While the rest of us were quietly panicking about the fact that we'd stayed too late and it had gotten quite dark, Webb was taking off his shoes. Having been an Eagle Scout, he knew that the only logical plan was to feel the trail with his bare feet. It was either that or spend the night out here by Hurricane Creek with neither blankets nor food, and with lots of unexplainable explanations to significant others out there in civilization. Civilization was only a mile and half away where the cars sat by the side of the two-lane blacktop, but when you've screwed around and let the sun go down and don't have a flashlight of any sort it was a good thing that there was at least one Eagle Scout among our wasted crew.
Normally we were more aware of the sun dialing down our afternoons, but something had happened this particular day that threw temporal matters into a solid second place. We had discovered the tube. The combination of Robin's revelation and the mushrooms and now toss in the discovery of the tube, and this was more than enough to shorten any otherwise normally timeframed day. This day never was normal. Everyone seemed to know that even as we were walking on that fully daylit trail away from the autos just a third of that day ago.
It began as Robin loudly proclaimed on the trail, flat out of the blue, that she'd banged a strange man riding a motorcycle the night before. Robin and Lennie were the only married couple in our group of friends, and even if this had happened (as it obviously had, since she'd have no reason whatsoever to make it up) we were all a bit perplexed as to why it required a public announcement.
Robin was a smallish brunette from Pennsylvania. When she stood naked in the creek, one could imagine a young Ruth cooling off in the waters near Bethlehem after a hard afternoon of gleaning corn.
Lennie was a biblical sort, as well. If you could imagine Samson as having kinky black hair that struck a pose of its own out behind his head in a sort of wide steel-mesh helmet. Lennie was from the steel mill sectors of Pittsburgh and the only way he could tame that wild source of his strength was to pony tail it. Still the wiry mane would strain and break all but the toughest of rubber constraints.
Lennie wasn't with us this afternoon. We all silently wondered if this pronouncement by Robin was why he had "other plans." Up to this point, marriage was just a theory for almost all of us, and the concept of an open marriage was just too bourgeois to contemplate. This put everyone in a weird frame of mind even before we procured the mushrooms.
Here was the normal course of events back in those days at Hurricane Creek:
It took about half an hour to walk from the cars down the trail to the creek. We'd wind up at an opening where there was a bit of beach and some large flat rocks for sunning. At this part of the lengthy winding creek, there was the steepest falloff in water levels with the closest things to what could be called rapids. After the falloff, the deepest part of the normally no more than knee-deep creek offered one of the best swimming holes in the area. It could be up to twelve feet deep on a good day. Once we reached this area, a couple of designated floaters would blow up a couple of rubber ladies and float downstream for half an hour in order to reach the nearest cow pasture. Why would we be looking for a cow pasture? Folks who have ever gotten high on mushrooms will know. The designated gatherers would then deflate the rubber ladies and trod back upstream to deliver the treats.
I was usually one of the floater/gatherers. I seemed to have a good eye for the best mushrooms. I tried to find ones which were just getting ready to toss their spores. It requires talking to plants. It's not an exact science.
The thing about mushrooms that slaps most folks is the way the little things of nature become so much more volatile and meaningful. Maybe it's from getting high directly from the soil. Jamie and I were sitting in the sand by the creek discussing which would be the best skipping rock we could find in the shallow water and why. I had discovered the ultimate mottled silver dollar shaped stone and was about to expound on its exquisite value when we both noticed one small lower branch on a young oak tree. Even though most of the forest was relatively quiet, this one branch was vibrating back and forth like a metronome set on allegro. I asked Jamie, "You know, I've seen that happen all my life when I'm in the woods. I wonder what causes that?" Without hesitation, as if it was really the truth, she said, "Someone buried a pet dog in the ground under where that tree grew. It's just wagging its tail." And without much effort, that became my truth as well, even though I knew in my sober brain that it was some sort of wind channel working its way through the undergrowth.
This was when Webb found his own unarguable channel in the underwater. He surfaced down in the deep water after the rapids and let out a yell that sounded something like "Eureka." I think it might have been, "Holy Shit!" but his mouth was still pretty full of creek.
It's easy to make fun of the folks who did something first, and that's probably why Neil Armstrong has led such a reclusive life. The ordinary humans will make jokes about those for whom the discovery phase didn't go so well. Back in those days, discussions of how one could discover you could get high by licking a certain type of toad and all the missteps along the way to this discovery was always a cheap source of amusement. But this is to downplay the real dangers one must expose one's self to by being a pioneer.
In this case, Webb had been up on top on the large rocks above the rapids and had set his eagle eyes to scanning just under the surface. Instead of looking for the small skipping rocks like the simple-minded among us, he was looking for a new passageway. I think he might have been doing this for a while. I can remember him alone up there on several occasions, and I remember wondering what he was looking for. With the mushrooms, it wasn't something to spend a lot of time worrying about. There was always something. But this was Webb's moon landing day. He had found it.
His discovery was a smooth channel that began underneath a large rock above the rapids. It was hard to spot because the huge boulder above it had it almost hidden. When it was pointed out to us, however, it was hard to see how it could have been missed. You could stick your head under the water about two feet down, just under the large protector, and see the opening. Even today, I find it hard to imagine how much courage it took for Webb to place his two feet into that opening and let go of the rock above him with his hands. You don't have to be Jacques Cousteau to realize all the things that could have gone wrong. The hole might have led nowhere. It might have narrowed to an impassable point, and there would have been no way to fight the current against a smooth stone tube to claw your way backwards. It might have gone on forever to the center of the earth. Had it gone wrong, we certainly would never have missed him until his silent screams had long since vanished.
Soon all of us were in a never-ending queue to squeeze ourselves through the liquid tube. It never quit being just a little bit scary and it never quit feeling like an actual rebirth. You could almost imagine the origin of the water itself during those few seconds that became an eternity of breathless regeneration.
During the barefoot walk back, in the dark, to the cars that took us back home on dry land, no one said a word. But we all held hands like very small kids coming in from recess. We'd never done that before.