My foot is swimming around in my left boot, slipping back and forth with each step. I sliced the leather upper of my hiking boot open with a pocketknife 14 miles back. The incessant pressure on my achilles felt like a dagger jabbing my left ankle with every little movement and I finally decided I’d rather face the prospect of potential blisters than be hamstrung some seventeen miles and 7,500 vertical feet from civilization. It’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and I’m grunting as I drag my weary feet, eternally, up yet another switchback. I lost count a long time ago, before the sunshine grew from a lithe, gilded ribbon on the cliffs above me into the phosphorescent blanket it is now, wrapped loosely around me as I climb.
It’s my fifth day in the canyon and I’m alone, having left my party of seven behind in order to catch an afternoon flight out of Flagstaff.
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”
Frighteningly timely. Of course the struggle through which King is exhorting his listeners is entirely different (and more important) than the self-inflicted one I’m currently embarked upon. But its poignancy is not lost on me. I’ve never struggled this much on any hike or backpack. I’m sick of bearing forty-five pounds on my shoulders and waist; my knees have had enough of the relentless concussions on the half-frozen, hard-packed clay of the trail. The South Rim isn’t getting any closer.
But here I am, alone in the west. Not just the west, the most iconic west there is. The Grand Canyon is the ultimate symbol not only of the ferocity of nature and the massive scale that levels at us the stark reality of our insignificance, but also of our unique place in the animal kingdom as the only species capable of extracting from the landscape ideals and concepts like self-determination, universal beauty, stewardship, and moral certitude. When we intersect with this great crack in the earth we interpose distinctly human experiences on the immutable. The Canyon has no ethical obligations to us or to the ravens that circle now overhead on gentle thermals or the agave and yucca that line the Kaibab Trail through the lower canyon’s slots, soaking up every last drop of life-giving water from Bright Angel Creek. It acts as it acts, governed only by the same laws that have created and shaped it: gravity, heat, ice, water, wind.
But when we brush our hands along its weathered sandstone walls and dip our feet in the milky waters of the Colorado we create our own destinies, write our own stories, bathe in inconceivable beauty, tremble at the terror and bigness of it all. We decide to take and exploit or to simply observe and pass on.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.”
Two days ago I was standing waist-deep in snow as the pure gold of a North Rim sunrise melted around me. I marveled at the utter solitude of the place. Visited by only a fraction as many tourists as the South Rim, the North lies entirely dormant through the winter months, cut off from civilization by over fifty miles of unplowed roads and trails. Only those with skis or skids make it as far as the tiny outcropping of frozen rock on which I stood at that moment. Nobody else in the world saw or would ever see that exact sunset except the few intrepid friends perched with me there at the end of the world.
There, we felt a bit like pioneers, though not claiming what was before us for ourselves, but rather letting it claim us, if only for a few brief moments before it was gone with the last light of day. It was a bit like a reverse Manifest Destiny.
“We are wide awake now”
I’m not one for quiet introspection, or for even being alone for that matter. In fact, I’m manically, painfully extroverted. I panic when faced with the prospect of prolonged solitude. So trips like this are good for me. They force me to slow down, reflect, take stock of my feelings and thoughts in a social vacuum apart from the influence of others. I hear more and see more and rediscover in myself a sense of honesty often absent from my inner monologue. I think in these moments, the world becomes brighter, its colors more vivid, its sounds deeper. I love my wife more in these moments, find more joy in my family, understand better who God is, at least on a metaphysical level. I wake up a little more.
I’ve run out of King speeches now and the sun is fully overhead, finally thawing me out a little bit. A train of mules passes me on the trail, banking hard left onto a narrow horsepath and over the gentle rise of the middle canyon, doing their best to reenact a scene from a John Wayne film. They’re doing a great job at it.
I’ve started to slow my pace a bit, in part because I’m physically spent, but moreso because I’m beginning to regret that my five days in the canyon are about to come to an end. I’ve become accustomed to sleeping on the ground, beneath the stars, only seeing and interacting with a few people at a time, and spending all my time outside. I can feel the inevitability of crowds and cars and exhaust and pavement with each step. I’m passing more and more people now, folks grossly underdressed for the hike at hand, even a few couples on chaperoned dates dressed in what I can only assume is fundamentalist Mormon attire. The momentary silence in my headphones is suddenly broken by a crackly acoustic guitar, growling and melancholy, cut by a mournful voice:
“From the time we were young
we were wild-eyed dreamers.
Now we cautiously raise our eyes.
The season has turned
From warm to the next
We are wide awake now…”
It’s just a few more steps now. I can see the trail zigzagging up through the last section of switchbacks before the canyon rim. Junipers line the edge and a frosty breeze rolls over the lip of the cliffs and sinks in through my sweaty t-shirt. In a way, I feel like I’ve left the world; my feet no longer feel the frozen clay beneath them and any specificity of thought has dissipated. The entire world is warm and close around me as butterflies float in my stomach. I don’t think I’ve realized until this moment just how hard this trip has been. My feet have carried my forty-three pound pack and me up and down 12,000 feet along some forty-five miles over ice and snow, through hot sun and a bitter breeze. I’ve hardly talked to my wife for a week and my body has hurt in ways I’ve never before experienced. And here I am, triumphantly approaching its end, feeling both euphoric and mournful that it’s all over.
“There’s a burden we all must shoulder
so come on and put your back to the load.”
I can conquer the world. They say only 1% of visitors to the Grand Canyon ever travel below the rim, and fewer still continue on to Phantom Ranch deep within the canyon’s walls. I don’t know what percentage this puts me in, having traversed the canyon in its entirety and come back in the dead of winter. It’s not a point of pride, necessarily; in fact I feel strangely lonely in light of this fact. Not a single person passing me on the path will know this place as intimately as I do. It’s as if we’re visiting two entirely different parks.
“We are wide awake now…”
I run my hand across the top of the wooden trail sign marking the start of the Kaibab Trail and take a seat on a boulder about twenty feet from the bus stop where I’ll soon board and head back to my car. I’m completely alone again, between buses dropping off throngs of tourists and day hikers. It’s my last chance for pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted reflection and the moment is a little overwhelming. I’m completely lost in thought when I notice the hiss of bus doors opening in front of me and a hoard of Chinese tourists pouring out onto the sidewalk, cameras in hand, the buzz of dozens of conversations in Mandarin on the air. The pace with which they exit the bus is startling and I snap from my trance to realize I need to board this bus to get back to my car.
I elbow my way through the masses, trying to reach the bus before its doors close again and I slide, unnoticed, into a seat towards the back, ungracefully dropping my pack into the chair next to me. I’m suddenly acutely aware of how bad I smell and how filthy I am. One of my boots is in tatters hanging off my foot. My legs are smeared with mud and orange clay and my shirt is soaked and steaming with sweat. My hair is matted to my forehead, greasy and curled and my face is wind burned and chapped. An older couple looks my way and smiles, asking how far I made it. I tell them and the conversation goes no further.
Out the window rows of junipers and ponderosas blur by, broken up by huge swaths of asphalt and general stores and gas stations and visitors centers—a veritable city placed at the rim of existence as we know it, as if to keep the unknown and the wildness at bay. It’s as if we are trying to walk up right to the precipice, the edge of oblivion, and peer on in to take on the beauty and the wonder and the magic but none of the fear and pain and labor and uncertainty. But that’s only half the equation. The wilderness isn’t the wilderness without the full compliment of its characteristics. It ceases to exist once it’s been tamed.
The civilized world continues to slide by me in silence. I don’t see any of it. My mind is still down there somewhere in the abyss.
I am wide awake now.
Here are a few more photos from my trip to the Grand Canyon: