I like to play the music loud when I drive. Really loud. People who know my carefully cultivated professional image like to imagine that I’m enriching myself during my hour-long commute with urbane, sophisticated material: books on tape, informative podcasts, NPR. But I don’t. Mostly I just crank up the tunes.
My commute takes me through some of Vermont’s quaintest small towns. Every time I drive through one of them, I have a special ritual I perform. It’s a tribute, an act of homage to the small towns of the world. I wish I’d started it a lot earlier in my life, because it represents something important, something that I never understood until I hit my mid-30s, long after I’d stopped kayaking seriously.
But somehow it was kayaking and the perspective it afforded me — especially the clashes with cops and landowners that kayakers naturally get into sometimes — that caused an important light to flip on in my head.
And that’s what led to my daily ritual.
Let’s get one thing straight: Most kayakers aren’t criminals. Sure, Davey Hearn got arrested for paddling the flooded Potomac, Rob Lesser was chased through the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by a park helicopter, and Don Weeden was hauled away from the Niagara Gorge in handcuffs. But those were righteous men breaking silly rules! That was civil disobedience, not criminal activity. It’s pretty rare that boaters actually run afoul of the law.
More often it’s the landowners we butt heads with. Stories of boaters being shot at near the Upper Yough put in back in the early days of the river are legendary. I’ve never been shot at, but I owe probably the tensest five minutes of my life to a landowner run-in. This man, who was truly terrifying — clearly on drugs or in need of them — ended up in the back of a police car himself that day!
Most regions have their share of sketchy landowners: riverbanks you don’t want to portage on, sensitive access points, stealth put ins, even whole rivers that landowners would rather keep off-limits (as the Ausable Chasm in New York was for many years). In some cases it’s simple NIMBY politics. In other cases, it’s whole areas where kayakers are seen negatively — the result of a real culture clash that exists between younger, liberal kayakers and older, conservative residents. While some towns welcome kayakers as a source of revenue, many other places view us more warily: as drug-carrying troublemakers, disrespectful tourists, or rowdy interlopers. Anyone who has boated long enough has a story of running afoul of either the police or some peeved landowner. At the time, it doesn’t seem fair. We’re just trying to kayak, right? Kayaking is NOT a crime!
But here’s the thing. Now that I am a landowner, I get it. Especially because I own land in a vacation town in the White Mountains. While not quite as touristy as Lincoln, New Hampshire, or North Conway, New Hampshire, Littleton, New Hampshire still catches thousands of tourists every summer weekend. And while most are respectful, some aren’t. They think they own the White Mountains. They tailgate, they park wherever they want, they clog up the hiking trails, they order local merchants around like serfs, and — worst of all — they like to stop on the side of busy highways just to take pictures of brightly colored leaves! It’s weird to be on the other side of it now.
It makes me think back to some of the behavior I participated in as a kayaker years ago. Simple, basic stuff. For example, I was always surprised by what felt like the frosty reception boaters got in Friendsville, Maryland. It felt like a constant undercurrent of complaint from the town, a complicated balancing act that river advocates had to play with pissed off residents and town officials, an implicit threat to yank our take out and perhaps our river access too. I didn’t get it. Weren’t hundreds of boaters flooding town every weekend, infusing much-needed cash into the gas stations, restaurants, and campgrounds? Weren’t we about the best thing going for Friendsville? Why were they so uptight? I was once screamed at by a local in the street after I parked my car in the wrong place. There was no talking him down. He was incensed. What was the big deal?
But now I get it. It was exactly that kind of arrogance — “we’re the best thing going for Friendsville” — and all its attendant behaviors that pissed the residents off so much. Looking back at it, I was acting just like the kind of tourist that I hate. Where I’d parked left me blocking part of the street. But even more than that, it was the way I did it that enraged the guy: like it was my street. Same goes for the drinking on the main street near our cars. Sure, we tried to do it discreetly, but what other main street in any town do you know that has 100 people drinking beer along it in broad daylight? If the bikers who roll through Lincoln, New Hampshire ever did that, I’d probably have an aneurysm. If they were changing clothes outside on the main road next to their bikes, I’d probably lose my mind. If they started parking on my street like they owned it, I’d be out there screaming at them too. I get it. Finally.
Years ago they ran a sting operation at the Upper Yough where they pulled everyone over who was speeding on the road to the put in. There, right in front of a small Christian church, were pulled over about 15 boater cars with D.C. and Maryland plates. In retrospect, it could not have been a more perfect divide between Red and Blue America. At the time, I thought it was unfair: the cops were officious, the speed limit — 25 — was silly, the townspeople self-important. But now I understand how they felt. As much as we boaters identified ourselves with Friendsville and all the other small river towns like it, we were only visiting. We didn’t live there. And we weren’t always the most respectful guests.
That’s why I’ve developed my ritual. It’s simple: every time I drive through a small town, I turn the music down. Why? Respect. Ever hear a car drive by at night with the volume up loud? Even with the windows up, it’ll rattle your walls. I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I used to show up at the river with loud music blaring. I still do that, but once I get near houses, I back it off. You know those old public safety messages about driving slowly around road workers: “Let ‘em live”? That’s how I feel now: let ‘em live in peace.
Ultimately I believe that turning down the music, having your beer in the pub, not in public; using the facilities, not the bushes; and driving it like you own it, not like you stole it — all go a long way toward keeping kayakers respectable in river towns. We don’t want to go getting a bad rap. While we’ve enjoyed considerable success over the last decade in ensuring reliable river access and river releases, all of that can vanish if we start getting bad P.R. We want to be seen as the responsible ones, not the out-of-state jerks who play their music loud and think they own everything. Many of the river access victories won by groups like American Whitewater have come through forging alliances with locals. We boaters often pride ourselves on being environmentalists and good stewards of the land. But that’s not enough. We need to be good visitors of the towns around the land as well.
So that’s why I’ve started turning down the music when I drive through towns. It’s a small thing to do that probably doesn’t really make a difference to anyone, but to me it’s a matter of simple respect. Just look for me somewhere in eastern Vermont. I’ll be the guy cruising through town with a line of impatient cars behind him, the one with the music turned down nice and low. You won’t even hear me.
Let ‘em live.