An Idea Takes Root
There are no words to describe the beauty of the Grand Canyon. Amazing, magnificent, majestic, . . . they all fall short. The scale of the Grand Canyon is hard to comprehend. Even a California condor with a wingspan of 9 ½ feet can be mistaken for a bird of much smaller size and stature against the great walls of the canyon.
This all began as an idea suggested by a person whose name I cannot remember. They talked with excitement about hiking to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon? That sounds so cool! The idea landed in my consciousness and took root.
Many years later I was talking to my good friend, coach, confidant, and fellow-adventurer. I brought up the idea of hiking into the Grand Canyon and she thought it would be a good idea too. The seed’s roots sank deeper and the planning began.
So here we were, two years later, at the start of our hike. The Canyon was spread out in front of us, ready to accept visitors.
As we started our descent we stepped onto snow. Snow? It was 60 degrees here yesterday! Why is there snow on the path? Quickly, the reality hit me. Our descent was steep and tucked up against the face of a 90 degree cliff. This part of the path did not often see the sun. Although it had snowed the previous week and the weather had been warm, the snow was here to stay. Packed down by hikers, it had turned icy and we struggled to keep our feet from slipping out from under us. We were excited and chatty. After talking and planning for two years, we were finally here!
Down. Down. Down. 9.4 miles of ‘Down’. The uneven footing and jarring to our bodies was nothing to mess around with. I was proud of my hiking boots and water bottles. We were doing this ‘for real’.
The walls of the canyon are colorful. First we traversed the white layer which seemed to tower as high a massive cathedral or skyscraper. The walls were strong and ominous, scary and beautiful. The white layer was like the crown on the head of a queen or icing on a cake of this magnificent gorge.
Eventually, we descended to the red layer.as the ground beneath our feet became crimson and beautiful. We stopped at one point to notice the bottom of the white layer sitting on top of the red layer as if a ruler had drawn the line. The red layer was warm and comforting. We were now on our way – real hikers! Wow, this is fun! I will remember this in my dreams. Each step brought a new and unique rock content to lay there for many millennium, unconcerned with what man thought of it or a need to impress. The beauty and awe did not stop for six hours. With each step, there was yet another rock to delight me with her charms.
Gradually our surroundings turned to a bluish green. Like moss on a tree without the musty smell, we continued on smaller pellets of ground decorated with a light and beautiful hue. I remember seeing the first cactus. We had been hiking on snow just an hour earlier and here was a beautiful cactus complete with spikes. Our trail had not yet led us into sunshine, but here stood a beautiful plant of the desert. Oh yes, we are in Arizona!
When we reached the halfway point, I thought, ‘I am tired. This is a lot of hiking! I’m sure glad the second half will be flatter.’ An earlier comment about the gradual descent of the second half of the hike and had turned my thoughts into a stroll through a wheat field complete with a white sun dress and a floppy hat. The canyon had some things to teach me. She was not changing who she was to fit the story I had created in my mind.
The Second Half
The second half did start out flatter. This only served to strengthen the fantasy I had created in my mind. We found ourselves on a beautiful grey rock working our way through a small canyon. I heard water below. As I looked, it slowly came into my consciousness just how high above the water we stood. Although we had ventured next to sharp drop offs of during the first half of our hike, I had now opened the door to fear. I am not sure how or why she entered in, but there she was, lurking at my feet as we rounded the canyon wall. She wound herself around my ankle like a snake. Although I tried to ignore her she was had made her way in and was there to make her presence known.
The fantasy about skipping through a wheat field still hung in my mind. Surely around the next corner we would come to a safe wide open and flat meadow. This was a little bit of ignorance slathered in denial.
As we came around the next bend (there were so many!) yet another canyon stretched out in front of us. Does it ever end?!? The beauty is breathtaking! My companions looked far across the canyon and commented on the trail they saw off in the distance. ‘That must be another trail’ they surmised. Oh no, that’s where we are going! We are going to go way over there! Fear and disappointment crawled up my leg onto my thigh. The meadow was nowhere to be seen.
I pictured us in the movie Lord of the Rings high atop a mountain, a band of four hikers, all alone in the vast canyon walking in single file. As the camera pans back it shows how far we are from civilization. So far to go. So close to the edge. So scary.
The Mental Battle Begins
I kept fear at bay for a while. Although she had made some headway towards my heart, she was still under control. Now, however, I knew she was there and could not deny her presence any longer. As one of my companions joked about the mule dung, I snapped, ‘that’s not funny!’ Fear wound herself around my waist. I stopped and asked Mike to take a picture. No one will believe I was here. I turned around, put my hand on the rock wall to steady myself, and put on my best I’m loving this! smile. Fear was threatening to enter my heart and steal my joy.
No, Fear, you will not have your way! Arrogance? Stubborness? Just watch your step. Don’t look out too far. Breathe! Enjoy the rocks under your feet. Manage the fear. Do not let her take hold. Talk to your friends. See how they are doing.
I felt strangely close to my husband, Mike. We were experiencing this adventure together. My mind told me he would not let us do anything crazy. As long as he was OK, I was OK.
As we neared the end of our descent a suspension bridge appeared over the Colorado River in the distance. High above the raging current, the bridge looked small and fragile. Would it hold us? I was so happy to be near the end of our journey! My aspirations of hiking the canyon in five hours, faster than the average, had turned into six. Before long we reached Phantom Ranch.
Fear in the Night
That night, as I lay in my bunkbed, fear began to tighten her hold. How could I get rid of her in the middle of the night laying in my bunk bed at the bottom of the canyon? I stepped across the dirty concrete floor and crawled into bed with Mike. The twin size mattress provided plenty of room as I pressed up against him for strength.
‘I’m anxious about our hike out’ I confessed. Instead of calm assurance, he replied, ‘I hate to say this but I think we should hike out tomorrow’.
Oh no! Fear grabbed on tighter. ‘Mike won’t save you from this’ she seemed to say. ‘See, he is anxious too and you’re both right. You do have something to fear!’
During my tossing and turning that night, a scene kept playing in my head. The scene was of the four of us taking our last steps out of the canyon. It was a gift from God. An antidote to fear. The end of the play. Victory.
Somehow I got to sleep that night, wrapped in Mike’s arms. We were in this together. Partners in fear, up against the canyon. Physical exhaustion won and off into a deep sleep I fell.
What Will I Think About?
Morning brought no relief as I thought of climbing almost 10 miles the following day to get myself out of this canyon. The place where fear resided was perilously close to my heart. Flashing in my mind were visions of the treacherous first part of the journey with icy patches and snow. This is how my conversation progressed. How will I cope with the heights each step up? Up Up Up for 8 hours straight?!? I am not prepared! How had I gotten myself into this mess? Would I have a meltdown at mile 7 and have my friends coach me the final 3 miles or, worse yet, have to carry me?
Oh, now that’s crazy, Cathy! You know you are physically capable of getting out of this canyon. It will not be easy and yes, it will take 8 hours, but you can handle it. Flash – high above the Colorado River. Flash – hiking like Lord of the Rings on a trail of switchbacks. Flash - winding up one side of a canyon and down the other. Flash – the four of us talking our final steps out of the canyon.
My thoughts then drifted to a comment Mike had made on the way down. ‘Cath, let’s do this when we’re 80!’ We laughed and then shortly after came across a couple who looked to be in their early 80s. They moved slowly and looked tired as they ascended to the top. Wow, maybe we could do this when we were 80! What a blessing that would be. The beauty and draw of this canyon was undeniable. Rugged, colorful, raw, awe-inspiring. Flash – the white layer, the crown of the South Rim. So beautiful she stood.
As I thought about the beauty, I also began to appreciate our friends. It was so much fun to share this experience with them. We had spent time hiking in preparation for this adventure together, had plenty of fun stories about our trip so far, we had eaten family style in the Canteen, had played Apples to Apples late into the night, and laughed like hyenas over our silly inside jokes. I cuddled into bed on my soft mattress in the cozy cabin in the heart of this treasure, the Grand Canyon. How could I not appreciate all that was around me?
It was pleasant to lie there, thinking about beauty and friendships, blessings, and God. It was MY choice as to what I thought about. As I ruminated on the beauty of the trail, my health and our friendships, I began to look forward to the day and our hike out the following morning. Instead of dread, I had joy, contentment, and peace in my heart. The fear that had tried to entangle me was gone for now. Calmness washed over me and I felt refreshed, positive, and hopeful about the future.
It is my choice about what to think about. It is also my choice at work, with my children, with my friends, and with my life. Why let fear entangle me? Fear is a rotten and exhausting place to be. Are there dangers? Sure. There always are. But the four of us have each other, good shoes, provisions, rested legs and we are well fed. The only way to see the canyon from this vantage point is to hike. So hiking I will go. I will take one step at a time. I will allow fear to speak only when I ask her a question. I will enjoy the blessing of this trip. I will see the beauty. It’s my choice.
A Short Hike and A Warm Shower
The second day brought a renewed sense of safety. Because of my realization lying in bed that morning, I was ready for a good day at the bottom of the canyon. We went for a 3 hour hike towards the North rim and it was beautiful. The path was gradual and firm. I was so grateful for all we were able to see and experience. Things just kept getting better when later that day it was announced that the broken water pipe had been repaired and we were able to flush the toilet and take a shower.
That night, after a story about the first two men to swim the Colorado River told by Ranger Mandy, my girlfriend and I walked back from the amphitheater in the black of night with our headlamps guiding the way. At one point, I tripped on a rock and stumbled down to the ground, my right hand breaking my fall.
Fear wrapped her cold body around my ankle once again. ‘What if I tripped while walking along a 200 foot cliff? I quickly shoved her into a closet in the back of my mind. After a hearty meal and hanging out in the canteen, we went back to our cabin to sleep.
We Are All Beautiful
During the night, I woke to go to the bathroom. Sleep did not come easily as I crawled back into bed. Fear had escaped her closet and seemed happy to recount my trip along the path and the pending hike when day broke. After several unsuccessful attempts to focus on the positive, I decided to chant a mantra I had come up with a month earlier. (Breathe in) I AM (Breathe out) HIS CREATION. This kept my mind focused and off of the fear who was not that loud but very persistent.
Over and over I repeated, ‘I am, His creation, I am, His creation’, breathing in for 4 seconds and out for 10. A thought then entered my mind that the Grand Canyon was a creation of God’s. It may have been the Colorado River that formed the canyon, but I choose to believe it stemmed from the hand of God. The magnificent beauty of this canyon was His creation, just like me. That meant I am as strikingly beautiful she is. Real beauty, alive, awe-inspiring, moving, complex, rugged, and a thing to be admired. Yes, I am as beautiful as the Grand Canyon. And so is everyone else.
As we started on our assent Sunday morning, Mike proclaimed, ‘we are off to walk all day’. I love to spend the day walking. Getting into this frame of mind gave me a relaxed and contemplative perspective. The hike was beautiful and shorter than I had imagined. Surprisingly, it took us the same amount of time to hike up as it had taken to hike down even though I had convinced myself otherwise.
The two places along the hike that I had dreaded during the dark hours in the cabin turned out to be uneventful. I learned to keep my eyes on the path in front of me and not look at the views that scared me. Is this how life is? When you are close to the edge are you also close to beauty? Was walking near the drastic drop offs a metaphor for life? Did I trust myself enough to keep going forward? Could I enjoy this journey and keep in mind the privilege of being in this place? Was I going to let fear steal my joy? Could I stay in the moment instead of dread what was up ahead or be sad for what was left behind?
Although the four of us were tired, we were not happy to have our hike end. The peace and majesty of the canyon stayed with us. We were changed because of our adventure. We were proud and grateful, thankful and closer to one another.