He had thought about this day, had walked this path in his mind; thought he knew what it would be like. Now he finds distance and depth eroding his imagination as the reality of the South Kaibab and Grand Canyon slowly reshapes the landscape of his mind. This man, who has motivated thousands from a stage provided by the Washington Speakers Bureau, is near speechless in a venue large enough to swallow his every word, but not large enough to contain the impact this experience has upon him.
Moving deeper, I sense an understanding. His pace is no longer governed by physical ability but by his ability to assimilate, the experience is overwhelming. A man who has lived by ignoring probability and pushing possibilities turns and admits that today is a day he once considered impossible. We never discuss it, but I hike knowing I will do this again; he absorbs it all knowing he will not. The knowledge is reflected in his eyes, in his gaze, the emotion in his voice; it has enhanced his senses, allowing him to compress my decades in the Canyon into this one brief visit.
After our first night he has wandered off, he needs to be with the rocks and the river. There will be no questions when he returns, I have been where he is, it is a place best visited alone. Today will be a day of solitude, wandering and resting for tomorrow’s walk to the rim.
Cool morning temperatures encourage an early departure. Knowing the rising sun will soon rob us of this advantage, we reluctantly leave the river. Hours have passed, the day is warm, miles separate us from the Colorado. Indian Garden is now below us, he is struggling towards the top, the hike out more than he anticipated. His gait reveals pain in his knee, his breathing betrays his pulse. A single hiking stick aids his movement but he refuses to accept help, he will not take mine. It is not stubbornness that drives the refusal; it is the integrity he has displayed since we first met. He does not want to make my task more difficult. He is a Canyon novice who is tired and in pain, and his first thought is of others, he is always thinking of others. After a pause, his knee now wrapped, he concedes and starts uphill with two trekking poles. His struggle is not over but I am relieved that he will reach the ice on the upper trail with the stability of a second stick.
Decreasing distance is accompanied by cooling air as we near the 7,000-foot rim. Pausing on the final switchback, welcoming the reduced gradient, our journey’s end moves us forward. Memories will hold us here forever.