An elementary school cliché is the oft-mocked “what I did this summer” essay. It’s an attempt to link the unstructured chasm between one grade and the next, a chance for students to regal their peers with stories of adventure or boredom, too long stays at grandparents’ houses and too short stints at the beach.
Sometimes students stumble into more profound vacations. That happened to my family, this summer, on a six-day trip rafting the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I’d been to the Canyon several times, camping on the rim and bunking at Phantom Ranch on the bottom. I’d endured fierce lighting storms while huddled in a tent, and encountered Big Horn sheep while climbing up Bright Angel Trail. I’d enjoyed that fundamentally American activity of gawking at intense natural beauty drinking a root beer purchased at a 1970s-style ice cream parlor located steps away from an astonishing 4,000 foot chasm, while herds of super-sized tourists ambled by in unfortunately cut shorts.
Two days after her eighth grade graduation, my daughter, Sara, wife, Debbie, and I were on a bus leaving Flagstaff with a dozen and a half other would-be adventurers. An abrupt sense of dislocation had set in, as if an Elon Musk magnetron had seamlessly transported us from one planet to another. Less than 48 hours earlier we were asleep in our comfortable beds overlooking Dolores Park, Sara a student at a school she’d been attending for the past five years. Now we were in Arizona’s high desert. Sara was traversing the nomad’s land between middle and high schools, a scholar-citizen temporarily without a country.
Our group included a New York Times Magazine reporter, a Yale historian, and their two boys; three Texans — an appliance distributor, community college professor, and his father, a grocery store manager; a programmer, his author wife, and adolescent son from Montana; and two retired couples. Throw in a priest, a puppy, and a few hot twenty-somethings and we could have been the cast of The Poseidon Adventure, or any number of victim-based lost-in-the-jungle B-movies.
The bus disgorged us at a small beach along the Colorado River. We were introduced to our guides and the flotilla of oar boats, inflatable kayaks – “duckies” – and paddle boat that would take us down river. Our escorts would have been at home in an episode of The Walking Dead: Jesse had been raised on the waterway, with a half-hyena, half-river otter personality and matching skill set; Pablo, a 60-something chemist making his 70th trip on the Colorado; Kelsey, who could have been Katniss Everdeen’s more experienced bleach-blond older sister, looking survivalist-fabulous whether she was off-loading equipment or negotiating a wind-whipped rapid; and Mara, an earth-mama spirit. Marieke, our trip leader, exuded a shy but firm competence. Along for the ride was the outfitter’s, Canyon Explorations, owners and their 12-year old son, who was rafting the river for the first time.
The Colorado River flows at from 8,000 to 25,000 cubic feet per second, a constant low roar and snap of water. It relentlessly cuts through rock and stone, bringing to mind the sound and swell of millions of settlers stampeding west to irrigate formerly parched regions. Once on the waterway, the sensation of forward movement is inescapable. It penetrates into night time dreams and daytime consciousness, the water tugging at your feet even when it’s not. The river is a thing in itself, a beast, a dragon, a life force that’s completely indifferent to what’s riding on it.
The younger ones of us gravitated towards the seven-person paddle boat, captained by Jesse, or the individual duckies. Both provided an extra thrill of adventure. Jesse maintained a patter of funny stories and historical information, interspersed with firm rowing commands whenever we hit turbulence. After successfully skirting past six foot swells and washing machine agitator whirlpools, we’d touch paddles high-five style to acknowledge our group triumph.
We drifted by canyon walls millions and billions of years old. Our Disney-trained minds automatically channeled towards thoughts that the dramatic scenes of multicolored, layered and tilted rocks couldn’t be real, that at any moment an animatronic dinosaur would poke his head out of a crevice. But they were real, and they were older than the dinosaurs.
The formations were deeply soothing. The rocks displayed repeated geological periods of uplift and erosion; scenes of long ago molten violence. Piles of rumble matched the concave holes above them; a single boulder the size of a hippo teetered on a slope, defying gravity. Above us loomed isolated towers, mesas and what looked like ancient temples, sunshine and shadows illuminating a changing pattern of red, black, brown, and grey hues. The landscape tickled something primordial that’d slept within each of us for a long time, helping to erase images of our more modern streams: Highway 101, with its hurry boxes rushing past the visual litter of badly designed buildings, ugly billboards, and altered landscapes.
Our guides pointed out small holes in the canyon walls, places were ancient pueblos stored their grain. But there were few human marks, and almost no modern trash. The early humans who had passed through had died or relocated a long time ago, their significance worn away by the tempo of geology.
I spent two days in the Ducky, which reinforced a sense of smallness amidst the scale of the river and the canyon, as if I was paddling in the immensity of the clear, star-filled, sky. Preparing to enter into a bubbling rapid, Marieke pointed at a large rock in the middle of the river.
“Look at that now, and then never look at it again,” she said. “You don’t want to get too close to it, or you may be pulled in.”
“I nodded,” thinking to myself, ‘Don’t look at the rock, don’t look at the rock,’ and paddled towards the watery chaos. Waves washed over me. The Ducky shuddered and rose, slide back down, and did it again. I could feel the rock nearby. I kept paddling.
Two muscular fingers of water pinched the front and back of the Ducky and tossed the craft upside down. Underwater, I struggled against the leg straps, momentarily disoriented and fearful. I got loose, popped to the surface, swam to the Ducky, flipped it over, and crawled in. Radiating adrenaline, I looked up and saw the entire flotilla in a half-circle around me: Pablo, wearing his over-sized straw hat; Jesse, calling for someone to grab my paddle, bobbing in the waves; Marieke, at the ready; the rest of the guides and their passengers. The canyon walls were indifferent to the spill; my human companions were anything but.
At the beginning of the trip, I’d joked with Sara, deploying a mock documentary voice, much to her irritation, that “it truly was a Grand Canyon.” By the end, I was speechless. After too few days that went by far too fast, we said our goodbyes to our guides, and ascended the Bright Angel Trail, feeling as if we were leaving behind a lost world. Each step brought us closer to cellphones and Internet, billboards, and cars. The sound of the river faded, but it would continue to tug at our dreams for a long time to come.