Powell had solid cause for a few goose bumps. He was about to venture into what he called “The Great Unknown” and paddle a river-the Colorado-that could chew his wooden boat to splinters. I was simply hiking into the Grand Canyon on the tough but well-traveled Tanner Trail. Still, I shared Powell’s emotions: “eagerness” because I’d dreamt for years of lying beside the mighty Colorado River as the Milky Way coursed overhead and moon shadows danced on sheer canyon walls rising 4,000 feet into the night; “anxiety” because a shattered wrist suffered 2 months earlier left me with the stamina of a three-legged tortoise; “misgiving” because back home, my 16-year-old son was taking the road test for his driver’s license.
As I stood at the trailhead, straining to see the canyon bottom and wracked with angst (can I do this?), my thoughts were 2,000 miles away. My son had trained and studied and said he was ready, but I wasn’t. Images of him behind the wheel didn’t mesh with memories of the determined but frightened little boy who bravely held my hand one September morning as we waited for his first school bus; or the time his hit sent his Little League team into the playoffs; or the countless nights I rocked him to sleep in my lap. My precious little guy was suddenly 16, and soon he’d be able to legally operate a vehicle on roadways choked with the bad, the drunk, and the just plain idiotic (like the fool who almost killed me in a senseless accident last year). I didn’t want him on the roads.
“Gaze not too long into the abyss/Lest the abyss gaze into thee.”
The Colorado River, with its fine rafting rapids, gets the lion’s share of Grand Canyon visitor traffic. But slow, self-absorbed walking is a better way to become intimate with such powerful places. On the trail, you quickly fall into a rhythm-some call it “canyon magic” -and lose yourself in the awe, the reverence, and the switchback exhaustion. The physical strain is rewarded each night with beach-sand campsites and river lullabies. The next morning, you make the hard hike up again, climbing thousands of feet, then carefully picking your way along thread-thin paths that barely cling to canyon walls.
High up in the clear canyon air your mind is alert, your senses sharp. The Colorado moves as slow as molasses in winter a mile beneath you, and you notice that this is a land of layers. The river has scoured through the Colorado Plateau, exposing kaleidoscopic segments of rock as young as the 250-million-year-old Kaibab limestone near the canyon rim and as old as the 1.7-billion-year-old Vishnu schist on its floor.