A piano foundered in the rapids of Georgia's Chattahoochee River last Saturday. A year ago it was a VW beetle that was fighting for its life. When the rescuers got to the bug, there was a beaver living in the backseat, which anybody will admit is a far more sensible place for a beaver to be than the Chattahoochee is for a piano or a Volkswagen. Both were casualties of Atlanta's Ramblin' Raft Race, a kind of wet Woodstock that, with other mass movements of people like the Boston Marathon and a proliferating bicycle tour along the banks of the Scioto River in Ohio, is looking more and more like the in thing—in the river and out—for the post-rock age.
Americans have been known to crowd to sporting events before, but mostly as sedentary observers, seldom to participate. For years, Sweden has had its Vasaloppet with 8,000 skiers whipping 53.5 miles across the frozen north; in the U.S. the only shadow of such an event involved a handful of rugged individualists plowing silently through the hills of Putney, Vt., secure in their knowledge that they almost alone in the U.S. knew the joys and pain of their esoteric sport. Mass gymnastic exhibitions were for regimented Russians or Red Chinese; we would stick with the Monday-night ladies class at the YWCA. But then strange things began to happen. At Hopkinton, Mass. eight Aprils ago more than 300 persons suddenly appeared at the starting line for the run to Boston. In the next few years the number escalated so rapidly that the swamped organizers had to limit the marathon's field. The country's awakened interest in the '60s in physical fitness seemed to be accompanied by a subtle need of people to get together and strain their recently streamlined bodies in huge bunches. The private satisfaction—and sometimes even hell—felt better when others were sharing it.
The scene outside Atlanta, where the ramble had grown in only four years from a paltry float of 50 nondescript rafts to a mammoth armada of 5,000, looked like something out of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph. In the early dawn, smoke from fires rose to join the rising mist over fields littered with large Huck Finn rafts a man could live on, life rafts, inflatable kayaks, inner tubes and tube trains, tents and makeshift lean-tos and the supporting vehicles that got all that equipment to the starting point in the first place. Hunkered down in this marvelous disarray, an Atlanta engineer wondered aloud if some of his fellow men, chafed by a world of increasing complexity, might not have a subconscious urge to test themselves, uncompromisingly, irrationally even, against pretechnological forces and dangers.
Late that afternoon, the full-blown rhetoric of morning had faded somewhat with the reality. Some six rafts had overturned in the 50° water, two young ladies had fetched up in the nets strung across the river below the finish line, suffering a few terrifying moments before being unmeshed, and a man, apparently conked by a raft or boulder, had been hauled onto the bank in shock. But these were the only incidents to mar a sparkling spring outing that was, with apologies to the engineer, plain fun.
May 28, 1972
It all began with the showboat class, first off on the 9.2-mile run at nine a.m. The rafts, biggest to be seen all day, were production numbers. The piano, for instance, was an upright stationed on one end of a raft with a gazebo on the other. One raft carried an outhouse, one a garden, that sort of thing. No sooner were they on the river than six or eight of the showboats tangled in a cable marking the starting point, capsized and tumbled away downstream. Evidently, that was part of the ramblin'. That and what the rafters, now swimmers, did to reach shore through a five-knot current and the cold water.
The rest got away under the bright sun more auspiciously. "Isn't this a nahs li'l rah'd?" said one Dixie belle on a red and white paddle-wheeler named Six Flags Over Georgia. The SFOG loudspeakers blared Georgia morning river music—Country Stones and the Family Aardvarks, someone said. And everyone aboard was very happy.
Six Flags was named for the Atlanta amusement park, and it had been three weeks in the making. As a water-going vehicle, it might as well have been one of its namesake's roller coasters. The paddle-wheel was nonfunctional. There were poles aboard for poling, but that was an expert's job, and the two homemade sculling oars each weighed 18 pounds.
The Chattahoochee's banks, green and lush with vines and hardwood trees, began to pass more swiftly as the current quickened. "If we just get through the rapids," a crewman said, "ah know we'll make it." The rapids came seven miles from the start. The rocks that formed them became a challenge for the Six Flags crew. They seemed to bounce and scrape her off every one of them for 100 yards or so, and suddenly the shore stopped moving. It didn't start again for 90 minutes, during which the men hung from the rapidly loosening railings, lifting, pushing, groaning, shivering and directing harsh comments at the rocks. A sculling oar was used as a lever, and it broke in half.
All around the Six Flags other showboats were on the rocks, too. The Delta Airlines Early Bird was breaking up near shore. The Dixie Red Rebs, Confederate flag flying, was in trouble upstream. And two of Six Flags' oil drum supports ripped loose and bobbed away. She got off the rocks, then ran into more half a mile down, broadside to the current, leaning dangerously. One of the girls screamed. Three more drums broke loose and the railings were ripping off, leaving nails protruding. Now other classes of boats were bearing down—rubber rafts and inner tubes, hundreds and hundreds of each in sight at all times. One of them, a network of 175 truck and airplane tires, carried a crew of 65. And whenever a tube or raft approached the Six Flags a crew member would yell, "Nails," but often it would be too late. Sss...Sss...Sss...Sss...the tubes and rubber rafts would go, and their crews would continue downstream, floating lower and lower in the water.
Most of the tubes and rubber rafts made it past the Six Flags gantlet, and by nightfall, after one of the Six Flags' stronger men dragged himself ashore and tied a guide rope tightly to a tree, the crew was off. It would be a while, however, before the raft was freed and dragged—along with 20 or 30 others, most of them built over steel drums—from the river. Their owners had been warned against using the deep draft drums, but they persisted.
No less exhilarating, if quite a bit less dangerous, was the Ohio bicycle tour a week earlier. The largest ever in this country, it began on a Saturday in Columbus with 2,232 people entered (another 700 rode unofficially) and meandered 105 miles south to Portsmouth on the Ohio River, from where it returned Sunday to the starting point in front of the state capitol. By the end, one man had fallen and broken his collar bone and a few others had bruises and scratches, which is probably less than would have happened to any 3,000 active people on a spring weekend. The TOSRV (for Tour of the Scioto River Valley) was its accustomed success.
For one thing, the start was more orderly than Atlanta's; there was a lot less paraphernalia, only bikes, a whole U.N. of them. The omnipresent Schwinn, and Raleigh, Fuji, Le Voyageur and Bottechia, to name five from as many countries. Almost all were racers, a symbol of the times—the turned-down handlebars, like the horns of an alloyed Taurean, and the big bright gears with their delicate mechanisms. "A sure sign of an affluent society," one Eastern journalist called them recently. And then he was reminded that in Europe, where such bikes have been popular far longer, they indicate just the opposite.
"There's a certain freedom in riding a bike," said a cyclist from Montana. "You can meet people in a way you just can't while driving a motorized vehicle. I don't own a car, I never have and probably never will."
The cyclists left Columbus at seven a.m. At Portsmouth they would eat, meet others and sleep before heading back the next day. There were three well-stocked food stops in between which made it, as one volunteer put it, "the world's biggest progressive dinner." By Sunday night the bicyclists had eaten 400-dozen hard-boiled eggs, 450 loaves of bread, 4,600 oranges and 12,000 cups of cocoa before everybody stopped counting.
There was no pressure to push. It was a tour, not a race, the publicity said, but Alabama's Earle and Susan Holland, 24 and 21, took the message too literally. They were too late for food stops both days and Holland declared that the tour was "geared to the faster riders." The Hollands were the last to check in at Columbus Sunday night. "I like the idea of getting on top of a hill," said Holland, "and seeing nothing but cyclists as far as the eye can see." Ahead of him, that is.
TOSRV was 11 years old this month. It began with Charles Siple, now of Schenectady, and his 16-year-old son Greg. They rode it alone in 1962. Next year Charlie stayed home and Greg took three friends. Then he started contacting cyclists all over the country, and entries went from eight in 1964 to 750 in 1968 and on up. This year a 76-year-old man completed the 210 miles; two 7-year-old boys did it, the youngest ever to solo; and a 5-year-old girl, Bonnie Harris of Warren, N.H., rode the whole tour on the back of her father's tandem bicycle. She developed chicken pox in a rainstorm going down, but a doctor said she could continue, and even with the chicken pox she finished in better shape than when she started. The health faddists will draw a moral from that.
Greg Siple missed TOSRV this year, for the first time ever. One could call him a graduate of the tour. This Sunday he leaves with his wife June and another couple for Circle, Alaska, 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle and the northernmost point on the American road system. There they begin Hemistour, a 20,000-mile, two-year bike trek to Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America.
In recent years the big man of TOSRV has been a 40-year-old Columbus computer programmer named Charlie Pace, who all but pedals each rider to and from Portsmouth. Without Pace there would be no tour. As one admirer says, "If everyone in America had Charlie's energy it would take only 12 people to run the country." But this year, in talking of next spring's tour, he kept saying if...if we have one next year. He says that he likes to eat and, half seriously, that he will lose his job if the tour gets any bigger.
Bigness is not something that particularly worries Larry Patrick, Pace's 23-year-old counterpart in Atlanta. Since its inception in 1969, the Ramblin' Raft Race and Patrick have been virtually one and the same. Now that the event is attracting 5,000, Patrick is on the lookout for larger game. He graduates from Georgia Tech this fall, and already two national firms, Miller Malt and Recreonics (a raft maker), have offered him jobs promoting raft races and similar spectaculars in other parts of the country. Says Patrick, "Now I want to see how big I can make something else."
Maybe he should try the Scioto River at bicycle tour time.