Trip to the Bottom



I notice the sign taped to the window of the entry booth as I hand the Park Ranger my pass. She does not point this out to me, so I take it to mean she at least knows I’m not the type of person who will come complain to the rangers because I “couldn’t see anything.” She hands me the standardized National Park Service map/brochure combo and waves us through the booth. 


The wind is howling high on the Colorado Plateau, snow falling sideways and seeming to blow so much that it never actually touches the ground. Perhaps not idyllic conditions to visit the Canyon, but it thins out the crowds and means the weather will likely be excellent down at the River, some five thousand feet below the rim. 


In spite of the weather, the good parking spots are all taken. These attractions are like magnets, drawing people in on their Great American Road Trips, making the ninety mile detour from the interstate or Route 66 as they head from Here to There, checking another park off their bucket lists. 

I think about this concept a lot, that all the politicking which led to certain of our public lands being named “National Parks” has now led to an entire culture of visiting them all, as if they are like Pokemon which can be captured and put on a shelf, a monument to one’s own resources and abilities to travel. I reflect on the sign that was clearly rendered in Microsoft Word, telling visitors that they will not get their thirty dollars back if they are unsatisfied with their selfies standing precariously close to the edge, clouds obscuring the risk they took to get the shot. 


This bucket list attitude, saying we did the thing, getting the photo that social media taught us we’re supposed to get, drives us into a frenzy. Unable to appreciate things for what they are, only expecting a hit of gratification when they are as we expect them to be. I am sad for myself for existing in this era, when we have to grapple with the concept of FOMO and navigate the skewed balance of expectations versus reality that leaves us all constantly underwhelmed, gnawing at the deeply human sense of inadequacy that motivates us to keep up with other people rather than listen to ourselves. 


It is hard to be your own person when you constantly have to compete with everyone else, when the desire to be loved and accepted pushes you to behave a certain way just so that you can get the tokens of approval that standardized society dishes out to those of us who play by its rules. You might want to experience things as they are, but in the back of your mind, you hope a certain person will like your Instagram post, so you take the mimetic photos in hopes of making it onto their feed. You might desire to embrace life on its own terms, but humanity’s penchant to drop you for someone wealthier, hotter, more aloof, more confident, forces you to play that endless game of chicken, changing yourself in order to be liked, but never feeling truly known as a result. 

My mind swirls through these thoughts like the wispy, mercurial clouds that accumulate and blow through the many nooks and crannies of the Grand Canyon. I am simply mesmerized by the conditions, which seem to add contrast and context to this almost incomprehensible expanse. I grieve for the people who will see it today and be disappointed, because they wanted blue skies for their washed out iPhone photo from the Visitors Center. I am not better than them, but I have endured enough in this life to know that the picture perfect only serves to rob us of ever experiencing anything real. 


I check the time and swallow the thin air before shuffling into more of a jog. To make it to the bottom of the Canyon and back before dark is an ambitious, almost foolish, endeavor starting at this hour. But sometimes it is nice to accept Mother Nature’s invitation to play chess, to feel the primal fear of being a tiny speck in a large land, of my diurnal rods and cones getting more anxious as the available light fades out of the sky. 


Maybe it is supposed to be this way. Standing on the Rim, you can’t even see the Colorado River below. There are too many layers, there’s too much parallax. What seems like the depths of the abyss is maybe halfway down. To fully appreciate a place like this, or any place at all, you have to move through it. Be consumed by the canyon, swallowed whole by its scale. To feel the limits of your corporeal form as it strives against nature and recognizes how hard it would be to survive in a place like this before plumbing and air conditioning. To reach the water down below is a full day’s trip. And it’s usually too silty to drink.


As long as the weather won’t kill me faster than on any other day, I don’t mind what the conditions are. I simply wish to experience this day for all it is. No refunds. 

High places are always interesting. Our brain stems recognize them as threatening. We get woozy and nauseous, something tells us that we are out of our element anywhere we could fall so far so fast. Some people feel what is known as l’appel du vide – the call of the void – and want to know what it would feel like to fly after jumping. Others of us recognize this as a zero-cost option to opt out if life becomes too much. Terrifying but liberating, like most things that promise freedom. Others simply do not fear or respect the edge at all. They are the ones who make headlines, tourists slipping and falling after attempting to take the dramatic selfie for social media. As if getting the same hundred likes we always get is worth losing a life over. Or maybe that’s what we do every day, it just usually kills us slowly, not in a headline-worthy manner. 

As I am shuffling downhill, watching the clouds get thinner and make way for dramatic beams of light, I think to myself, “To know something well you have to let it affect you.” It is a bit cheesy and on-the-nose, but as I feel the thud in each leg as my body tries to embrace gravity the perfect amount, it feels profound. The mind grows sharper when adrenaline is flowing and a touch of dehydration calls our survival instincts online. 


This is the mythical flow state, where our overdeveloped superego gets out of the way and allows us to exist entirely in the moment, doing things that we couldn’t do if we had to think about them first. It’s one of my favorite feelings, and feeling it in such scenic surroundings drives home the fact that so many people will move out west simply to do stuff like this every day. If we are forced to exist, this is a pretty good way to do it. 


Roughly halfway down, we catch our first glimpse of the Colorado River. It is massive, powerful, and brown with sediment from snowmelt runoff and the brutal effects of Lakes Powell and Mead upstream. My brain notices how far away it looks and then continues instructing my feet to move one in front of the other. This is what I crave – to observe without judgment, to move without weariness. To simply see and do. 


Every precipice presents another opportunity to consider. The stunningly designed trail switchbacks forever, down, down, down, then across, then up, up, up. There are dozens of places to soak up where you came from and where you’re headed, spots where a slight running start and one last jump would summarily end it all with one final great view. This meditation is important to me. 

I have often been pushed to despair by the same outside forces that push us to conform. I just wanted to make enough money to be comfortable, I just wanted to be liked enough to not feel lonesome. Every effort was folly, because at the end of the day I wasn’t doing what I wanted to be doing, I was doing what I thought I had to. The self-betrayal makes it hard to live with yourself. 


But when I am halfway down the Grand Canyon, I don’t really want to accelerate my trip to the bottom with a jump. In fact, I don’t even relate to the large percentage of the population that experiences l’appel du vide. When I’m not sad because I failed at being someone else, the idea of freefalling is downright awful. The grandeur of experiencing even the most “basic” trail in the Canyon makes it easy to want to live. 


Being immersed in life, flowing from one second to the next, enjoying things that no taxman or collections agency can take from you is a powerful reminder of the simple joy of existing. Which is often far from simple to tap into. Being present is the antidote for society’s sales pitches. But society has hardwired our brains to be terrified of being silent and still. 

After another hour of fast descending, we cross the imposing suspension bridge over the Colorado River.  For nearly four decades, this was the only spot between Moab, Utah and Needles, California where you could cross the Colorado by bridge. It has remained unchanged for over ninety years, and you feel each of them as you walk across its gently swaying wooden platform. We take for granted how imposing certain features of the natural world are. Large rivers, deep canyons, tall mountains – all of them are now circumnavigated with airplanes and dynamite and superhighways. And yet, for millennia, something could be a hundred yards away across a river and remain permanently out of reach. 


I try to meditate on this while the forty mile per hour wind gusts threaten to blow my hat and myself off the bridge suspended over the mighty Colorado. It is a miracle and a gift to be able to walk across it. The unreal menu of images and humans our smartphones present to us every day is a misleading buffet of how life is supposed to work. We should marvel at one chance to feel something, not yawn at thousands of stimuli per day. I don’t want to fall off the bridge today. I don’t crave what isn’t here. I am very excited for the cool, fresh water that awaits a mile down the trail at Phantom Ranch.

From the middle of the bridge, you can only see the first “layer” of the canyon, which is likely less than one tenth of the entire distance to the rim. The walls are so tall and steep that they block the view of what’s above them. The Canyon is a constantly mind-boggling immersive experience in perception versus reality. At Phantom Ranch, I assume nobody will be attempting to return to the Rim any later than myself. It is going to take a mighty effort to get there before dark. And then a pack of triangle-shaped men with short hair and long beards stroll up to the concession stand from the North, tossing their big packs with efficient thuds and slamming sodas. I ask where they are coming from and where they are heading. A double rim-to-rim-to-rim, all in a day. 


“Who are you people?” I ask. 


“Ehh, nobody,” says the first. 


“We’re all current or former Navy SEALs,” another chimes in. “A group of us do this every year, it’s called the Death Hike. This is my first one.” 


The first guy darts his eyes, a bit sheepish about being identified. The second has the hollow stare of someone who chases accomplishment at all costs. They are shelled, having started their trek some nine hours before I did. I survey their packs full of meat and first aid gear and the half dozen different digital camo patterns they are wearing. 

There was a time when I wanted to be a Navy SEAL. We were told it was the highest level of human achievement imaginable, and in the post-9/11 era, it was also the best possible use of your life on earth. I wondered if I would have to give up my commitment to vegetarianism in order to pass their grueling tests. I dreamed of the respect I could command with this universally-known title, finally proving to all the bullies and big men that I was tough enough. Everyone respects a military member; almost no one respects the quiet weirdo who pushes themselves to the limits of our species’ capabilities in search of a single morsel of truth. 


Now, I look at their cartoonishly massive physiques with a bit more perspective. I hear the name “Death Hike” and chuckle. I am here to have my life affirmed, even as I meditate on death. I move deftly through the world in spite of over three decades of hard use. I tread lightly and stay curious no matter the pace. I am grateful I didn’t kill a bunch of people in other countries on behalf of obscure political gamesmanship that’s never served me anyhow. 


“Well, I guess we will see each other’s headlamps bobbing along the trail!” I say as a way of goodbye and reassurance. It is nice to know there will be one other group attempting to return to the South Rim before the end of the day, Navy SEALs or otherwise. “See you up there,” they say between stringy bites of beef jerky. 


One more chug from a water bottle and fill of the Camelbak bladder and away we go, pausing to notice the beautiful things and shuffling quickly to feel the full resistance of the Canyon’s immense walls. The switchbacks make for a dramatic game of cat-and-mouse with the faster squad of Death Hikers. We are constantly getting closer and farther. I stop to take photos and they gain on us, I put the camera away and use my trekking poles and put more distance between us. There are two hikers ahead who do not flinch at the sound of power hiking behind them. They jump a bit as we sneak by, and then they smile and point at the rim and flash a large thumbs up. It is a group of deaf friends, steadily ambling back towards the rim. Their spirits are buoyant, unworried about the fleeting light or many thousands of feet between us and the Rim. I flash thumbs up and a big smile and feel a bit embarrassed that I don’t know any sign language. There are so many ways to engage with the world and not enough time to learn them all. We wave and continue onward and they point a few switchbacks above to let us know there is one more of them ahead. I think about the SEALs below and hope they don’t cause a jumpscare as they shuffle by in dutiful unison. 

The climb is arduous yet invigorating. I always love the opportunity to feel my animal self doing animal things – in this case, seeking shelter before it gets too dark for a daytime creature like myself to be this deep in the Canyon. This is one of the better-designed and more rigorously-maintained trails here, so the progress is relatively easy all things considered. And since I took so many photos on the descent, I am a bit more reserved on the climb. More energy devoted to movement and to simply noticing for myself, watching the light play with the many layers of rock, watching the Canyon cast shadows on itself. It is a stunning show. I wonder why more people don’t talk about this. The Rim is heavily-visited, but in my circles I don’t hear enough about how spectacular the interior of the Canyon really is. There is a form of aversion to popular places which I share, but I try to be mindful of its limitations. I want to experience things for myself, even if I have to slalom through crowds the first few miles or must drive further to the lesser-known and lesser-traveled trails. I wish to know the depths contained beyond the surface level, to feel the rocks between my toes, to get blisters from repetitive use, to eat every bite of dinner with the profound gratitude of someone who subsisted on Clif Bars and dust for a while. 

I check the map and realize that at this rate of progress, we will crest the rim before last light. It is not a death march, but a life hike, an affirmation of the beauty and possibility that is out there if we seek it. I’ve been discarded plenty, and I’ve done my own discarding, too. Nevertheless, I keep stubbornly believing that there’s a reason to go all the way to the bottom and back up again.