To understand the meaning of life you have to play below the rim …
When I saw Grand Canyon for the first time, I was on a cross-country motorcycle trip and couldn’t stay long. Standing on the South Rim, I felt it – I’d walk on the floor of the Canyon one day. It may be better not to know your future but in a quantum universe the future is now and sometimes you get a sneak peek. Four months later my old friend Jeff invited me to take that walk. Thirty-five years earlier we explored classical Greek thought together and now we’d explore Grand Canyon. It turns out we were no more prepared for our encounter with the Canyon than we were with the Greeks and would soon re-discover the incompleteness of life above the rim.
After an arduous debilitating 12 hour hike down the 7 mile Kaibab Trail we stumbled into Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Canyon in the pitch black night. We looked and felt like death warmed-over. We missed dinner by hours but the cook took mercy on us and whipped-up some camp food. It was awful. We didn’t care. We couldn’t eat anyway. We fell into our bunks and that’s the last thing I remember about the day we hiked to the floor of Grand Canyon. But our tale was only beginning …
Macbeth’s despair of life’s meaning in the face of contrived struggle became a metaphor for our dangerous march down but a young Indian boy named Pi became the metaphor for our hike back up. Macbeth never found the meaning of life but Pi did, trapped on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal Tiger (in the better version of the tale!). The Canyon is like an adult Bengal Tiger: no empathy, no compassion, and though beautiful, it is not your friend. Grand Canyon is a harsh wilderness. It forces you to confront shocking things about playing above and below the rim. Starting down, you’re a giggling 12 year-old who just wants to see the bottom of the Canyon. But the Canyon has other ideas. It teaches things you never knew and reminds you of things you forgot. Like being 60. You may not discover the meaning of life in the Canyon but life above the rim will mean a whole lot more after you dance with the ghosts at Phantom Ranch.
In their quest for the meaning of life ancient Greeks investigated things above and below the Earth. In spite of our encounter with the Greeks and now Grand Canyon, Jeff and I still don’t know the meaning of life. But we may be getting a little closer … who the hell knows?
The Sweetness of Life
My friend and I are connected now in a different way than before. Whether we see each other again in 35 or a billion years we’ll hug, cry, laugh, and regale each other with memories of that contrived struggle in the Winter of ’14 … that long dusty march that could well have led to a meaningless demise, a tale told by two idiots, full of sound and fury signifying – the sweetness of life.
Author Notes – Update February 5th 2018:
The overtones of lament seem odd and melodramatic in retrospect, but Jeff & I were simply unprepared for the difficulty and danger we encountered on our hike to Phantom Ranch and back again … we were deeply affected by the danger and difficulty we experienced … we’d both just turned 60 and I for one had a naive romantic notion of what it would be like … navigating the trails was extremely arduous for guys our age especially for out-of-shape guys our age which meant weeks of soreness to come – and come it did … when we made it back up to the South Rim on the second night, our bodies froze-up and we lost the ability to walk – we could only hobble for the next few days … the locals called it “the Canyon crawl”
The trails themselves were hard-rock and dust with all manner of obstacles that demoralized us … shockingly, at any given moment of our two-day journey we may well have fallen hundreds of feet to a grisly death, victims of a simple misstep, a stumble, or just being lackadaisical … looking back on it, there is no accounting for how we made it back alive
Phantom Ranch is a working camp on the floor of the Canyon … for a small fee on top of your Park entrance fee, you can be assured a hot evening meal, a warm bunk, hot breakfast, and a brown bag lunch for the hike back to the South Rim above … there are several tent campsites where most people stay … it was 17 degrees that night, we were beat to death, and grateful to have a warm bunk … the breakfast bell came right before dawn and it’s a good thing it did – we ended-up needing 12 hours to make it back up the Bright Angel Trail, the last 3 of which were in pitch black darkness on treacherous switchbacks overlooking drops of several hundred feet
If you think there are safe places at Grand Canyon consider this – one month after we left, a man was posing for a photo with the Canyon as his backdrop when a gust of wind blew the hat off his head and into the Canyon … he reached-out instinctively to grab his hat and fell 300 feet to his death leaving his wife holding the camera while his 3 kids watched in horror … this happened right outside the Bright Angel Lodge restaurant on the South Rim in a tourist area where people pose throughout the day, every day … no one is safe in Grand Canyon and each person must be responsible for themselves … it’s the opposite of civilization … and it’s wondrous
Jeff & I should never have hiked to Phantom Ranch but I’m glad we did