the rock, only to be ripped away from it like a fly in a strong wind. As if the next few seconds was in a slow motion, I was pulled head first, on my back, getting a glimpse of the brilliant turquoise summer sky, over the fifteen-foot falls toward the rocks and certain death.

Uncounted times I have climbed under those very falls for a water massage and stood on an accumulation of rock and gravel jammed between the two, almost vertical granite formations that wedged the stream into the cascading turmoil.

There was a split second, while slipping over the ledge, I was certain that my life was over. No, my life didn’t flash before my eyes; I simply found it a certainty that one of those rocks at the bottom of my flight had my name on it. My only thought was for damage control, though there was little to do. I was going over the falls on my head, and that was, as they say, the end of it. It was a good day to die.

The river gods must have been with me. My guardian angels must have carefully planned that moment. Luck? Well, yes, luck too!

Probably because of the extra wet winter, with its heavy rainfall, resulting in especially heavy creek run off, the base of the falls had been washed clean of rocks and gravel.

I cascaded, head first, on my back, over the ledge, toward certain death, banging against the two sides of the narrowing vertical boulders on my way down. I expected to hit with a bone crushing splat. Instead of that dreaded sound of my crushing scull or snapping back, I found myself making a delightful kersplash into a two-foot wide and heavenly six-foot deep pool of water.

“I’m alive,” I scream while under the water while floundering for the surface. My ordeal wasn’t over; there was that second falls just around the corner. Not to be swept over the next ledge, I reached out to find a handhold and discovered that my right arm was locked in an overhead position, as a ballerina dancer would hold her arms over her head.

I quickly, without using my rigid arm, wedged myself between the two boulders and took a moment to assess the damage. I had one dislocated shoulder for sure, but when I moved other body parts, I found only a few minor bruises. Though a roaring column of freezing water was pummeling me, I was having a great day. Since no one was coming to my aid, it was fast becoming obvious that no one witnessed me slip. I was twenty feet from my wife, wedged between two walls of rock and screaming for help, but over the roar of the water, I could not be heard.

I could see Barbara and she could see me, if she only would sit up and look. The pain in my shoulder was excruciating. The threat of being swept over the lower falls was imminent. All I had to do was slip on the slick moss and the current would finish its job of me.

After ten teeth-chattering minutes Barbara sat up, put her hand over her eyes to shade the sun and began a search for me. I was waving my one good arm, screaming, and still she couldn’t see me. I watched as her expression ran the gambit of casual observer over to a fearful frantic search.

When she spotted me, I motion her to get help. Because the current was strong, the two man who came to my assistance couldn’t swim upstream to get me, so once they were in position, I was forced to let go and float toward the top of the second falls trusting that the guys would catch me. They pulled my shivering, frozen body out onto a delightfully warm flat sheet of rock with my right arm still locked in the ballerina stance.

I was alive, I was safe, and I was warm again, but there was one final problem to overcome. Oregon Creek Falls lies out in the woods five hundred yards from the nearest road, seven miles from the nearest telephone, and twenty-six miles from the nearest hospital. I could have had someone at the creek go and call an ambulance, which would have taken at least an hour, or I could just go back into town and go to the hospital myself. Unfortunately, we had driven the bike to the falls that day and Barbara could not drive a motorcycle. With that dilemma, all that was left was my tough guy, who stepped in and played his part very well.

There was only one realistic choice, and I had seen a friend do it years earlier. After I absolved my saviors from any possible law suite, I got one of the men to grab my elbow and gently pull it away from my body until my shoulder popped back into place. It was a good day.

We walked back up the hill, got on the bike and I drove home. I packed my arm in ice and spent the rest of the week on the couch.

It was a good day to die, but fortunately not my day.