I rode shotgun in an Astrovan, Chaco-clad feet propped on the dash as we left Grand Canyon National Park, my mom’s words from 18 years ago echoing in my head: “You can’t live on top of the ‘mountain.’ You have to figure out how to bring it into your daily life.” Back then, I was an idealistic teenager trying to figure out what to do with the bright swell I felt in my heart after a life-changing week of emotional highs at summer camp. Now I was coming down off a totally different experience—eight days of rafting through the Grand Canyon—and I was wrestling with the same thing most of us think about after such a special experience: How to translate the highs and the lessons learned into real life.
I rode shotgun in an Astrovan, Chaco-clad feet propped on the dash as we left Grand Canyon National Park.
On the fourth night of the trip, I’d woken from a deep, sweaty sleep to one of the most startling claps of thunder I’d ever heard. I’d woken a couple times throughout the night, noticing the strip of stars that usually stretched up the canyon overhead had disappeared, replaced by indistinguishable blackness. The thunderclap shot through me like what I imagine defibrillation paddles must feel like, and I instantly felt more vulnerable than I had in almost my entire life. Sitting up in my sleeping bag on the beach, just 20 feet from the heavily rushing Colorado River, I was electrically aware that I was at the bottom of the drainage for a multi-state area, and that compared to the cliffs rising above me into the blackness, I was an ant. It was a feeling of absolute vulnerability and humility that only continued to grow throughout the trip.
I’d never been to the bottom of the Grand Canyon before. And only one of the eight people in my group had ever rowed it. The thrill of the unknown ran like a charge amongst us. Pushing the rafts into the water on the first day, I’d felt like Huck Finn. The river symbolized freedom, adventure and everything new and exciting.
Camilo, who had guided on rivers in Africa, gave us a quick tutorial on how to position the boat to exit the rapid correctly without getting stuck in an eddy. On the second day, I dipped one oar and then the other into Georgie’s Rapid, a 6 (on the Grand Canyon scale, with 10 being the most heinous), aiming straight through the tongue and over the waves. Feeling the quick muscle of the current, I began to realize how much I could control the raft with just a single solid pull or push of an oar. Splashing through the tail waves and realizing we’d made it—that I made it—was a new sense of accomplishment. But that feeling of accomplishment was darkly tempered by a humble new understanding of exactly how strong the river was. My wonder and elation was brought into focus through fear and humbleness. This canyon will put you in your place.
We slept on rock ledges and tiny strips of beach under towering walls, scrambling up side canyons to check out fossil beds and Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the afternoons. Tiki torch light flashed on our faces as the last ruby sunlight faded from the cliff tops, each evening a few more miles down into the chasm—a few miles farther from the rest of life on Earth. Each evening our conversation dug deeper, from tales of travel and international adventure, to literature, to philosophy and spirituality. And each day it became more difficult to imagine the rest of humanity continuing to exist somewhere up, out and beyond the canyon walls. My blue raft—christened “Cookie Monster”—began to feel like a NASA capsule shot out into deep space.
This canyon will put you in your place.
After nearly a week, the canyon walls towered over us more tightly, the stone glinting with a density unlike any we’d seen yet, and my body and mind began to hush, as if I were stepping into an ancient temple. As fun as the splashy rapids were, I found myself turning inward with a sense of deep reverence.
At Phantom Ranch, my boyfriend sat waiting on the bank, smiling, having hiked down from the rim to meet me and help carry my week’s worth of gear back to the campground on the South Rim. I shouldered my pack to cross the bridge over the river, sad to be leaving the trip so soon but feeling confident I’d be back there before too long. In my happiness to see my boyfriend and get a different look at the canyon by hiking out, I tucked the deep feelings stirring in me back into my heart to ponder later.
Two days later, driving eastward toward home in Colorado, I felt like a teenager leaving summer camp again. Don’t we all deal with those kind of feelings after a transcendental experience in the outdoors? We loathe the thought of returning to deadlines, traffic and e-mails. But maybe the point isn’t just to leave our special outdoor experiences behind. Maybe the humility we learn in the mountains and canyons needs to come home with us. Maybe those whitewater moments showing us what we’re capable of should live in our hearts, even when we’re struggling with insecurities. And maybe a little dose of the gratitude that a few days in the Grand Canyon will inspire can go a long way back in the world of rent paying, grocery buying and office hours.
Maybe those whitewater moments showing us what we’re capable of should live in our hearts, even when we’re struggling with insecurities.
Sure, I’d love to stay on the river forever, enjoying that precious place away from the world’s travails, relishing the highs of running rapids and the peace of living in the wilderness. But it gave me something special—the kind of thing we can all take back with us.