Randy Breckenridge, and a True Story of the Colorado River

Randy Breckenridge 1985_1I have a new book coming out next month, Wheels of Change, and it’s dedicated to Randy Breckenridge, who died under sad circumstances, at too young of an age. He lost a baby to SIDs, went through a tough divorce (is there ever an easy one?), grew estranged from many of his friends, and had his spirit roughed up by drugs and alcohol.

I met Randy at UCLA when we were both freshmen in the Rieber Hall dorm. We became fast friends because of a shared interest in mountains and rivers. He was a real river rat and an expert whitewater boatman who guided commercial rafting trips for the American River Touring Association (ARTA). Together we rafted the Stanislaus, South Fork of the American, Tuolumne, and the Big Daddy of all western rivers, the Colorado in the Grand Canyon.

If you ever get a chance to go down the Colorado on a raft, jump on it. It’s the Sistine Chapel of whitewater river experiences. My chance to raft the Colorado came when I was twenty and kicking around the country with no money, no job, and happy as a fellow could be. Randy was working for ARTA, and there was an opening for an assistant boatman for a two-week, oar-powered trip down the Grand. He invited me. Free of charge. Needless to say, I found time in my busy schedule to go. Rafting Colorado_1

The Colorado is a big, wide, fast desert river. Our trip covered more than 200 river miles, passing all the while through the amazing Technicolor walls of the Grand Canyon. Most surprising to me was how tropical it was. Down at the river, at the base of these ancient, incredibly beautiful canyon walls, there is an abundance of something you don’t ordinarily find much of in the desert: water. You can hike up these side canyons with overflowing creeks and waterfalls with lush ferns and greenery, and it’s like you’ve been transported to Tahiti.

Once a gila monster walked through our camp, and late in the day at another site several of us stood around and watched the petals of a white datura flower open up before our very eyes, as if we were viewing it through time-lapse photography. Datura 2

On the mighty Colorado, once you are inside a major rapid, it is impossible to turn or maneuver your raft because the water is too strong and fast. So you must set your boat up straight at the top of the rapid before you enter, and then hang on for dear life once you’re in it. Boats full of people flip quite often on the river, and that was what happened to us on our trip.

But we did not flip on Lava Falls or Sockdolager or some other big rapid on the river. It wasn’t even a rapid, and it didn’t have a name at the time. Because there are long stretches of open, flat water on the Colorado, it is common for the professional boatmen (or boatwomen) to turn the oars over to passengers to give them the experience of rowing. This was what Randy did. A passenger was rowing, and no one noticed the big rock jutting from the water ahead of us. We reacted too late. The power and speed of the river even in this mild stretch caught us off guard, dumping us all into the drink.

Two of the passengers were not strong swimmers and not wearing their life jackets. I towed one to shore, and Randy pulled out the other. Everyone made it to shore safely. But our inflatable six-person rubber raft was wrecked. It filled with water and both ends of it wrapped around the rock. The only way we eventually set it free was by cutting it with a Buck knife.

There were two other boats on the trip, following after us. They picked us up, and the five of us on Randy’s boat squeezed into their boats and rode the rest of the way. We recovered our clothes and gear, stored in waterproof bags, as they floated down the river until getting snagged on rocks or running aground.

Our mishap became a permanent part of rafting lore on the Grand Canyon. It is virtually impossible to lose a raft on the Colorado, because the force and power of the water will almost always push it off a rock or wherever it is stuck. But we had done it. We had achieved the impossible, and if you look in the official guidebook for rafting on the Colorado, at Mile 126, you will see the notation for “Randy’s Rock Rapid.” That is the true story of how it got its name.

So now my old buddy has a rapid named after him, and a book dedicated to his memory. I’m sure he’d happily give them both up to once again breathe air.

Colorado River map 2

Randy’s Rock Rapid, from The Colorado River in Grand Canyon, A Guide, p. 83.



Filed under Adventures in Writing, Personal, Wheels of Change

The Bully of Bret Harte Junior High

On Thursday night I went to “Back to School Night” at my son’s middle school here in Benicia, and I was extremely disappointed because the hallways and classes were clean and neat, the teachers were bright, young and motivated, and all in all it seemed a wonderful place of learning. What the heck has happened to the American educational system anyhow?

I went to Bret Harte Junior High in Hayward. It wasn’t called “middle school;” it was junior high, and it consisted not of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades as Hank’s is, but of seventh and eighth only. A few of my fellow students at Bret Harte were old enough to have mustaches and serious whiskers, and some of the cars they drove were stolen.

Many students at Bret Harte went on to high school, college, and flourishing careers. Others now have their pictures displayed in the “Most Wanted” books at the post office. Bret Harte was so tough that even the rats in the hallways carried guns. In shop class they taught students how to make toy guns out of soap, a potential job skill for those who went to prison and needed to break out.

By far the baddest dude at Bret Harte in my day was Robert Jones, the school bully. He intimidated even the teachers and principal to such a degree that they gave him his own office. The sign outside of it said, “Head Bully.” If you acted up in class, the teachers didn’t threaten to tell your parents, they threatened to send you to Robert Jones and let him deal with you. That straightened you up fast.

Jones was as big as Danny DeVito but he could lick any man twice his size, including cops. He was an equal opportunity bully, picking on both seventh and eighth graders. But seventh graders like myself were his main victims. We used to post lookouts around campus to warn us when he was walking down the hall. One lookout would pass the word to the next, “Jones is coming! Jones is coming!” like Paul Revere warning the colonists about the redcoats.

Jones traveled with a posse of fellow bullies, but he really didn’t need to. He was an army of one. If for some reason our early warning system failed and he happened to appear, unannounced, in the hallway in which you were standing, God help you! Every kid in the hallway froze on the spot, praying to himself, “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me.”

When he passed by students pancaked themselves against the wall, trying to become one with the lockers in the hopes that he would not see them and harm them. Being a little guy, Jones had an instinctive grudge against big guys. He seemed to always target the biggest guys, lifting them up bodily and depositing them in the nearest trashcan.

When we were talking with Hank about what he had heard about Benicia Middle School (this was before he started, about two weeks ago), one of the things he mentioned was “canning.” This was what he called the practice of dumping kids in trashcans, which he had heard can happen in middle school and high school. We reassured him that that was unacceptable behavior, and that if he ever saw or heard of anything like that to let us know or his teachers.

I did not share with Hank (or his younger brother) my memories of Robert Jones who, now that years have passed and I am safely away from his clutches, I view with some fondness. After all, he showed great restraint for a bully. After throwing a seventh grader in the trash, he did not then set the can on fire. For this he deserves praise.


Filed under Hayward, California, Parenting, Personal

Simple Vacation Pleasures: A Pictorial Essay

Climbing volcanoes and hiking across obsidian landscapes and seeing grand vistas and rafting rivers and riding horses are all fine activities, of course. But everyone knows that the best vacation pleasures are the simplest ones, such as those depicted in the pictorial essay below:

Alaska plate Counting License Plates. So far this trip we’ve seen Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, Wyoming, and British Columbia.

Making a PuzzleMaking a puzzle…

Finishing Puzzle…and finishing it!

ReadingCurling up with a good book.


TennisAnd finally, perhaps the greatest pleasure of all, sending the children off to a tennis clinic for a couple of hours to give their parents a little time to themselves.

Please note: We’re off to the Columbia River Gorge and Portland tomorrow, and I’m not sure if I’ll have time to do any more vacation postings. If so, thank you so much, dear readers, for your patience and understanding in this perhaps self-indulgent enterprise, and I look forward to resuming my normal blogging activities shortly.

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Living with Chippy, and Other Natural Pleasures

Where we are staying is a place called Sunriver Resort, which can best be described as “a family resort.” But really, it’s a resort for chipmunks. There are more chipmunks in this place than people, I think. The day we arrived we were unloading the Highlander and bringing our stuff inside, leaving the door to the cabin open as we went in and out. The boys were in the kitchen. They said, “There’s a chipmunk in here,” and so there was. It had come in through the open front door. We opened the rear patio door and out it went, our official chipmunk welcoming committee.
We have since named him “Chippy.” If Chippy had his (or her) way—I’m no expert on the gender markings of chipmunks—he would probably pull up a chair and eat dinner with us. And breakfast too. Certainly Chippy has been fed a lot by previous occupants, and that’s why he’s always hanging around.
Of course, Chippy has lots of brothers and sisters, and they’re all around too, conspiring on ways to get food from the humans. They live under the house or around it. Yesterday I was reading on a deck chair on the grass, and Chippy kept poking his head out from under the deck. Chipmunks are fidgeting little nervous things, but the more I sat there, the bolder he became and I was able to get a pretty good shot of him.Chippy 2

Jennifer, who rode and own horses when she was a girl, went on a trail ride yesterday with the boys, the first time she and her sons had ever ridden horses together. Here, they are scouting out their rides. Gabe’s horse was called Bonecrusher, Hank’s was Nightmare, and Jennifer’s was Princess Polly.At the corral

That was the morning. In the evening the four of us rented a canoe and took a guided float trip down the Deschutes River. We started at a bridge and floated about three river miles finally ending at the Sunriver marina. Jennifer was “the pilot” in back, I acted as “the motor” in front, and Gabe and Hank sat between us. Everyone took turns paddling, and it was wonderful to be out on a river so late in the day, with the water calm and the weather cool and the sun dropping below the trees.

On the River

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Be Still Your Hearts: Beautiful Vistas and Buff Guys!

Ray Atkeson landmarkRay Atkeson was the Ansel Adams of Oregon, photographing its places of beauty to inspire people to preserve and protect them. Named the “photographer laureate” of the state, the only person to be so honored, he confessed late in life that he thought the most beautiful vista in all of Oregon was at Sparks Lake at the base of Mt. Batchelor on the Cascade Lakes Scenic Byway. When Atkeson died in 1990, at age 83, the people of Oregon erected a roadside marker in his memory at the spot he so loved. Yesterday we drove the Cascade Lakes Byway, a highway of lakes and mountains and endless trees, and stopped at Sparks Lake. It is truly a magnificent place, one of the most beautiful I have ever seen, and this photo doesn’t do it justice. Nevertheless here it is:

Mt BatchelorIn our short time here we’ve noticed some differences between Oregon and California. Oregon has fewer fancy places to eat and seemingly fewer highway signs and good maps than its neighbor to the south, but it also has more of certain things. Here is a short list of what Oregon has more of:
• More trees and greenery.
• “More extremely large insects.” (This, from Jennifer.)
• More chipmunks.
• “More eco-terrorists.” (This, from me. When I said this Jennifer replied, “Oh, I haven’t seen any of those this trip.”)
• More dirt roads.
• More Oregon and Washington license plates. (This, from Gabe.)
• And, for the moment, as the picture below shows, more muscular guys:


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Postcard from Oregon: Ouch, Those Darn Mosquitoes!

Benham Falls

Today I’m thinking, “Oh this is ridiculous, Nelson. You’re going to be blogging while on vacation? It’s like showing home movies of your vacation; nobody is going to want to see that. But then I got three comments on yesterday’s post (okay, so one was from my son), and I’ve suddenly got a new vocation: Travel writer! Read on, my armchair travel companions…
Yesterday’s lowlight: We went hiking at Benham Falls on the Deschutes River (shown above), and the mosquitoes attacked Jennifer. Jennifer is a wonderful person to go hiking with because the mosquitoes always attack her. I’m not sure why this is, but if I were a mosquito I’d dig into her soft succulent skin rather than mine any day. Anyhow, yesterday’s episode brought back memories of other mosquito misadventures in Jennifer’s past: staying at a house on the coast of Maine and being swarmed by bugs every time she stepped outside, and that lovely warm night on the Gulf Coast of Texas when she went out in shorty shorts and a tank top and got eaten alive.

Cinder cone

Yesterday’s highlight: Lava Butte, a volcanic cinder that was formed seven thousand years ago and today is part of Newberry National Volcanic Monument. Apparently back in the days when woolly mammoths roamed the earth, this part of Oregon was the home of the Newberry Volcano, which when it erupted spit out cinders and ash that formed into this 500-foot high cinder cone. It’s a pretty cool formerly hot spot. You can drive to the top of the Lava Butte, walk a few steps up to a lookout station, and see the peaks of the Cascade Range: Mt. Batchelor, Broken Top, the Sisters group, and in the far distance, the intensely beautiful conical shape of Mt. Hood. From the station, you can walk around the rim of the 150-feet deep cinder cone, peering down into it as shown above. Then, after driving back down to the visitors center, we took another short walk through a desolate section of black molten lava.

Hank's dessert More highlights: Goody’s Ice Cream Shop in downtown Bend. Goody’s make its own ice cream, chocolate and many of its candies. After being chewed up by mosquitoes on our nature walk to Benham Falls, Jennifer and the boys (they also got bit) were looking for more civilized pleasures. So we stumbled onto this wonderful old-fashioned soda fountain on the trendy main shopping street of Bend. Gabe had a blue raspberry icie, Jennifer a cool “green river” drink (club soda, lime syrup, squeeze of lemon, phosphate), Hank an orange float (orange juice with vanilla ice cream, seen to the left), and I had a chocolate-dipped vanilla bar. More tomorrow, like it or not!


Filed under Adventures in Writing, Personal, The Dangerous Quest

Real-Time Reports from On the Road: Day One

Hanks Vista signYesterday we traveled from our home in the Bay Area to Sun River in central Oregon, and here is my real-time (okay, so I’m a day late) report on our doings:

Highlights: In Dorris, California (pop. 886, on Highway 97), near the border of Oregon, we saw the world’s tallest flagpole, 200 feet high. Dorris also has two bars, one gas station and one public toilet, behind the City Hall building.

More highlights: A semi truck hit a sheriff’s car, stranding the car in the middle of the highway. Then, a second semi carrying a load of lumber crashed on the highway and caught fire, burning its trailer up. We saw its charred remains as we drove past. Just after this, we saw yet another semi-truck tipped over completely on its side by the side of the highway.
On the radio in Oregon: Country, country, Christian and more country.
In eight-plus hours of travel time, this is what four human beings—two adults, two children—consumed: two Squirt lemon drinks, two Snapple ice teas, three Odwalla mango smoothies, one Starbucks hot tea, one bran muffin, six English muffins (two with cream cheese and jelly, four with peanut butter and jelly), two cinammon rolls, four pickles, ten apricots, four cookies, one banana, ½ bag taco chips, four sandwiches (two turkey and cheese, one roast beef and cheese, one peanut butter and jelly), and several sticks of gum.

We turned off  Highway 97 around noon and found a dirt road on a ridge overlooking Upper Klamath Lake in Oregon. The road is called Hanks Marsh Vista, and we threw a sleeping bag on the ground and had picnic lunch.

On Hanks Vista


Filed under Adventures in Writing, The Dangerous Quest