The river is spread with wisps of morning mist, and a girl with golden hair lies in her sleeping bag, her head propped in her hands. She looks for a long time as the tide flows out. Dragonflies dart in and out of the mist and a light breeze mumbles in the tules across the river. The smell of rich earth, wet reeds, and slow water hangs over her like a summer incense. Above the drowsy hum of insects, a fish now and then makes an indolent plop somewhere, and the water is brown and silver in the morning.
After a while the girl lays her head down and dozes with the others.
With no alarm clocks to make the sun an enemy, the girls slept late that morning on the Sacramento River Delta, and when they awoke, they still felt like the inhabitants of a dream.
The dream began in Danville, California, where the Mia Maids and Laurels of the Danville Ward, along with their adult leaders, met one morning under cloudy skies to load suitcases, sleeping bags, water skis, and supplies into their cars. Later, as they rolled through the lion-colored hills of a California summer, the sun seared away the clouds and burned its seal of approval onto their horizon.
There was magic in that solar endorsement because from that moment the world’s rotation appeared to slow. The three-day adventure seemed to last weeks, and contrary to all previous experience, the more fun the girls had, the longer the days lasted. It was as if time were being poured from a cruse of sunshine that could never run dry.
When they arrived at Bethel Island, the girls poured out of the cars to inspect the small summerhouse that was to be their vacation home. Behind the house was a high levee, and they poured over that also to discover a stream whiskered with docks, the warm, brown tide flowing out. They were happy to learn that this stream was just part of an 1,100 mile spiderweb of interconnecting tidal waterways that they proceeded to christen collectively “The River.” During the next three days the river became the setting for a thousand watery adventures.
The most prevalent adventure was waterskiing. Some girls performed as if they were born on skis, others as if they were likely to die on them. Some cut graceful furrows with slalom skis. Others gouged furrows with their faces; but they kept trying, and eventually everyone got up. They skied and skied under the opulent sun till everyone was bright pink and then bright red. And even then they kept on skiing.
One day they took a trip to the Meadows, a gentle backwater slough where tall, shady trees line a sandy beach. The sky there was blue enough to swim in, and the trees stood out against the sun like negatives of themselves. They nosed the boat into shore alongside tall houseboats and jumped out for a lunch of submarine sandwiches. Afterwards they lazed and floated under the sun and went exploring in the boats through green corridors of smooth water.
They glided under a high railroad bridge where unknown urchins in cut-offs clung like spiders, leaping off now and then as if on filaments of silk.
They nosed up to tangled blackberry thickets that hung over the water, picking and eating the huge berries by the handfuls.
They played king of the hill atop a giant inner tube, splashing like dying stunt men into the white cushion of reflected clouds.
They frolicked like otters among patches of water lilies.
They stood rooted in air, earth, and water, groping with their toes for freshwater clams in the luxurious mud, water to their chests. They skittered frisbees along the shallows, swam with slow, lazy strokes in the deep, and napped on the cool sand of the shore, and when they had done everything once, they started all over again. After all, they had forever. They were Californians, and the sun was their birthright. It stood still for them as if they were so many Joshuas, as if the day, the summer, and their youth would never end.
Once, in the quiet shade of the bank, Bishop Alan P. Johnson could be seen in earnest conversation with a new girl in the ward, as intent as if she were the whole Church.
Late that afternoon they returned home, towing skiers all the way. It was a fitting exit, but by no means to be compared with their entrance that morning, when they had walked on the water—thanks to a sandbar right smack in the middle of the broad Sacramento River the girls had splashed along apparently on the surface of the waves.
They spent another day on a small sandy island in the middle of a channel, boating and sunning. Some of the beginners tried their hand at skiing and hit the water like naval artillery, kicking up fountains of water and flying skis.
“I know what you did wrong,” a helpful friend on the bank called to a casualty. “You forgot to close your eyes!”
She watched as her friend tried again, this time performing a beautiful belly flop and skipping on the water like a lopsided stone. “That was better!” the coach on the shore said. “She remembered to close her eyes that time.”
Another sadistic onlooker chimed in with a word of shouted advice: “Whatever happens, don’t let go!”
When they weren’t skiing or boating, some of the girls became artists, creating lofty-towered sand castles on the beach and then watching the tide lay seige to and finally overwhelm their ramparts.
On the way home that day the girls jumped out of the boat several hundred yards from their home dock and let the tide carry them in.
One day on the river the girls visited the town of Locke, constructed originally by the Chinese laborers who built the levees and now occupied by their descendants. Here the girls explored the streets of two-story, tic-tac-toe wooden houses and mysterious passageways that were neither streets nor alleys.
Meanwhile, back at the house, there was both work and resting to do in between the playing. Three times a day the girls cooked delicious meals and then handled the cleanup efficiently. One night when a Mia Maid was called to help with the dishes, she said quietly to a friend, “Actually, it’s not my turn, but I’ve got to get over the habit of complaining,” and she went to wash the dishes. When she was gone her friend sat in silence for a moment. Then she sighed and said, “I haven’t helped wash the dishes yet. I guess I should go help even though they didn’t assign me,” and she went. Soon an assembly-line sudsfest was underway, accompanied by a spirited medley of folk songs and so much all-purpose hilarity that several more unassigned girls joined in just for the fun of it.
One evening the group dined on mouth-watering fried catfish donated by a neighbor lady. Later that night they visited the good woman and sang her a song of appreciation. Not content to leave it at that, the girls used their talented toes the next day to find her a sackful of clams for fishbait.
At night the girls filled the bedrooms, the sun room, the sun deck, the combination kitchen-dining-living room, and spilled out over the levee onto the dock, where they slept with the gentle rocking of the waves and the murmur of the moving water. A few girls even slept in the boats that were moored to the dock. These outdoor dwellers were treated to a huge moon that rode above the tules and made the river into a highway of gold, not to mention the sun that rose each morning on a tide of cricket and bird songs to burn away the mist.
“Wow! Did you see that sunrise?” one ecstatic girl asked her sleepy companion after the sleeping bags had been put away.
“Yeah,” her more prosaic friend replied. “I woke up and took a look and said, ‘Well what do you know, there’s the sunrise,’ and then I went back to sleep.”
As with any group of Mormons totaling more than one, there were some meetings too. Their first night on the river the girls enjoyed a talent night that included readings, songs, and even some magic. The second night there was a family home evening in which the girls shared ideas on the importance of being a child of God. They expressed their love for the Savior and nodded quietly, as one young lady said, “Whenever you build a wall between yourself and another human being, you build a wall between yourself and Jesus Christ.”
There was plenty to do in spare moments: sleeping, fishing off the dock, writing letters, writing in journals, scripture study, gab sessions, sailing a little two-girl boat with a sail like another white cloud under the sky, and a lot more, including first aid treatments for sunburns. And sometimes they just dived off the dock or sat watching the tide flow in or out, ceaselessly, day and night.
At least as warming as the sun was the love these young women showed toward one another. Whenever a girl was seen standing shyly apart, a kindly arm would appear around her shoulders to draw her in, When there was disagreement, it was settled by discussion rather than argument. There were no cliques, no in-groups or out-groups, no social outcasts, no cruel jests or biting sarcasm. When it was mentioned to one of the girls that they seemed surprisingly free from backbiting, she said, “How can there be backbiting? We know that there shouldn’t be.”
Another girl explained, “I’m trying to learn how to love other people. I’m learning to do things for them, to stop thinking ‘want’ and start thinking ‘give’.”
Two of the girls in the very thick of the action on the three-day adventure were nonmembers, and they appeared to be loving every minute of it. That’s not surprising considering the missionary record of the Danville young people. Half the Laurel class consists of converts introduced to the gospel by the young people of the ward. The previous year there had been ten baptisms attributed to the efforts of the young men and women, and the work was going on. They talk openly to their friends about the Church, knowing what an important gift they have to offer.
“A lot of kids at school say they don’t know who they are,” one girl said. “Well, we know who we are!”
The last evening of their stay on the river, the girls had a testimony meeting. One of the girls brought a roll of tissue and set it in the center of the group in easy reach of anyone with leaky eyes. More than one needed it as they bore testimony of the gospel and their love for the Lord and one another. A nonmember girl stood with tears in her eyes to tell of her love for the Mormon girls and their leaders although she hadn’t yet gained a testimony of the gospel. A girl who had been in the ward only a week and in the Church only a few months told how she had come on the trip homesick for her old ward and fearing loneliness and rejection. But in three days she had come to feel she had known these girls all her life.
The next morning, as four girls debated the best way to get four suitcases, four sleeping bags, four pillows and four overnight bags into the trunk of one Volkswagen, the group took their leave of the river. They said good-bye to each other as if they were not to meet again for a long while, although they were merely taking a short drive back to the same city. But they were saying good-bye not so much to one another as to a wonderful experience that would soon pass from the full color of the present to the black and white of memory.
But the color hasn’t all faded yet. There is still a girl skiing at sundown, golden in the silver wake, flinging curtains of glittering spray as she leans into each turn. There are the girls in bright bathing suits singing Mormon Tabernacle Choir songs as passing boaters look at them and wonder. There are the bright orange life preservers as the girls float with the pull of the tide.
There is the duotone image of a young girl sitting on the sun-deck in a quiet moment, reading the Book of Mormon and thinking.
And above the images, the color, the splashing and laughter and sunshine and delicious river smells is the reality that is the foundation of all the joy these young people find in life. As one young lady said, “In my last interview the bishop asked me what I had learned this year. I think what I’ve learned this year is that without the gospel nothing else in this whole world really matters.”