I spot Billy D Miller as he drifts lazily down Highway 68 on his skateboard. His long hair would have been billowing out behind him if the wind coming off the nearby Rio Grande hadn't flattened it against his tie-dyed tank top. "Lookin' fer someone s'posed to go raftin'," he calls out as he slaloms through the parking spaces of the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center.
I raise my hand and he grinds his wheels into the asphalt, comes to a stop and looks me up and down as if I'm a Craigslist raft with too many patches. "If you were old and fat, I was going to suggest that I just gently oar you down the river," he offers. "But if you want to get a little wetter and a little wilder, we can take the small boat."
Wanting to defend the idea that I could somehow be mistaken for young and slim, I agree to the small boat. Across the street, at Big River Raft Trips, the larger vessel with the oar frame is pulled off the trailer and replaced with the more nimble (meaning "more at the mercy of the river") raft. I rifle through a selection of water-resistant jackets and wetsuit booties, which I hear one passerby describe as "gamey." I take the jacket, skip the boots and smear myself with a beach volleyball team's worth of sunscreen.
We gather into a clattery van and make a short trip down the road to the river's edge. Miller camouflages his tie-dye with a professional life jacket, outfitted with both a sizable upside-down carry knife and a baby's pacifier. "I figure I'm pretty much covering the span of what my clients might need," he says with his characteristic psychedelic grin.
Nearby, a larger group of rafters is preparing to launch from the same point. Whereas Miller has a mild paunch that matches his beard, pale skin and his sense of humor, the other guides have military-short hair, flat stomachs, high-tech gear and almost ostentatiously rippling muscles.
The rapids ahead of us in Taos County's "Racecourse" won't get higher than Class III—rough enough to quickly capsize people who don't know how to read the river, but nothing unmanageable for beginners with a bit of guidance—but the other party is looking at us like we are sure to die.
Miller giggles, does a little jig for their benefit and explains how to float down the river with feet downstream in the event that I am catapulted from the boat. "Put your feet down and try to stand up and you'll get your ankle lodged in the rocks while the rapids push you around like a doll. Then you might die."
We push off and I am alarmed to learn that I will not be sitting in the boat, but up on the rounded edge, armed with my paddle furiously working forward or backward strokes to Miller's commands, my ass hanging toward the water.
Any allure that the muscled and military-style guides have fades as Miller gives calm, professional instruction on oaring technique and the characteristics of the river. His 25 years of river experience is evident in his steering and his demeanor, but also in his interests and the way his conversation meanders with the river's own sinuosity. Miller is as interested in the shifting riparian environment, the history of interstate water compacts and the deep geological history of the Rio Grande Gorge as he is in screaming "yeeeeehaw!" while the small raft bucks through a rough standing wave, water sprays down our faces and we cling to stay aboard.
There are more than 20 rafting companies that operate in Taos County, but increasing consolidation is driving out smaller guide operations. These large "McRafting" operations, as Miller calls them, tend to employ younger, less experienced people looking for seasonal work. All of them can safely get people down the river and provide a genuinely fun experience, but Miller feels the art of guiding is being lost. It isn't necessary to be the off-kilter black sheep from a fifth-generation southeastern New Mexico redneck clan, as Miller is, to be an artful guide in a place as strange and unique as the Rio Grande Gorge, but it seems to help.
The half-day trip is punctuated with moments of wild rapid negotiation (Miller suggests that small, paddled rafts are at least 15 percent out of control in the best case scenario) and quiet moments in small pullouts along the riverbank. There's time for adrenaline, time for inspecting centuries-old pictographs and time for contemplating the strange tug of moving water on the recesses of the soul. There is time for laying back in the sun and listening to the chorus of 100 nearby birds through the cottonwoods, time for imagining the boiling halt of lava at the river's flow in some distant past, time for telling tall tales and recounting near disasters and time for pacing each oar stroke with the churl and fold of the river.
But none of it is clock time, none of it is gotta-be-somewhere time. It's just river time and it can't be found anywhere else.
Rafting on the Rio Grande is managed by the Bureau of Land Management. It maintains a database of licensed commercial rafting companies and current river conditions. Water levels are expected to be high for the 2008 season and reservations should be made in advance with the company of your choice.
Big River Raft Trips
BLM Taos Field Office
226 Cruz Alta Road
River Information Recording: