Our hopes and expectations
Black holes and revelations, yeah!
I woke the next morning to a strange sound near my tent, like boots crunching leaves- but heavier… inhuman. A deep, growling grunt. Then the loud crack of splintering wood and branches falling to the forest floor, an insistent and vicious scraping, tormented leaves rustling and crackling in fury.
What the hell? I thought as I bolted upright. I unzipped the rear window of my tent and cautiously peered outside, unable to guess at the source of the strange cacophony. When I saw the great beast just outside my tent, my jaw dropped.
Five feet from my tent was a massive buck elk, six feet tall- nine or ten if you included the antlers thick as my arm forking out from his head like monstrous thunderbolts of bone. He was vigorously attacking a tree, scraping his huge antlers against the bark, bending the tree as if it were thin rubber, snapping thick branches which fell in a clattering shower around him. I grabbed my camera and shot him through my tent window before I carefully crawled outside to face the mighty beast. I kept my distance and he paid me no mind, which was just fine with me, just dandy. I had no desire to tangle with a full-grown buck in the middle of his rut.
Nearby, other campers were similarly agape at the spectacle. Kira, my author friend across the way, saw me and said “I was wondering when you were going to wake up! He’s been at it for a while.” Together we watched in stunned fascination as the buck completely destroyed the tree with his imposing antlers- those curving vicious beautiful upreaching talons- shredding the tree to pieces just a few feet from where I’d been lazily dozing.
Once the elk had tired and wandered off to rest in the shade with his harem, I added yet another night to my stay at the South Rim(five nights total!), and drove south of the Park to Williams where I could get consistent cell service in order to plan out my next move and call my folks to let them know I was still alive.
With my U.S. atlas and the internet on my phone, I tentatively drafted a plan- not a timed schedule so much as an ordered list of destinations: First, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, camping at a private campground just outside the park for a couple nights in lieu of the reservation-only campground in the park itself. Then, a few nights in Zion and a few nights in Bryce, two of my childhood parks which hold a special place in my heart. Then Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands- that takes care of the “Big Five” of Utah. From Moab, I’d swing down south and cut into the southwest corner of Colorado for Mesa Verde before staying with a good friend of mine, a So Cal expat turned mountain-man brewmaster, in the nearby town of Durango. After that, a white-knuckle drive of 900 miles north to Montana, where I needed to be by mid-September for a previously scheduled obligation; the rest of the beautiful state of Colorado would have to wait until the following summer. From Montana, I’d hit both Yellowstone and Glacier.
I sighed, two hours of map-reading and campground research later, and looked carefully over my notes. Nine more National Parks (counting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon as separate from the South, as they are quite different in character) and nearly two thousand miles of road, with several legs going along what promised to be gorgeous mountain and desert routes.
I quickly decided my itinerary was fucking awesome.
Back at the Canyon, I continued my piecemeal progression along the Rim Trail. There was a light rain falling from puffy gray clouds overhead, scaring away most of the skittish pampered tourists, leaving me to myself as I reveled in the raindrops pattering on my hat and the soft squelch of dirt beneath my boots and the shifting cloud-shadows over the Canyon. I soon veered off the trail into the trees and down a slope which graded down softly before dropping off precipitously into the Canyon’s depths. There I found a large white boulder with a convenient overhang, and sat contentedly beneath it. Not a person in sight. Just me and the Grand Canyon- and the rain and the pinyon pine and the juniper and the ravens and the condors and the chipmunks and the Colorado River far, far below.
I pulled out a flask, some cheap rum I’d picked up in Grand Canyon Village. I drank and I smoked with my uncountable flora and fauna companions, enjoying the moment, the rain, the quiet. My thoughts, emerging from a serene stillness, turned to two friends who had passed away young. Theirs were fierce hearts, rare and passionate and luminous and alive in a way few others’ were. Maybe it was the rum talking, but I thought I felt them there with me, and I poured out a few shots for Mikey, for Lydia. I watched the rum tumble off the cliff into the abyss.
In fact, I felt them not only with me, but everywhere– in the gentle tumble of each raindrop, in the rough grain of every stone, in the cool wet breeze that tickled my arm hairs. No need for grief, not here- there had been quite enough of that. I felt not grief but exultation, and, perhaps, a little jealousy. Someday I too would die, returning to the mysterious and glorious Source out from which I came. I even looked forward to it- the final revelation- but I wasn’t in any particular hurry. Right now, I was alive, so I might as well live until the glorious day that I too returned this loaned body to the vultures and the ravens and the worms, my physical form living on through the carrion-eaters.
The next morning, I drifted out of sleep to a gentle rain on my tent. I smiled, rolled over, and for the next twenty minutes dozed blissfully to the soft, soothing pat-pat-pat of raindrops on canvas. Eventually I roused myself and walked to the rim through the woods and the mist. Today, I planned on completing the final few segments of the Rim Trail, finishing up at Hermit’s Rest to the west. I approached the guardrail near the Bright Angel shuttle stop and looked out over the Canyon, but I beheld not the colorful gorges or mighty temples to which I’d grown accustomed. My eyes widened at the alien sight stretching from horizon to horizon.
A vast, rippled, grey expanse of fog lay before me, completely concealing the Canyon’s contents and filling it to the brim. I lifted my gaze in awe, sweeping my eyes northward. Across an undulating ocean of fog, I saw wispy clouds crawling down over the North Rim, descending into the cloudsea and splashing into the thicker clouds below like a ghostly slow-motion waterfall. It was completely mystifying, eerily beautiful- a special dress the Canyon had not yet worn for me, saving its display for the special occasion of that very hour. Such a coy lady! I smiled and breathed deep, drinking in the ecstasy of the new perspective, looking forward to another hike made more solitary by so-called “inclement” weather.
I walked past the shuttle stop where tourists milled back and forth, their cameras idle in their hands, their voices plaintive and defeated. These people had come to see the Canyon from the postcards, to see the sun’s early light dancing among a thousand rainbow chasms and spires. Not an ignoble goal, to be sure- but this quiet, foggy morning the Canyon was even slower to wake than I was, dozing deep under the somniferous spell of a gentle rain.
As I walked along the rim, I kept an eye to my right, watching the thick cloudsea in the canyon break apart as the morning went on. Patches of the canyon became visible in slow waves, stunningly illuminated in pink and tan by singular rays of sunlight cutting through the now-uncertain mass of puffy, dark clouds.
Just a couple more nights before I move on. I thought back to Joshua Tree and the lesson imparted by Jon and the Desert. I stopped walking and looked out over the Canyon. I want you to teach me something too, my lady. I closed my eyes and bowed my head. You’ve gifted me with a hundred thousand lovely moments and as many memories: sights and sounds and smells which have well and truly slaked my thirst for beauty. Yet this soul thirsts also for revelation, for growth- and our time together grows short. Teach me, Grand Canyon. Teach me something I do not know I do not know.
Satisfied with my entreaty, I released the words to the Universe, and continued on. It drizzled on and off as I walked. Every ten minutes I would stop and look out across the expanse, my eyes wet with new joy. Each perspective along the trail highlighted new secrets deep within the mighty gorge, and the shifting fog and sunlight showed me a dozen different and lovely faces of the Canyon for every mile I walked. Huge and fat cumulus clouds passed over the Canyon, emptying themselves in patches of foggy streamers in the distance. These storms were sometimes illumined by gracefully angled rays of sun, turning the rain into a shower of light upon a Canyon of wonder.
At one point I came across a couple in their late twenties who were braving the rain as I was- Cody and Stephanie, from Pittsburgh(or was it Pennsylvania? Crap). When they heard what I was doing, they extolled my bravery while I sheepishly shrugged off their compliments- I was still green, and I knew it. They asked if I was blogging my journey so they could follow my adventure. I blinked in surprise. That’s a great idea, I thought. My heart fluttered and I said without thinking: “No, not yet- but I will!” They gave me their contact info so I could let them know when I had something.
A blog, huh? I thought as the mist curled around my steps. I hadn’t thought about the specifics of sharing my adventure with the world, not yet- after all, I was young on the road, not even a week had passed since the Day of Days. And yet, I thought, I’ve already filled forty pages of my journal in this short time. Surely I’ll have enough stories to tell and photos to share soon. There’s something important here, I feel it- but not yet, not yet. I filed the idea away and would not think seriously on it again for a long, long while. There would be much to distract me from the project in the interim; why even then, as I sauntered down the trail with a silly grin on my face, the first true trial of my journey was fast approaching.
As usual, I wandered off the official trail, preferring instead to scramble along the precipitous edge of the Canyon out of sight from human eyes, where I could leap and dance like an ecstatic dryad among the juniper. The sky darkened, and thunder boomed across the chasm, coaxing the drizzle into a steady rain and eliciting a divine symphony from the trees and the stones. The rapid and complex interplay of soft pwip on leaf, thick thip on wood, hard ta on rock, was a most natural and heart-wrenching composition far beyond the skill of any human musician, and I reveled in the sweet sound as the miles passed.
Happily rambling about the Canyon’s edge, I stopped often for photographs. Suddenly remembering my selfie stick, I took off my backpack and retrieved it to immortalize myself in the moment. I took a quick shot and continued wandering west, crawling up and down the pale scree of the Kaibab Formation. Only another quarter-mile to Hermit’s Rest, and I would have the entire Rim Trail under my belt!
I soon turned to climb back up to the trail proper, ready to complete my quest, when I noticed something- or rather, noticed the lack of something. My back was light- lighter than my airy mood could account for. I reached to my left shoulder, and felt only my shirt. My breath caught in my throat as I checked the other side.
My backpack was gone.
Immediately I felt the urge to panic- but being a student of meditation(and in such a holy place to boot!), I managed to delay an emotional reaction to instead watch my thoughts calmly as they evolved: How is this possible? My backpack! I need it- wait, need? Do I really? I can always get another backpack. This is nothing worth excess stress. But what was in the pack? I took inventory. Water, binoculars, sunscreen, selfie stick, umbrella- all replaceable. My National Park passport- disappointing, but only a few stamps lost.
I felt myself growing at ease- in Truth, this whole affair was a minor inconvenience! I looked into the sun-dappled gorge. Was this the lesson I’d asked for yesterday? Not too shabby, my lady! I laughed heartily, and the Canyon laughed back in echo- yet my optimism was brief, for I then recalled the final item in my pack: My trip journal, forty pages of thoughts and experiences. My newborn story, the friends I’ve made, and their contact information! NOT replaceable.
The panic which I had hitherto held at bay exploded into my awareness while I strained to maintain an objective view. My muscles tightened, my gut twisted painfully- the panic feeling had wrapped itself around my feet and now fought to pull me into its dark, frothing, heady depths- yet still I endeavored to face the issue as well as I could.
The time for decisive action had come. No longer did I perceive the incredible beauty around me. All that mattered was the shape of my pack and the journal inside. I glanced up in the direction of the official trail, and considered climbing up to ask for help- but no! I couldn’t ask some random tourist to come scrambling down the tumbling scree along that mile-deep chasm! If they slipped and fell to their death, it would be on my hands. No. It had to be me, and me alone. My throat dry, I checked the sky. The rain had abated, the clouds were moving on, and the sun was nearing the horizon far to the west. I had, at most, an hour of light left.
Think, Adam. When was the last time you interacted with your backpack? My mind raced, and I soon had my answer. There! When I took out the selfie stick! I tested the memory, and could find no recollection of donning my pack after taking that selfie. It was the only clue I had. I pulled my phone out of my pocket to look at the photo I had taken:
If I can just find that same angle, that same half-distinctive tree in the photo, then I’ll surely find my pack! I grinned at my brilliance, but my confidence faded quickly over the next twenty minutes of searching. The timestamp on the photo was from almost an hour ago now, and since then I had wandered in every direction, far from the trail. I checked tree after tree and could find no resemblance to the one in the photo. As the sun kissed the horizon, I prayed desperately:
Oh Lord, oh great Canyon, Universe, God, or whatever name you like! Please, please guide me to my pack. I’m no materialist, as you well know- were it not for the journal, I would readily accept the wisdom in my pack’s displacement! But that journal contains the young song of my soul, the first chapter of my story. I cannot imagine a purpose for losing my budding collection of heartfelt praises of Your works- the very record of my pilgrimage to You! Please, Yahweh, bring my journal back to me!
Barely holding to a suddenly tenuous faith, my throat parched and cracked, I continued the hopeless search with mounting frustration. I checked a stand of blooming cactus which seemed familiar- nothing. I scoured the area around a tree which oh-so-closely resembled the one in my reference photo- nothing. I found several spots I knew I had been before, but none of them yielded my pack. A hundred tiny hopes and just as many disappointments. My faith and self-control weakened as the pinyon and juniper shadows grew long and sinister, taunting me with the setting sun. I suppose the Canyon might have been beautiful in that sunset, but I saw only a mean ugliness and encroaching darkness. Clearly, praying to God and the Canyon had done nothing. I sunk to my knees in despair as bitter tears welled in my eyes.
They had abandoned me.
The previous day I’d asked the Canyon to teach me a new Truth before I left. I was expecting something benign, a friendly and powerful statement from a fellow wanderer perhaps, like in Joshua Tree. Losing my pack but not the journal would have been a fine lesson, in fact! But this? It didn’t make any sense. I couldn’t imagine a future without the record of my critical first steps into the Wild. There was a wrongness to it, and I refused to accept that this was Fate.
With a cracked voice I cursed the useless deities and their stony silence, sweeping my gaze in despairing circles across the endlessly repeating patterns of rock and tree. I stood up to continue the search, abandoning any hope that my prayer was heard, when the images of my passed friends, Mikey and Lydia, came crisp and unbidden to my mind.
Immediately and without thought, I found myself praying to them, my eyes squeezed shut, holding to their smiling portraits desperately, like a doomed sailor clinging to the splintering mast of a sinking ship.
Mikey, Lydia, I asked with all my heart, if there’s anything real about all this psycho-spiritual crap I think I might believe in- if there is any way for you to influence my search from wherever or whatever you are right now- help me find that journal! Please, my friends!
Immediately, something in the air felt different. The hairs on my arm stood up straight, and a deep silence seemed to cover the world. I opened my eyes, and looked west.
Hmm, I thought, that rock over there looks REALLY familiar…
I began to take a step towards it.
I froze, my right leg suspended in mid-air. It wasn’t exactly a voice- more like a powerful surge of intuition, though it may as well have been shouted into my ear. It seemed to take me over, and I offered no resistance to the strange sensation. My desire for the journal far outweighed any fears of lunacy. I held my breath, not daring to exert any influence on whatever was happening. A moment passed in anticipatory silence. Then:
My raised foot lowered with unconscious deliberation, and slowly my body turned 180 degrees to face directly east. There, through a window of tree branches, perfectly framed in the center of my vision and visible only from this exact angle, my pack was resting expectantly on a flat stone some thirty feet away.
For several seconds I was still, mouth agape. The nervous, frenetic energy I had been struggling with throughout the whole ordeal transmuted into a soft light and fell away in cool, wispy ribbons. I imagined Mikey and Lydia laughing at my shock, and I laughed too. I bounded joyfully to my pack, shouting thanks to them both. As I fell to the ground and embraced my lost treasure, I thanked also the Universe and the Canyon for their cold response earlier, for that had spurred me to entreat my friends and in turn awoken a new dimension of faith within me. Layer upon layer, ripple by ripple, everything happens for a reason.
Adam’s Never-Ending Road Trip, Lesson the Second: When it seems all the light has gone from the world, have faith in your friends. They are with you still, now as then, and forever.
Also: Don’t wander off without your backpack, you fucking idiot. <3
On my fifth and final day at the South Rim, I drove to several viewpoints on the road to Desert View Watchtower at the eastern edge of the park, stopping also at Tusayan Ruin to walk among the foundations of a long-abandoned Pueblo or Hopi village. The views were lovely, of course, but noisy and crowded. In addition I was distracted by the itch to move on- after the previous day’s events, I felt the South Rim’s contribution to my journey was now satisfactory, and there was much more to see. The road was calling.
I had one more thing to do here, and so I took a final small hike that day- a few miles into the Canyon itself via the South Kaibab Trail, the less popular of the two major trails down to the Colorado River. On my way down the first series of switchbacks I came upon an an elderly beer-bellied Park Service volunteer.
“So, how much water you got?” he said loudly as I tried to pass him, forcing me to stop so I could answer.
He positioned himself in front of me. Hoo boy, I thought.
“Maybe one and a half liters?” I said distractedly, casting a significant glance at the trail over the stout man’s shoulder.
He frowned and put on his friendly but admonishing “I’m talking to a stupid tourist” tone. “Hmm, that’s not much! Coming up is harder than going down, you know!” he said pointedly, wagging his finger. Mentally, I rolled my eyes. “How far are you going?” he asked with a note of bemused suspicion.
Oy. I appreciated the service this guy was trying to provide, I really did- but I was long ago done with the man. Others could use his counsel much moreso than I.
“Just a mile down to Ooh Aah Point,” I lied. That satisfied him enough to let me pass, and I went down, down, down into the Grand Canyon.
A trailrunner passed by me in a leaping blur. I arched an eyebrow, grinning. Now that was a pace I could agree with.
I tightened my hiking poles and launched into a sprint down the trail, slowing for nothing, vaulting rocks and roots and planting my poles hard on every turn to launch myself down each new switchback without losing speed. My eyes were locked forward, and subconsciously(superconsciously?) I planned my route always three steps ahead, trusting my arms and legs to hit their marks on their own, and they did not fail me. Sometimes I would slip on a patch of gravelly stones, but would immediately turn it into a part of the next maneuver- adjusting my balance and surfing down the mini landslide before launching myself off to the next target, adding a pirouette for fun if my angular momentum was sufficient. With my poles firm in hand I was an unstoppable four-legged trailrunning machine, kicking up a storm of coppery dust, and the people I passed watched with cocked heads as I careened by. I must have looked strange as I charged down the path with the tumult of a tornado, poles flying, my eyes wide, alert, and wild, but I felt like a fucking badass.
As I ran, the canyon walls rose ever higher, immersing me in the loveliest geology classroom there ever was. I sprinted first through the Kaibab and Toroweap Formations- pale white, then grey limestone deposited by ancient seas 250 million years ago and chock full of marine fossils. In a flash, everything changed from shades of grey to ruddy orange and dark tans as I crossed into the Coconino Sandstone, the remnants of a vast desert 265 million years old. I was running back through time. I passed Ooh Aah Point before hitting the 280 million year old Hermit Shale: a layer of mixed shale, limestone, and sandstone, the colors a red and white mosaic of the preceding layers. Finally, I broke into the deep reds of the Supai Group- deposited 315 million years ago- and skidded to a stop at the base of a dusty copper plateau which thrust out into the Canyon.
I caught my breath and walked to the edge of the plateau, my legs burning with delight after the madcap descent. The colorful canyon walls seemed to enfold me in an ethereal embrace while mighty stone temples adorned with streams of evening sunlight rose above. The sight thrilled me- here there was an intimacy which was not found up on the Rim.
This is a good place, I thought with a dreamy smile. My head buzzed pleasantly as I admired the view. Yes, a very good place.
I scooted forward, my toes poking out over the abyss. I looked down, and the Canyon seemed to reach up to me with encouraging arms.
A good place to settle things, once and for all.
With a heart full of gratitude and love, I pictured Mikey and Lydia’s faces, drew in a long breath, and shouted their names at the top of my lungs. Their names echoed up and down the gorge, ricocheting down a thousand side canyons, filling the entire Grand Canyon with the sound of them. I listened, motionless, as my grand lady sang the song of my friends. When the echoes finally faded, I nodded, satisfied, and bid farewell before turning back up the trail.
There was nothing else here for me. The wheel of Ka had turned, and now it was time to go.
And so tomorrow I would sojourn to the North Rim- where new beauties, incredible new friends, and another revelatory trial eagerly awaited my arrival.