Planning for the trip began over a year in advance. Phantom Ranch on the Grand Canyon floor takes thirteen months advanced reservation, and even then it’s competitive. This was going to be a trip with my brother and sisters, but then life happened, and fate had me descending alone with manuscripts in tow – a kind of extreme writing retreat into one of the world’s most awesome and terrifying wonders.
The day before departure a routine oil change becomes an 8 hour auto-repair. Stranded at the mechanic with a whole day’s itinerary of trip preparation now under threat, there’s nothing to do but start walking. A couple errands to complete very slowly on foot: an Urban hike through the streets of Pasadena begins. I grew up driving around these streets – how alien to now glimpse their geography one humble step at a time. My $3 rite-aid flip flops keep falling apart and eventually I relent and go barefoot, a deeper level of intimacy with the city streets: feeling the texture of grit and concrete beneath my toes.
There is a relentlessness to urban environments. The land is smothered in asphalt, unable to breathe, and much of it – the land – is forgotten. Land and nature as conquered afterthought, nevertheless present, whispering. Everywhere in the city there is noise, activity, and the smells of urban refuse. The animal in me is alarmed that there is nowhere to hide in this manufactured environment – no thicket to shelter from the constant stimulation and desert sun. Temperatures are in the mid-eighties, and I walk for perhaps eight miles total. I don’t know how the Los Angeles homeless do it.
In 48 hours, I will enter an arguably much more strenuous environment. My Urban Hike through Pasadena becomes a practice run; I’m eager to discover for myself how the Grand Canyon will compare.
I arrive at the South Rim early Wednesday afternoon, late in May. Temperatures are comparable to my arid urban hike through Pasadena, and Grand Canyon National Park feels a bit like Disneyland – all spectacle and icecream.
I long ago mastered the fine art of comfort with solitude, but I’m still hopelessly lonely in a crowd. And I harbor a long-standing natural irritation with tourists. In my lexicon, there is a clear difference between tourist and traveler. Tourists pass quickly through a novel space for entertainment as if contained in a bubble, looking at a thing from the outside and from a safe distance, like a spectator in a zoo. A traveler, by contrast, attempts to enter into and merge with the novel environment as much as possible in the time allotted. We all have a right to tourism and I’ve indulged on more than one occasion – but my passion is for travel, and as a traveler, tourists irritate me to no end. Surrounded by tourists, the Grand Canyon looks like a photograph – far too expansive to fit into normative consciousness, it becomes a 2-dimensional plane, conveniently made flat by the immense distance of the far shore.
Tomorrow a dawn, I will break through the tourist bubble and descend.
I wish I had slept better – maybe 5 hours, largely on account of psychosomatic anticipation. But so be it! Rather than give into anxiety and regret, I give my psyche the benefit of the doubt. A hazy nightmare lingers, an erotic dream spoiled by a tormenting black widow – grist for the mill.
I’ve stuffed my backpack to the gills. Maybe I should paid to send all of these books and food items down by pack mule. I’m also sporting a bag of emergency equipment foisted on me by my mother (like me, she has read Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, a grisly account of the myriad deaths that have occurred in the region). But the pack is full and the die is cast, the shuttle to the trailhead is about to depart – it’s either all going down on my back or going into the trashcan – I decide to bear it.
23 souls on the 6 AM shuttle for the trailhead, and I imagine an equal number had probably departed an hour before. It’s a brisk and comforting 55 degrees as the shuttle drops us off at the South Kaibob Trailhead shortly before 6:30 AM. There seems to be a general air of confusion as we mill about – it isn’t immediately clear exactly where we are supposed to go. Eager to get well ahead of the crowd, I strike out in what quickly turns out to be the right direction, and cross the threshold.
As the descent begins, an attractive young New Zealand couple catches up and overtakes me, and at first I’m worried: the woman seems to be dealing with the too-massive void before us by trying to make her very loud voice reverberate off the canyon walls, defiantly attempting to fill the space with her chatter. I shouldn’t judge, I have my defense mechanisms too. I whip out my camcorder for one thing, erotically engaging and distancing myself from the yawning chasm all at once through the lens of artistry. Another defense myself and the New Zealanders share: the drive to keep moving forward, one foot quickly after the other, as though by focusing myopically on the goal, we might avoid the uncomfortable present, the realization of ourselves as ants crawling down into an sprawling abyss of two billion year old rocks.
The awe and awfulness of the void is punctuated by joy as the apparent arid desolation viewed from the rim turns out to be an illusion. The canyon is teaming with life, green things growing out of every crag, a plethora of birds and reptiles going about their quiet lives. A fellow I pass high on the trail tells me he’s just seen an elk. The descent is a passage through series of unique ecosystems on the way down to the cold, fast Colorado river, almost 5000 feet below. The Colorado is frigid, but the canyon is hot, the inner rock walls capturing and radiating desert heat, creating temperatures twenty degrees above the already warm rim. 55 Degrees at the top of the trail by morning could easily be 110 degrees come mid-day on the canyon floor.
Posters in Grand Canyon Village show athletic young men collapsed on the trail in agony. Apparantly the majority of helicopter rescues are for people like me, healthy and physically fit males who don’t understand the extreme conditions of the canyon and push themselves to heatstroke. Tragic deaths from dehydration have occurred too often. So it isn’t merely ego that drives me downward quickly by the light of dawn, it is also fear of the sun.
In fact, I’m blessed with a perfect day for it. A thick blanket of clouds covers the sky, creating an almost tropical atmosphere for the trek. It’s tempting to think that going down will not be strenuous, but the constant act of catching and stabilizing the body with each downward step is fatiguing in its own right, asking too much of unfamiliar, undeveloped muscles. Within an hour, some such muscles are already trembling lightly with confusion and fatigue, and I do my best to stay tuned in. Amidst the drive to reach the goal, I know a weakened ankle twists or sprains much more easily. To make matters worse, I’m wearing the wrong shoes for this kind of rocky, uneven terrain – my worn out gym shoes were not the best choice. The biggest danger, however, turns out to be my camera. More than once I find myself so engaged with the lens that I hover dangerously close to a precipitous drop – what an ironic way to go!
At ninety minutes, I’m shocked to cross the half-way mark. I’ve passed well over a dozen travelers in my race against the sun, and now I realize that its safe to slow down. The cloud cover is holding, and there’s plenty of water left in my too-heavy pack. I pause to eat, replenish my electrolytes, and take the place in. Slowly, tentatively, I loose the grip of ego and dip into the waters of psyche, inviting the Canyon to penetrate my armor.
The field of ecopsychology and deep ecology suggest that we have told ourselves a great lie: insisting that we are somehow separate from nature. Rather, these schools suggest that we are ourselves complex expressions of nature, enmeshed in an even greater complexity. As such, psyche isn’t only within us, it is all around us, taking shape in the horizon, encapsulating the individual ego in a magnificent and expansive world. In theological terms, God is experienced not above the world, but immanent and eminent in its folds. The constrictions of social programming begin to fall away, revealing an infinite and dangerous splendor beneath. If God and nature are continuous, than to be immersed in nature is to journey to the heart of the divine.
I think of Colin Fletcher, the first man to travel to length of the Grand Canyon on foot. He remarked that at times, the sheer immensity of the place made him feel small, insignificant and afraid – but that isn’t my experience. To bear witness and partake of this incredible land feels like a sacred privilege. If humans are, at the core, one with the land, then my humble perspective is a lens for the Canyon to experience itself. There is no separation, no bigger or smaller, above or below; the individual human is blessed as a humble cell in the ecstatic fabric of being.
I can’t remember the last time I felt so alive.
Interlude: Three Days on the Canyon Floor
That night, after a hearty dinner at Phantom Ranch, I perform some deep tissue therapy on an 80 year old woman who descended with her family to celebrate her birthday. She’s strained her tensor fasciae latae muscle, and I gladly offer my services as a professional massage therapist free of charge. The family is lovely, and I regret that in the end she insists on pushing money into my hand, and to be polite I accept. It would have meant much more to me knowing I had helped a fellow traveler simply for the sake of doing so. Funny, the power money has to create distance between us.
The octogenarian birthday girl is crabby the next morning, lamenting that her whole body is cramping, dreading the ascent. I’m tempted to say to her, “look lady, I’m 34 and in excellent shape and my whole body is cramping too. I wouldn’t have even considered climbing out of the Grand Canyon the day after descending, and I’m half your age!” But I bit my tongue and wished her a safe journey instead. I hope she surprised herself.
Sore to the bone, I am amazed to nevertheless find myself out of bed at 5:15 AM the morning after descent, prepping for a 13 mile round trip hike north to Ribbon Falls. The first impression upon waking is that my body is in too much pain to move at all, but some alien force propels me out the door anyway. This mad power driving me onto the pre-dawn trails is neither ego nor soul, but more like a partnership between the two – to which my body graciously relents. So at 5:40 AM I’m trekking up the North Kaibob Trail along Bright Angel Creek, toward the not-so-distant North Rim.
There is a method to this madness: the Ribbon Falls hike is potentially quite strenuous, and I definitely want a full day off from strenuous hiking before climbing back out the South Rim in two days. If I’m going to see Ribbon Falls, it has to be today while the sun is still low in the sky, screaming-sore-solid calves or no.
Ribbon Falls is worth it! Like something out of a fairy tail: a great circular gorge of red stone, with a thin, steady torrent of water free-falling onto an enormous pillar of moss and algae below. A hidden gem of natural beauty and abundance, all the more soothing for the unrelenting sun and towering stone walls that guard it. After an hour of leisurely eating and a bit of PhD reading, it’s hard to walk away – but the threat of mid-day heat and a long walk through wide, unshaded canyon walls is quite compelling.
At this point, I’m less than 8 miles from the North Rim, and if not for an air-conditioned cabin and a delicious meal pre-paid and waiting back at Phantom Ranch, I might have been crazy enough to just keep going.
I’ll do the North Rim next time. There is no doubt now: there will be many next times. The Grand Canyon is America at it’s best, the Goddess at her most terrifying and resplendent. This is the universe showing off.
There is one moment where my own insignificance hits me. At dinner the second night, I sit with a man and wife who tell me that at 2 AM, the Milky Way is more or less perfectly aligned over Bright Angel Canyon, and with no city lights to interfere, and a recently new moon, it is not a sight to be missed. I set my alarm on the spot.
Laying out on a picnic table under a vast sea of starlight, I feel small and afraid. How long has it been since I have truly gazed into these vast cosmos? Certainly, only a handful of times have I ever glimpsed them with such clarity. I have a practice, when I look at the stars, to try to see them as a three dimensional field, rather than a flat surface. It’s almost impossible with this many stars, but worth my puny human attempts nontheless.
There is a felt sense through which the body can understand what the mind cannot. My body understands and relishes the size and scope of the Grand Canyon, because by traversing its expansive terrain, I become a small part of it. As humans, we become the canyon by entering into it, and through us the canyon partakes of itself.
But my body can’t understand the stars in the same way. Those unfathomable distances are glimpsed briefly, only by the imagination, by soul, and neither mind nor body know what to do with them. Here the enigmatic universe extends beyond what my eyes can tell me (and my mind simply doesn’t believe that the human scientists with their human telescopes and human astrophysics have it all figured out either). We are perched on the edge of a cosmic ocean of which we can barely conceive, much less master with our myopic, rational minds.
To these cosmos, the Grand Canyon is a microscopic crevice in a grain of sand.
Contemplating these things, I feel what a little thing I truly am, how truly vulnerable. Crawling back into bed, some twenty minutes later, I hear the surprising sound of hikers on the Kaibob trail, laughing as they make their way through the canyon in the dead of night.
I find them deeply comforting.
A third lazy day to focus on writing – I’ve carried my laptop and manuscripts all the way to the bottom. The cabin is too cramped for proper writing, but shady picnic tables and the bustling canteen do nicely. Eventually the temperatures climb towards 120 degrees and there is nothing to do but nothing. I’ve produced an entire chapter on the Canyon floor, and I’m quite pleased with it. If only I didn’t have to go back.
Wandering the banks of the Colorado in the worst of the heat, still the icy waters are too painful for more than a few minutes wading. Swimming is forbidden in the Colorado. It is cold, fast, and too often deadly.
But I don’t want to leave it.
Crazy as it sounds, I am actually excited to be on the Bright Angel Trail by 5 AM. Under any other circumstances, getting up before daylight would feel like a minor form of torture. But after days of early waking in a hiking culture that relishes rising before the dawn, it feels perfectly normal –moreso, it feels deeply right. When my alarm goes off at 4:40 AM, I practically leap out of bed with joy.
Opening the cabin door, I have the impression that all of Phantom Ranch is already awake, as if “normal” hours of sleeping and waking are a mere arbitrary cultural construct. Bless their hearts, the staff has coffee out for the early ascenders, long before the sun rises.
As on the night before the descent, I haven’t sleep as well as I would have liked. Body and psyche were bracing themselves, it seems, for some great ordeal. It was just luck, having no sun on the descent, they seemed to agree. This will be an awful ordeal of endless climbing in overbearing heat, they are convinced. Part of this fear is no doubt due to having spent far too much time reading Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, but I also suspect that somewhere within me lurks a fat, out of shape thirteen-year-old with low self-esteem. He cannot imagine that climbing out of the Grand Canyon might actually be a good experience.
But it doesn’t mater that I haven’t slept – I seem to be thriving on the energy of the Canyon itself, determined to show that thirteen-year old exactly who he has become. 10 Miles and a 4,380 foot climb await.
Passing a herd of grazing mule deer in Bright Angel Campground, I note the temperature is already 73 degrees, and cross the Colorado at 5:23 AM. The first few miles of Bright Angel Trail along the river are disappointingly drab – the inner gorge is so narrow and deep that along much of the River, there isn’t much to see. But soon enough the climb begins, and with it, the Canyon reveals its manifold faces once more.
By the time I reach Indian Garden Campground, a little after 7 AM, the beauty of the place takes my breath away. Indian Garden in particular, a verdant stream thick with trees, offers the marvelous contrast of emerald green against the pinks and orange tones of the towering cliffs.
My heart sings with the glorious land unfolding in three dimensions, and my inner thirteen-year-old is delighted at the rapid progress. Even with a 25 minute rest at Indian Garden, I reach the Three-Mile Resthouse by 8:17 AM – just three miles from the South Rim! Really, though, this is precisely where the true challenge begins, because those three miles include a relentless 3000 foot ascent to the lip of the rim. I’ve been told that this final stretch is the real monster, a monotonous climb without shade. And yet with such an early start, pools of shade remained in ample pockets during the final hour of the climb. Amazing that in the end, that urban hike through Pasadena five days ago was a far greater strain on my body than this magnificent ascent.
And then suddenly it’s over.
It is a heart sinking realization that I’ve just reached the end. The vector of forward and upward motion abruptly merges with the trickle of tourists trafficking the South Rim on this warm Sunday morning. My pride at completing the ascent in under five hours is abruptly replaced by deep sadness that the journey is finished. I had touched raw life down there, tapped into a simplicity somehow not at odds with the epic spirit of the place. I’m a man of many words, but I can’t quite pin down in language what made this experience so numinous; what’s more, I don’t want to.
That’s the piece I keep for myself.
Sitting on the south rim for a long time, looking out into the vast expanse from which I emerged, watching birds dance on thermal currents. The Canyon’s twists and turns, peaks and vales, present themselves pregnant with new meaning; they are places that my body knows, though I’ve only inhabited their smallest fractions. As I was inside the canyon, a part of it, so now I carry the canyon as a part of me.
I look out across the chasm and glimpse it for the first time.