Or: How hiking the grand canyon is like having a baby or writing a book
I traffic in words, and yet words sometimes seem wholly inadequate to convey an experience.
Yet I owe it to myself to try.
I recently returned from my third journey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I made the trek in 2008 and again in 2012. This time was different.
The trip was postponed from May of 2020 due to… well, I think you know why. In May 2021, with vaccination rates on the rise and lockdowns lifting, I felt comfortable traveling by car and participating in a completely outdoor activity.
One of my pandemic preoccupations was training.
I initially filled my backpack with bags of rice and beans and later with clothing and equipment. When I first strapped on the backpack late in 2019, I could barely manage 12 pounds and a three-mile hike. By April of 2021, I had worked up to ten miles with 28 pounds.
I am very glad I did.
This particular route represented the hardest hiking I’ve ever done. (My left knee is still complaining, weeks later.)
I made it down. And back.
The experience was demanding not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. And, although I was with a small group, there was a lot of solitude, affording me time to consider how the experience compared to other challenges I’ve undertaken.
A good guide makes all the difference.
This was the first time I’ve made the trek with a professional guide. I chose this option because the last time I backpacked was a gazillion years ago in college. The trekking company supplied and planned everything–backpacks, tents, sleeping pads, meals, camping permits–except for personal items and clothing. So I could just show up.
I knew from the moment I met our guide at the planning meeting the evening before that we were in good hands. He was an ex-marine with 10-plus years of back country trekking experience. His demeanor was generous and understanding. He accepted, but didn’t indulge, my anxieties (“I don’t think I can do this!” “My heart is pounding!” “I think I am dehydrated!”) and let me know that not only could I do it, I was doing it.
This reminded me of my approach when coaching a woman through childbirth and started me thinking about the similarities between the physical, mental, and emotional challenges of giving birth and those of undertaking this trip. In both cases, an experienced guide is invaluable.
Focus on only THIS moment, THIS step.
The only way to get through an experience like having a baby or backpacking in the Grand Canyon or writing a book is by maintaining an obsessive focus on the present moment. When a woman in the middle of labor beseeches me to tell her when she will have the baby or says “I can’t possibly do this for another five hours!” I remind her: You don’t have to do it for another five hours. You have only to do it for as long as it takes you to draw your next breath, take your next step, write your next sentence. The baby will come. The trail will end. The book will get done.
While giving birth is not usually (thankfully, given modern medicine) a life-or-death experience, there were times along the trail when I felt keenly that failing to focus on my next step with 100-percent concentration could lead to a tumble down the side of the canyon. And there was no way out except by my own power, unless I faced a true emergency and needed to summon a helicopter rescue, which I certainly wasn’t going to do simply because my knee hurt or I felt exhausted.
The low point was the high point.
The Wildland Trekking description billed Day 2 as “Possible Day Hike to the River.” I must have missed the fine print, which went on to say, “since this trail is not maintained its condition can vary and there are always some loose, exposed sections that may not be suitable for some guests. We do not guarantee reaching the Colorado River on this trip.”
Our guide went ahead to scout the trail. It would be tough, he said, but he felt confident we could do it. However, if anyone at any point didn’t feel comfortable, we’d stop.
The first part of the trail was not much steeper than what we had descended on the first day. Soon the Colorado River came into view. Shortly thereafter was the final descent. I couldn’t discern anything that resembled a trail among the boulders and rocks below me. “Just take one step,” I repeated silently. “And then another, and another, and another.” That (and a heavy reliance on my hiking poles) is how I made it down.
At the bottom, where we arrived mid-morning, we were rewarded with a lovely river inlet bordered by a sandbar, perfect for wading and relaxing. We spent the day doing just that, since it would be too hot (close to 100 degrees) until late afternoon to start the hike back to our campsite.
As promised, going up was not as difficult as going down.
It’s been a little more than two weeks since the final day’s ascent.
We started in the pre-dawn to beat the heat. We got to see color return to the canyon with the rising sun, truly one of the most magical experiences you could have. We hiked the first segment along the plateau, still mostly in shade. Not until we reached what’s known as the boardwalk, a series of seemingly endless switchbacks of horizontal stones laid across the trail like boards, did the sun hit us. We stopped briefly at an area called the saddle, a pinnacle with drop-offs on either side and a surprisingly cool breeze blowing through, before beginning the final climb.
Soon we began passing other hikers again. It began to sink in that the trip was ending. The craving for more—more solitude, more challenge—was already building like the impetus toward my next breath.
Too soon, we rounded the final switchback and the trailhead came into view. We looked back over where we’d come. We set our packs down outside the van and found our masks again.
Traffic on the highway looked strange during the ride back to the hotel. Cars, people, masks, money—the trappings of everyday life slipped back around me with frightening ease. How effortlessly we slide back into the grooves of the ordinary.
Giving birth to two children gave me the confidence to believe I could rise to any challenge. Those experiences were decades ago, however. This Grand Canyon backpacking trip refreshed my confidence. It’s not that I was without fear or anxiety; I felt both keenly at various points. The confidence came from experiencing those emotions, acknowledging them, and moving beyond them.
WRITERS: WORKSHOP SUNDAY, JUNE 6!
Join me and my good friend, memoirist and writing teacher Jennifer Browdy, to explore the resonances between birthing and writing THIS SUNDAY, JUNE 6. Our interactive workshop will inspire writers to develop a powerful internal ally to walk beside them on their writing journeys. We’ll help you identify the tender truth seeking to be born into the world through your writing, investigate the strengths of different genres, and befriend fear and resistance. The prompts, exercises, and sharing opportunities in this workshop will support your creativity and strengthen your writing practice whether you’re writing fiction or memoir.