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.

There And

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 …

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Once we laid down in our bunks that was it – we couldn’t move … the next sound we heard was the breakfast bell … we hobbled outside, looked up through the trees, and saw the morning light bouncing off the rim
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Everyone at Phantom Ranch was custom-built and fine-tuned for hiking the Canyon … Jeff and I didn’t belong here
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At Phantom Ranch everything needed for operations is brought in by mules.
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This little guy came crashing down a cliff and popped-out of the brush catching me and him by surprise
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Grand Canyon is a wilderness
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This angle is seen only from the Canyon floor … photographers light is gone in a nano so you have to be in the moment
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The terrible power of the Colorado River is palpable at the river’s edge … fall in, you’re gone
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The Grand Canyon biota has it all: rivers, forests, grasses, rocks, deer, birds, fish, bighorn sheep, black bears, phantoms, and sand dunes
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The wilderness, yesterday’s tortuous march, and this smooth River trail caused us to underestimate the struggle ahead
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Loren from Luxembourg … we met him yesterday on the way down … he is ideally configured for hiking the Canyon … Loren took side trips all day long and lapped-us often … we saw him so many times we actually miss him
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The Canyon Wilderness even has beaches
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Our pace was like slow-motion only slower … faster going up, 1 mph vs 3/4 mph … but 12 hours each way
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We were told the 12 mile Bright Angel Trail going back up was smoother than the Kaibab … it’s a Canyon legend
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You find yourself looking up a lot wondering if you’ll see civilization again
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The obstacles on the Bright Angel Trail caused Macbeth-ian despair in us … it’s a good thing we didn’t know about this ahead of time
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On the way up, the plateau is a major milestone
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A sampling of the “smooth” Bright Angel Trail
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We finally breached the plateau … but we’re less than half-way back to the rim
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We’d have to corkscrew around that rock to get to the Canyon wall switchbacks that would take us to beer at the Bright Angel Bar
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There is no end to arduous barriers on the Bright Angel
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Daylight was waning quickly … we ended up walking 3 hours in the dark on dangerous switchbacks
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Rugged individualism and self-reliance were born in the wilderness and that’s probably where they belong … there is little room for empathy or compassion or lending a helping hand when one or the other can cost you your own life … it is a stark brutal fact of life below the rim … you have the responsibility to plan ahead and take care of yourself … our planning was inadequate but we took care of ourselves – and we made it to the top at 8:15pm, exactly 12 hours to the minute after departing Phantom Ranch

Back Again

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?

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Jeff & me playing below rim – January 30th 2014

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 journey … we’d both just turned 60 and I for one had a naive romantic notion of what it would be like … navigating the trails in Grand Canyon was extremely arduous for guys our age … when we made it back up to the South Rim on the second night, our bodies froze-up and we could only hobble for the next few days – the locals call it “the Canyon crawl”

The trails themselves were hard-rock and dust with all manner of obstacles that demoralized us … at any given moment we may well have fallen hundreds of feet to a grisly death, victims of a misstep, a stumble, or 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 … 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

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