When it comes to getting high, John Paschal chooses to stand alone.
We had just pulled the rafts to shore and escorted our passengers to the riverside lunch spot when one of my fellow guides, pleasant in demeanor but anxious in tone, turned and announced to the other guides, “Safety meeting!”
Hmmm. By traditional guiding standards, this was a bit early for a safety meeting. Normally, guides would wait until after lunch, when guests were digesting their sandwiches or taking a squat behind the trees, to gather for an ostensible discussion of eddy turns or an apparent testing of oar rigs, but, as usual, I honored the agenda by assuming my traditional role. While my peers vanished into the shadows with outward designs of reviewing EpiPen procedures or boning up on the most efficient evacuation routes, I began setting up the portable tables and putting out the sliced meat and cheese, content, as always, to remain the odd man out, the one guide who, by all appearances, was perfect, with no real need of collegial congress.
In truth, of course, my fellow guides weren’t discussing the latest advances in knot tying or reminding each other that, yeah, everybody needs to wear a personal flotation device. No, they were deploying their own PFD—a hand-rolled and theretofore hidden delivery system of good ol’ marijuana, the river guide’s drug of choice. So while I finished setting out the mustard and mayo—“OK, everybody, come make your sandwiches!”—my out-of-sight associates were passing around that fatty as if it were part of a riverside eucharist.
It’s hardly a revelation that weed is a key component of the river-guide culture, as intrinsic as the ability to distinguish a standing wave from a hazardous rock, to under-report your tip money to the IRS, to make apple cobbler in a cast-iron skillet, and to wax rhapsodic, with an Abbeyesque flair that inspires the starry-eyed passenger to dream of ditching the mortgage and taking up his own set of oars, about living with the gifts of nature, yielding to primal impulse and going with the unhackneyed flow.
Indeed, in the guiding community, pot smoking really is a kind of holy communion, a way of initiating and then sanctifying a devotion that binds the disciples not only to each other but also to the essential nature of the river, the sort of ever-moving yet omnipresent power, perhaps a bit like the Tao, that humans have always tried first to contain and then to enter, becoming inseparable from the substance and indivisible from its parts. Getting together to get high, and getting high to get together, are actions as old as peace pipes and hookahs, and river guides have long since discovered the harmonizing strength of the ganj—especially in the presence of the stream.
So, if communion and togetherness had remained so fundamental to the guiding culture, why was I serving lunch while my peers were smoking pot? Why had I remained a prudish satellite to their otherwise accessible planet of cool? The answer is simple, really, at least in a long-story-short kind of way: I had long ago said no. Channeling the erstwhile counsel of Nancy Reagan, I had decided even before my debut trip to be the one guide who didn’t spark up—the one guide, on a river of many, who wouldn’t get high.
My self-enforced prohibition had no basis in ethics or even legality. To me, pot had always seemed relatively harmless, especially when compared to booze, a drug that had mangled many a life while incidentally sanctioning the stoner comedy of acts like Cheech & Chong: acts that mined the high-times psyche for innocent, good-natured laughs. The line “Dave’s not here,” irrespective of its value to society, would always be funnier than a Camry split in half by a tree.
And with regard to pot’s unlawfulness, well, let’s just say that the long arm of the law didn’t quite extend to the barely-there village we lived in. The place was pretty much self-policed, which meant that the locals could—and often did—spark up with impunity, turning weed into a daily staple and the sine qua non of assemblies in the light of the stars.
Instead, I had decided to become an outlier for precisely that reason: nearly everybody toked, and in efforts to maintain a measure of independence and the distinction of who I was, I had refused to join the stoner cult, refused initiation into a brotherhood whose ceremonial substance was weed. I wasn’t trying “to be me,” per se, and wasn’t attempting “against all odds” to embody some kind of counter-countercultural resistance, as if I were a mysterious lone-wolf badass sporting a chest tattoo of the First Lady herself.
I had smoked pot plenty of times, most recently with an honest-to-goodness Wiccan and a gaggle of traveling scalawags who appeared to prefer weed to food and drink, as if getting high had risen to the top of the hierarchy of needs and remained there, reigning as an elected but autocratic power. But once the clouds had drifted into sunrise, I had come to dislike the arcane language and insiderish gestures that seemed essential to the secret society I had just joined, those little winks and nods that suggested, “Hey, brah, I know where we can get a dime bag. You in?”
No, I hadn’t been in.
And down by the river, I still wasn’t in.
Granted, given my outsider status, I often felt like an irredeemable dweeb, someone whose incapacity for coolness had forced him into a life of misfit seclusion. Nonconformity, at least according to the movies I’d seen in high school, was supposed to have given me a kind of different-breed cachet, an aura of eccentric dissidence that would have me constantly silhouetted against a renegade sunset, but in reality I often felt isolated, like I just wasn’t one of the guys. It had proved difficult to reconcile the twin desires to fit in and to stand apart, to show loyalty both to my pot-smoking peers and to my abstinent self, and the emotional dissonance that resulted had often made me feel more alone than any social animal would ever have wished to endure.
Still, the liberty of conscience remained a distinctly human license, joined to the natural order of which I was an equal part, and abstinence was the way I had chosen because of one central belief: as a disciple, or as a guide, you have a pick a line and stick with it. You have to use the power it provides you, work with it, never fight it, find freedom inside its limits, and go.
Minutes after I’d set out the sliced meat and cheese, my peers emerged from the shadows to join us all for lunch. With the river still beside us, we talked and laughed and then ate dessert. Afterward, we stepped into our respective vessels, took hold of our oars and headed downstream.
Image credit: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr