I asked myself if it wasn’t better to pack my truck, declare this trip a detour disaster and be back in Chicago for Christmas. I had credible evidence to argue my claim. My truck had broken down and I’d had to spend nearly a week in Albuquerque waiting for a new gas tank that had somehow emigrated from the manufacturer to Canada. That had cost me a week in Utah. My foot had been wrapped up in casts, braces and MRI machines for almost six months until physical therapy had finally liberated it for walking. But I’d left my basketball career lay in cinders on the concrete courts of the National Guard Armory on Broadway and Argyle, in inner-city Chicago. My knees swelled, I was tired, and my back was in its usual state of rebellion, refusing to cooperate with the remainder of my musculature. These were the ingredients for a strenuous, six mile hike.
I’d spent the previous night watching reruns of cable shows I’d seen in other hotel rooms, in other states on my way out here. The Grand Canyon weather station called the wind chill in at –24 degrees Fahrenheit on the Rim, so I decided to wait another day before I went down to the bottom. I was afraid: afraid of the cold, afraid of mountain lions, afraid of discomfort, afraid of squatting on the brittle, frozen sand at Bright Angel Campground at the bottom, journaling in the cold with stiff fingers.
I’d arrived the night before and walked to Bright Angel Trailhead from my lodge. Bitter ice nibbled the rim rock. But the stars were bright ice, too. I’d never seen the night sky more naked. The coldest nights are the clearest. It almost seems as if every hardship has its opportunities like that. At night, the flat line of the North Rim became the horizon of a swelling sea. The Inner Gorge a black hole guarded by a virgin silence. A handful of campers were down there, over-nighting in the Inner Gorge, swallowed into insignificance, digested in the trackless maw of a stone serpent 277 miles long. I imagined myself down there, untraceable in the nothingness, just the nylon-thin skin of my tent between me and the giant night. I didn’t want to be without my comforts, however filled with meaninglessness, however re-run they were.
I peeked at the alarm clock: 6:00 a.m. I sat up in bed. My knees crackled and popped like Rice Crispies. I hacked in the arid cold and shivered. I could go home and convince everyone to feel sorry for me, at least for a few days. Decision time. I asked God what I should do, then waited for a sign—the hiding place of the unbold, the indecisive, and the superstitious. The hell with it. I decided to hike down.
As I ventured to the Rim, it was single digits. The penumbra of cumuli (okay, the shadows of clouds) floated across the Gorge like the ghosts of mountains. I waded into that airy sea along the Bright Angel Trail. I unearthed plenty of new evidence that hollered for me to turn back: my left crampon broke, the one on my recently healed foot. I kept slipping on the endless ice. My shoulders ached. Was I sick? I’d just turned 40 six days before. The guidebooks said never to hike after 40. Alright, they didn’t. But they did say not to hike alone. And that I was. I hadn’t seen many trek the trail past the first rest house this time of year. I felt a little dizzy at Indian Gardens, almost halfway down to the River.
I’d stop and give my chickenshit self a chance to catch up and argue me out of continuing: at Mile-and-a-Half Rest House, at Three Mile Rest House, at the Old Person’s Rest House. I kept picturing the Rangers medivacing me up by helicopter, and me stuck with a huge bill and no insurance. They’d make me do trail maintenance for months until I paid it off. It was the NPS equivalent to washing dishes in the restaurant kitchen. I had to be nuts trudging to the bottom of the world in mid-January. The snow and ice had seemed so tiny a fraction of the Canyon’s layers when I scanned across to the North Rim yesterday. Today, it went on and on beneath my feet. What appears easy to the eye is murder on the hoof. But for some reason, for no reason, I just kept going. My back, my shoulders, my sides and feet bitched. But that’s the Grand Canyon. It’s beautiful, but it does not compromise.
About a mile down from Indian Gardens, I felt better and knew I’d make it. And what energized me, as always, were the people I met along the way. There weren’t many, but their presence encouraged me. If they could do it, so could I. I wasn’t alone anymore. Soon, I flanked the Colorado, my boots wading through sand 200 feet above Pipe Creek Rapid, floating above sand bars that dissolved into the aquamarine of the river. I was glad I hadn’t crapped out.
Like a lawyer defending a guilty client, I can always whip up some damn good reasons to support my decisions. And I can seek out people who’ll say There there, and pat me on the back and agree with those reasons. Living life by my reasons isn’t very powerful. Sometimes, despite compelling evidence to support turning around and heading back, it’s important for me to stick to my original choices in life. Because I chose them, because I made a commitment, and even because it’s damned impractical.
© 2014 by Michael C. Just