Rafting down the aisle


"I ain't never rode no wild river, Gus. But I was married once."

—Logging camp cook Sonny Hoskins, from the novel Colorado Moon

I went white-water rafting last weekend in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. On the way downriver, when it was too late to turn back, I asked myself why.

For those who prefer wooden canoes on placid Minnesota lakes, I understand. I could've been in your craft and just as content. Why had I driven hours to such inhospitable waters?

Was it thrill-seeking? Twenty years earlier it would have been—back when I sought that juice like a junkie. But such thrills have lost their kick. Could it have to do with modern man's need for risk? It could have, if there were risk. But it was statistically riskier to drive to the outfitter to register than it was to actually barrel through that violent spray.

As I descended the first waterfall, I determined I was simply curious. I wanted to know what it felt like, that's all. I realized, as I careened off boulders, drenched in towering waves of cold water, that I was merely looking to take in life from some new and novel vantage point.

A sure sign that one is merely curious is that the experience is required but once. Satisfied, the adventurer moves on. After skydiving, years earlier, I felt no need to repeat that ride either.

Today, you can find curious tourists who've experienced space travel. They've paid a handsome sum to learn what it's like to leave Earth altogether, looking back in awe from some deep, silent darkness.

It's again doubtful these people will ever shell out for a second go-round. They now can sit in their yard, after sunset, and stare up at the stars, no longer wondering what it's like in that great abyss.

Curiosity can be a nagging thing, like a little boy tugging on his mother's skirt. It doesn't understand patience and doesn't like to hear the word "no."

The world is indulging that child more than ever these days. By improving safety, advancing assorted technologies, and lowering costs, various gatekeepers are allowing much of our curiosity to be satisfied.

For 500 bucks you can take the wheel of a 600-horsepower stock car and run eight laps at the famed Pocono Raceway. Insurance companies weren't eager to allow that 30 years ago. But it's safer now, as is jumping in the water with a great white shark, something available for another $500, thanks to safety equipment, protective cages, and trained divers who guide you.

It may be, one day down the line, that the one remaining risky but accessible act will be falling in love and getting hitched. That minefield march has yet to be tamed. For many, it's white-water rafting circa 1933, it's diving off the Australian coast minus the shark cage, or racing Pocono without a roll bar.

For better or worse, no matter how much time passes, we can't reduce the dangers or ease the effort of falling in love and tying the knot.

For those rounding the bend and moving toward the altar, there's no harness, no lifejacket, no protective cage or experienced handlers standing by. You're off to the rapids in your experimental craft. Here's hoping you've told yourself why you're doing it. If you get thrown, and race down that river on your back, pushing off the large rocks that loom in all directions, know there's a feeling waiting down the shoreline that may make it all worthwhile.

But it's not about curiosity. As with the climbers who return to Yosemite after a bad fall, or the hang-glider who sails yet again after the crash, curiosity has been usurped. It's now a calling. And it remains fraught with pleasure and peril. It's a ride for those not cowed by risk, knowing heartbreak can hide around each corner, but longing, ultimately, for love's finest thrill.

Courage to you daredevils. As the guide says, just hook your feet under the seat in front of you and don't stop paddling.