Days without numbers: Life in the Grand Canyon

I don’t know which day, nor what time it is. Or I do, but by a different clock. My calendar runs in river time now. It has been quite a while since I last checked my watch for any of the sterile numbers that scale most peoples lives. These measures of ticking clocks, buzzing sensors and blinking lights don’t matter here.

All I know is, that today is Lava day. The day we run Lava Falls. The Dories like it better to dance with Lava at low water. So we will wait until later in the afternoon, when the Glen Canyon Dams last release of water has flown past us. We are far removed from this massive symbol of human ingenuity, yet it dictates the tide here, like an unnatural greeting from the civilized world.

Last night the bright half moon overhead appeared above the rim. It was curved in the same shape as the canyon walls we have come through, like a genuine reflection in the sky.

For a while now I have come to dislike man made roofs over my head. Here, as I fall asleep in the Canyon, these walls high above me, provide something of an open roof, a shelter from that outside world, a cushion to the general roar, a welcome divide from that other measure of time I am beginning to forget about.

I have come to love these walls, their ever changing character, their calm geometry of horizontal and vertical lines, cracks, caves and balconies. I am beginning to sense the wisdom they have gathered over millennia, tucked into the layers, concealed in the great unconformities, keeping secret eternal knowledge to themselves. I have come to love these rocks endless variations in between red, orange, pink, grey, black and brown. Their shades defy description in human terms, but instead they exist unnameable in a serenity humans could only dream of.

In the morning, as the first glimpse of the sun indirectly sends its light down to us, we break down the kitchen we have built on this beach like on so many others days before. By now, the collaboration in this team of Grand Canyon river guides, that I have been lucky enough to become a part of, has become effortless. Without anyone having fixed tasks this seems hard to imagine, but there is a fascinating fluidity to “the way we roll”. I wonder how much of it is inspired within us by the river we travel with. The hierarchy is there, clean and obvious, with no necessity to be questioned. Yet no team member feels too good for any little job, all of us acting in the unison interest of getting it done. After breakfast we close the jars, clean the dishes, put the stove away. There’s a “last call on coffee”, then we fold up the tables, wash the tarps, load the boats, strap the bags. Someone does the “last call on the downstream toilet”, there’s a last sweep of the beach, while the clients put on their life vests and climb aboard the Dories. And finally we untie the knots and off we go back onto the rivers back, floating further down in the melodic fashion, echoed by the tiny Canyon Wren, a tiny little bird that sings a distinctive downward tune.

The faces of the clients on this trip have changed. When we first met in the impersonal space of a hotel conference room in Flagstaff some weeks ago, they had been curious, yet careful, tentative yet reserved, joyfully excited, yet tense. Ever since then they have been letting go, leaving the shrubberies twigs in their hair and the sand in between their toes. They have been letting their beards grow, and their clothes take in the dust. And yes, they are also beginning to get used to peeing in front of other people, the way it is done here in the Canyon. As trip leader Roger announced the first day: “skirts up, pants down”, meaning the women pee upstream while the men go downstream.

The deeper we reach into this truly Grand Canyon, the more our eyes are opening up. Not only to the immense beauty, the wisdom, the history around us, but to each other. While our skin soaks in the elements – the sun, wind and sand – our minds begin to wander into places beyond the common, the cultured, the curated.

Some may be surprised by what they find, others able to deepen a feeling or let go of a burden. And all along, the Colorado River, known to indigenous tribes as the female spirit called „life without end“, flows on and on, entirely indifferent to our presence.

I am human, and at that I am conscious of our impact on this planet. But not only in a destructive way. I like to think that this great river will now carry all of our stories within her too, along with the millions of stories before us. Just like we can keep her flow within us, when we part.

As I paddle my little yellow packraft, I stay close to the Dories. Behind me are the baggage boats, that are carrying all the food, gear and luggage. The yellow “baloney boats” look like parents of my little raft. And like any good parent they stay behind me, ready to snatch me up out of the roaring or splashing white foam, when I get washed out of my bucket or flip it once more. As I get to run bigger rapids every day, I steadily learn from the river. And it is easy not to question Rogers decisions on which rapid is for me and which isn’t (yet). The in-depth advice my experienced colleagues provide is all I can dream of, being the absolute white water rookie I am. In fact, I am so filled with gratitude, I can’t even swallow much water when I go under, because there is just no room for it within me.

After I feel the strength of the current pick me up, there is an expanding second, a hiatus, that calls on all inner clarity I can muster. Then (finally!) I manage to make the right move in that crucial split of a second. Depending on the situation that move can be leaning into the wave, as if awaiting a hug, feathering my paddle on its smooth surface, as if caressing it, or sticking it into the depth of the wave, as if I wanting to cut it in half. However brief, the connection I feel to the element of water in that very moment is – for lack of an equally descriptive word – orgasmic.

On the calm sections, splashing through the occasional riffle, I think back to my initial encounter with this river. Over 50 days ago I first heard her faint whisper under a thick cover of snow up at her birthplace in the Rocky Mountains. Stepping softly, almost as if not to wake her, I followed her soft breath and found a crevice in the ice where I could reach my hand down and feel the pulse of the young liquid lifeline flow through my fingers.

Now, this then newborn River has lived. She has gone through rough stretches, has lazily filled lakes and reservoirs and has even disappeared completely at times. The Colorado River has been played with and put to work, has been respected and exploited, has provided life and has been fought over. Steadily winding her way through civilization and wilderness alike, she has tumbled, swirled and swiveled, she has roared, chatted and whispered. Never once has she ceased to be in motion, nor has she been silenced – yet. I feel like here in the Grand Canyon the Colorado River has reached her prime, maybe equivalent to the human thirties, when I have begun to find it less important to prove anything to anyone and instead am arriving within myself. The Colorado River is herself here, at least as much as she could be in our times of human domination over nature.

I will continue downstream, will stay with the Colorado River, whatever shape or form she will be transformed into. Like down in the “dam(n) country”, where she ages rapidly, having her breath sucked out by the incessant need for more of everything. Or across the border, in Mexico, where she currently looses her life entirely. But maybe, one day, she can wake up again to revive her riparian history in the delta and to finally reach the ocean again for good. And if she once will, there is a chance for her to fill the circle again, returning to cover the Rocky Mountain Tops in snow only to then restart her eternal journey all over again.

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