The name Abraham Maslow didn’t come to mind until the third time I pushed “Play.” He was the father of Humanistic Psychology, perhaps best known for his five-tier Hierarchy of Needs.
His pyramid began with physical needs, like Breathing, then ascended into the increasingly rarified tier of psychological needs–from Safety to Love to Belonging–and finally peaked at Self-Actualization. Without meeting the physical needs, you’re not getting any closer to the psychological needs.
Breathing was at the bottom of both Maslow’s Pyramid, and–apparently from the video–mine. I began to advance the video frame by frame, keeping track of time as I did.
By the time my friend and videographer Mark said, “Oh, shit,” (more like, “Oooooooooooooooooh, shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit!”), both my passengers Erik and Michael were still visible, gulping air and water in equal quantities.
I was essentially in the same position I had been in three seconds earlier–oars in hand, sitting on my seat–except that as I fell under, two metal boxes struck the top of my head. I was in the middle one of the largest rapids in the Grand Canyon, and my oars were locked across my lap. I was, in short, trapped.
Several frames later it dawned on me that if I was upside down, so was Maslow’s Pyramid. The climb to Self Actualization was a slippery slope.
But upside down, that steep incline becam an overhang, going from a rock-climber’s grade 5.4 to a 5.14. With one foot on Self Actualization, I reached – literally – over my head and began to climb.
Another boatman on our trip named Kevin had turned his own boat two days before our flip. Over margharitas, I had asked him how he escaped when trapped by his oars.
He said he’d reached above him and felt his way along the tubes of the boat until there was no boat left. Easy enough. Before heading back to that evening’s revelry, I “Bookmarked” what he had said.
I’m not going to say that while under the boat, Kevin came to mind, or that Maslow did. Neither did. In fact, nothing did.
The next thing I knew, another boat was pulling up alongside me. Someone at its bow grabbed the shoulder of my life jacket and pulled me over the tube and inside.
My first conscious action was to reach the palm of my hand to where the boxes had struck me on my head. The reason for my rescuers’ speed became clear. My entire palm was bloody.
Three minutes later I was on shore beneath the shade of a tree. While two of my rescuers, an EMT and a paramedic checked me, I held Mark’s video camera in my trembling hands and replayed the whole thing again and again.
We talked about it that night around the campfire. And the story, as stories do, got better each time. But each time I told it, I never finished. Not really. Not for me.
The trip ended four days later. The eighteen of us headed in as many directions, and many I have not seen or heard from since. But in that time, the part of the story I couldn’t tell – because I had no words for it – I can now.
Beyond the hype and roar of a rapid, above and beyond any metaphor that is yours, where death is a possibility, and beneath the surface, there is another reality. There is no thought there. There is no time. No fear. What I remember most of all is how benign it was. How soft. I remember the sound of a million bubbles popping, and how – though I knew I could not stay – I also didn’t want to go.
The Epicocity Project rafted dangerous rapids in the Amazon in 2009 to photograph the Rio Roosevelt. See a photo essay of the trip here.