I enter the backwater of Bluestone as wet and cold as I have ever been. The night before I paddled until dark and decided to sleep under the stars. I built a roaring fire and fell asleep with the tarp wrapped around my sleeping bag. Hours before dawn, I was awakened by rain and a frog sitting on my stomach. It apparently was searching for the highest ground it could find.
At daybreak, paddling is drudgery in the driving rain. Clouds hang low over the dark hollows where streams empty into the widening river. I spot two young deer standing on a slender shoal. They don't jump until I'm close enough to see the white markings on the yearling's back. Two graceful strides carry them crashing into the brush and out of sight.
I paddle most of the day through the dark flat lake. When I come within sight of its dam, I ask a fisherman to carry my canoe around it in his pickup. He agrees, but not before telling me that the rain has swelled the river below. I shrug off the warning and offer him $20. He'll take only $15. "You might need the rest," he says.
Below the dam the river is overrunning its banks. On a narrow island two orange-and-blue tents stand in a foot of water. I pass Hinton, its rows of houses carved into the mountain. Shrouded in clouds, the town looks lonely.
The canoe bounces over a long stretch of standing waves above Tug Creek. I hear a roaring up ahead. The river drops out of sight, a sure sign of treacherous water. I paddle to the left bank and walk down a narrow road below the rapid, named Brooks Falls. I look for a chute, but there is none. The river pours over a long series of ledges, spinning in dangerous hydraulics below each drop.
I lean on the scarred wooden paddle that I've used for the past 230 miles. I consider carrying the canoe around the rapid, but I've had enough. Thurmond is only 30 miles away, but I'm tired, dirty and hungry for steak and pizza. It's time to go home.
I walk back to the canoe and paddle across the river to a row of neat houses. An old bachelor asks me why I'm walking through his backyard, and after hearing my story, he invites me to share his supper of ham and eggs and sliced tomatoes. Later, he brings out a box of cigars, two glasses and a fifth of Ancient Age.
"I figure I got one of the best places to live in the United States," he says. "A nice home on a double lot with a deep, beautiful river behind for fishing and trapping." I sleep in a bed for the first time in 16 days.
The next day, I'm home in Greensboro. I will shave my beard in the morning and give Dave a call. I'll return to college next week. Then my life will become cluttered again with books and booze and thoughts of girls. When I'm bored in class, I'll remember the trip, those lazy afternoons when I had nothing better to do than lie back in the stern and sleep. I will try to imagine the river between Hinton and Thurmond that I didn't paddle. I'm sure that stretch is beautiful, too. There will be other summers to go back and see.