My Rod and My Staff Comfort Me?

Anger and rain pelted the rubble as I half-stumbled down the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park.  Seems every time I take South Kaibab down, I get mad at myself for something. I’d missed a shuttle bus to the trailhead and I’d forgotten the rain-hood that protects my backpack.  I was blind to the beauty—to the cloud shadows moving across the North Rim terraces, to the clouds suffocating the roof of O’Neill Butte as I marched passed.  Anger cuts me off from the sacred.  Presence or absence has nothing to do with where my body is.  It has everything to do with where my awareness is.

As usual, I had my list of physical complaints to argue me out of trekking down.  Last night, I wrenched my back on a heavy piece of luggage.  The last time I went down South Kaibab, I also had a back excuse.  This time, I didn’t know if I’d be able to handle the backpack.  And as usual, I made a decision to go ahead with the trip anyway.  The funny thing was, my back felt perfect as long as I had my backpack on.  It was only when I took it off that I hurt.  I guess the backpack acted as a brace.  Maybe my burdens keep me straight.  Maybe they add form and discipline and protect against pain.

South Kaibab is known for its steepness.  The wallpaper turned copper green as I neared the Tipoff, the Kaibab’s broad, flat intersection with the Tonto Trail.  The descent was hard on the knees.  I ended up spending a lot of time bracing myself against the decline, trying not to take a spill. Then I figured out the obvious, or rather the obvious became obvious:  If I let gravity take me down, it was easier on my joints.  I had to resist resisting gravity.  The more I fought an irresistible force, the more the pain.  My knees were proof.

When I was in pain on the way down, I noticed that I wanted to complain.  Not out loud, but to myself, in my own mind.  It was like I was setting up this therapy session, with me as the therapist and me as the client.  I call it Conversations with Mike: An Unsound Dialogue:

Me Client:  “Goddamn it, I broke these boots in for a week, and my toes still hurt!”

Me Therapist:  “Poor baby.  Maybe if you walk the rest of the way down barefoot.”

Me Client:  “Shut up, or I’ll throw you over.”

Well, I decided to keep the boots on, and not cast myself over the cliff.  But by the time I got to camp, I had a bloody toe.  I’d have two purple toe nails by the time I arrived back home.  It was my badge of courage.  But it looked like nail polish.

I made a decision: every time I had a complaint, I would give it to the wind.  The breeze that poured down the slopes of South Kaibab proved a remarkably effective vacuum cleaner.  It sucked all the crank and whine right out of me.  I must’ve lost eight pounds before I hit the River.   Later, as I lay at my campsite watching threads of cloud disperse east to west, snagging themselves on the jagged castle walls of Bright Angel Canyon, my complaints had all dispersed, too.

I dozed for awhile, the cottonwood rustling above me.  Oblong clouds floated by like great ships.  I felt thirsty.  I closed my eyes and imagined a glass of water, cool with sweat.  Then it started to rain.

© 2014 by Michael C. Just