For a Hollywood Script Analyst and An Arizona River Rat, Ain't Love Grand, Canyon-Style?
updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
—River Rats, an essay by Edward Abbey
Our story begins in the year 1986. On a whim, a Hollywood script analyst named Cecile Avallone, who is 32 but looks younger, signs up to join a girlfriend on a rafting trip down the turbulent Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Having been raised in the L.A. area, Cecile's idea of an outdoor adventure heretofore has been driving to the beach with the top down. "It was a real departure for me, and when I told people what I was doing, it raised a lot of eyebrows," she remembers. "I'm not an outdoor person at all. But I'd heard about white-water trips for years, and I thought I'd like to try one."
Cut to March 22, 1986. Cecile Avallone steps a bit fearfully off a bus at Lees Ferry, Ariz., sporting color-coordinated pink sweatshirt and T-shirt, blue cap and pants. Standing there, taking in this outfit, is her boatman, Jim Hall, who is 38 but looks older. He is wearing a soiled sun visor, a sweat-stained T-shirt and grimy, droopy jeans. "She had these fancy clothes on and looked totally misplaced," Hall recalls, "like someone who'd never done anything outdoors at all. I had my doubts about her making it."
When she is introduced to her boatman, Cecile has plenty of doubts of her own: He has the woolly look of a man who in the off-season might work as a roughneck on oil rigs, as in fact he has done. "It was the first trip of the season," reports Cecile, "so he had a very long, scraggly winter beard. He looked really scruffy, and he needed a bath. I wondered, 'Who is this guy I'm entrusting my life to for the next seven days?' "
In Hollywood circles, this sort of encounter is known as a "cute-meet," and it always leads to romance. Well, score one for Hollywood. During the ensuing week of plunging and lurching down the Colorado, Jim found that "Cecile had a lot of energy and did great." For her part, "I never gave his looks another thought. He had a sense of wonder that made him fascinating."
After her baptismal river trip, Avallone returns to L.A. enthused about both her adventure and the guide she had met. Three weeks after she got home, Hall arrived for a short visit that stretched into 2½ weeks. To the astonishment of Cecile's friends, she went back to the Canyon in July for a second river run. "It was on the return trip that Jim asked me to marry him," Cecile remembers. "My response was, 'Probably.' But once the season was over and he came back to L.A., it was just a given that we would." They were wed in a small, quiet service in Beverly Hills on March 29, 1987.
They have lived happily, but hardly normally, ever since. Cecile loves nice clothes and city life, and she chums around with movie writers, but, like most behind-the-scenes workers, she has only glancing contact with the glitzy side of movies. "I'm not Hollywood," she is quick to point out. "If I were, I don't think Jim would put up with this life for a minute." The two are apart during his rafting season, which lasts from late March through September, but Cecile has now made five Canyon trips with her husband, often working unofficially as his "swamper," or first mate. "I would do more trips if I could—it's still a wonderful adventure," she says, and she has come to relish the company of boatmen, a colorful and varied lot. In fact, next summer Cecile plans to take along a new companion—the baby she is due to deliver in March.
Her husband has had a far tougher time adjusting to the wilds of L.A. During the off-season he was accustomed to living out of a trailer in Utah while working odd jobs, and his first visits to Cecile's home turf shook him up more than a Class 4 rapids. "It's an environment that's alien to anybody on earth," he says with feeling. Yet he's getting used to it. He has lent a touch of vagabondism to their urban life—"On weekends we just climb in the Jeep and go," she says—while she has "made a movie buff" of him. "Last year," Avallone says of his evolution, "he really did adjust quite well."
After 20 years of taking tourists down the twisting, thundering Colorado, Jim Hall has become famous in a trade that has more than its share of card-carrying characters; he has even been immortalized in Edward Abbey's essay. Hall delights his passengers with a running commentary on local lore, wildlife, geological and Indian history and the pitfalls of working on oil rigs, all spun in a thick-as-soup West Texas drawl. He runs the Grand Canyon's dangerous, shifting rapids with the combination of ease, alertness and apprehension of a man who knows the river and its big bag of tricks. He can draw, from memory, a diagram of the salient features of Lava Falls, the river's most fearsome rapids, explaining the options for running its 37-foot drop in both high and low water, and he can do the same for all of the Colorado's 40 or so major rapids. "Jim is the best teacher I have ever known," says fellow river lover Fred Cropp, who is a geology professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
The son of parents who split up when he was very young, Hall was raised in San Angelo, Texas, by his grandfather, an ex-prizefighter and bootlegger turned vacuum-cleaner distributor. Jim's twin childhood passions were shooting pool and playing the violin. He went to Angelo State University for two years, intending to become a grade-school music teacher but quit in 1967 because he "couldn't understand what biology or algebra or other required subjects had to do with teaching music to kids." He bummed around the country for a year, then landed a job on the Colorado. "Once I came to the river," says Hall, "I knew there was nothing else I wanted to do."
Twenty years later, he still approaches his job with thoroughness and passion. "A river trip means different things to different people," he says quietly. "Once I took a woman with multiple sclerosis through the Canyon—her greatest dream was to see the Grand Canyon, and she didn't care if she died in the rapids or not, that's how much it meant to her. She was in a wheelchair, and we just tied her in and went on our way. She survived, but when we came out the other end, I was a shaken son of a gun."
Avallone's life has hardly been as venturesome as Hall's. Growing up in Glendale, Calif., she was the youngest of five children in a tightly knit Italian family, and her parents—a schoolteacher and a typesetter—stressed academic achievement. Says Avallone with a smile: "If you came home with a B on your report card, you were expected to say why." She graduated from UCLA in 1975, spent eight years as a disc jockey at radio stations in San Diego, Detroit and L.A. and got into the movie business in 1983. Since then she has evaluated and helped develop scripts, working with writers for Stand by Me, Made in Heaven, Some Kind of Wonderful, Good Morning, Vietnam and, most recently, Sea of Love, with Al Pacino, which is scheduled for release next year.
Hall's first taste of Avallone's environment was not encouraging. "Cecile's neighborhood had the appearance in daytime of being very nice, but at night it was something else," he says. "She came in one morning and said it looked like someone had dropped ajar of cranberry juice on the sidewalk next to her car. I went out and checked. It was a pool of blood like I've never seen before. That really scared the hell out of me." Last year they bought a house in Valencia, a middle-class suburb, and Hall, now 41, is actually beginning to enjoy kicking back there when he isn't working. As he puts it, "You've got to have time when you can crawl into a corner for a while." He is also happy that he finally has a niche for all his worldly treasures, which consist of a TV, a stereo, three violins, an "unremarkable" assortment of guns and knives and a gallon jar full of marbles from his childhood. "I've still got all my agates," he says proudly.
Hall does emerge now and then, of course. Occasionally he ventures out to take jobs doing set construction, and once dug "holes for ghoulies to pop out of" for the movie Return of the Living Dead, Part II. He loves the paleontology museum in the La Brea Tar Pits, and when he feels the itch, he will prowl the pool halls in downtown L.A. looking for low-stakes action. He relishes telling about the time last December when he played five hours and won $40 at $1 a game. Says Hall: "I was like a killer whale in a frenzy."
Avallone loves her new husband precisely because of such enthusiasms. "Jim can be overjoyed by the simplest things, and he notices things that I'd never see," she says. He is still less than overjoyed with urban life, and now that he has just taken it up again, a part of him is already dreaming about his return to the river. "It's a harsh environment but a beautiful one too," Jim Hall says. "People think the real world is roads and buses and cars, but there's more reality in the Grand Canyon than you'll ever find in a city." Not to mention romance.
—Ned Geeslin, and Jim Merritt in the Grand Canyon