“. . . it commonly took members of [Robert] Scott’s South Polar party several hours each morning to put on their boots. Day and night they did miserable, niggling, and often fatal battle with frostbitten toes, diarrhea, bleeding gums, hunger, weakness, mental confusion, and despair.” (from Annie Dillard, “An Expedition to the Pole,” in Teaching a Stone to Talk)
Minus the frostbitten toes, diarrhea, bleeding gums, hunger, weakness, mental confusion, and despair, that sounds a lot like the seven-day rafting trip I recently took through the Grand Canyon. Okay, I didn’t have to struggle to put on frozen boots every morning, but the daily torture of the sand in my sandals grinding the tops of my sunburned feet . . . there are no words for the torment. And though a few of Scott’s team were sometimes forced to eat human flesh to survive, I ate Eggs Benedict one morning. I don’t like Eggs Benedict!
Don’t let that breakfast suggest that this rafting trip on the Colorado River was a boutique experience. This was no Huck Finn float down the lazy Mississippi, no paddleboat trip in a city park. This was a challenging trip through some of the most fearsome rapids in the country. And though we were more or less safely attached to the boat, those of us who dared sit in the bow seats or forward on the pontoons experienced frequent inundations of 48-degree water that left our teeth chattering. Did I forget to mention the heat of a desert sun (or how it felt so good after being doused)?
photo courtesy Stuart Graves
Many of us will remember the near constant routine of getting on and off the boat, for one thing, often a clumsy exercise that left us envying Jacob’s barefoot leaps and bounds. Forming a “Conga Line” to unload the cots, chairs, kitchen equipment and water buckets, followed by a search for an unclaimed camping spot amid sand, cactus and ankle-twisting rocks. Assembling cots was like solving a Rubik’s Cube for some of us. All of this before we could get back to the beached boats for the ingredients of a well-deserved Happy Hour.
The next morning, the whole routine in reverse—without the Happy Hour. And we did that every day for six days. The horror! The horror!
I exaggerate . . . I think.
What was the lure that drew thirty-two of us to this river experience? Why did we come from Vermont, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Houston, Texas, Washington State, and California (so many!) to float 188 miles over six days through 100 rapids? What did we want from a trip like this? What will we remember?
For me, rafting through the Grand Canyon was nowhere near a bucket-list item. My purpose was to spend a few days adventuring with long-time friend Bruce Firestone. But what gradually focused my attention over the course of our six days on the river was the visual record of deep time (as much as 1.8 billion years in some spots) written in stone on the Canyon walls, and of the violent forces of fire and flood that birthed and shaped the Canyon. Day after day I contemplated the wall and its ruined temples and castles. Heaps of rocks at the river’s edge looked freshly fallen but might well have come to rest 10,000 years ago. I learned new words to express epochs of time—Toroweap, Coconino, Tapeats, Zoroaster Granite—and I came away humbled by the meagerness of our own human lifespans. Rome’s 1,000-year history is insignificant within the longer sequences recorded on the Canyon wall. The totality of human history probably doesn’t equal a single stripe in the mile-thick stack of stone.
It was almost depressing to think of how we figure in such vastness, but after the close-call I had on our hike to Havasu Falls, I came away with one perspective: Our life may be only a mite of sand on Earth’s vast beaches of time, but it’s all we have, and it’s far too precious to waste.
Surely, what all of us will remember were the moments just before sleep overtook us when we lay on our cots and watched the overwhelming sky-show of stars and constellations wheeling above us. As we closed our eyes, the sky still glowed with the sun’s last glance, and when we awoke in the early morning hours the western side of the canyon wall was already brightening with the promise of a new day. These memories will remain.
If there’s something else that will remain as well, I think it may be a sense of accomplishment. This was often hard going despite the magnificent meals Dave, Lars and Jacob produced three times each day. On any given day we might broil under a hot sun and shiver from splashes of icy water. There were the twice-daily routines of setting up and taking down camps, loading and unloading boats. And then the sometimes difficult hikes and climbs along tricky paths through side canyons.
But in the course of just a few of these days, it seems to me, a village was being formed. Our evening conversations in the “fire circle” as well as chats in the boats and along the trails helped join names to faces and personalities. By the end, we weren’t separate individuals from hither and yon—we were a community. Our six days together proved that time isn’t only measured by the ticking of a clock that will inevitably run down, but by shared experiences that add depth and meaning and maybe even joy to our short lives.
It wasn’t easy, but it was a trip to remember.