Recently, I read irreverent travel writer Chuck Thompson’s To Hellholes and Back, an hilarious account of his pilgrimage to the world’s most ill-reputed places—the Congo, Mexico City, India, Disney World—and started thinking about how being a good paddler is like being a good traveler, which, in turn, is like being a good citizen.

Thompson explains his journey was inspired by a belief that “there’s value in doing things the mind cautions against… Comfort is the enemy of creativity.”

He goes on to lament: “We’ve become soft. Like Jell-O. You. Me. Everyone…Our edges have been beaten away by trophies handed out just for showing up; schools that no longer make kids memorize multiplication tables; doctors who pass out brain meds like Skittles; and therapists who indulge the public’s every impulse to whine and wallow in self-obsession.

“We’re turning into a nation of fearful twats, obsessed with supposedly tragic childhoods, lousy parents, career disappointments, social outrages, political grudges, and long lists of personal grievances that until recently were collectively known as the human fucking condition.”

Thompson is ranting in his typical style: opinionated, abrasive and, unfortunately, largely accurate. He concludes with this pearl about his travels: “…while not always pleasant, [they] usually end up leading to some surprising and enlightening discoveries.”

Paddling, too, is a departure from our everyday marshmallow constitutions. We are forced to consider the well being of others in our fraternity on the river—not doing so could literally be life or death. We must shed the self-absorbed, cut-off-thy-fellow-driver, too-lazy-to-hold-the-door existence of “civilized” life. On the river, there’s no pouting on the bench, no adjusted average grades, no second and third chances. No handholding.

When even breathing the word discipline can have teachers thrown out of their classrooms and social workers knocking at your door, we are not accustomed anymore to our actions eliciting real, palpable—and sometimes painful—consequences.

The river demands our full attention, our best performance. It does not hold back, carelessness and indifference are punished. The river is the anti-soft.

As paddlers, we willingly embrace the discomfort, danger and demands of the river. It’s the same quest for personal challenge that drives mountaineers to the Eiger North Face, sailors to the Sydney-Hobart Yacht Race and cyclists to the Tour de France.

As citizens, we could all do well to toughen up. I don’t mean we should strive to be fearless or hardcore. Just that we should frequently, and purely for our own growth, leave our comfort zones and face that which scares, or worries, or even merely surprises us.

Where Thompson endured 18-hour flights in coach cabins, explosive digestive ailments, “synthetic American culture at its overcrowded worst”, rampant Congolese corruption and intimidation, run-ins with handless Mumbai beggars and jostling with 50,000 “shitfaced soccer hooligans” in a Mexico City stadium, we paddlers need only the river.

Class III or class V, 10-footers, numb toes, long swims, white-knuckle shuttles, blown tires, missed take-outs, gasket rash, soggy sandwiches, warm beer, muddy walks out after dark…it’s all there—the antidote to soft.

Recirc is a column celebrating our favorite stories from 20 years of Adventure Kayak, Rapid and Canoeroots. This article first appeared in the Early Summer 2012 issue of Rapid magazine.

Tough Guys.|  Photo: Steve Rogers

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