We hiked that winter morning from the river to the rim, from sun-soaked beach through deep red mud to dry cold snow. From a grubby two weeks camping, past Europeans in city shoes, to the visitor center pub where Jim Croce played on the jukebox and ski jumpers launched on flat screens over the heads of Midwesterners sipping toddies. All of it, every detail, felt new and alive, nearly foreign, and snagged our attention like raingear on mesquite.
Re-entry is like the space between waking and rising, a dream-place, a passageway. People who travel overseas call it culture shock. People who work outdoors, as we used to do, camping for weeks at a time, know the familiar shock of sudsing shampoo under warm water — warm! — or easing a gas pedal up to sixty or marveling at the grocery produce section. There’s overwhelm in it, but there’s also magic: the sense of being remade.
Sometimes, of course, you’ve been made new so often it becomes blasé. You go into the woods, you come back out. Big whoop. But, this time, we’d been made really new. We’re backpackers, Laurie and I, skiers, sometimes bikers. We are not river runners. Especially not in February in the Grand Canyon. To be in your forties and cede control of nearly everything to someone else, even dear old friends, is unnerving.
We’d known our river-running friends many years earlier when we’d all toiled at a lodge on the North Rim doing lousy work for lousy pay in a gorgeous setting. We hadn’t seen them much in-between. But, as is so often the case, the kind of people they’d been was the kind of people they’d become: sun-weathered and silly, cautious and reliable, wild and gentle in equal parts.
“The Grand Canyon still has something to offer us,” the email invitation read.
So we headed off. Were we out of our element? Yes. Were we cold? Yes. Were we scared? Very. When we hit the rapids, and our boatman-friend said “hold on,” by god, I held. After two weeks, only half the river days the rest of the group would spend, I had new palm calluses. Then, in no time, the trip was done. We were back in the realm of the familiar: in well-worn boots, hiking with packs, preparing to re-enter.
I crave it. Who doesn’t? It’s like Joseph Campbell said: the call to adventure runs full circle to the triumphant return. Only this triumph comes with a heavy dose of humility. And aloneness. No one, it seems, can understand what you’ve been through, what you’ve learned, lessons so obvious as to seem mundane: how little we need for happiness, how much we have to be grateful for, the plain wonder of the world we live in and the deep responsibility we have for it. How can you explain that? You can’t.
Even as you try, as you leave the rim and drive to town, it’s slipping away like the effects of high-altitude training leeching off at sea level. You stop for groceries. You nudge the speedometer toward eighty. Pretty soon, you’re boarding a jet for home. An airplane! For this kind of shock, I’m not ashamed to admit, I require Xanax.
I’d just taken my middle seat and half a pill when I looked up at my seat mate. She was a talker. A giddy one, grinning wildly, eager, nearly desperate, to tell the story of her travels. I pocketed my headphones and tried not to sigh.
Turns out, she’d celebrated her 50th birthday with her first trip ever to the Grand Canyon. She’d planned the trip for months, but by the time she arrived in Arizona, yet another El Niño storm looked likely to keep her away. Then it happened: the snow cleared, her father took the wheel, and they showed up at the snowy edge.
“We could see the river,” she said.
I did not want to fess up. I didn’t want to one-up her for one thing, but also it suddenly seemed very private — my changed-ness, my quest — something I ought to hoard like Halloween candy or piety. But there was no way out of it now except to lie. So I came clean, and we swapped stories as we ascended. She’d seen a sunrise and a sunset, the same as me. She’d walked an icy trail gripping the handrail, the way I’d gripped webbing.
Now the plane banked, and there it was below us, the geography of our remaking, the Grand Canyon in its wholeness, end to end, as though you can digest it this way, in three minutes or six. You can’t, of course. We both knew that, my seatmate and I. You come, you stay, you arise made new. If you’re lucky, you can share it.
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in Stehekin, Washington. Her new book, “Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness,” will be published in spring 2011.