The White Badge of Courage

She thought she understood strength, but the rushing currents had a harder lesson to teach. Pam Houston reports on the rapid epiphanies of a Grand Canyon rafting trip.

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  1. In 1990, in the days when my life was little more than one adrenaline-seeking adventure after another, I applied for a permit that would allow me to take up to 15 people on an 18-day white-water rafting trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I was placed on a waiting list; my number was 3,861. Eleven years later I had finally climbed to the top of the list, and I was notified that if I wanted to claim my August 25, 2001, launch date, I should notify the Park Service by May 25.

    In 1990 I was 28 years old. I had not yet created for myself the writing career I love. I was a licensed white-water rafting guide, and I was dating a bighorn sheep-hunting guide. I hadn't yet had any real therapy.

    I was a machine on the river in those days, a lady Rambo, a Robo-rafter. There was no river too difficult, no water level too high, no rapids too gnarly for the likes of me. Outmaneuvering, outmuscling, and outguessing the river gave me the illusion of control.

    According to the therapist I eventually found, I was able to survive the chaos of my childhood by shutting down my fear response almost entirely, and I carried that skill with me into many aspects of my adult life: the horses I rode, the men I dated, and the rivers I chose to run. The friends and clients who rowed in my boat thought I was the bravest woman they had ever met.

    I've always said the toughest thing about learning to feel your feelings is that then you have to feel your feelings, and I spent my thirties b...