I’ve just returned from a river trip through the Grand Canyon. My fifth such trip. And as compelled as I feel to share the experience I doubt I’ll be able to properly … or that anyone could for that matter. A Canyon river trip is a transcendent experience. Most visitors to the Canyon spend a few minutes on the rim, ooh’ing and ah’ing at the physical beauty, then mail a postcard to family back home. But a river trip emerses you in that beauty for weeks and, equally importantly, creates a nearly perfect sense of isolation. The experience becomes something spiritual – a visit to a chapel, a mirror of truth, or even an oracle – something that may change a person in unique and profound ways.
Or at least, that’s come to be how I view these river trips. Certainly each one I’ve been on has made deep and lasting impressions.
My first two trips through the Canyon were as a child (age 11, then 14) and were spent exploring the natural wonder. Waterfalls, sandy beaches, wet and dry canyons, tepid pools, the vast flowing river, and all the critters and beasts they contain providing a wonderful playground. And to my chagrin today, I recall doing my best to avoid the necessary chores of cooking and cleaning around camp in an effort to spend more time fishing or throwing rocks or simply not working. All of this punctuated by moments of, to be frank, sheer terror whenever we had to run a big rapid. What changes were wrought on me? Those are hard to identify, but I have carried memories of those trips with me always.
Subsequent trips as an adult have let me appreciate the more sublime aspects of the canyon, not to mention handle the responsibilities of camp duty more gracefully and, for that matter, conquer my childhood fears of the rapids by rowing my own raft. Or at least turn them into adult fears.
My third trip, at age 25, occured during a time when I was deeply unhappy with where I was living, the work I was doing, and the relationship I was in. It was on this trip that I discovered the Canyon’s unique ability to change a person’s perspective on life. The time spent floating down the river, in quiet contemplation of the towering cliffs and endless natural beauty are the only form of meditation that I’ve ever known. The routine of camp and river slowly pushes aside the stress and anxiety of your “normal” life, and it is not until the end of the trip that you realize just how profoundly your world view has changed. On this trip, the return to my life in L.A. was disturbing and disorienting, and played a key role in my eventual decision to leave L.A.
Trip number four, at age 31, was literally days after I had returned from my honeymoon. And, as you might expect, mostly made me realize how hard it was to be away from my wife and how important it was that someday I be able to share this experience with her. It was also on this trip that we encountered Lava Falls at its worst. A water level that presented an unrunnable wave on the right, an even more terrifying pourover in the middle, and a ferocious rock garden on the left. I spent hours gazing into it’s swirling waters searching for just the right route, a route I later ran with satisfying precision. But not before taking a last look up at the canyon walls, only to see them waving back and forth in violent motion, as my brain continued its attempt at conteracting the chaotic motion of the water I’d been gazing at for so long. I occasionally awaken at night to visions of that rapid. My heart doing a rapid tap dance as I replay those moments.
And so this most recent trip, just days ago. What I find most remarkable and pleasing about this one is how natural it felt. The fear of rapids replaced by a pleasant anticipation with just the right touch of anxiety and enjoyment – and a sense that those late night visions of Lava Falls might be gone for good. And the camp chores are now a welcome diversion, a chance to socialize with those around me. And, most importantly, the return to society no longer depressing, but something to anticipate (albeit with a tinge of regret at leaving the Canyon).