His physical being has been reduced to ash; the weight of the loss is a far greater burden than the small portion I carry in my pack. My headlamp keeps me on the trail; the horizon will hide the sun for another hour. Dark skies are appropriate for the sorrow I feel, but my mind will wander to happier times as I remember a selfless man who improved the lives he touched.
Death is a concept I came to understand too early in life; cancer took my best friend when we were both seven. I knew he was sick, but my young mind never considered loss of life as a possible outcome. Time has given me a better understanding of death, age has increased the expectation. Neither has made the reality any easier. My belief, my anticipation of life after death, does ease the pain. Anecdotal evidence offers me hope.
Dawn reveals life in the canyon, life adapted for the demands of a desert. Fleshy-leaved succulents and barbed cactus are randomly selected and meticulously searched by sparrows and wrens.
My background draws my attention to the aviators. More than a few years back Moose and I were fighter pilots. We willed our jets through the air, their effortless performance more an expression of thought than physical input. The experience eclipsed conventional flight; it was a physically demanding combination of art and high-speed chess that we enveloped with passion. Time moved that passion into our memories, but it remained a part of our existence; we could not separate it from who we had become.
Our past did make us look at birds in ways many do not. I look not only at their colorful highlights but at their ability to perfect an art form we struggled to master. I watch plumage ripple as they maximize performance; tail feathers spread and contract, wings extend and retract. With a mixture of awe and envy I study movement more than beauty.
What is left of Moose’s physical being is symbolic, the remnants of a vessel that encapsulated his essence. I am descending into just such a vessel. The physical beauty of the Grand Canyon cannot be diminished, but it merely holds the essence of why I walk here. It is not something I try to define. A physical description may give one a visual expectation, but it cannot describe depth. The canyon requires all senses, it must be touched. Its explanation requires sharing the experience. Moose could feel the canyon in me, he knew he had to follow, follow me to the river and savor the canyon.
Still well above the Tonto Plateau, morning light from a warming sun forces layers into my pack. My early start has given me solitude, but I know Moose is with me. His spirit will always be in this canyon and I will feel his presence whenever I wander below the rim.
Rounding a nondescript bend in the trail I notice a boulder. Perched on the rock, slightly above my head, a canyon aviator, a raven observes my approach. Not frightened by my presence the bird appears to invite me closer. Lacking the their usual volume, he beckons with a soft, soothing ‘caw’.
Marveling at his reluctance to flee, I step from the trail and turn to face him. Separated by a few feet, I stand motionless as he continues his soft conversation. Still unafraid, he leans towards me, leaves his perch, flies in my direction and then beyond. Pivoting to maintain visual contact I watch as he pulls his nose up slightly, hesitates, rolls inverted, and soars upside down for a few seconds before rolling upright. The maneuver mirrors everything Moose and I would have done during our time in fighters. Continuing towards the Colorado, the raven completes three more hesitation rolls before distance moves him beyond my vision.
On our last hike I led, this time I follow—I follow to a better place.