When we stop for lunch, we lean back in the shallows and let the cool water run over our sunburned shoulders. "It's beautiful up here, but those damn trees don't talk back," Dave says. We finish our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and paddle without speaking. He tells me he's had it.
Perhaps his quitting is best. Basketball and women have become stale subjects, and neither of us seems willing to talk about the confusing years since high school. We no longer are trusting friends. I think Dave is trying to forget that he'll never see his parents again, and I'm willing to let him try.
Late in the afternoon the river circles out of the woods and runs alongside a highway. We stop on a narrow sandbar; Dave packs his gear. Before paddling out of sight, I see a car slow down by the roadside. I hope my partner makes the next bus to Greensboro.
A mist is rising as I pass under the steel bridge between Independence and Galax, Va. I want to get away from the highway, out of sight of the rusty cars and small gray houses backed up to the river. At dusk I stop at the head of a slender island to camp. I'm tempted not to put up the tent, but I'm reluctant to sleep without a plastic roof over my head.
Wistfully, I remember summer nights when I slept under the stars as a child, not worried about the rain or bugs, just happy to be in the woods. It's hard to imagine being so uncomplicated now. I paddle in a plastic canoe and keep gear in plastic bags and metal boxes. I carry a portable stove, a kerosene lantern, two Styrofoam coolers and a plastic sleeping bag stuffed with plastic feathers.
For the sake of the trip, I need to dispose of these amenities. I'll send the extra gear home tomorrow, maybe the next day.
Tonight I'm tired. It's harder paddling alone, but ours was a collision course from the start. Dave was looking for a party on the river; I came to live simply for a while.
Another thing, too: The first time I dreamed of canoeing the river—it was months ago in some UNC classroom—I knew I wanted to canoe alone. Now I'm alone on the river after all, beyond the reach of my parents and commitments and responsibilities.
I awake facing the prospect of bypassing Fries, Byllesby and Buck dams in the next 15 miles. I paddle into the backwater above Fries by late morning and walk into the small town looking for a truck to haul the canoe around the old stone dam. An old-timer sitting in a pickup chuckles when I offer him $20 for a lift. Soon I'm riding in the dusty seat next to him, listening to his stories of the treacherous rapid below the dam.
"Last boy that tried to paddle that Double Shoals Rapid didn't make it," he says. "The rescue squad had to send a boat down after him. They got him all right, but he was scared. They say he had left finger holes in the rocks he was clinging to."