Twenty-five of us spent two glorious weeks together, enjoying one of the greatest spectacles on the planet in six 18’ rubber rafts. How special!
Subject: With a Little Help From My Friends…
… or, The Passing of the Oar
First off, this rather lengthy email does not include any clinical update information except to say that I adventured down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon without any significant health episodes. I did, however, receive amazingly generous assistance from many of my compatriots along the way, most notably from Brent. He was and is a saint!
I’m still overwhelmed by the entire experience. Not least of which by the fact that I was able to pull it off even though such a trip would not have been possible any of the previous four Augusts. I remain astoundingly fortunate.
We traversed 226 river miles, through more than 100 rapids, over the course of 14 days. We took off the river last Wednesday. Even that posed some surprises. We weren’t certain that the dirt road would be open due to flash flooding. A part of it was closed. And the bus suffered a flat tire which forced us to turn around and enjoy some libations at the “world famous” Black Cat Bar in Seligman, AZ.
I must confess to a few apprehensions as the put-in date approached. The heat was a major concern. Melanee’s wonderful gift of a chamois-like towel for my neck was nothing short of a savior for this heat-sensitive guy. Melissa’s suggestion of soaking a top sheet for sleeping addressed the nighttime heat issues. By the time the trip began, all of my concerns were alleviated. Vicki played a huge role. Big surprise, eh? Based on her experience, she predicted that the experience would change me. That sounded fun and heightened my anticipation.
After hearing that, I listened to a video clip of Katie Lee, an acclaimed environmental activist, adventurer and author. Her message reinforced what Vicki envisioned for me. “When you’re out there [on the river] and you are on your own and you know you have to take care of yourself, all your senses sharpen. Your smell, your sight, your hearing, your touch. Everything comes out of the skin and becomes part of what’s around you. And if you can do that you’re going to learn some things about yourself that will keep you from making the wrong choices, that will point a direction for you. All you’ve got to do is listen and look.”
I could not participate in most of the hikes because of unsure footing due to neuropathy. The last thing I wanted was to mess up the party by sustaining any injury. So I spent a great deal of time in the shade and in the pools of various creeks, escaping the frequent 105° F temperatures, musing and talking to others who also opted to remain behind. I enjoyed the time soaking in as much of the experience as I could.
Despite the frequent oppressive heat and very chilly water (50° F because the river is fed from the bottom of the Glen Canyon Dam) the area provides shelter and sustenance to a large variety of fauna. I saw pink rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, blue herons, a couple scorpions, velvet ants, plus countless ravens, bats, red ants and lizards, and more. I hope to always remember the glorious song of the canyon wren. The flora was hearty and often menacing. Sprouting out of huge, otherwise barren, rock faces, solitary cacti would give evidence that life finds a way. The geology provided a glimpse of time spanning 2 billion years. It rightly makes one feel insignificant, but an instant in time and place. The weather sometimes changed by the hour, from a dust storm that found its way into batten-downed tents to a wind- and thunderstorm determined to carry my tent with me and my gear into the river. But it was the river that commanded the most attention. Depending on its mood, it could beckon you into meditative state or make you question the wisdom of your choices. It is indeed a river of life… it gives life, it takes life, it is life.
I knew I was succumbing to the power of the canyon and river by my nonchalant response to matters that would normally disturb me, or worse. For instance, early on, I thought that my point and shoot waterproof camera was ruined. I didn’t really care. It was what it was. I didn’t fool with it further until the end of the day. I found it to be working just fine when I inserted a fresh battery. Duh! But in my stupidity I learned peace. I was listening and looking. I took very few photos, I rarely removed my nice camera from its waterproof case. I favored savoring the sights and recording them directly into my mind. (Admittedly, heat, sand, wind, rain, inconvenience and sloth also contributed to my reluctance to bother with a camera.) But mostly, I was content to survey the environment knowing that I could not hope to capture its majesty with a camera.
Along the way I consulted with my healing room helper/guardian angel in order to enhance my experience. I had been considering visiting her, so halfway through the trip I entered the healing room. She had already prepared an earthen floor with my silhouette dug out. All I had to do was add water. I lay down. All but my face and torso were submerged. Neither of us spoke, she simply laid her hands on my forehead. It was late in the evening. She offered to say my prayers for others. I appreciated the gesture and figured that her prayers were far more powerful than mine. During my only other visit, without prompting, she volunteered that I have “quite a few years left.”
Much of the time, I marveled at the canyon light. Its shapes, rays, diffusion through the low hanging clouds and how it illuminated extraordinary textures and breathtaking colors consumed me. For the first few days, the water was clear. The glassy waves at the tongues, the entrances to the rapids, were mesmerizing. I imagined all sorts of figures and forms in the abstract rolling reflections of the clouds and canyon walls. Just as quickly as they appeared, they were swallowed by frothy turbulence.
With the sunlight came the heat. The miracle of shadows diminished its effect. I never previously paid so much attention to shadows, how any object that blocks the rays, no matter how small or what shape, possesses the same power to diminishing the sun’s authority. Even skimpy bushes provided sufficient respite. The moment we’d enter a shady spot on the river was the moment of reprieve. But in time, the heat became just another element to address, neither onerous nor threatening. All in its own way. All part of the passage.
On day 12, we scouted the last major hydraulic challenge, Lava Falls Rapid. It didn’t look so terrifying, but then rapids never do until you’re inside them. I wasn’t nervous, at most maybe just a tad apprehensive. Our boatman was a highly experienced and accomplished river guide. He had earlier ushered us through the powerful Crystal Rapid with barely a splash reaching us in the back of the boat. After that I immediately requested passage on his raft through Lava. For this huge, fearsome and unpredictable rapid, Brent and I again sat in the back of the boat, enabling us to better view the impending riotous waves and to perhaps dodge them from crashing on top of us. The downside of those positions is the greater risk of being catapulted forward, perhaps even over top of the boatman, as the boat plunges downhill into the trough of a wave. This rapid presents two very large waves along with significant lateral churning waves.
We cinched our life jackets as tight as possible. As we prepared to enter the rapid we grabbed hold of the strap that surrounded the perimeter of the boat and held it under tension. Our forward hand grabbed the closest available secured strap. We positioned ourselves snugly against the boat frame and squatted with our weight on our feet as if ready to stand up at any moment. We had been well-prepared for this enormous roller coaster ride. Because of the high water, we took the left side run. We negotiated the first wave just fine, but then the bow of the boat grazed a submerged rock, just enough to turn us sideways into the second wave. Not good, not good at all. So much for remaining safe and dry. All I could see was this huge curl of water about to crash on all of us. It instantly completely filled the raft and it began to tip, close to flipping over. I was on the high side, holding on without losing my grip. Even so, I ended up just inches away from landing on Brent who was almost submerged. I pulled back up to my position only to see that the boatman was barely in the boat. He had lost his grip on the right oar, but still managed to hold on to the left oar. His expression was classic… not fearful, not concerned, just one of total surprise. His right leg was still in the boat. I have no idea how he managed to stay on board, much less return to his seat, but he did. By now we were heading backwards downstream. Facing the wrong way, I couldn’t see what lay ahead. My attention was directed to the flailing right oar and the boatman. I really, REALLY didn’t want to let go of the strap, but I quickly realized that I had no choice. I let go and grabbed the oar and placed it in the boatman’s hand just as he turned and started to reach back for it. He again looked surprised as we executed a perfect passing of the baton. He instantly regained control of the boat and we completed the harrowing run without further incident. Our faith in him was well placed. We exited this most notorious and capricious rapid with a great tale to tell, one that is bound to grow more dramatic over time.
Looking back on it all, I have come to recognize and appreciate the metaphor of the passing of the oar. For much of the trip I had been the recipient of unexpected grace and thoughtfulness. On this occasion, in a small way, I was able to pass back some of the good will.
Vicki was right, again. Katie Lee, too. I know I have a lot of work left to be done and I think I’m now better prepared to pursue it.
Returning home to Vicki and Ned, who I hadn’t seen in almost a year, provided the perfect closing act. For, every ending is a beginning.
With love, gratitude for the help and encouragement from all of you, and another adventure fulfilled,
p.s. Some of my photos from the trip are posted at http://jamesdlewis.com/grandcanyonrivertrip.html