A couple months ago, the woman corralling my hair into shape filled me in on her vacation excursions. She had been to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee several times because her husband wanted to go there. They were going again this year, and she asked me if I had been there. I replied that I had not, and she asked me where I wanted to go. I replied that I wanted to go to the desert. Once again, I demonstrated my uncanny ability to crush a conversation. The desert was definitely a foreign concept to the hairdresser and why anyone would want to go to one clearly perplexed her. I saw her mentally discard my reply and retreat to the safety of Dolly Parton’s virtual arms. To keep her from going all Edward Scissorhands on me, I willed the creases from my forehead, stationed my eyebrows at listening level, and switched on the “how interesting” light in my eyes as she fleshed out the ins, outs, ups and arounds of Dollywood.
The thought of going to the desert wouldn’t leave me. I dreamt of it. I could imagine its heat and dryness and unfettered, unending openness; I could envision the long blueness of its sky. I wanted to immerse myself in the independence of the place. I had to get there, to the West. Soon.
When I suggested to Mike that we take advantage of the long Labor Day weekend for travel, he was enthusiastic and suggested a trip to Old Town Salem, North Carolina, a couple hundred miles down the road. Not missing a beat and without adding modifiers, qualifiers, or softening language, and being absolutely, completely, and desperately selfish, I said I wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, at the other side of the country. There was no hairdresser-esque reaction, but I’m reasonably sure Mike wasn’t expecting that reply. And bless him, he agreed without question, and without reservation. With one sentence, I was on my way to somewhere I viscerally needed to be.
The Grand Canyon’s written guide asks how the visitor feels on first arriving at the rim — awed, overwhelmed, excited? My boss told me, more than once, to remember how I felt at first view. It seemed there might be a quiz on my return to the office.
Standing beside the Canyon, I felt almost nothing.
I wanted very much for that intense need I harbored for freedom, lightness, and no boundaries to be instantly gratified, to feel the shedding of a heavy weight at seeing the endless view before me, to spread my arms and utter a big “thank you!” of release. Instead, I felt guilty and frightened that I didn’t “get it,” and wondered if I just didn’t understand something, more about myself than the Canyon. So, I said wow, and maybe a couple other appropriate comments, and we began walking along the rim trail.
The rim trail is paved and offers view after view accessible to everyone. That is an excellent thing, that persons of all abilities can be this close to the edge of the Canyon, a chasm to which there is no lead in. One second there is ground, the next there is air. There’s no gradual descent, just an abrupt drop off. Most of the edge is quite readily available for anyone to teeter near, and that’s an excellent thing also. There are few forbidding handrails to restrain eager visitors nor signs at every turn yelping “DANGER!” There is an ostensible sense of personal responsibility to be assumed to avoid meeting a dramatic demise over the unforgiving cliff edge. We walked much of the paved trail section, admiring the canyon’s various features, with me awaiting the de rigueur “ah ha!” moment. Had we come so far for what I sought to not be there?
After a couple of miles of pleasant and uneventful walking beside this enormous ditch, we came to Bright Angel trail that leads into the Canyon. Early afternoon had arrived and I was hesitant to walk too far into the Canyon since we were not fully prepared for its difficulties at that time of day. I had also said that this trip was as much about seeing as it was about hiking; I wanted more to see the phenomenon that was the fabled Grand Canyon rather than engage in a grueling trek to its floor and back up. I have been a desk jockey of many years duration and I saw seasoned hikers coming off the trail panting and red-faced. I seriously doubted my hiking ability at this demanding location. But I could also see that Mike and I needed to be hiking in the Canyon, not strolling its rim as if it were a formal garden to be observed from the edge.
We returned the following day, prepared to hike the South Kaibab trail. This trail appeared steeper than Bright Angel and I approached it cautiously, wondering if I would be able to get myself back up after the descent. But as we walked along, down and down, in perfect weather in the passing company of hikers from around the world, only then did I receive the lessons of the Canyon; only then did the magnitude and eternity and spirituality of the place work its magic on my psyche. Walking the rim trail was like listening to a song played on the radio, while hiking into the Canyon itself was akin to being part of the crowd at an outdoor music festival singing along with a thousand new friends. And for once, I held myself in that moment, not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow, not rushing to the next turn in the trail, instead pausing to absorb every view for which I couldn’t seem to open my eyes wide enough to take in all the nuances, laying my hand flat against the vertical rock walls to feel the shock of their uncompromising strength and eternity and indifference to so short-lived a being as me. This place had been here long, long before me and would be there long after I’m not even a memory. There was a strange, inexplicable comfort in that realization.
The Grand Canyon, an ancient and living thing unto itself, cared nothing for or about me, and forced me to surrender control and abide by its rules before it would allow me to have what I needed. This was no soft and tender healing — this was alpha and omega and in-your-face uncompromising knowledge and acceptance that I was just one of many who have been and will be forgotten by this vast and marvelously beautiful gash in the earth. This was my “ah ha” moment, and much, much more.