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Friends Make Life's Journey Worthwhile

November 24, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to the Times Orange County Edition. T. Jefferson Parker's column resumes in this spot next week

Just a quick observation before we plunge in today: Am I the only guy who's a little concerned by the growing wave of Republican mysticism? First, there were the Reagans and their astrologer; then there was that cult thing Arianna Huffington belonged to. And now, following the election, do you realize that all legislation will have the aura of a witch's spell about it, since every time the new speaker of the House votes yes on a bill, it will be Aye of Newt?

It is my intention to try not to worry so much about these things. And I suspect I'm doing a pretty good job of it today, since, as you read this, I am most likely spending my Thanksgiving vacation paddling down a scenic chunk of the Colorado River in a canoe.

Along with having the usual things to be thankful for (like not being named Newt), I feel particularly warm and grateful for having friends who are as weird as I am, God help them.

Such friends are great. They get you into wonderful messes you might otherwise never even be aware of. I'm bobbing on the river right now trying to hold down my cranberry sauce--"mmmmm . . . got milk?"--at the suggestion of one such friend. He was also responsible for my first river trip 18 years ago, where we tried to paddle up the lower Grand Canyon to explore an abandoned bat guano mine.

We had to leave that destination to a subsequent trip, as we instead got caught in venturi-whipped winds that pushed choppy three-foot waves upriver . It was all we could do to paddle all day like desperate toys to avoid crashing into the ceaseless canyon walls. Finally, we found an inlet where an expedition of University of Colorado students was stranded, their motor launch refusing to venture into the storm we'd been battling with paddles.

The students were analyzing the dung balls of prehistoric sloths and drinking odious oodles of Retsina pine resin wine, which a sommelier friend has since assured me is the correct wine to serve with prehistoric sloth. Not entirely coincidentally, I wound up having to be hospitalized after this trip.

With friends like this it may not be so surprising that I've never been to a traditional bachelor party. You know the kind of party I'm talking about, the one where the groom is preparing to join in holy bond with his soul mate for life, so in the meantime you get a hooker to do the Heimlich maneuver on him while you all stand around hooting and drinking everclear with a funnel. Call us strange, but this has never struck any of my friends as quite proper.

So, instead, we wind up screaming to Catalina in the moonless dark on an overpowered Boston whaler, skipping over waves and landing in each trough with a knee-aching woomph . On the occasion when we did this, we couldn't find an open restaurant at the isthmus, so the only thing we could fill our stomachs with was tequila, which may have borne some influence on why we thought it was a great idea at 2 a.m. to go skinny-dipping below the stars and above the sharks on the way back across the channel.

There have been other bachelor parties in a similar vein, like the Lawrence of Arabia-themed one where we had an Arabic feast on sand dunes in the southeastern California desert, only to wake up all but buried in sand. Then there was the time we canoed below Hoover Dam to celebrate at some natural hot springs, which we later found hosted a brain-devouring microbe that causes progressive dementia if it gets in your head. Regular readers of this column may draw their own conclusions.

I've been privileged to be the best man at several of my friends' weddings. I do feel a little haunted by that adage "Always the best man; never the minister," but other than that it's been a load of fun.

Most recently my friend Mark got married. He leads an active life--so active that the wedding was probably the first time he and his fiancee had seen each other for any length of time in months. Mark once designed a T-shirt emblazoned with a steaming cup of coffee and the legend "I'll Sleep When I'm Dead."

For his bachelor party, he wanted to go to Slab City, a forsaken piece of desert east of the southern Salton Sea. It's hard to get people to go to a place named Slab--you can't quite imagine Tony Bennett singing "I left my heart in Slab Francisco," can you?--so it wound up being just the two of us heading out in Mark's truck.

After the first stop, the Wagon Wheel coffee shop (a.k.a. "Hey, stop there! Them dinosaurs always know the best places to eat."), the truck was sporting a fresh new set of Mexican steer horns jutting from the grille. At desert swap meets we loaded up on weathered bar stools, pumpkins and other practical household items. We chanced across a great Pioneer's Day parade in Twentynine Palms, just as a Christian metal band clanged by on a float.

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