This is the first of a two-part article. Part two will appear on Tuesday.
By Donald Schell
On May 22nd and 23rd my wife and I and our friends Anna and Charley hiked the Grand Canyon from the North Rim, down to the Colorado River, and back up to the South Rim. We’d conceived the hike three years before, walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain with Anna. It took us three years to get the reservations we wanted at Phantom Ranch, the rustic guest lodge at the bottom of the Canyon. Then we cleared our work and travel schedules and began to train, to read up and talk to people who’d made the hike, and to equip ourselves.
Why had this journey mattered so much? I knew from walking the Santiago pilgrimage across Spain what a wonder it would be to stare back across the Grand Canyon and remember beginning at the far edge thirty-six hours before. And I knew that walking a long distance and watching the horizon change one step touches archetypal human memories and makes us feel as free on the earth and beyond encumbrance as our hunter-gatherers ancestors or some later nomadic people.
For me the steady walking rhythm that would cover a long distance gave flow and shape to stories of great-great grandparents who’d walked across the American continent in the 1840’s.
But I knew there was more too. What would our journey be? How would it stay with us?
Because Ellen and I and our two friends who would walk the Canyon were Episcopalians and Sunday liturgy regulars, we’d remember Jesus and his disciples, an itinerant preacher and his friends, literally “followers,” walking and teaching around Galilee. And maybe that touched or leaned toward, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Grand Canyon is land that belongs to all and to no one. Park Service land. Though we were grateful we’d have a place to lay our heads, we were going there to make ourselves strangers, pilgrims, and guests.
After three years, after several failed efforts to get our Phantom Ranch reservations, after excited, anxious training, after a couple of shorter training hikes at altitude, we watched the sunset over the Canyon and sat down to dinner at the North Rim Lodge Saturday night May 21st. After dinner we didn’t linger to watch moonlight on the Canyon. We needed our sleep, so we turned in early.
We walked back to our cabins. Snow shone in the evening light. We double-checked our packs. Rain gear and a very light thermal layer for the morning, and a minimal change of clothes for the next day. Each of us would carry a gallon and a half of water, a minimal change of clothes. A first-aid kit. Lunch, and snacks for the trail. Lights out.
I said good night to Ellen and found myself mentally replaying scenes from the Park Service video we’d watched together, the DVD they sent as a warning to those with inner Canyon reservations. The Park Service wanted us to know that people had died attempting to cross the Canyon. Some had not carried enough water. (We were carrying five quarts each – check). Some hadn’t trained or been in good enough shape for a vigorous hike. (We’d trained well – check) Some had wandered off the trail and fallen. (Acrophobic me? Not a chance.)
When we checked in at the Back Country Office we’d also learned that the Park Service had flown 250 helicopter rescue flights in the previous year, averaging one rescue every other day. And I’d studied Back Country’s map with little marks next to brief stories of people, some younger than me who had died in the Canyon of heart attack or severe heat stroke. Men die in the Canyon about five times as often as women.
Younger men die more often than older men. Guys can be foolhardy. So, was I foolhardy? My grandfather, my mother’s father, was ten years younger than me when he’d died of a heart attack. But my grandfather wasn’t in daily aerobic training, and he’d talked with his doctor (not family) about chest pains and been warned by his doctor to take it easy. (I’d had a physical a couple of months before and told the doctor of my plans. He expressed no cautions or evident concern. Check?)
So, (check, check, check, and check?) we’d trained well, would be carrying plenty of water, and would stay on the trail. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but we knew we’ be walking a good trail and expected we’d have a manageable, enjoyable hike. And though we’re all mortal, strong odds were on our side.
I wanted to sleep, but my mental checklist kept rolling. We’d trained in California’s coast range, never getting above 2000 altitude – but we’d already done a couple of hikes in the previous days, and we’d been fine. I didn’t do well in heat – which is why we were hiking in May and why we were grateful for the weather forecast – breezy and partly cloudy.
And then there were my shoes. I had trained in “five finger,” my new near-barefoot hiking shoes, and knew I’d done all right with them on rough terrain. But our training hikes had all been close to civilization. I could explain to anyone why I preferred the Five Fingers to my good old hiking boots, and I knew a number of people had already gone rim to rim in Five Fingers, but…what? What if I injured my foot or my ankle?
The new shoes had a good safety record IF people trained in them ahead of a major hike. I had trained. But what if a rock cut through the very thin vibram sole? No, wait, was I staying awake to remind myself that emergencies were possible? Whatever we’re doing something can go wrong – of course, but everything I was thinking of was unlikely.
Finally with a rueful smile I found the perfect worry to put other worries to sleep. I remembered Harold Camping had predicted that the world would end at 3p.m. We were already six hours past the End of the World. I wondered how Camping was facing his different version of things going badly wrong. I’d heard plenty of Camping-style preaching growing up and cringed at a couple of haunting childhood moments of finding myself alone at home and thinking the Rapture had come and I’d been ‘left behind.’ Better that our end or ‘The End’ comes when it will – unexpected.
Finally ready to let go and sleep, I told myself we’d prepared well, and thought we were probably doing this hike because we were mortal, at least wanting to do it before we got too old or died, so not in spite of being mortal. Mostly likely the next day would bring joy, good conversation, a splendid weariness, a phenomenally good meal at Phantom Ranch and a great sleep at day’s end, and I closed my eyes and woke, eagerly in fact, a few minutes before the alarm went off at 4:45 a.m.
The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.