My alarm was silent but I was awake. Awake, lying in bed and thinking, waiting to start my morning. Giving in, I sat up and took the first of what would be many steps on this day. I would walk into a Canyon full of memories.
Mirrors are always part of my morning, but on this morning I held my own gaze, I studied my face, studied my Rosetta Stone, the key to unlocking my past. 68 years of adventure etched by sun, wind and strain, 68 years of life written on a once smooth surface. Every line told a story, every crease was earned, deserved, they spoke of a life moving forward. Every line, every crease, was mine.
I shaved and wondered, which crease held memories from 25 years ago, which crease represented 1993. We were here, I was young. I gave my Dad a gift, an experience I had often given myself. I led my Dad, and my three brothers, on a three-day trip to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. 1993 was Dad’s 68th year on our planet, this year is my 68th. Hiking the Canyon this year would add depth to an old story, it would enhance a memory.
Dad was a pilot, he flew when jets had sextants, when they navigated by the stars. He often shared his celestial knowledge with us and, for an unknown reason, we all associated Dad with the constellation Orion. It may have been Orion the Hunter’s perceived strength, we all saw strength in Dad. Whatever the reason, Orion and Dad were almost synonymous.
Dust sparkled as it swirled though the beam of my headlamp, it was dark and 34 degrees. Sunrise was waiting, waiting down the trail over two miles away. Following my headlamp, I started down the South Kaibab Trail. Sporadic dots of light flickered from the top of dark Canyon walls, hauntingly grey shapes of pinion pines and Utah Juniper loomed into, then passed through, my headlamp’s beam.
Looking west I saw Orion resting on the horizon. Thin clouds partially obscured the constellation, but the Hunter’s shoulders, belt and sword were unmistakable. I could feel Dad’s presence; his physical being was gone but his spirit was with me. Orion would fade with the rising sun while memories of Dad would grow with a descending son. My feet would carry me forward, but I would be looking back, back on a life, a life that inspired.
Darkness faded to gray, gray gave way to subtle colors, I could see and feel the Canyon coming alive. Ravens soared, a falcon appeared, flashed overhead and was gone. Sunlight began peeling layers, revealing the trail stretching before me, creating long, sharp, shadows before slowly reducing their length. It all combined, revealing the void that was this Canyon. I was alone, daylight was filling the vast expanse, filling me with a feeling of insignificance. I was a small vulnerable speck in an unforgiving wilderness. I did not want to be anyplace else.
Emotion slowed my progress. I had to absorb, absorb and capture memories, recall memories. Skeleton Point offered a familiar glimpse of the still-shaded Colorado River. Two bridges, the Black and the Silver, would allow me to cross her cold, clear water.
Rippling along a Canyon ridge, my shadow followed as I worked my way down switchbacks leading to the Tonto Plateau, the Canyon was fully awake. One last bend carried me onto the Plateau and opened my view to the west. Now filling the Canyon, sunlight released the color of ancient layers, a vivid reminder of my decades with this Canyon.
Silenced by distance, white water quietly beckoned me towards the sound of the river, the voice of the Canyon’s architect. I picked up my pace and slipped into the inner gorge.
Snorting a warning from a cocked head, a lone bighorn guarded the entrance to the Black Bridge, she stood motionless as I approached and crossed. My Father walked here, walked here in a place he never imagined he would visit. He received an intangible that he did not believe possible. Time, time at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, time that must be earned.
Phantom Ranch fall colors met my approach, my stay would be brief. Almost 1 mile of elevation and 9.5 miles of trail still separated me from the rim of the Canyon. I wandered, I reminisced and smiled. Satisfied by a short but meaningful stay, I turned and walked south, south towards the Silver Bridge and the monolithic wall beyond.
Pushing the wall from my thoughts, I crossed the Silver Bridge and focused on the river, I focused on its clear, blue water and its inspiration. With relentless persistence it weathered this rock, with patience and time it created its home. It would take patience and time to conquer the wall, a steady pace would carry me to the rim.
My goals became short term. First, the next bend, then the Devil’s Corkscrew. The creek and trees of Tapeats Narrows told me I was nearing Indian Garden. I was gaining elevation, I was leaving the Canyon, but I was walking deeper, deep into my past, deep into my thoughts.
Muscles, feet and joints with 68 years behind them maintained my pace. I was trying to communicate, empathize, with a man my age who walked here 25 years ago. I was sharing an experience separated by time. Did my thoughts mirror his? Did we feel the same strain? Did I feel the same emotion? I knew we shared the same smile, felt the same joy, today’s journey enhanced our past, enhanced my memories of time with him.
I had been wandering through this wilderness, lost in my thoughts, reveling in the freedom only a solo hike can offer, grateful time had not taken this from me. Topping off my water bottle at Indian Garden, my focus changed, I set a goal, I felt a need to stand on the rim, with the afternoon sun, and look back, back at where I had just been, back where we had been 25 years ago. I wanted to average 2 miles per hour over the next 4.5 miles while gaining 3,500 feet. I would not stop.
Familiarity with the trail confirmed my pace, my progress was steady. The Canyon pushed the trail into my heart and lungs, I could feel the uphill but did not feel the need to slow. I knew the trail, knew where I was and knew what was before me, I kept moving. Jacob’s Ladder, Three-Mile House, Two-Mile Corner, Mile and a Half House, the big sweeping arc to the last switchback, then I was there.
Standing on the rim I looked back on my day, then looked back 25 years, thought back 68 years when my life was a book of unwritten chapters. This Canyon has given me memories, taught me the power of memories, the events that shape a life. I would never go back, never give it up. I would not accept my younger years, not give up my weathered skin, if it meant giving up my past, giving up where I have been. Going back would mean giving up who I am. Like my Father before me, I will move forward. It is the direction of life.