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October 2006

Blue John Canyon: Feeling Gravity’s Pull

A pilgrim heads into the canyon where Aron Ralston lost his arm to pin down the meaning of survival.

What makes wilderness survival situations so fundamentally different from pop-culture contrivances is simply this: These things are not fake. When a person is lost or trapped, alone, and with no hope of rescue, the significance of both action and inaction becomes radically elevated, because the consequences will be measured in terms of life and death. Not someone else’s life or death, but one’s own. And the experience of confronting this predicament often tends to reduce a person–or, depending on one’s point of view, to elevate him–to his core essence.

This can make for some especially raw and unforgiving moments of truth–moments that strip away the veneer of the civilized persona and reveal what most of us never get to see. They are moments when, like it or not, we yield to whatever lies beneath.

Somewhere in Ralston’s experience, I thought I caught a glimpse of something that diverged sharply from the hype ricocheting around the electronic ether. Here, at last, was something real–and I wanted to touch it.

Unfortunately, Blue John did not offer up any easy epiphanies.

At some point during the 3 years since Ralston’s accident occurred, a work crew removed the stone that had trapped his arm so that no one would suffer a similar fate. (Ralston had mentioned this fact in our phone conversation, but at the time I hadn’t fully appreciated the missing-anchor effect it would create.) Then Ralston himself rubbed out the epitaph he’d carved into the wall with his knife. Finally, at least two flash floods had scoured the canyon since the accident.

Thanks to all of these factors, there is virtually no sign that anything unusual has happened here. There are only the smooth sandstone walls, the cool rush of damp air flowing along the pebble-strewn canyon floor, and the massive, sarcophagus-like silence. The place does, however, offer one notable thing. Dark, cramped, and terrifyingly cut off, this narrow little gash offers a pretty visceral sense of what it must feel like to be buried alive.

I’ll never feel the dread or the hopelessness or, ultimately, the morbid triumph that Ralston experienced down here; I know that now. Ralston no doubt comes back here to face down all of those disparate sensations, and to revisit his brush with death–which must surely sharpen his appreciation for life. In other words, he comes to inhabit this place, whereas the rest of us can only be tourists. But in some way, I appreciate his story, and the manner in which it clarified my thinking about the genre, all the much more for visiting this foreboding canyon. You can’t script a survival story, and you can’t re-create one. But what you can do, I realize as I carefully scramble past those same menacing boulders near the slot’s entrance, is feel the power of a Blue John Canyon, and know that the people who come back from such places have something powerful to say.

So, as the genre continues to warp and mutate, I’ll simply develop a filter. I’ll sift out the fluff until the next Ralston comes along. If that person is as attuned as Ralston is to what happened to him, he’ll recognize that he is simply a traveler returning from a forbidden place–a kind of backwater republic somewhere deep inside the interior regions of the human mind that most of us never get to see. And that the vast majority of us never want to see, for all the magnetic pull of places like Everest or McKinley or Blue John Canyon. After all, real survivors have been to a place whose terrain is at least as terrifying as it is enlightening. And whose most challenging contour lines will always remain a mystery to the rest of us.

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