Grand Canyon Magic

"With some eagerness, and some anxiety, and some misgiving, we enter the canyon below?." -John Wesley Powell, August 13, 1869
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"With some eagerness, and some anxiety, and some misgiving, we enter the canyon below?." -John Wesley Powell, August 13, 1869

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."

-Friedrich Nietzsche

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.

But more importantly, you realize that the canyon isn't just the result of nature's destructive forces wearing away at the land. Time created this place and serves us all lessons, if we're willing to listen and learn. If you spend enough time in such a place, an ancient and subtle sense of reverence is called forth, as is silence and respect. Heed this signal, rest with it patiently, let the land steady you, and eventually, you'll be rewarded with a gift of knowing.

Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.

-Job 12:8

About midway through the week of hiking, I received my gift, the answer to the question that had weighed on me since the first day's exhausting, rubber-legged, 4,500-foot descent to the river: How do I protect my son? While staring into the canyon during a lunch break high on a sun-warmed, golden sandstone plateau, I heard a raven cry, then sensed an order to it all. The river flows, the waters carve, and over time, the land is shaped. It's clean, precise, simple, and based on a relationship of natural elements—not logic, or systems, or emotion, but a natural order as strong as anything in nature. It must be adhered to, as must the natural, irrefutable order in which the passage of time turns young fathers into graybeards and babies into young men.

The simple answer was: It was time to let my son soar like the raven circling overhead—just as my father had done for me, observing from a carefully measured distance, wrestling with the pleasure and pain of watching his offspring come of age. And, just as my father knew, I know my son will float away, but return to the nest when the updrafts fail him.

Suddenly, the canyon's muscle-burning trails no longer seemed difficult. Canyon magic, again: The immensity of the landscape changes your perspective and all else seems small by comparison, even life-way dilemmas and major turning points. The revelation makes some canyon travelers break out in tears, and others quit their jobs.

With surprising ease and no emotional jousting, I accepted the fact that it was time to trust my son to take care of himself. I wouldn't be there to guide and protect him every step of the way, as I had for 16 years, but I knew he was ready.

One generation passes away, and another
generation comes; but the earth abides forever.

-Ecclesiastes 1:4

The Grand Canyon was formed by cataclysmic events and erosion—forces that can devastate, but instead resulted in magnificence and splendor. It's a pity so many of us are afraid of similarly dramatic change in our lives, when what we should fear is the slow erosion of insight, wonder, and courage. If only we spent more time recasting what we perceive as negative into things that make life more beautiful.

When I returned home, the boy I'd left there a week earlier was gone. A fine young man was waiting for me, and never have I been happier to see anyone.