Friday, August 17, 2007

Memories of August '77

Photo taken by Sage in June 2007, in Western North Carolina near where this story took place.

Has it really been thirty years since the King died? April 16, 1977. I still remember that day. I was on my first paid vacation, taking a week off from the bakery to run rivers in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. Three college students, my uncle L and my brother W and I, were camping on the banks of the Nantahala River. As the only one in the group working full time (while going to school), I was also the only one still getting paid during our week’s adventure. None the less, our budget was tight. We survived the week on peanut butter and jelly and baloney sandwiches. It was to wet to cook and we didn’t have enough funds to eat out often.

It had been raining off and on for two days. It didn’t matter that you were wet during the day. You were wet anyway, running the rivers and spending time playing in holes and shooting over ledges and falls. At night, our tent was dry, but it wasn’t large enough for us to hang out in. So in the hours between running the river and sleeping, we hung out in L’s purple Gremlin. Although practical, with it’s squared off hatch back enabling it to carry a lot of gear, its practicality didn’t make up for the fact it was one of the ugliest cars ever built. But inside the Gremlin was dry and we ate our sandwiches and read magazines while alternating between listening to the radio and talking about a river that had just opened up in East Tennessee, the Ocoee.

Jimmy Carter was president. We had a copy of Outside, which was a fairly new magazine then. The feature article talked about protecting rivers and had a photo of the President running a river, probably the Chattahoochee in North Georgia, if my memory is correct. We all laughed at Jimmy. In one hand, he held his paddle in the air while his other hand grasped one of the gunnels on the canoe as the boat dropped over a small ledge. The contorted look on his face didn’t exactly express the confidence you expected from the President. “Keep your paddle in the water,” we advised the photo, “it won’t do you any good in the air.”

And then, as we talked and read and ate our sandwiches inside a car with steamed windows, we heard the news. For a few minutes we were silent. None of us were big Elvis fans. Disco hadn’t yet become the craze of the land helping us appreciate the king, but we all had a sense that an era had passed. Something had changed.

The next day, we left the Nantahala for the Ocoee. Larry led the way in the purple Gremlin, with two kayaks strapped to the top and the back filled with gear. I followed with my Orange Opel, a small car that was almost as ugly as L’s, which was hidden under the canoe and kayak tied to the top. The sun returned, but with all the rain, the river was high. Until earlier that summer, much of the water for the river had been diverted through a flume that ran along the side of the mountain and then dropped down into a hydroelectric generator. But after nearly a century of use, the flume was being rebuilt, opening a section of river for daredevils in kayaks. Unlike the Nantahala, which by the mid-70s become a major tourist attraction, there was no one else around, no other paddlers to gleam information about the best approach to a rapid. With all the rain, the river was muddy with silt and foamed angrily. We ran it anyway, shooting down through deep holes and pushing through ten foot standing waves. At one point, after rolling my kayak twice, I just couldn’t get it back up and bailed out. I’d never felt so alone, bobbing through the rapid with my paddle in hand, the waves blocking my view of W and L. When I was spit out at the bottom of the rapid, there was L, holding my boat in an eddy. I’d survived. We ran the rest of the river without problems then went on to the Hiawassee and Doe Rivers, before heading back home for work and school.

The summer was over, and for a week that summer nothing much matter. But Elvis was dead and the world had changed.


  1. Always wanted to make it out to the Nantahala someday but haven't yet.

    When the king died, I was just days away from my fourth birthday and was probably unconcerned with things like rock and roll singers.

  2. Ed, when is your birthday? We need to have a party and a good roasting!

  3. My mom had just picked me up from kindergarten when the news came over the radio. She was a hardcore Elvis fan, so she had to pull the car over because she was sobbing. I knew all about Elvis... it was the only music I'd listened to beside gospel and bluegrass. So, I cried too, even though I'm sure I really had no idea what it all meant.

    One day I'm going to work up the nerve to kayak. I have this fear of turning over and not being able to flip back up. Glad you survived your fight with the river.

  4. I'm with Ed. I was only 6 and too busy sniffing my Strawberry Shortcake dolls. Is the L the uncle that is coming with you to the UM football game in a couple of weeks?

  5. I don't remember what I was doing. Is that good or bad..:D

  6. Let's see, I'm already in college and Ed, Jaded and Murf are all between 4 and 6...

    Murf, yes, same uncle, with our daughters. Go ASU!

    Gautami, how was the news received in India?

  7. I was about to begin by sophomore year in high school when Elvis died. It was fairly shocking to hear.

    Great story about you vacation. That purple Gremlin must have been a sight.

  8. My mother, brother and I were in Kauai when the news came over the radio . . .

  9. Ed, does that mean we can celebrate your birthday on Monday since you don't read blogs on the weekend? That'll make it a double birthday with "I'm No Angel"

    Dan, yes, but then most cars in the 70s were sights to behold. That's why they made the Blues Brother's movie in the late 70s, to get rid of as many of those old cars as possible...

    Diane, I thought I was having such a great vacation being wet and in a car that smelled and now I read that you were on the beach...

  10. I would have been 19 at the time Elvis died; but I don't think it ever made much impact if any on me.

    Sounds like you were on a great vacation though back then.

  11. Stopping by to say hello....

    When I first heard the news I was sitting on the sofa with my then boyfriend. I recall being surprised but nothing more than that. I was too young to be an Elvis fan - but I do recall that my Mother was devastated.

    And I agree, the world had changed.

    Sadly, for you, I was the one who followed you in the M&G, so I could say "Michele sent me" but, really, I think that is quite obvious. (wink)

  12. Mr. kenju has been promising to take me to western Carolina ever since we moved here 38 years ago. So far, the only place I've been is Asheville. I
    m travelling vicariously through you!

  13. I remember the same feeling of everything coming to an end when I heard the news on the radio. I remembered kids wearing Elvis t-shirts with his photo on them along w/ the year he was born and the year he died. It didn't seem right. I was in 6th grade and like you, not a big fan of "The King," but I felt the loss.

  14. I was one.

    I do remember being in elementary school and catching a tidbit of news on the anniversary one year. I was absolutely shocked that Elvis was dead. How could people keep this info from me???

  15. I just found this out the other day, but my Mom had just picked me up from preschool. She, too, said she had to pull off the side of the road to cry.

    I believe they used the Ocoee for some of the Atlanta Olympics.

  16. Opel-Opel, we had an orange one, too! ;)