Back from the Land of Many Layers

Greetings from Early May,

It’s always a rough transition from sleeping outdoors at length to moving back indoors and this time is no exception. There comes such a grounding from rising with the sun and sleeping with the arrival of stars that a return to an artificial schedule facilitated by electric light seems to erase. How to find the words to describe a 26 day adventure in and through the Grand Canyon? Indescribable! That was the name I gave to one the films I made in 2003 about my last voyage down the Colorado River. The other film was called “Upright is Alright!” I rejoined three from the 2003 crew and twelve others to make the 226-mile journey, first made famous my John Wesley Powell.

Each trip brings a deeper understanding and appreciation of the Grand Canyon, the risks of such a trip, and my connection with that ancient place. As the river cuts down through the different rock layers, I too feel cut into layers and see myself and my history in new and exposed ways. I had been quite nervous about rowing a raft this time around. So nervous that at one point considered puling the plug on the trip and not going or at least handing over the oars. As is often the case, the path leads us to where we need to go and I was injured not long before the trip. Once again, I was presented with an opportunity not to go, and I chose again to embrace the red canyon of Arizona.

As I left the relatively flat concrete world of Flagstaff, Arizona for the put-in at Lee’s Ferry it became instantly clear that I wasn’t rowing a boat anywhere. The slightest slope or uneven ground gave my foot pause and I knew I needed to hand over the oars to Sharon and she was graceful (and brave) enough to accept them. She had rowed the river once 15 years prior. I was to be her guide. Situated behind her to the left, I attempted to “row by proxy” calling out commands to pull or push or change angle to position the raft just so at the head of the rapids or move to avoid a hole or rock mid rapid.

I didn’t sleep a wink at the put-in. Not only was I not rowing (which would have given me an outlet for my nervous energy), I was expected to verbalize directions in an instant and guide Sharon down the rapids. We started out and instantly beaned a rock within minutes of leaving. Already I could sense the formidable challenge before us. At Badger Rapid, where Bob of “One Hundred Colorado Descents” assured us that “Set-up was everything”, we set up all wrong and managed to drop the raft into a gaping hole stern first then ran over two more, narrowly escaping the first big rapid upright but not alright.

Neither Sharon nor I slept the second night. Only 200 miles and 200 rapids to go-it was going to be a long trip and I was convinced I was limping out from Phantom Ranch or riding a mule out). The next morning finally dawned and the nerves could be put to use in running Soap Creek and then the daunting “House” rapid. We were to run third but then got stuck on an eddy line and had to watch as every ran it first, with one raft getting stuck midway (Dr. Jim made a house call). I was trying to convince Sharon to move the raft a bit more into the current instead of hugging the left shore. Suddenly we struck a rock and it spun us into exactly the spot I wanted us to be and we ran the rapid perfectly. As we celebrated at the bottom of the rapid, I realized, things were on an upward trajectory and I might just survive this trip after all.
We all gotten “protector rings” from a gumball machine in Flagstaff and we came to label the “tapping” of rocks with the raft as the “kiss of the protector” and came to kiss the rings we’d strung on cords we wore around our necks before all large rapids. Much of the first week of the trip is a blur because most people in the group ended up going down with some sort of noro virus which dropped folks out of commission for nearly 36 hours. I got the mild form which just required me to construct my own “groover” aboard my raft so I could visit it twelve times in two days during the calm waters between rapids. (National Park Regulations require us to carry out all of our own solid (and not so solid) human waste.

As the river turned towards the Inner Gorge, the trip pace and challenges relented a bit as the team regained health and people power. We hid beer for the backpack trip at Hance Rapid and I prepared to face my nemesis rapid, Crystal the day after running the other biggies of Hance, Sock, Grapevine, and Horn the day before. I’d had a nasty nasty swim of Crystal in 1992 when I flipped my cataraft in the first monster hole and I hoped to never repeat such an experience. Tension on the raft was high as we set out at the top pulling hard to river left…there were three monster holes to avoid and a huge rock wall waiting to smack us at the bottom, not to mention the “bone yard” that was showing it’s headstones (rocks) this year. With only a sharp smack at the bottom from the wall, we managed as a rowing team to get the job done and the score now stands, TA 2, Crystal 1, Tied 1 (I think the year I walked around it was a tie).

As my leg healed, I did row a few rapids but mostly I rowed the flats and talked my way down the big ones. It was new for me to see my ability to translate what I wanted to see happen in the physical realm into the verbal realm. I always thought I wouldn’t be able to paddle captain a boat because I often have to experience a movement in the boat before I can describe it. I appreciated the teamwork of the four women on my raft and many thanks go out to Sharon for stepping up to row.

I have come to see the “kiss of the protectors” as a metaphor for those moments and experiences that steer us in certain directions. My return to the Grand Canyon after a five year absence was a gift and kiss from my protectors. It was time to go back to a place that holds such deep reverence and connection and meaning and learning for me. On the backpacking portion of my trip, I described coming down onto Horseshoe Mesa as being welcomed into the arms of a flannel pajama clad dear friend. With almost two hundred nights spent sleeping in the Grand Canyon, it is a place that has held me in both joyous and tough times. It is a place that asks me to give so deeply of myself and in return, I have received gifts and memories that will last my lifetime.

As nerves allowed, I sang. I did stand-up comedy podcasts about the superheroes that were inhabiting the raft with me, our PFD’s filled with secret powers. Mine was filled with flour and sugar and butter so I could bake in a heartbeat, providing yummy treats to fill belly and the soul. Each morning a new episode was broadcast to whatever rock layer we were passing through and the laughter echoed off the walls and chasms surrounding us. I sat. Often. Wanting to rest my leg as much as possible, I passed on all the side hikes and watched clouds and ants instead. Only at the invitation of the blue waters of Havasu did I venture far from the Colorado. I needed to test the leg to see if I could go on the next portion of the trip. I passed. But only with a huge degree of mindfulness and attention to every footfall as uneven ground was still a “tweak” waiting to happen.

The best preparation for rowing the canyon is rowing the canyon. As we neared the bottom we longed to go right back to the top to start again. Sharon decided to join us hiking and on one day, we floated our last six miles, derigged, drove to Williams, met the backpackers, packed food, did laundry, caught a shower in the nick of time, and once again forewent sleep in the long anxious hours of star filled night.

I carried a half load while Marian, Sharon, and Nadia played sherpa and carried portions of my load. I limped gingerly down to the mesa wondering if once again, I was asking too much of my ankle. I was aiming for five or fewer tweaks per day and some days I managed it. Once again, reaching camp brought sitting still rather than exploring side canyons and caves. The mesa treated me to a sky full of stars thicker than bees to a honeycomb. Hance Creek to the cacophony that only thousands of frogs can make. Hance Rapid to memories of turning the corner into the inner gorge and the challenges ahead. Papago to the adventure of swimming packs across a river eddy on thermarests and the generosity of rafters on the other end. Escalente to the power of the wind and Unkar to the history falling away under my feet. Tanner to the ingenuity of pioneers and the necessity of patience. All layered in beauty and vistas both inner and outer.

So now I am back, sleeping indoors, and trying to get my feet back on the concrete ground, getting ready to teach, sorting out how to train aerobically with a bum foot, responding to hundreds of emails, unpacking and prepping presentations. Life is rich and full. I have eight weeks to get ready for Elbrus and the loss in my fitness since my injury is humbling. So I’ve hit the pool, aiming walking up Signal Hill via the road and am going to be spending lots of time on the stair mill at Good Life. OK…gotta go unpack another bag.

Thanks for coming along!

TA (aka Velma)

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