Jonathan and my journals from floating the Grand Canyon are basically empty—
mine has six entries, his has one. Despite the cases full of camera gear, Jonathan probably takes more photos in a day in the “real world” than he did in 16 days down here. One cannot possibly capture this canyon or this river in words or in photographs. You can try to capture moments, sure, and document specific feelings, but in its entirety the Grand Canyon remains as elusive and full of wonder as the day we left.
We both noticed how tight-lipped people seemed about the Grand Canyon before we left. Friends who had floated down the Colorado River before would offer encouragements like “oh, it’s magical,” and “it’ll change your life,” but little more. Now, we’re not sure we’d have much more to add. Nothing we could say or advise would adequately convey the Canyon’s grandeur, nor its terror nor its discomfort.
What I can say is what the canyon offers in abundance: perspective. Down here, all you have the energy to think about is the river below you and the walls and sky above.
Humans are specks to the Canyon’s walls, and even those are deceiving— the tallest cliff is never the one right in front of your eyes, but somehow hiding in plain sight behind it.
The Colorado River couldn’t care less about your plans or intentions. She’ll take you where she wants to go and still demand respect in every stroke.
Time, too, as at once irrelevant and ever-present, measured mostly by the sun and how much you can accomplish in or out of it, or by how many stars you can see based on the moon’s brightness.
Above these walls, the world moves as quickly as ever. Events become news become history. But down here is nothing but history. You’re immersed in the past. Eons are compounded in the Tapeats sandstone and Vishnu Schist that towers above the river. As small as we are measured to the canyon’s physical walls, we are even smaller to its timeline. Intact granaries at Nankoweap reminded us that humans had somehow lived here thousands of years ago. We are merely guests on their land and in a history that spans billions of years. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, 16 days feel like no time at all.
But there were a few things we could measure definitively, even if we made up the units: The temperature of our beer (river-cold); the depth of Redwall Cavern (at least 3 wiffle ball fields); the number of deposits per groover (about fIve days’ worth with an extender).
We couldn’t shake how the Little Colorado’s warm, turquoise waters evoked laughter so joyous and absolute, so unbridled, it seemed to rise from the earth itself*. How our stomachs churned like the river before each big rapid. The subsequent relief and humility that flooded us after the river’s waves graciously spat us out unscathed. The silence that hung over camp on our final night as we tried to embroider 16 days of awe into our memories.
I’m sure the embroidery won’t last forever. There’s nothing the Colorado River can’t wash away, and eventually our awe will dilute into the chaos of the “real world.” Some of us might spend the rest of our lives trying to go back. Some of us might even succeed. But I think if we can cling onto just a sliver of that Canyon magic, if we can remember the Grand Canyon walls when small things feel too big and how stars shine brightest on the darkest nights … if we can do that, it will have been worth it.
*Learn more about how the LCR confluence was almost destroyed by greed and overcrowding, and how the Navajo Nation saved it, here.