Swallowed by the Canyon

Containment. The word began fissuring itself into my consciousness on Day 4 of our float through the Grand Canyon when the Redwall cliffs—800 feet of sheer limestone—shot up beside us. At first, it seemed a curious word to consider in a place formed by catastrophic, wild, uncontained forces. But I let it stay. I let it whittle further into in my head as we whisked deeper into the canyon on the spine of the river.

IMG_2456.jpgOn the morning of Day 3 a few of us had tried to make it from the river up to the rim. We jogged back into South Canyon on an easy contour then turned to the east to push upwards. As we climbed through the layers of Supai sandstone, we could see the cool colors of the Kaibab Plateau—blue flecked with white—off to the north and west. Soon, the Kaibab would slide in next to the Canyon and our rim would rise up to 7,500 feet, 2,000 feet above where we were now. Here the rim appeared attainable.

The Canyon had other thoughts. On top of the Supai, looking up towards the pastel Coconino cliffs, our route was unclear. The launch time for the day was noon. We snapped photos, looked down on our toy boats below, and headed down.

On Day 7, we reached for the rim again. An hour of climbing took us to the Tonto platform. To the south, flats of red sand, barrel cactus and yucca stretched for miles until they reached another rampart of sandstone cliffs. To get there would take a few more hours. We turned around.

On Day 15, we punched above the Redwall limestone in Matkatimiba Canyon. The glaring sun and an indistinct passage through the Supai cliffs again turned us back.

Each time I tried to break out, the Canyon wanted to keep me. As the days clicked by, I acquiesced; I let the Canyon contain me.

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Before rafting down the Grand Canyon I had been told that three weeks floating through it would be an impactful experience, one I didn’t want to miss, an experience that might alter the steady state of my life. Mostly, I dismissed these thoughts. I had been on plenty of long backcountry excursions in incredible places. What would be different here? What would shift in me that had not already shifted?

The shift arrived subtly. It was more of an incremental erosion than a sudden realization. I wouldn’t notice it fully until the Canyon opened up enough to let me out. From outside I looked back in and noticed what had changed.

IMG_2295.jpgA remarkable and rare thing happened after spending weeks in a slice of the earth: I surrendered to it. I let the Canyon swallow me and in allowing it to swallow me I became, fleetingly, held within a magnificent container. Measurement of time was the first thing to drop away as the Canyon folded me in. Our measurement of time—in days—seemed absurdly insignificant next to rock that was 1.6 billion years old. Over the weeks, the Canyon began to digest me, its harsh elemental forces— rock, wind, water, sun—began to claw away at me. My eyes itched and burned from too much sand in them, my hands were cracked and cut from dry air and sharp stone, and my cheeks were red and hot from hours under the sun.

As we went deeper and the days meshed together, other cares and worries from outside of the Canyon began dropping away. I came to have only three immediate cares: understanding my surroundings, nourishing my body, and forging community with the fifteen other individuals I was rafting with.

In one way, my complete removal from our world could be considered a selfish act—I had cut of from the cares, but also the responsibilities of living in a society. On the other hand, what I came to care about in the Canyon may be the exact things I should be caring about: taking care of my local community, allowing time for self reflection and nourishment, and understanding my place. Everything else, all the chatter of our culture, had been stripped back and I had been left doing something that was very familiar to our species, something that has been familiar for millennia: I was moving in a small, close-knit group to a distant destination by way of water.

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Movement by water should be nearly as natural as walking to us. From the Euphrates to the Nile to the Mississippi, the vast majority of human flourishing has occurred beside rivers. Rivers do the hard work of finding ways through tumultuous landscapes allowing us to travel long distances, with minimal effort, through remote terrain.

Moving on the Colorado the patterns of the Canyon quickly became apparent to us. This was a place where we were constantly being pulled between movement and stillness. The river followed this pattern—at first spreading and deepening in long, languorous swirls where the current became hard to find. And then, suddenly, lunging and falling, becoming something else entirely—a frothing, seething chaos that would try, vigorously, to escape the laws of gravity and surface tension.

IMG_2188.jpgIf you put a microphone in the Canyon over millions of years what you would hear on the recording would resemble the sound of the river: centuries or millennia of quiet, interrupted by a volcanic eruption or a massive flood or a hundred debris flows at once carrying boulders the size of cars down side canyons. At each camp we stopped at, you could walk up a side canyon and immediately become aware of the wrenching, violent forces—the movement—of the Canyon. But up those same side canyons, you could also lose the shush and boom of the river and be surrounded by a full silence, the type of silence that can be filled by a distant trickle of water.

As the days blended together, I too took on the contrasting nature of the Canyon: I wanted to move outwards and upwards to capture the scope of the canyon, but I also wanted to stay put and lose myself in alabaster limestone narrows for as long as I could. This was mirrored in my social nature: at once wanting to retreat and then wanting to be part of the group.

And so the Canyon swallowed me. And I became accustomed to the call of the canyon wren that descended in tone and fizzled out at the same time. And I became accustomed to moving through a world of hulking shadows where the sun would take its time to greet us and say goodbye long before the day had finished.

As always, when you lose track of time, it tends to pass by in a flash. And what you are left with when you return is not just distinct memories but an abiding sensation: this is what it feels like to be swallowed by a canyon and eaten by the crust of the earth; this is what it feels like to remember that you are made of the same elements as the red sandstone, the frothy water, and the new, green cottonwood leaf; this is what if feels like to remember that those elements—our elements—are meant to move, to shift, to break down—to change.

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