The summer after my freshman year of college, my friend Tessa and I worked as assistant whitewater rafting guides on the “Wild and Scenic” Rogue River in Southern Oregon for a few weeks. Like a lot of noteworthy stories when you’re 18 years old, it began as an attempt to impress a boy. But like most crazy ideas you convince a girlfriend to endeavor with you, it eventually became all our own, living on two decades later as the legend of our stint as ill-prepared but earnest-hearted “Gypsy River Divas.”
Tessa went on to pursue whitewater guiding wholeheartedly, spending over a decade of summers giving tourists a thrill and challenging her own limits while living like a vagabond throughout the American West. I, on the other hand, got married exactly two years after that summer on the Rogue, throwing myself headlong into the game of dress-up that getting married at age 21 is. I got a job in advertising sales at the daily newspaper where I had 10 vacation days per year and where I won Salesperson Of The Month more times than any of my coworkers, many of whom were my parents’ age. I saved my commission checks for a downpayment on an overpriced condo and chastised my husband for drinking too much.
Tessa and I, friends since we were 14, stayed in touch and cheered each other on from afar as we pursued our wildly different paths. Neither of us faulted or judged the other for her choices, no matter how little we could imagine making them for ourselves. Her joy brought me joy; my success felt like a win to her as well.
It never occurred to me that perhaps this was a rarity among female friends navigating their own ways into adulthood.
Our lives marched on, through various jobs and moves and personal discoveries. I moved back to our hometown, had a baby then adopted another; she married a fellow whitewater guide and found a job where she could be a professional half the year and a vagabond the other half. We exchanged Christmas cards and Facebook ‘likes’ and saw each other when we could.
A few summers ago she and her family—which included a smiley baby girl by then—came up to visit for Father’s Day weekend. Did we want to join them for a casual little rafting trip, she asked. “Family friendly.” Well of course we did.
On Sunday morning we assembled at the put-in site and divided up the tasks of corralling kids away from the river’s edge, inflating the raft and counting out the oars, and doling out life vests and sunscreen and snacks.
“It looks a little different than it used to, doesn’t it?” I joked to Tessa as her husband pushed our raft full of children and sunshirts into the lazy current before hurdling one long leg then the other into the back of the boat where he perched in his familiar guide position.
We wore string bikinis and gas station sunglasses all those years ago on the Rogue River. We didn’t care yet about UV damage and we didn’t understand why the tourist families needed to give their kids so many snack breaks. The fact that we were without cell service for five days at a time wasn’t a problem because the clunky cell phones we had were just for emergencies back then anyways. We shared one disposable waterproof camera between the two of us and took several months to get the film developed. Our only worries were about impressing the experienced guides and avoiding tan lines.
Yes, this was a different kind of river trip. We laughed at the memory of it, so far removed from our current reality that the fact we had called ourselves Gypsy River Divas wasn’t even embarrassing anymore (well maybe just a little).
Tessa briefed my kids on the safety rules and the paddling instructions and the dead bug posture they should assume should they fall out of the boat. Her husband convincingly feigned exhilaration as we made our way through a handful of simple rapids, and everyone ate it up.
Midway through the day we hit a flat spot on the river where all kinds of rafts convene for a spontaneous floating party. Some have water guns, some eat lunch, some lay out for a little rest and sunshine. As we paddled through, my son noticed that the passengers in one of the rafts weren’t wearing their life vests. “Why do we have to wear life jackets when they don’t?!” he asked, pointing incredulously at a boat of seemingly experienced adults who were clearly taking a break.
Before I could answer, explaining the age difference and experience difference and the variance in risk based on the force—or lack—of current, Tessa piped up. She didn’t even look up from the bottom of the raft where she sat cross-legged while she took advantage of the slow spot to nurse her baby.
“Different boat, different rules,” she said matter-of-factly.
Shockingly, my kids accepted this answer. I bit my tongue and resisted the urge to complicate it with anything further.
Tessa saw no need for explanation or nuance. No sugar coating or contrived silver linings. No safety speech or recalling the key takeaways from her initial briefing. She had spent every summer of her adult life in whitewater boats. She had filled nearly role that can be filled on a rafting trip, from passenger to guide to cook to de-facto evening entertainment. Of all that she had learned, from how to read the rapids, to how to steer a boat loaded down with lazy tourists and heavy gear, to the historical and ecological lessons she could recite along the way, perhaps the most universal truth my friend had learned was this: Different boat, different rules.
It didn’t matter that the other boaters were older or more experienced. It didn’t matter that they were anchored for lunch. It didn’t matter if any of those observations were even accurate. Their boat was not our business, and comparing ourselves to them served no purpose other than prompting presumptions and sparking jealousy and judgment.
We can only be responsible for our own boat. We can only make the rules for ourselves and the people whose life jackets match our own. We can cheer the other boats on from afar, maybe shoot them with a water gun or toss them a beer or nod respectfully at their ability to nap on the side of their raft in the midst of it all, but we cannot set their course or make their rules or even understand why they chose the course and the rules that they did. We can all be out on this river together, subject to the same weather and current, but we can’t all be in the same boat.
It’s a lesson that works off the water, too.
When my son asks why his vegan friend doesn’t eat chicken nuggets.
When they lament their 8 p.m. bedtime when their cousin gets to stay up until 9.
When another kid opens up a new hoverboard at his birthday party, but all we got were Legos.
When they’re reminded that “Oh my God” is not an acceptable exclamation in our family, no matter how many kids at school say it.
When they want to know why their Sikh friends wear turbans to school, or why so-and-so gets four cookies packed in his lunch, or why some kids have their own phones.
Different boat, different rules, kids.
And so we worry about our own boat, and we abide by our own rules, and once we get a little experience and a little wisdom under our belts, we paddle onward and let others do the same.
P.S. If you enjoyed this essay, don’t miss our podcast episode, Parenting for the Long Haul with Krista Gilbert.