Hero’s Journey

Near dark at Grand Canyon Village.  Around dinnertime, even the waiters and cooks felt called to step outside and breathe in the spectacle: low-lying snow clouds, swimming just below the rim, transited the Canyon from west to east in single file.  We lived in the sky now, in a flight of impermanence.  Snow had settled on some of the lower platforms as the Bright Angel Fault descended into its own localized twilight.

The gorge always lets you know something unimaginably broad and deep is gouged below its event horizon.   That’s part of its lure.  Some things are beautiful because they’re dangerous, and some because they’re mysterious.  The Grand Canyon can be both.

At night, this chasm is the orifice through which dreams are born.  The Great Dreamer pulls the stars and elements through this wormhole and splashes them into the sky.  And then the dreamer grabs the hole’s lining and exhumes it, turning it inside-out so that it becomes the earth itself.  The horizon line is a membrane holding back trembling dreams and distantly rumbling nightmares that float unborn, waiting to be dreamed by all those who sleep in the world tonight.  And all those in the world will only wake and morning will only come when the last of what remains submerged here is heaved up and made known in dreams.

I’ll be down there tomorrow night.  It fills me with foreboding because I know it will be physically challenging, because it will throw my fears up before me, like boulders in my path, and because I will stand these challenges alone.  People often ask why I travel and hike alone.  The reason is because I wouldn’t find the gems I find any other way.  The irony for me is that I need people.  I am connected to others in ways more intimate than I’m sometimes willing to admit.  And yet, I find the truth of this connection in an aloneness from which other people only distract me.

The outward journey is a metaphor for the inward voyage.  In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Chris Vogler surveys stories across time and across cultures, from myths, fairy tales and movies.  Influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Vogler finds that, in most good stories, a central character, or hero, moves through a series of 12 stages.

Some challenge shakes the hero into a call to adventure. The hero crosses the first threshold into a special world where dangers await her, and where the rules of the ordinary world are suspended.  The hero then approaches the innermost cave of her nemesis, and there undergoes a supreme ordeal in which she must confront her greatest fear.  The Grand Canyon is my special world, and I’m usually reluctant to enter into it, fearing the ordeals I’ll most certainly endure.

The hero is often transformed through a resurrection, and returns back to her ordinary world with an elixir, some special knowledge or gift for herself or her people.  She’s become inwardly changed in some needed way by her outer adventure.

Being alone in the Canyon makes those ordeals more certain and painful for me, but the elixir upon reaching the Rim again is ever more sweet.  I become purified and my awareness heightens.  These trips help me develop faith in a natural healing process taking place within and all around me.  Life becomes a natural progression in which I work out my return home to my Self.  A trip into the hard world of the inner Canyon gives me faith that my life is an upwardly mobile journey, twisting and turning in all the right places.

After journeying through the Grand Canyon alone with nothing but what is between my ears and inside my backpack to protect me, I also learn self-reliance, something I’m all too unaware of back in the city.  There, everything’s done for me.  My meals are prepared.  Hot and cold are available at the touch of a button.  When I’m lonely, I just turn on an electric box with two-dimensional images and tune in.  I get in my car when I want to go somewhere.  If my shoe breaks, I either get a new one or pay someone else to fix it.  Seldom is the satisfaction of my instincts delayed or my wits sharpened.  I don’t need my senses, so I can dull them with sugar or food.  I can kill my feelings easily in any number of ways.

But not out here.  Everything depends on me, on whatever God I choose, and on the kindness of fellow hikers.  Being out here helps me distill my demons and clarify my passions.  It helps me see that the demons are just scales on the underbelly of noble desire.  Like the clear, noiseless air out here, fear and love become purified in this wilderness.  Ambiguity lifts, and choices become simple, if not easy.  I’m liberated to pursue deep desires because I learn to let go of the fear of their opposites.  And so the Canyon gives me permission to reach for my deepest felt aspirations.

The hero’s journey into wild places gives me the opportunity to momentarily sample the most elusive and difficult state humanly possible: humility.  These unimproved landscapes are uncompromising and harsh.  They swallow me whole, and I am left at their mercy.  I have the chance to learn out here that although I may determine immediate outcomes, destiny itself is out of my realm.

© 2014 by Michael C. Just