Gather ’round and let me tell you about the time Old Man River beat me up and stole my shoes.
The setting: Colorado, a small plot of cabins outside Estes Park. It was both my first trip and the first time that the whole family went together and Dad had rented a nice cabin in a small development of cabins set back from the road among the pine forests that hugged the roadside. A long line of small homes ran a good length down the road starting from the entrance to the cabins with a small, shallow river separating one from the other.
I love rivers, especially when they’re clear, cold, and full of stones and delightfully slimy things like salamanders and fish. Every day I would spend at least a little time walking along the edge or venturing out onto the larger rocks that sat among the gentle rapids. From my side of the river the backyards of the houses were visible so I always saw people outside going about their lives while I poked at things with a stick.
One particular day I was goofing around by the river during some family downtime. On this occasion I was making a game out of putting one of my flip-flops onto the river’s surface and letting it barrel down a channel of small stones before catching it in the outlet. Drop the information that I was around twenty-three at the time here for comedic effect. I found this simple activity very engrossing, enjoying the sound the miniature white water created and the scent of pine, algae, and rocks baking in the sunlight.
Quick details: I was seated at the water’s edge under a tree with both flip-flops off, the other one being placed on the ground. Directly across from the first house in the line if you left the cabins and turned right onto the road. There was a dad playing outside with his kids, neither who could have been more than six years old.
I put the flip-flop onto the water and let it flow down the channel. I must have misjudged the speed the shoe was traveling at this time, or it could have been a single moment of bad reflexes, because it got to the outlet of the channel just before my hand and shot out into the main flow. I immediately scrambled to my feet, yelling, “Shit! Shit! Shit!”, as I rushed into the river to grab my shoe. The dad across the way looked in my direction and I could hear him saying, “Hey, hey-!” in a stern tone which turned into laughter once he realized what the Stupid Tourist was doing.
I was splashing and spinning my legs in that way you do when the water is just deep enough that you can’t effectively run through it, chasing after the errant flip-flop like it had a wad of hundred-dollar bills tucked inside. Because of the rubber sole it never sank so I always had it in sight as I’d hurry over to it whenever it got snagged on a large rock, only to be swept up by the current again just when I reached it. I was now in the middle of the river, weaving around rocks, feet wheeling around like a Loony Tunes character. I wasn’t going to keep up with the flip-flop for much longer at this rate so when I missed it again and came up to the next large stone, I gathered myself and vaulted over it.
I couldn’t have known about the depression in the river bed behind that stone as I crumbled into it with all the grace of a cat on morphine. The flip-flop is quickly getting away as I climb out of the water only to realize that there is now a very angry fish stuck in my cargo shorts. I almost didn’t stop to consider this as I resumed the chase but the flip-flop never stays lodged on a rock long enough for me to reach it. A significant distance has now grown between us and the double-fact that I was barefoot and every submerged stone was slick with algae only act to increase it. Finally, I was simply unable to keep up with the flow as I watched the wayward shoe go around a bend in the river and disappear from sight.
At this point I just wanted to get out of the river so I crossed the rest of the way over to the line of houses which I have traveled/been washed to nearly the end of. There’s a small cobblestone wall on that side of the river to prevent lawn erosion and with a little effort I am able to heft myself onto it where I sat and took a breather. Once I’d recovered enough, I started walking along the wall. A little yappy dog started barking at me and I said, “I hear ya.”, because I didn’t have anything else to add. It’s at this point that two elderly women sitting in another yard get my attention. They explain to me in that way that only blue-haired ladies seem capable of that this is private property and that I am not supposed to be here. I try explaining to them the situation I’ve just been through but their hearts are thoroughly frosted over. I mutter something about their private patch of river being carried downstream as I walk between the houses and onto the shoulder of the road.
Ah, the road. It was just as uncaring as the river it paralleled and offered me three options:
- I could walk barefoot along a steep ditch filled with nettles and hot summer muck.
- I could walk barefoot along the gravel-strewn shoulder of the road.
- I could walk on the smooth section of road with one inch between me and traffic.
Thus I began a miserable walk through Gravel Hell back to the cabin park. I’m drenched and mad at every car that passes by because they can see me mincing through the gravel without any shoes and must think I’m some kind of crazy person. I eventually come to an area on the roadside that’s all trees and scrub. It is only then that I realize that I had run/washed down passed the line of homes and been carried to the next line of houses down the road; Those were not close by. After walking for a time, I eventually made my way back up to the right stretch of houses and turned into the entrance of the cabin park.
It was at precisely this moment that my brother comes walking down the main dirt road and spots me in my sorry state. “Were are your shoes?”, he asks innocently. I want to scream but a low, “Nothing.” covers things for the time being as I trudge back to the place where I had been sitting earlier to retrieve my other flip-flop. The only reason I can think of now as for why I did this was to at least reclaim something from the afternoon, but when I got to the spot I found that the other shoe was gone. It couldn’t have washed away and I don’t know why anyone would want a single shoe. It was as if the Universe had conspired against me for its own amusement by removing the last false sense of victory that I could possibly squeeze from that day.
Somewhere, perhaps on the banks of some great river in Rocky Mountain National Park, I like to think that a young bear discovered a chew toy.