Ruins of Cambodia: From Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

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      How do I reconcile the breathtaking beauty of Angkor with the sprawling mass graves of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps the greatest complex of spiritual architecture in the world, contrasted against horrific, too-recent genocide. This tension of opposites tears my heart –

I was already in ethically complex territory.   I had conducted a fundraiser for this trip, to do pediatric massage with HIV/AIDS orphans in Vietnam, and the donations had poured in; The trip was fully funded! Now here I was in Southeast Asia well in advance of the volunteer program, leaving Vietnam on a bus to Cambodia. Of course all the donor money had gones towards covering the program costs, and I was traveling on my own dime.  Nevertheless it begged the question – was I doing the right thing?

First, I argued to my stringent inner critic, travel in Cambodia is dirt cheap once you get there. If you want to spend 1st world prices, there are many Cambodians who will gladly oblige. But for those who understand the economic state of the country, it’s little effort to find private air-conditioned rooms with wi-fi for under $12 a night. Meals, transportation, entertainment & commodities – the American dollar goes far in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Truth be told, once you’re in the region, the cost of shoestring travel in Cambodia is well below the cost of living in Los Angeles.  It would have been more expensive to spend these days back home.

Second, and more important, I believe that travel is an end in itself. I once went to an Ani DiFranco concert in which she sang this about the USA:

          Myopia is strong here, and the mind control deep.

While I don’t really know exactly what she’s talking about, spending some time in a third world country certainly opens the mind to a broader reality of what it means to be human. Different language, different culture, fundamentally different quality of life – suddenly the petty concerns of the affluent westerner (like which character just died a shocking brutal death on Game of Thrones) take on an almost comical quality. I’ve written recently of my personal distinction between tourism and traveling, the former amounting to superficial entertainment, the latter suggesting a deeper engagement with the reality of an “other” culture or ecosystem.

Traveling is an end in itself because travel is essentially a process of education and growth. We encounter what is different and difficult, and in the process gain insight into ourselves and the familiar places and cultures we come from. The deeper human condition stands out in greater relief, and our values are re-evaluated. If America still presumes to lead the free world, it is vital for Americans to seek a deeper understanding of that world, and the ethical injunction it places upon us. My prescription for a better planet: the wealthy need to vacation less, and travel more.

Cambodia challenges on many levels. What are we to make of a culture where people live in tin shacks but communicate and track popular trends on their 3-year-old-model smartphones? Their bedrooms may contain multiple family members sleeping together on a crowded floor, but they have a flatscreen TV on proud display in their livingroom/storefront. The intersections between tribal life, modern poverty, and global economy are bizarre, confounding the mind and making it difficult to draw conclusions, much less suss out values. Regardless, the people of Cambodia are scrambling to catch up, positioning themselves to receive maximum tourist dollars, recent genocide or no. I have never felt so surrounded by repressed, unacknowledged trauma as I did in Cambodia – yet the tourist industry is booming.

Why did I come here?

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Ruins of Angkor

 

I came to Cambodia for the Temples of Angkor. I had been hearing talk of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, since studying abroad in Singapore in 2003. But as Angkor Wat finally appeared on my horizon, I learned that it was only the largest of an astounding temple complex (the largest complex of temples in the world), that covers a region the size of Manhattan.

The Kingdom of Angkor flourished from roughly the 9th to the 15th century CE. No only stone ruins remain of what was once a magnificent civilization. Over the course of its history, Angkor was unique in its fusion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism – two spiritual traditions which have meant a great deal to me. The fusion of expansive pantheism with the mindful compassion of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an extraordinary, early example of interfaith spirituality.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the biggest structure, but not the greatest. Sprawling temples adorned in gorgeous eastern iconography literally litter the landscape. Wandering through some of the ruins, one finds the most extraordinary sculptures lying in piles of rubble – such sculptures are so plentiful that there is no point in trying to restore all of them, and the rubble takes on a beauty of its own. Among the most striking sites is Ta Prohm, an enormous monastery slowly being eaten by the jungle. In Ta Prohm, archeology meets echopsychology, as the natural world slowly invades and invites the architecture of mankind back into its earthy womb.

Ta Prahm

Ta Prohm

I neither mince words nor court superlatives when I say that the temples of Angkor are among the most extraordinary sights on this planet. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are not listed among the “seven wonders of the world” is that these ruins were not uncovered and made available to the general global community until the final years of the 20th century, long after such lists had already been settled.

Angkor Wat itself is impressive, but so crawling with tourists that a sensitive soul may have trouble fully appreciating its majesty. On my third day in the complex, I made a second visit to Angkor Wat just before sunrise, and managed to bribe a guard to let me into the inner, upper sanctum for $5 (it’s amazing how far $5 goes in Cambodia!) – there I meditated alone, at a site of historical spiritual pilgrimage to rival Mecca and the Pyramids of Giza. It was a once in a life time opportunity and an uncharacteristically thrilling meditation. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on the clock and quickly took my leave before the throngs of tourists arrived.

Tourists choke the temples...

Tourists choke the temples…

Much of my three days exploring the temples was organized around avoiding the crowds. I came to love best the most obscure temples that lay off the beaten path. A short distance from its giant cousin, Ta Keo is described by Lonely Planet as “not cutting it” after seeing Angkor Wat – but I heartily disagree! Ta Keo sports a steep climb to the small high sanctum, which opens to the four cardinal directions. I had just purchased a tiny statue of Brahma, the oft-ignored creator-god of the Hindu Pantheon, whose four faces look out across the four cardinal directions. This motif ties into the four-directional cosmology of many indigenous peoples, as well as the psychological “quaternary” that so fascinated depth psychologist Carl Jung, who used intricate mandalas to map the human Psyche. Ta Keo embodied these ideas in stone and open sky.

 

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

Preah Palilay

Preah Palilay

Another secret treasure is Preah Palilay, a small, almost Celtic temple in the Mahayana tradition, rising out of the forest apace from the paved roads. Miles to the East. I had to argue my driver into taking me to Phom Bok – a hill temple off the beaten path. He insisted there was nothing there, but after an arduous climb, I came upon a tranquil set of ruins dedicated to the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (creator, destroyer, and preserver), along with two libraries and an enormous Shiva Lingam tragically shattered by the Khmer Rouge, all sitting silent on a high hill overlooking the rice paddies of the region. I loved it because I was alone – a perfect spot for unmolested meditation as a tropical monsoon broke across the complex, hammering ruins and tourists alike with rain.

Phnom Bok

Phnom Bok

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa...

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa…

The descendents of the Angkor empire still live here, growing rice in fields around the temple. In one back-road trip by bicycle, I passed through a village that was alarmingly littered with trash. I wondered if through the process of colonization by the west, these people have completely lost touch with the needs of their land, throwing piles of plastic and metal upon it as though those materials would biodegrade as quickly as coconut shells. The dissociation is disturbing.

But the dissociation of modern Angkor is disturbing in more ways than one. These temples represent one of the greatest ancient spiritual sites on Earth – and modern Cambodia would turn it into Disneyland, thirsty for tourist dollars. These incredible sacred sites are choked with tourists who have no respect for sacred space – they are much more concerned with posing for pictures in front of the ruins. A place where people might find their deeper selves and touch their deeper truths has been transformed instead into a Hollywood-style spectacle. Opportunistic clerics encourage tourists to kneel, bow three times with incense, and leave money at a plethora of temple shrines under the auspices of courting “good luck” – and given their economy, who can blame them? Nevertheless, it is capitalism blaspheming as spirituality – deeply disturbing to one who comes to this sacred place as a spiritual pilgrim.

Meanwhile, just a few miles south in the bustling tourist hub of Siem Reap, the notion of sacred space seems nonexistent. I couldn’t go for a walk at night without being offered drugs or prostitutes a dozen times. It seemed like every taxi-driver was also a drug dealer, and my hotel manager offered to “bring me girls” before I had even seen the room.   The one time I allowed myself to get roped into a “massage” ($3 for thirty minutes) I literally found myself fighting to get the poor girl to stop molesting me. When I tipped her $2 anyway, her eyes lit up with surprise and gratitude – that a man would actually give her such a big tip without sexual services! It was heartbreaking. I bowed to her, honoring the Tradition of Thai massage in which I  trained, and walked out into the night fighting back my tears.

It still fills me with rage, just thinking about it – the way these women are disrespected.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

On my third and final day in the ruins of Angkor, I made pilgrimage to the shrines: kneeling, praying, and meditating at one site after another. Some of the priests and nuns were genuine, others opportunistic – but I knelt and prayed and mediated and made my donations regardless. Each time, I was given a prayer bracelet, until by the end of the day my wrist was covered. The tourists might think me crazy, but I would give these temples their due – I would honor them for what they are.

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I needed to experience the ancient history first, before turning to face the modern atrocity. On my way back to Vietnam, I stopped to see the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. It was only one of many genocidal sites where the Khmer Rouge brutally slaughtered their victims. Because they didn’t want to waste bullets, most who died at the Killing Fields perished by blunt trauma, puncture wounds, blades, or other creative means. Men and women, babies killed by having their brains dashed against a tree, in an ideological “purification of the populace”. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill those it suspected of dissent – it killed their families.

How did this happen?

That is a question worthy of a lifetime of study. I’ll tell what little I know.   From 1975-1979, communist radical Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a radical cleansing and restructuring of Cambodia. Pol Pot was born in Cambodia but educated in Europe. Upon return, he “liberated” the capital of Phnom Penh and forced the entire population into slave labor under the rhetoric of building a better country. Anyone who opposed the new regime, and anyone who was suspected of opposing it, including peaceful Buddhist orders of monks and nuns – were confined, interrogated, and slaughtered.

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I wept at the Killing Fields, walking among mass graves, distributing my prayer bracelets from Angkor amongst thousands of similar colorful offerings. At the site in Phnom Penh, there is a beautiful memorial stupa which houses the skulls and bones of some of the victims who have been exhumed. How could this happen? What force could compel human beings to put ideology before the value of human life? What can we do, I asked myself over and over again – How do we fix this?

I was haunted for days – I’m still haunted now. My first glimmer of an answer emerged when I arrived in Vietnam, and finally began my volunteer work with AIDS orphans.  What a gift and reflief it was, to be of service!

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Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields

Memorial Stupa

Memorial Stupa

The sorrow of the Cambodian genocide hit me much deeper at Tuol Sleng, a school turned detention center for the Khmer Rouge. Now a genocidal museum, Tuol Sleng displays the spare rooms where captives were kept and tortured before being sent to die. In other rooms are pictures – walls upon walls of photographs – of the thousands of men and women who were arrested and condemned to death. I don’t know if it was the third wall of pictures of or the fifth, but suddenly the sorrow struck me fully. I had seen their bones at the killing fields, but here I could see their faces.

These were people.

I found myself standing alone in the central courtyard of Tuol Sleng, wondering why I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying. There have been a few times in my life when I have truly and deeply understood what is important in life, and this was one of them.

This is what matters: that people should be free to live and love, to live their own lives unmolested by ideology, oppression, and violence. What matters is that this atrocity that ariose in Cambodia not 4 decades ago must never happen again.

It is an uncomfortable truth that Pol Pot’s ideology was a Western import – a consequence of colonialism. I studied the works of Karl Marx in depth as part of my coursework at UC Berkeley, and I cannot imagine a greater twisting of Marxist ideals than what the Khmer Rouge did “for the people” in Cambodia. Nevertheless, it was education and ideology from the ‘’advanced’ western civilization that decimated this land. If the Cambodian people had been left to their own devices and development, rather than being colonized by a western culture that insists on its own superiority, it is hard to imagine this atrocity occurring. What happened in Cambodia is part of our Western shadow – the great mistake we have made in believing our intellectual rationalism to be superior to all other forms of human being.

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I spent a bit of time in the south, around the beach and island communities of Sihanoukville, before returning to Vietnam. Idyllic at first glance, this region is a haven for international criminals and has a strong mafia present beneath the idealistic white sand beaches that draw ever larger crowds of tourists.

I know quite a bit about trauma from my doctoral studies in depth psychology. I know how trauma can fester like poison when it isn’t worked through and released. The trauma in Cambodia is unimaginable, and the white-washed gloss of attractive tourist destinations only makes it worse.   Shadows are shoved out of sight in an understandable bid for tourist dollars – meanwhile, one of the largest child prostitution markets on earth blossoms in the dark.

In sunny Sihanoukville, I got entangled with a pair of local expats – a former American and a young French existentialist – who tried to convince me of the fundamental darkness of human nature, the meaninglessness of life. They offered me stories (and one disturbing photo) of bodies washed up on the pristine white sand beaches. The Frenchman (who was appropriately obsessed with the barbaric Game of Thrones series) insisted that religion was the cause of all the evil in the world, and that Hitler had been a “Proper Christian” – perhaps he hadn’t been to Tuol Sleng to see the faces of the dead – and he had no answer for the difficult truth that the Khmer Rouge was a secular organization that murdered people for having spiritual beliefs.

The difficult truth, I insisted to this Frenchman, is that the scapegoating of religion only makes things worse, cultivating more resentment and misunderstanding rather than doing the hard work of healing. It is not (and has never been) religion in itself that harms and oppresses, but rather ideology – any ideology, secular or spiritual, that is devoid of heart. Wherever ideas, religious or “rational”, become more important than people – be it the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Holocaust, or the Khmer Rouge – it is the desecration of the human heart that is the ruin of humanity.

This is the lesson Cambodia whispers, under its breezy gloss of exotic vacation packages. Cambodia offers one of humanity’s greatest spiritual treasures, which we squander in the name of tourism, and one of our greatest human tragedies, which we too-often would rather ignore. Depth psychology has long suggested that it is the repressed, unconscious aspects of being that haunt drive our lives. James Hillman in particular has suggested that it is the unheard voices of the dead that must be listened to, if we are to survive and thrive as a species and a planet. But most of us cannot bear the pain and sorrow and mystery of the past – the weight of history – so we entertain ourselves into a stupor instead,  We feed on the barbarism of media products like Game of Thrones, which reminds us of the darkness for an hour, but also slyly suggests that it isn’t really real, that it’s only entertainment. That we don’t have to do anything about it.

If we would find the courage to face the darkness, to listen to the voices of the dead – we might find those voices are trying to tell us what we need to know, to overcome our troubled past, to build a better world.

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            A month back in the United States, re-adjusting to the requirements of marketing and first world capitalism, I go to Trader Joe’s wearing my $3 “I [heart] Cambodia” T-shirt. I wear it not because I love Cambodia the way I love New York or Los Angeles, but because I recognize that even more than our tourist dollars, Cambodia desperately needs and deserves our love.

A fat man with an eye patch notices my shirt in the vegetable isle. He approaches me and begins to talk about being stationed in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. When the conversation turns to genocide, he shakes his head and says, “Human begins are just horrible, aren’t they? Just horrible!”

I look him squarely in his one good eye and calmly reply:

“We have a lot of work to do.”

It is too easy to fall into cynicism – that the world is broken and there is nothing to be done.   I say that is defeatist at best, and lazy at worst. This is a choice, that every day each of us is asked to make. If you choose to believe there is nothing to be done, you will do nothing.

In fact, there is everything to be done. That is why we are here, now, alive in this time. The challenges now facing each of us, as individuals and a species, are immense. But I say, look around you:

There is a great work to be done, to heal this world.

We are doing it.

 

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Here are 4 minutes of edited footage from my three days at the Temples of Angkor:

 

 

Into the Canyon

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.

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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.

 The Descent

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.

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View from Mather Point at dawn.

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.

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Top of the South Kaibob Trail

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.

3260 ft below the Rim, 1520 ft above the Colorado.

3260 ft below the Rim, 1520 ft above the Colorado.

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.

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The South Rim as viewed from Phantom Ranch.

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.

North Kaibob Trail and the distant North Rim.

North Kaibob Trail and the 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.

Ribbon Falls

Ribbon Falls

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.

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South Rim viewed from North Kaibob Trail

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.

Ascension

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.

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The inner gorge at dawn.

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.

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Pre-dawn mule deer at Bright Angel Campground

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.

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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.

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Indian Garden and the inner gorge seen from the Bright Angel Trailhead.

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.

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(Digital film of the journey to follow)