Looking to the sky, the horizon, I’m seeking information: What’s the weather, the time, what is coming up? I also realize that I’m seeking a perspective, something beyond the life of my small self and the vicissitudes of daily life.
I’ve had the privilege of traversing the Grand Canyon via the Colorado River twice. My first trip was on a motorized raft, the second was by dory, a wooden rowboat. Deep in the canyon, one’s horizons are limited. Quite literally, there is only a small slice of sky to see. In this wilderness, life becomes quite elemental. The river, with its currents, flat quiet patches interspersed with rapids, different each time depending on conditions. The canyon itself, weathered rock, revealing eons of geologic history. Small bits of land on which to camp, shared with the creatures inhabiting this space.
And that small slice of sky. In the deepest stretches of the canyon, it takes little more than an hour for the sun or moon to cross from rim to rim. Weather comes and goes, with limited warning of changing conditions. My first trip occurred during monsoon season, when thunderstorms are quite common. Depending on where one is when a storm arises, choices for response are limited.
I recall sitting hunched in my rain gear on our raft as we rode through a storm. Thunder reverberated through the canyon, its vibrations amplified by the narrow walls. Rockfalls were heard crashing down; sound literally shattering the stone walls of the canyon. In that moment, my tininess in the grand scheme of things is clear. Paradoxically, my tininess in this vastness affords comfort. My lack of control over events is so apparent that I gratefully release a burden I had been unaware I carried. I’m really not in charge of much at all. Here in the canyon, its so clear–I can choose my responses to circumstances, but not the circumstances themselves.
While it is clear that there is a considerable lack of control, its also clear that preparation is important in such a wilderness. Stowing gear, bringing supplies and having a sense of what to do in an emergency or unexpected event, this matters, too, as became apparent on my second trip. This trip was sponsored by my college alumni association, with an alumna geologist and faculty artist accompanying our group. Professional river guides piloted our dories, their many years of experience supporting our curious and engaged group.
Some days into our trip, it became apparent that our team geologist Beth was not feeling well. A veteran of many river trips, she had told us prior to departure that she was seriously ill, although cleared for the trip by her physicians, and not to be overly concerned if she needed extra rest. The trip began, and Beth was an enthusiastic leader, sharing her knowledge and love for the canyon with the group, telling stories along with our guides, many of whom she knew from previous trips.
All seemed well. We weathered a few late afternoon thunderstorms, moving tents due to spill-over waterfalls from storms on the rim high above, and saw the effects of flash flooding downriver the next morning. Stopping for a late morning hike, Beth told her 2 sisters who were on the trip that she had a headache. She found some shade to lie down in and rested while the group hiked. Returning from the hike, her sisters sought me out, aware of my medical background. I visited with Beth, supported her self-diagnosis of migraine, offered some of my stash of anti-nausea meds, and did a little hands on work to help with her pain. Beth rested the remainder of the day, supported by her sisters, the guides and me.
The next morning, she still didn’t feel well and it was decision time. There aren’t a lot of places in the Grand Canyon where a person can exit the river. Midway, one can hike in and out, and there are a few places where a helicopter rescue can happen. Fortuitously, we were camped at one of those locations. The guides needed to make a choice. I asked Beth “If you could do anything in the world today, what would you do?” Her response was “sleep”. The guides activated their satellite phone and called for help. A few hours later, a helicopter arrived, and Beth flew off to the hospital in Flagstaff.
We continued down the river, arriving at Phantom Ranch two days later. Joan and Susie, Beth’s sisters, hiked as fast as they could to the lodge, where they were able to call the hospital and talk with Beth. She was stable and no cause for her symptoms had been found, despite extensive evaluation. Feeling better, the plan was for her to be discharged the next morning into the care of her husband who was now at her bedside. Relieved, we celebrated with a beer and dinner and continued our trip.
A few mornings later, Joan and I were riding together in a dory. All was going smoothly as we traversed a smaller rapid when suddenly, our boat popped up and seemingly in one motion, flipped over. We were in the water! Coming to the surface, I looked around. I could see the other 3 passengers and our boatman. The boatman was attending to the other pair of passengers, helping them get to a sandbar. Joanie and I met at our upturned dory, and got ourselves and the boat to shore. The people were wet, a little cold and shaken, not too much the worse for the wear. Our boat however, was injured, with a break in its wooden hull.
The entire group reconvened on a gravel bar mid-river and we set up a work camp. The guides unpacked their supplies, able to effect a good temporary patch using waterproof epoxy. Those of us who had taken an unexpected swim were able to warm up in the sun and work through the shock of that swim. Other parties traveling the river checked in with our group, the tightly knit river running community supporting itself. Given our unexpected delay, our guides were able to swap campsites with another group, making for a more easeful post repair trip that afternoon.
The remainder of our voyage proceeded as expected and two weeks after we began, we arrived at our takeout location. We began unloading the boats, and enjoying the picnic prepared for us. The guides showed a little surprise to be greeted by the company’s owners, although I was less surprised, as they are fellow alumni. A while later, the reason for their presence became clear, when they accompanied Joan and Susie to the group to make an announcement. The night following Joan and Susie’s conversation with her, Beth had died in her sleep.
Shocked and deeply saddened, it was a difficult end to our trip. And at the same time, there was a rightness about it. Beth had spent her last days doing something she loved, with people she loved, in one of her favorite places on the planet. I wish that for each of us.
My Grand Canyon trips have been great teachers for me, simultaneously widening my horizons, showing me the vastness of experience and the universe through a microcosm of nature, and at the same time allowing me to take my very small and yet significant place within that vastness. Despite the narrow slice of sky visible at any one time, the near-infinite depth of the universe, alluded to by the shimmering clarity of the milky way to me illustrates this wonderful paradox.