Group Therapy Through the Grand Canyon

After about two hours, I assessed that it was gonna be one long week. Two boats, 28 strangers and four guides – better known as “river rats” – ready to lead the way.

When I booked a whitewater rafting trip down the Colorado River for my kids and I this summer, I was thinking va-cation and re-creation. I was thinking about my teenage son who would be thrilled to wear the same clothes for a week – hell, these were his people. But I was not thinking about group. And, boy, was I wrong. Momentarily, it slipped my mind that all of life is group. And here we were, strangers thrown together, all with the task of navigating together six days of survival in the wilderness.

The first sub-group we encountered were the 70th birthday folks. They gathered in honor of Bill, who wished to celebrate his newest decade without bravado.  He brought his wife – whose name I swear sounded like Titsy, his quiet-but-still-waters-run-deep best friend who became my armchair co-therapist, Titsy’s best friend who was the best of the bunch, his daughter’s boyfriend-soon-be-be-fiancé who laughs like a hyena and my son quickly came to imitate with extraordinaire accuracy… and his very controlling daughter who was working on her second doctorate and made sure we all knew it. By the end of the trip, any external beauty she possessed was superseded by the not-so-pretty behaviors she displayed. It was sad really. Eyes rolled throughout the group each time she told one more person one more time how to do something better – rather, how to do something her way. I wanted to gently tell her that therapy might be a good idea but I figured it was none of my business. And I was on vacation, not a work trip. The kids I decided that we would choose our raft each day based on the one she was not on. The trip immediately became more relaxing.

Then there was another sub-group – the “drunks.” Not really. Just proud imbibers. What a fun bunch. The post-middle-aged men had known each other since kindergarten. One brought his first wife, the other his umpteenth girlfriend. They were funny, personable, and connective while respectful. I miss them already.

There was the grandfather and his teenage grandson. I both admired them and felt jealous. I never had a grandparent take me on such an adventure.

And there was Al, the seventy-five year old, who came as the only single. When I asked him where his compadres were, he told me that they are all either dead or no longer able to take such a trip. I applauded his vitality and told him that I wanted to be like him one day.

And there was my favorite family, the winery owners from Northern California. They have a daughter with the same name as my daughter and the same birthday. We were meant to be friends. We started hanging with them.

And then, there was the “Duggars” from the Midwest. Or the “S” family. Or the “Whos” from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Any of these fit – take your pick. Five kids, all within five years of each other, all with names that like “Big Mama’s,” begin with the letter “S.” At first, they did not talk or make eye contact to anyone but each other. They stayed in their clan, always picking the campsite farthest away.   On one hike, two of the boys were behind me on the single-file path. I thought, here is my chance. I will break them down! I will force contact through their walls of silence. So, I ask … what do you boys like? School. Well, I thought, that sounds boring. Let me try sports. You boys Blackhawks fans? Nope. We don’t watch television and we don’t do hockey.  Oh. Even more boring. They really are the Duggars. How about one of my bad jokes. Flat it fell. Ok. Even I gave up trying to make relationship.

So, we remained in the subgroups of our individual families. As the days passed, we talked superficially about the weather and the meals and which  guide we liked better. We exchanged biographical data and 50 PDF sunscreen.

All until the second to last night when the kids finally decided to stop eying each other from afar and bold the cut of the umbilical cord. They figured more fun was to be had with their own kind, away from their parents. All it took was one child from the “S” family extending an invitation, then it was Ultimate Frisbee the first night and Capture the Flag till 1:00 a.m. the next. By the last day, all eleven kids decided to ride in one raft and put us boring parents in the other. They plotted to riot the guide for his remaining candy stash and proudly flaunted their success.

The group had formed.   The only regret was that we had not put down our quick judgements and procured the necessary security to bond sooner. But life is like that. We attach at our own pace. Never sooner. We sift through the masses to discover with whom we fit. And then once we brave connection, we are reluctant to let go.

I must confess that I never did develop affection for the controller. Oh well. I guess some relationships are just not meant to be. Or we decide we don’t want them to be.  And  I am okay with that too.

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