Keeping the Peace

Posted on July 18, 2014. Filed under: More... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

The kayak reached it first. Debris, we thought, left behind by careless hikers. In the Grand Canyon, as in many parks, you pack out what you pack in. Not everyone packs carefully. We picked garbage sporadically from the swiftly flowing Colorado River as we made our way along, a chain of puffy yellow rafts.

Only this speck of bobbing flotsam was not garbage but a young hawk. Feathers soaked, cold and shivering, it struggled to keep from slipping beneath the river’s skin. The kayaker leaned in, lifted it from the water, held it high toward the reach of a river guide who firmly, gently cupped it in her hands.

red-tailed-hawk-dive-marcus-armaniThe vastness of the canyon walls, the river cutting through it, alters one’s perception. The sixteenth century explorer Cárdenas estimated the width of the river, peering down from the canyon rim, as only six feet.

It averages three hundred here, a distance hard to comprehend even as you’re on it, dwarfed by the layers of time in the formation of rock jutting up around you. What appeared a tiny speck easily grasped between two fingers spilled over the river guide’s hands as she held them aloft in an attitude of prayer. The hawk’s feet dangled halfway to her elbows.

Someone took over her oars and paddled the raft to an outcropping of rock, where the guide hopped nimbly from raft to rock in her bare feet, skirt billowing around her legs, and laid the hawk in the sun to dry.

Later, at camp, she assured us that the hawk didn’t appear injured, only stunned, and it seemed almost grateful to feel the life-restoring heat of the sun bearing down, rising up from the rock beneath. We were relieved to imagine its full recovery.

We speculated how such a thing could have happened. A keen-eyed bird of prey, most at home soaring the skies, only to skim the river too closely, tumble in. Was it so eager for its meal that it misjudged the gap between its talons and the river’s surface? Was it too hungry—or too inexperienced—to wait for the safe bet—or maybe too self-assured, this young hawk, overestimating its ability to dip quickly, veer off before getting caught in the rush of the waves?

Or, perhaps, the surface was smooth as the hawk approached, glass mirroring the sky, the layers of time extending up into an open blue vault. Perhaps the hawk was startled by its own reflection, lost its balance, plummeted in. Lost its breath and its bearing in the cold shock of water.

I had forgotten about the hawk until this week. Ten days home and already my peace disturbed. I returned from my trip determined to preserve my balance. To not allow the crush of commitment and time, the pressure of the unfinished, the weight of the promised plague my soul.

To not skim too close to the swiftly moving tides and fall in. field-of-trees-at-dawn-126-2560x1600

And then I simply forgot, or maybe disregarded, the promise I made to myself: You must remember this. The rolling of the raft on the river. The dry heat of the sun on the skin. The final cleansing of waves in the rapids as we prepared to beach below the trailhead.

The river alters one’s perception. It wasn’t until this morning’s run as the sun split the sky like a melon, spilling its pink-and-yellow-rind color into the dark, on my skin that I remembered, and I re-visioned things. My place in this world. So small.

I ran toward the crack of dawn and let it envelop me with gentle hands.

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Shantih

Posted on July 11, 2014. Filed under: More... | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , |

Shantih:  The peace which surpasses understanding.

You must remember this, I told myself on day five, the final day of our rafting trip on the Colorado River through the upper half of the Grand Canyon. We paddled the last three or so miles from our campsite to the drop-off point at Garden Creek, just west of the Bright Angel Bridge, where we’d hike the eight miles up, out of the canyon and onto the south rim.

Bright Angel (Silver) Bridge

Bright Angel (Silver) Bridge

The last couple of rapids were tame but we paddled as we were taught to, leaning in from the hips, pulling back not with the arms but with the  core. A light breeze rippled the water, our hats. Birds spun and skimmed the surface in search of breakfast. Deer played on the opposite shore as we prepared to beach.

It was beautiful. Serene. But that’s not all I wanted to remember. It was the way I felt that seemed more important to recall, to mark in my brain and body this profound sense of peace.

That was day five. But that’s not how the trip started.

River guides are smart. They dole out information a little at a time. Just what you need when you need it. Otherwise, you’re overwhelmed. The pre-trip meeting, for instance: Here’s how you pack your dry bag. The pre-launch meeting: Safety first–what happens to you effects everyone. Do this with your paddle; never do that.

Just a trickle of information. Always the right amount at the right time.

So when we set out on day one, which felt like the hottest day in the history of days, and I followed all of their instructions–drink at least one gallon of water by lunch (I drank two), another gallon by dinner (I drank two more); wear cotton and a hat and sunglasses; lather up with sunblock–I was disturbed by the fact that I was so miserable. I’ve spent a lot of time outdoors, after all. I’ve been camping and hiking, canoeing and kayaking, snorkeling and diving and sailing, running and biking and swimming. I’m no stranger to sweat and dirt and discomfort, yet here I was, hot and irked.

And it was only mid-day.

That’s when we got the bathroom talk, part one. The instruction: Everyone pees in the river. Not on the shore. Not in the bushes or on the trees or behind the rocks. In the river. Pants down–not through your bathing suit.

When you drink two gallons of water before lunch, pit stops happen early and often.  You paddle to the shore, hop off the raft, men upstream, women down, and everyone turns their head away, men from women, women from men.

But this was day one. With twenty-two guests and seven guides on six rafts. We barely knew each other. We were all civilized, proper, coming straight from a world of comfort and technology and suits, where most of us are uptight about such things. And you want us to do what?

Five women and two men slid off my raft onto a stretch of shore barely wide enough for the boat. Men walked a couple of steps upstream while the women waded waist-deep into the water, attempting to spread out far enough that we didn’t have to see each other, yet not far enough into the river to get swept away. No one made eye contact. Everyone hurried, embarrassed, not talking, until we saw the other rafts coming our way and scurried to get back into the boat.

We sat quietly for a while afterward, taking in the sights. A condor, some bighorn sheep, swallows that flash iridescence on their wings, and more. We’d have been sweating profusely if the humidity wasn’t in the single digits. (Now I understand what people mean when they say, but it’s a dry heat.) Dipped our feet in the 50º water to keep cool.

Vishnu Schist

Vishnu Schist

 

Slowly, steadily, over the next few days as the canyon walls rose more steeply and majestically and the silence of nature settled in, we let our tensions go. Rather than talking about what we do in the world, we attempted to answer the important questions:  If Vishnu Schist (the deepest, blackest, oldest layer of rock in the Grand Canyon–on the planet, actually–the layer of earth that surrounds molten lava at the planet’s core, the layer we glided through, half expecting dinosaurs to peer over the fallen rocks) was the name of a beer, what kind of beer would it be? A dark stout to match the color of the schist? Or a pale amber, to match the cool, refreshing feel of the river on your skin as you’re passing through?

As the layers of the earth towered above us, our guards went down. On pit stops we waded into the river only ankle deep and chatted as we squatted side by side. We didn’t search for such absolute cover when we selected our place to sleep at camp. We simply gauged the closest spot to the river (four to five gallons of water a day wakes you up frequently at night) under the widest expanse of sky so we could unfurl our bed in the sand under the stars. Before long, even the sand felt like velvet between the toes.

When we unloaded the raft on the bank of the river at the base of the Bright Angel Trail that final day, I noticed an outhouse just up the trail. I looked wistfully down at the river rushing cold and fast past our rafts and then sighed as I looked up at the perfectly fitted brown painted planks enclosing the composting toilets. A hiking party from the rim had almost reached it.

“Do I have to go in there?” I asked our river guide as I looked up toward the trail.

She shrugged as she tied off the boat. “Whatever makes you happy,” she smiled.

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