Monday, August 19, 2013
The following is an excerpt from the very excellent book The Renegade Sportsman (Riverhead, 2010), by Portland author Zach Dundas. He attended the "Fifth and Final" Portland Challenge as a participant/journalist and had the pleasure of rowing several hundred pairs of shoes across the Mighty Willamette. This year's shoe boat is being constructed as we speak. It will be captained on Sunday September 8 by Mr. Christopher Fanshier. Thank you Chris! And thank you Zach, for the most multidimensional and literary description of Challenging to ever hit print.
From Chapter Seven: How To Rule The World of Sports for Fun and Profit (No Profit Guaranteed):
While Jay Boss Rubin’s enthusiasm and loopy psychogeography appealed to me, I suspected that the Portland Challenge would be crawling with hippies, who would drive me crazy. On Challenge day, I arrived at the Slammer Tavern, a broken-down saloon that looks like a haunted barn transplanted into the city, and discovered I was not wrong. A couple hundred Port¬land Challengers coagulated in the roped-off street, checking out each other’s costumes (yes, Jay encouraged costumes) and drinking Pabst. One guy had a red and black necktie around his head. A woman wore a Mexican wrestling mask backwards. Jay himself scampered around in cutoff jeans and a beat-up flannel shirt, distributing life jackets from a huge pile in the back of a graffiti-covered old wine truck. Meanwhile, a band composed of aged longhairs played on the Slammer’s roof, whimpering out jam-rock critiques of national policy. One long, bedraggled anthem revolved around the singer’s repeated declaration, “I . . . con-shee-ent-ious-leee ob-ject! I . . . con-shee-entiously ob-ject!”
I have a more robust tolerance for subcultural whimsy than some. In my tenure as an alternative-newspaper reporter, I inter¬viewed many conspiracy theorists, third-party politicians, life¬style activists, and self-styled “social change agents,” and never let the fact that these sources often teetered on the brink of out¬right vagrancy prevent me from presenting their provocative ideas to the public. I filed many stories based on the views of people the Wall Street Journal would expel from its offices with armed guards. All the same, scenes like the Portland Challenge preparty tickle the more misanthropic chords of my being. When I see a grown man wearing a rainbow Afro wig in broad daylight, I am liable to start talking in a loud voice about general military conscription. I was very glad I had invited my friend Jeremy along as my Challenger wingman. Jeremy is one of the most good-hearted and good-humored people now living, and I hoped his unfailing cheer would see me through the Challenge. He’s also one of those physically capable types—he builds things and so forth. I figured he could save me if I started to drown.
Jay Boss Rubin found us and handed us each an oar and gave Jeremy an orange hand-stenciled sign reading “SHOE BOAT.” “It’s tied to a rock on the riverbank, man,” he said. “Little white boat. Can’t miss it.” The idea was that the Challengers could dump their shoes in our boat, and we would ferry the chausseures to the far side of the river. (Ordinarily, the hygienic implications might give me pause. The previous night’s downpour meant a healthy combined-sewage overflow into the waves we would paddle, so I thought, what the hell.) While most of our fellow Challengers would swim, we would be part of a small fleet. Two canoes sat on the pavement next to a vessel fashioned from an old aluminum tub, lashed-together boards, and empty water-cooler jugs. This craft had its name, Desolation Row (ha!), spray-painted on its side and a tattered, homemade peace-symbol flag aloft.
At a megaphone signal from Jay Boss Rubin, a group called the Last Regiment of Syncopated Drummers, a corps of marching-band percussionists in matching black jackets, formed ranks and started pounding away. The ragtag mob took shape behind them, and we started off for the river about eight blocks away. Challengers at the front of the pack raised a huge banner with the enigmatic slogan “Gone to Bongo,” and a couple hundred people in life jackets and quizzical headgear commenced to block traffic on some of Portland’s busiest streets. The drum corps’ cadences exploded off the asphalt and concrete over¬passes along the Willamette’s banks. Jeremy and I found our¬selves next to the crew of Desolation Row, a grizzled bunch who pushed their tub at a deliberate pace, so as not to spill the cock¬tails balanced on its plywood deck. Three twenty-something kids, including the fellow with the necktie on his head, scampered past us with an inflatable raft. “I’m ready for glory!” he hollered. “I’m ready for glory!” Who wasn’t? The spirit of Lewis and Clark was alive and well.
As we neared the river, unlikely people started to join in. A middle-aged couple, all in black, looked like they’d just stepped out of a suburban casino or a midnight public-access televangelism program: she had a big puff of frosted blond hair, strappy black high heels, and silver-spangled painted toes; he had a pattern-baldness pompadour, a black short-sleeve button-up, black slacks, and black tasseled loafers. Did they plan to swim the river? What about the gray-haired man in the kilt? Did the future of Challenging include unexpected popularity in the AARP demographic?
The Portland Challenge reached the riverbank, a tumble of grimy boulders underneath a freeway escarpment. Jeremy and I spotted a dubious little white skiff and made a dash for it—a few Challengers, confronted with the actual river, now struck me as potential Shoe Boat hijackers. I scrambled aboard, and Jeremy held up our sign. A rain of Teva sandals and mungy high-tops filled the shallow boat in about a minute. Challengers splashed past us into the water. The river now held a flotilla of bobbing, giggling heads, inner tubes, and rafts. Jeremy and I decided that the Shoe Boat was at capacity, and tried to shove off. A few last stowaways bum-rushed us, and we relented for two women with large sunglasses, digital cameras, and jarringly fashionable out¬fits, and a grinning Tanzanian man named Elvis. We set sail.
With five people and uncounted shoes as cargo, the Shoe Boat rode pretty low in the water. I noticed this at about the same time I noticed that Jay’s oars didn’t fit the boat’s oarlocks. Jeremy had handed his implement off to Elvis. Elvis and I sat next to each other and hacked at the water. In a photo Jeremy took from his station in the prow, our female companions look like they’re enjoying a pleasure-craft outing on the Seine. Elvis looks like he is doing the most fun thing he has ever done in his life (though based on our brief acquaintance, I would say he probably always looks like that). I’m holding my paddle in a manner that suggests I am completely unfamiliar with boats, water, and elementary mechanics. Also, as though I’m about to cry like a small child.
At about this point, I glanced over my shoulder, to see a few gawkers scattered along the civilized shore, twenty yards behind us. I admit that I wondered what the hell I was doing— all very well for Jay Boss Rubin to dupe goofball Portlanders into the Willamette, but why me, hard-nosed cynic and con¬firmed hydrophobe? I looked to starboard and saw Desolation Row. Somehow, the empty water jugs strapped to the tub with duct tape provided enough ballast to support four people. Just. A man in tattered jeans stood on the narrow deck, waving the giant peace-symbol flag and whooping in the shadow of the hundred-year-old bridge above us.
Under ordinary circumstances, this sight would annoy me mightily, so I was caught off guard by a surge of benevolent good¬will. The Row and its crew, maybe because they could sink at any second, made their silly Boomer-nostalgia banner seem bold and forthright—the world would, I thought in this moment of either weakness or insight, be a better place if we were all out Challenging instead of killing each other. Certainly it would have been hard to find a group of two hundred people happier, on average, than the Challengers at that moment. Fifty yards off the Shoe Boat’s port bow, I could see Jay Boss Rubin backstroking in his bright red life jacket, smiling like a holy fool straight out of Jack Kerouac at his most overwrought and excellent. The Challenge temporarily seized and reinvented part of the city, taking over streets and freeing ordinary places from their ordinariness. This is one thing the new world of DIY sport is good for: we Challengers changed the city’s fabric, even if just for a few minutes, and made it more interesting. Maybe this wasn’t strictly sport, but it was a very pure form of play, and I could see that it delighted those who chanced to see it. As the Shoe Boat crept along beneath the bridge, we passed a fancy sailboat, standing idle in the middle of the river. A man and a woman stood on deck smiling, applauding, and taking pictures. Maybe they would tell some friends about us over cocktails—about the mob of lunatics swimming the Willamette. Today, we were the Show.