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  • Writer's pictureashleylodato

All hail the river

* thanks to Kelly Hayden & Leila Myers for photos and videos

The people hunkered down in the shade above the sandbar couldn't see it, but those of us by the boats on the shore had a clear view: a gathering blackness in the V of the mountain range downstream. A storm was coming.

Earlier that day a cloudless blue sky beamed above us, but raindrops were starting to fall....or rise. All around us a fine mist sparkled, as if the atmosphere above were inhaling what little moisture was present in the air. Tiny droplets swirled around us; we held our palms upward and tipped our faces to the sky, trying to sense the source.

This trip had come together as if by magic--delayed two years by COVID and nearly thwarted by permit-related circumstances--and we didn't question the seemingly supernatural meteorological phenomenon; we merely embraced it as one more ephemeral thread of a trip that was either destined or not destined to be. The mere fact that we had that morning left from three different states and reached the put-in within 20 minutes of each other seemed miraculous. Managing to launch that same day (albeit at 8:30pm) was testament to the serendipity that would end up characterizing this trip. Raindrops in a clear sky? Par for the course. "Whatever," we said. We were here, together, despite the odds.

While the adults nibbled at the lunch spread, the kids buried one of the 10-year-olds in the sand up to his neck. The hole was impressively deep, excavated with bare hands and the small folding trowel that was part of the fire pan kit. The kids piled rocks on the subject for good measure and spiked in a few pieces of driftwood, for decoration or for who knows what.

Those of us down by the river saw the black cloud. Ignoring the skepticism of our shade-dwelling compatriots, we set up the tarp, thinking it would provide some shelter from what would surely be a fast and furious cloudburst. But there was no rain, only hail, falling first in pea-sized balls but escalating to grapes in a matter of moments.

The kids abandoned the sand burial, all except the entombed victim, whose head was the only body part exposed. We screamed at the kids to get under the table, while we clawed at the 10-year-old until he could heave himself out of the sand pit.

At first we laughed. Hail! In July! But when the grape-sized graupel shifted to plum and then--no shit--golf-ball-proportion death pellets, we realized someone could end up with a concussion. The kids crouched under the table; the adults held camping chairs over our heads as we watched in awe of the icy bullets bouncing 10 or 15 feet in the air when they hit our rafts.

Later we collected the ridged ice balls, thinking we'd be clever and put them in our gin and tonics. But their curious composition (plus their resemblance to a coronavirus molecule) weirded us out a bit, and we left them littering the beach instead.

The following afternoon when the air under a cloudless sky sucked up ambient moisture in a soft swirl, we were prepared. With no hatches to batten, we circled up under the tarp, books in hand, prepared to use them to defend our skulls from another hail assault. A single ball of hail, about the size of an olive, fell into one person's lap. After that, only rain.

Waiting out the squall, we entertained ourselves with temporary tattoos: feathers, arrows, chevrons, curlicues, and, inexplicably, a lone word, not in Arabic script but instead spelled out phonetically in Roman letters. HABIBTI.

It sounded mystical--part Arabian Nights, part Fairy Godmother. With no lexicologists and no internet, we made assumptions. We started referring to the 12-year-old who had chosen to affix the tattoo to his chest, third-eye style, as "Habibti."

"Habibti," we nagged, "please put on your sun hat. And "Habibti, put down your book and come to dinner." But the kids soon turned it into a rallying cry. "Habibti!" they shrieked as they sprinted across sandbars and launched themselves into the water. "Ha-bib-ti," they chanted to encourage a reluctant jumper standing high on a basalt column at the river's edge. "Habibti," they menaced, ganging up on a suspect in yet another {endless, pointless} game of Mafia.

After the trip one of the moms competed in a grueling mountain bike race. "There were a few moments near the end when I wanted to shout, 'Habibti!'" she wrote us. "I might have been slightly delirious, but this magical word just popped into my head."

Later we looked it up. "Habibti": dear one, friend, a term of affection. So much more than a tattoo--a mantra.

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