South Rim to Lee’s Ferry
I admire the good ones. The ones who have a deep sense and meaning behind whatever they do. For instance, I had dinner in Flagstaff with a former mentor unbeknownst to him) from the Montana Conservation Corps, Lee. He now works in Flagstaff with another corps, still fighting the good fight. I recall him making a point to remember every single corps member’s name. A tough feat when some 200 member cane through every season. But he didn’t do this out of rigidity or habit. He really cared and made every single person feel so important. We conversated over leadership and styles of leadership, which benefited me immensely. Part of my struggles recently has been understanding this exact same issue. Most importantly, the tuneful note I saw revolved and rang around connection.
I scribbled down these notes afterwards, this warped view skewed by experiences and recent events—-the epiphany on the Altiplano and future plans, work demand and a lured opportunity, a damaging friendship now gone, etc.:
‘Trust—-lack of faith in me; inward self-preservation where I will not commit to others, fearful and leery of expectations; stagnation and impulsive, miscommunication. What I gather is that I lost faith in trust.
Connection—-faith in people I am wary of, responsibility in nature; release, openness, and usage of the gut. What I gather is that I have gained faith through connection.’
Both definitions are now being reshaped along this hike. And here is my fulcrum, where I seek my balance. A chance dinner with Lee and I understand my longing for connection between myself and the natural world, and how the juxtaposition of people I encounter fit and blend. My self-centeredness is not of arrogance, while my quest for self knowledge and growth is tied to selflessness. My flaw is trying to be a hero and please everyone around me. Whom I don’t admire is myself.
I seemed to digress there. My dinner with Lee is not forgotten. My warped notes/definitions are not either. I know what I aiming for, trying to learn and grow towards. It is the connection. Sitting in Li’s flophouse on the South Rim a few days later I asked him: what matters most to you—-your love of long distance hikes or your job?
‘There, you hit at the core of my life, the crux of my whole life’s question.’
What followed mattered to me. Li, he is another good one. He has followed his passion while maintaining a job that feels impactful. A lot like Lee, I feel they both have balanced their life and given enough of themselves just enough to be truly good people. Both are significant yet strive for insignificance, on a quest to assume the unassuming, to venture towards obliviousness, to flow within the marrow and impact people from behind the curtain.
In Serpentine Canyon I splayed out on the bedrock under a box elder tree, near a shallow pool, a tinaja. What little shade I had I relished in lethargy, in exhaustion to where my imagination looked over me as a cartoon figure with my thirsty tongue hanging out. Above me Bright Angel Shale layered incongruously amid other layers and the dominant Redwall Limestone glimmered between rays and desert varnish tainted by water and minerals. My eyes slowly blinked, slowly discerning my surroundings. I blinked and I breathed heavily and slowly. The past day and a half on the Tonto Platform felt of an unreasonable surmising of unholy temperatures. If I had to guess, my professional dipshit opinion: 156 degrees. Jokes aside, it wasn’t the heat that I felt as much as the all encompassing glare and reflection that emanated a different type of heat from the absorption of hard and metallic rock. This heat bored through the skin and boiled blood. Now, I slowly nodded left and my peepers looked at the pothole, a tiny and insignificant star in a rock galaxy. The water darkened the stone to mauve and the clear reflection whistled in somber waves from the buffeted gusts of wind. In the pool, five or so tadpoles of various sizes clamped on to another tadpole, this one gone. The tadpoles, seemingly all cheeks and a tail, sucked and nibbled at the lifeless one. I didn’t know that tadpoles were cannibals, I thought. I peered deeper signaling out this vicious cycle and introspectively visualizing what my body was doing to itself. I dozed under blurred visions yet I was cognizant of my surroundings and self. I blinked and I saw shade move, my eyes lessened their squint. I felt cooler. Under the glassy water in the pothole the largest tadpole ripped the dead one free from the others. The smaller ones wiggled to the stony bed and hid among the duffy detritus. I felt my arms encrusted in salt. My eyes stung. My belly protruded. My shorts and shirt stiff as a board from salt. After an hour and a half, I gathered up nerve to saunter on. Clouds gathered above and the wind brought on relief. After weaving in and out of challenging drainages, massive on scale to the human eye yet puny on a Grand Canyon map, I finally made South Bass. My faith in me, what I knew would happen happened: I recovered.
I am familiar with suffering. I am not always familiar with patience. Climbing down the old route to the river through Vishnu Schist I found a sandy cove tucked away from the line of sight of downstream rafters. I climbed to a rocky point and saw a camp upstream. I felt antsy. After slogging along in some form or another of heat exhaustion I now demanded efficiency. I wanted to get across the mighty Colorado River now. I saw at the upstream camp the guides toy with the boats rigging them up for the night. One fellow dove right in. I mean, the river didn’t feel cold, especially not after how hot I had been. Plus, the looming warning of what the cold would do to a swimmer not prepared rang in my head. I trusted Li; why not now? Seeing that guide dive in and run out (I could deal with the cold), feeling the wind push downstream (umbrella for speed), and with the time of day (heat to warm up, plus gain a mile or two) I impulse to go.
Impulse is not necessarily gut. Impulse is usually contrived mentally. So, I threw on my tights, my hooded fleece and wind jacket, and waterproofed my pack. I blew up my small mattress, then I tested the loft without weight in the water. Not so bad, I thought. Excited, I threw on my pack and went out about 15 feet, just underside of the reach of the cove and before the current. My gut spoke to me: exercise patience. I waded back and resigned to relax for the rest of the evening in this unique location and patiently wait until the next morning when I could easily get a ride across. Besides, I was alone, and I did not have to be irrationally brave.
On the sand I laid out my gear, laid back against my pack and propped a knee up. In no time I would be napping, assuredly. Nonetheless, I heard a yell and some echoes. No way, I thought! Sure enough, a troop came rowing through. The first raft breached off the line and made its way towards me.
‘Hop on! I’m Turtle, but you can call me Tortuga.’
Ah, I thought, patience in the form of a turtle. Floating across felt surreal, simply gazing at the umpteen thousands of feet above me in utter awe. I got introduced to the group, a private group mainly from Crested Butte, CO. Small world—-neighbors so essentially closely located to where I live in Glenwood Springs. Two Tecates were thrown my way and I eagerly accepted the invite for dinner of grilled chicken and quinoa. I slugged my first Tecate and felt the heat and my overworked effort subside downstream.
The tight knit crew had achieved a big day. So, their tardiness down the river to set up a late camp proved fortuitous to me. However, what I felt most grateful for was observing how thankful, helpful, and supportive this group was of each other. One of the rafts has flipped in a challenging rapid. The group quickly acted, got their people secure, then uprighted the raft in roughly 15 minutes. Astonishing to hear the story, let alone seeing the size of the rafts.
The group had some institutional influence. Turns out the elder of the bunch, a professor taught an Outdoor Leadership Program, in which Turtle applied wonderfully. She oozed with compassion and love, listening to everybody and exuding such a positive vibe. This group flourished. During the Grateful Circle, a debriefing of sorts, the group went around and said their piece aloud about the day. The tipping of the raft topped the theme that capped, or overrided, an epic day. Feelings were expressed and listened to, even constructive criticism acknowledged. The group also strove to keep growing, maybe not cheerfully vocally rather humbly inferred. The strength of the group grew as the gnarled schist walls glowed from the fire and the crews’ faces radiantly imbued humility, compassion, and closeness. I felt so grateful for this ceremony. This extrospection contrasted so starkly to my bewildered introspective moment laying in the creek bed disoriented from the heat.
The beer kept coming, as my legs and arms cramped in multiple places. I could not pass this moment up with new friends in the middle of the Earth. Eventually, I laid down numbly as the night still rang in heat from the day in drunken mirth and full of belly. The moon woke me up. The river quiet, the chasm sucking out the air, I staggered down the sandy bank barefoot, unusual to feel because I tend to roll over from my quilt to piss. I tried to stand firmly balanced but my feet tucked into the compacted mud that cooled and soothed the balls of my feet. I pissed into the river as I teetered from my quasi-erect standing. I felt relief as the tiny tide of cold water tingled my toes while my warm piss swirled around my ankles. I looked up from one stream to another and marveled at the night sky, starry and milky, while the nearly full moon lit up against the radiantly warm schist cliffs. Silhouettes within the cliffs tricked my foggy head and I wobbled mesmerized at the enormity of illusions and the world around me. High up, thousands of feet, mesa points jutted out into an abyss, a sea of illuminated darkness. I stumbled back to my quilt and fell right atop, lowered my buff around my eyes to banish moon glare, and dipped into a restful knot.
I snuck out of camp that morning, early, like a furtive coyote passing through. Although I quietly walked out surreptitiously I felt secure with this group and mouthed my gratitude. I chose to release myself within in, to relate, neither skittish or shy. But the wild draw of the climb out of the canyon compelled me to go, my exit unglamorous, more solemn than known, more grateful than useful.
I descended into, then entered Shinumo Canyon. The creek raged and as I forded periodically the whitewater pounded against my quads and rattled my trekking poles. I still felt a tad nauseous from the previous couple days though. My belly protruded and I felt I couldn’t drink any more water, let alone eat. I knew I needed calories but the thought of energy bars only made me queasy. I needed salt. So, I crunched my salty chips the way up the meandering trail. The hottest part of my day came at 0630 on the initial brief climb up to a saddle between the Colorado River and Shinumo Creek. Now, up on the esplanade I lethargically cruised along until I got back into the drainage. I startled a turkey vulture under a bluff that had been pecking on a large bull snake, now ripped and shredded, its guts splayed out on the river rock. I climbed on into the narrows and the trail became overgrown and nonexistent. Following cairns I finally hit the side trail that went steeply up shelves and benches until the Muav layer, this to avoid a tremendous pour off. Luckily for me the day was cloudy and overcast with a strong, cool wind. After 5000 or so feet I attained Swamp Ridge Point to chilly gusts. I strapped on my down jacket and hunkered atilt a ponderosa and took a long nap.
The weather changed. Then again, the weather has been constantly changing. While I have kept adapting and maintained flexibility along the way I was no longer walking along in a landscape where I would be merely uncomfortable. Now, things would need more consideration. A blizzard caught me on the Kaibab Plateau. Couple that with a reeling recovery from the heat exhaustion in the Grand Canyon, I headed to Jacob Lake for some caloric sustenance.
I left Jacob Lake feeling a bit misplaced. I knew which direction I was headed but I had not the faintest clue where I was going. I mean, this is the design of the concept, but it also meant I may be taking chances in canyon country if the weather seemed dicey. I did not want a straight line slog. So, I veered the slog course half way into that day of leaving Jacob Lake for a more adventurous course. Keep the names and records for whoever is keeping score—-this creativity within the land I desire has no rules, no judgment, no competition of others, no comparing, only growth within self: I can go wherever I want. And with my experience and capabilities I am empowered to make sensible decisions on the fly while going where my gut feels pulled towards. Atop the Paria Plateau, as I propped up my top, rain drops fell sporadically. I slept hard that night under a bright moon occasionally shrouded my clouds.
I gave it a go. The wind whistled into emptiness, the view glorious. Way down below I could see the chocolate mixed river—no, I could taste it. The drop into the Paria River Canyon plummeted with benches staggered down until a red rock slab field chunked up a wide cut in the prominent wall. Next, some red benches with block buttresses forming the lip in which I slipped through a chute to attain the next layer. Rain began to fell, a thick curtain blurred the vista down canyon as I hunkered under an overhang. I decided to wait this cell out in case I needed all my limbs in case the rock became slippery. All the red rock sandstone glistened under sheets of drooping water staining the bright red to a gloomier purple. I wasn’t feeling or thinking much rather than listening to the drone pittee patter of a raindrop meditation. An hour passed and I folded up my umbrella which had deflected spray from mist and the drop from the overhang above.
At the river, a roar took over the whistles wind; the wind stopped but the river raged. Aware that the Paria was in a flood state I impulsively decided to go upstream following a river trail. I looked up at the northern walls now towering infernally in blood red, the incline so tilted I would lose my balance backwards. A way out would be a tremendous effort, but I figured scanning would be keep me on guard. I moved rather swiftly through mid calf crossings. The going did not seem to be going so bad, so I continued. At one point, aware of what the flooding meant, I took a stab at a way out and picked my way up a walled basin about 500ft before a ledge thwarted my passage. I descended back to the river and in about 2 more miles I planted camp on a sandbar under a tree, the banks of the rushing river some 10 feet below me.
Surrounded in a narrow u bend of the river, the pink and purple walls, smooth and polished, hung over like an amphitheater. Any sound sounded louder than what the sound would sound like without the echo chamber. At one point in the night, I heard a loud airplane roar and fathomed how weird this situation was to be in an utter hole in the earth and hear a large jet. I groggily realized that quite possibly the river had flash flooded, for no passenger jets cross that area at night. Rain fell and I reluctantly set up my shelter. Really, I wanted things to be kosher rather than face the reality.
I put on every piece of clothing I had that morning as I forded the first of many crossing during the settled cold of the morning in narrows of a river. I walked in machinations of one hell bent on attaining one’s goal. But then the rain fell hard. The water rose to my knees. Occasionally I sought refuge under overhangs to not only give myself a break but to maintain some dry heat which only sated my mind.
Within an instant I understood I had to retreat. The notion had not even dawned on me until then. The situation had been step by step, to keep pursuing a go as long as the go went. Rain downpoured from the skies as the river kept rising. At 8am in the morning, things seemed uncertain. Under an overhang on a now seldom sandbar within seconds I knew to retreat.
I hurriedly flew down river as the chocalately muddy waters rose to mid-thigh. I doubled my mileage per hour going downstream, my adrenaline pumping as I needed to find safety. Rainwater flowed down every pour off running heavily into a pitter-pattered river. A squawk rang out from above. A lone raven flew between small alcoves hundreds of feet above. I wondered where the raven’s partner was at. Curiously flummoxed, I had no time to fathom. I rushed further under a couple more hours of heavy rain, my upstream footprints now completely vanished under a sweltering flood.
I contemplated arriving at Lee’s Ferry and thought: how did I get here. As same as it ever was, I didn’t stop and kept pushing. Finally, and unexpectedly, I saw a cell phone tower a couple miles downstream where I knew the confluence was of the Paria with the Colorado. I needed to check in. I knew folks would be looking for me if I had continued onward. But I didn’t. In an absolute second, I had turned back, unlike my usual wild grit. Floods of messages came in. A thought not even registered, so far away from where my mind had been, a drowning hole in the earth, I found out my granny had passed. I welled up in an emotional burst, the situation of the day climaxing while leveling out in utter emotion of longing. I immediately emotionally rationalized the raven: she gave my life for hers.
Fuck, while I understand how irrational I felt, I couldn’t help but feel her. The vermilion and pink cliffs strung on by with the flow that passed through me. I needed to get home, the flooding waters not the sign, not my own life mattered, something bigger to me, in the middle of everywhere, vulnerable, I pulsed. I did not know where I would be, let alone go, without her.