Friday, August 31, 2007

Lazy river

Although I have visited Townsend, Tenn. hundreds of times, till earlier this month I had never gone tubing there.

Which is something. The hamlet just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bills itself as The Peaceful Side of the Smokies, which is city officials' coded way of promoting the fact that Townsend largely forgoes the garish, Wisconsin Dells-like attractions of nearby Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. But Townsend does seem to have a lock on one popular tourist activity: Floating down the Little River in giant inner tubes.

There are tubing concessions all along Townsend's main drag -- which runs alongside the Little River -- and the arguably most popular one, River Rat, is just down the pike from my family's place. As our vacation unfolded, Ereck and I drove past River Rat again and again, and by its competitor across the street, River Rage. We agreed we would tube. (Ereck is a native of the area and an experienced tuber.)

But I was apprehensive. Tubing seemed vaguely hazardous. "Do you get a personal flotation device?" I asked Ereck. "The tube is your personal flotation device," he counseled.

Finally, as the vacation was drawing to a close, we went. We paid our $13, grabbed our yellow tubes, made our way down the path to the river and hopped in. And I'm here to tell you:

Tubing is delightful.

I somehow had envisioned it as an almost violent experience, all white water and rapids. In fact the pace was glacial because the drought had made the river quite low, as the yellow T-shirted concessionaire warned us. "You'll drag in parts," she said.

But I loved the pace. I loved slowly drifting and spinning and relaxing. I entered a trance-like state as I journeyed through my ancestral hometown of Townsend. I looked at birds, and greeted a guy as he hosed off his deck. I listened to dogs barking. I studied a cow grazing near the river, and the cow calmly gazed at me. I marveled at the shimmering patterns of light reflected from the water onto the undersides of leaves. It was a gorgeous day. And the periods of drifting alternated with brief interludes of fast water, which were exciting enough.

After a couple of hours -- and too soon -- we came to the rendezvous spot: the swinging bridge where a River Rat employee driving an old school bus collected us and brought us back to our truck. "Did y'all have fun?" queried the apple-cheeked lad. Yes, we did.

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