The Canyon that John Wesley Powell called Grand was thought useless by the first Europeans who were looking for gold. Their Hopi guides did not dissuade them or show them the trails down through the impossible chasm, so it was left unvisited for two centuries until one-armed Powell came back. The Canyon didn’t care. It just went on emerging as it still is, now swarmed by millions of tourists from rim and helicopter, a few thousand who hike and a few who even sleep amid the unthinkably ancient rocks.
Kevin Barnett and I slipped away from a nearby meeting in Phoenix, raced to the rim and down the abandoned trail to Hermit’s Rapids on the western end of the Park. It was the only permit we could get after three tries and were warned by the rangers it was “aggressive.” The email noted that those who tried this one experienced a range of bad things, “sometimes even death.” REI doesn’t have a department for that but we thought ourselves within the range of fitness (and folly), so there we went. It was aggressive, although we should note that two dozen of the three we passed on the trail were….our age. And, we guessed, tough tofu eaters seeking refuge from the trumpian dystopia.
It was on the way back up we learned about nature, beginning in the forty degree blowing morning mist trying to dig a hole in the shale sufficient to poop in. I am hoping that will be the most disagreeable poop of my life.
Nature doesn’t care what humans think, feel or spin. The Colorado plateau rose up, drained an ocean cut a river that still runs deep. The savage economy of water, wind and gravity cut and undercut, carving what to any human with any spirit at all is a cathedral to the endless creativity of time.
But the Canyon doesn’t care about that. It is still becoming.
The rain and wind picked up as we left the Tonto Trail back up the Hermit Rest trail. We left at dawn and slowly noticed the quickly moving clouds, but were surprised by the thunder and even more by the lightening on the plateau high above. Up a thousand feet the hail started and wind went sideways, totally defeating our nifty REI rain gear. The water ran red off the cliffs and coursed down the trail. We could see the creek that we had been able to step across the day before, now surging white and brown, wondering about the couple and their daughter we saw head down that way.
The Canyon is vast but not wild. 12 miles up from where we had slept Horn creek runs radioactive from mining that stopped when I was four years old. It will be dangerous when my grandsons have grandsons. At the river we slept where an orchard had grown once. We knew that every cave, even the ones high on the cliffs hid birds twisted out of wild grass by people whose name we do not know for reasons we do not know; symbols of love or worship? So too it will be with us, our voice and pride.
We picked our way across a ravine where a landslide happened back when Jimmy Carter was elected, which isn’t that long ago geologically speaking. The shards are still sharp and gravel ready to move again, not quite at rest. Far above we could hear other rocks sliding and then, breaking like canon fire when they hit below. One the size of a piano hit a woman a year ago, but the Canyon is a big place so were more worried about the sleet and slippery rocks beneath our feet. We kept going, chewing energy bars and electrolyte things, which seemed to work.
We were strong enough to walk and too cold to stop, so for hours the Canyon taught us about the fragility of humans, our toys and ways. Five hours in the sun broke through, clouds still scudding past, but broken now. We could see the plateau above and, then, ridiculously beneath us in between the couple of miles over to the next butte, what should appear but a rainbow, the curve of which seemed to match the trail left above.
I wondered about the Canyon not caring. Perhaps I was projecting; but I knew that TC had sensed the danger and been praying. I took it as a blessing, but also a warning. Another thunder crack. Three minutes after reaching the rental car, a squall line of snow and sleet whipped across the plateau.
We were almost afraid to check CNN to find what had happened while we were happily remote. We turned the heater up high and headed back to the city, grateful, chastened; awed again. Don’t worry about the Canyon; it doesn’t care. Mr Trump and his deniers will be gone before another few rocks fall, entirely unremembered before the river cuts another inch from the basalt floor. Natural fact.
The other natural fact is more preposterous; that we care and care for each other. A few days after sleeping on Canyon rocks, I was privileged to be the executive on call in the hospital, spending the weekend with the security guys and nurses and docs pulling the holiday shifts. I like to slip in a prayer on Sundays:
Dear preposterous God,
What could be more obvious than the natural fact that everyone who has ever lived died, felt pain and knew sorrow. We know that, too. And we know that all those we love will learn this, too. So why, against all the force of natural fact, we find ourselves able to heal, to offer comfort with all pills and touch and technology we can conjure, every single day, all around the clock, year after year. Why does the healing never stop? Is this folly, delusion; or are we drawn to something about the world we come closest to when—in fellowship with others—we open ourselves to hope, healing and life? Jesus—a healer who never stopped, even for the Sabbath—said that he only stopped healing when his Parent did. How preposterous; how human, how holy; we don’t whether to laugh or cry. Either way, thank you for bringing us close to that natural mystery of human life.