The rubber raft bounces through the rapids. My knees squeeze the side of the boat that I ride like a saddle as we slip down in a trough and then rocket up and over, like a roller coaster. I’m on the New River in West Virginia. I heard a claim that these were the only class V rapids east of the Mississippi, though I think there are others. It’s like most claims, felt to be more valid if an only or best or highest or fastest. Yes, I’m sure there are others, but not in this moment as I squeeze and paddle and adjust my weight in split seconds, Feet behind me then pushed forward, like bull-riding a river. When the river calms, I think about the rapids and the claim and the Mississippi. I’ve been on her, too, though it was a much gentler ride. What she lacks in excitement, she makes up for in size. You can’t move consumer goods through the New River Gorge, so there’s that. Sure, the Mississippi floods, sometimes in tragic ways, but the flood is still the producer of some of the best farmland in the world, bar none. At a w i d e s p o t, our guide tells us we can get out and float. We can even climb out of the river and up that big rock, 15 feet high at least, and jump from there. It’s safe. I roll off the edge and onto my back, my life jacket keeping me afloat. I lazily push and kick my way to the bank. As I step on solid ground, I feel woozy For a moment, unaccustomed to firmness. I stand still as I get my bearings, and I think about how the Mississippi and the New are more different when you’re in them than when you’re out. The bank feels the same in West Virginia and Missouri. And then I think about the observer self, the untouched unmoved watcher of experience who sees both the rapids and the flood but stands still on the shore, unchanged, unaffected. Then I climb the rock and jump back in.
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