By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
Runoff conditions were optimal to run the rapids to Dead Man’s Bridge last weekend but likely no young men got the chance. Maybe that’s a good thing.
Growing up in arid eastern New Mexico, rain is a novelty. Enough rain to cover the streets is extremely rare and enough floodwater to actually raft the streets of Portales becomes a childhood legend.
On a monsoon day during my puberty the rains came down quickly and copiously in Portales and to the west of the city. The deluge filled city streets in short order and South Avenue A and South Main ran full for hours.
Shortly after the street flooded, with our noses pressed to the picture window as the rain began to slow, the guys on our block hatched one of our famous plans.
Why don’t we see if we can build a raft and float all the way to Dead Man’s Bridge?
Dead Man’s Bridge, for those of you who didn’t grow up on South Avenue A, is the bridge that spans the storm drainage ditch near the wastewater treatment plant south of Portales. There was a legend about a man found hanged from the bridge that was pretty easy for a young boy to believe. I don’t think it was true, but that was our name for the bridge.
The best idea our group of land-lubbers could arrive at for making our raft was to get a bunch of inner tubes and tie them together. We had to work fast, for we knew the flood wouldn’t last long.
We managed to talk a grownup into taking us through the flood, over to my dad’s shop across town. He had lots of inner tubes of all sizes and an air compressor and soon the first vessel in our fledgling navy was ready for launch.
I’m sure Mom thought we were just going to float up and down our own street and we saw no need to divulge full operational plans for the fleet, a decision we were later to regret.
With the tubes lashed together with whatever rope we could scavenge we launched from the front yard. A peaceful float to 18th Street gave us plenty of opportunity to wave at the neighbors as we drifted by on the foam.
Our first bit of fun came as we shot over the precipice to the bottom of 18th Street. The water was moving a lot faster there and we suddenly realized we couldn’t touch bottom from atop the tubes anymore.
In those days there either wasn’t a gate, or not much of one, between 18th Street and the drainage ditch. In any case, it was no problem getting into the ditch, where we figured we had graduated into real water.
Shortly after we got into the ditch, I recall that either the ropes or the knots in the ropes began to fail. Soon, one large raft of boys became two or three smaller rafts. One or two sailors bailed out of the ditch at that point but the main raft plowed ahead.
We got our first real whitewater at the low-water crossing about a quarter-mile from our destination. We shot the rapids clinging helplessly to our rubber boat and came out on the other side like a flotilla of drowned rats. But the fragrance of sewage began to fill our nostrils and we knew we were close to success.
Out of the water, the rest of our party splashed down the road as we clambered up the ditch’s bank near the bridge. The voyage had been a success! Where were the National Geographic cameras?
As our jubilation subsided with the floodwaters, it sank in that we were two miles from home in soggy shoes and shirts, lugging inner tubes. It was after dark and cold when we got home to a good scolding from Mom.
It was worth it all, to have one day in which we were Lewis and Clark’s party, exploring the wild waters of the American West.
Karl Terry is managing editor of the Portales News-Tribune. Contact him at 356-4481, ext. 33 or e-mail: