As day turns to night, my eyes slowly adjust as stars twinkle out of the darkness. Here in this narrow canyon, I can only see a sliver of sky. The cottonwood tree nearby rustles and the creek gurgles. Thoughts of distant people and places drift in and out of my mind like shooting stars.
With seven days of food in a pack, I took off into a remote corner of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, hoping to rid my brain of stagnant thoughts. Like all off-trail travel below the canyon rim, it is rugged. The rock is crumbly, the question of finding water always exists, and thorny bushes claw at your skin.
I never expect it to be easy, and it never is. In many ways, this is why I am here: to learn some lessons from the land.
As I walk down a side canyon, a bit of orange on the ground catches my eye. The delicate wing of a painted lady butterfly. I pick it up and set it in my palm. It’s beautiful, but sadness wells up in me. I wonder if it felt any pain when it fell apart? As quickly as I think that, a breeze whisks the wing away.
A few miles later, I find myself scrambling through breaks in the cliffs. I slip and fall. I look at my palm and see a thorn stuck in there. I pull it out, and a bright red streak of blood trickles down. I think back to the butterfly wing. Pain, I realize, is just part of the process.
After a couple more days, I reach the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I half expect to find a rafting party on the beach, but all I hear is the roiling voices of the rapids. I take off my shoes and step into the cold water, watching the river slip by. I think about home, about the mountains where this water comes from. And I think again of the people that I miss.
As I contour my way above the river, I see something move out of the corner of my eye. A bighorn sheep. We stare at each other for a while until he ambles on. In that moment, I feel like I’ve met a companion, a kindred spirit. Together we roam the high peaks and the low canyons, tracing the land with our hooves and feet.
I wonder if he ever feels lonely way out here, but something tells me he wouldn’t be here if his compadres weren’t camouflaged in the rocks nearby. For a moment, I feel like we are the only two who exist, and he brings me company when I am more alone than ever.
Tedious and difficult, but rewarding and blissful at times, moving through this deep desert terrain feels awfully analogous to life. I came here with the intention to sit alone with my thoughts, and somehow the landscape seemed to reflect my internal struggle. The miles went by slower than anticipated, the shortcut I came to scout didn’t go as planned, and the thorny bushes made their marks on me.
But occasionally the difficulty was countered with bliss — a dead-end canyon filled with a lush green carpet of plants, a spring trickling into a small pool through a thicket of barbed acacia, a crimson monkeyflower glowing brightly in the dry December leaves, the smell of fresh rain, the flow of water appearing magically out of a dry wash, and the changing shadows of light across the canyon walls.
“I KNOW YOU ARE TIRED. I am tired too. Will you walk along the edge of the desert with me? I would like to show you what lies before us.
“All my life I have wanted to trick blood from a rock. I have dreamed about raising the devil and cutting him in half. I have thought too about never being afraid of anything at all. This is where you come to do those things.
“I know what they tell you about the desert, but you mustn’t believe them. This is no deathbed. Dig down, the earth is moist. Boulders have turned to dust here; the dust feels like graphite. You can hear a man breathe at a distance of 20 yards. You can see out there to the edge where the desert stops and the mountains begin. You think it is perhaps 10 miles. It is more than a hundred. Just before the sun sets all the colors will change. Green will turn to blue, red to gold.
“I’ve been told there is very little time left, that we must get all these things about time and place straight. If we don’t, we will only have passed on and have changed nothing. That is why we are here I think, to change things. It is why I came to the desert.”
— Barry Lopez, Desert Notes and River Notes
Call for Comments
- What lessons have you learned from your environment around you, be it desert, rivers, or mountains?