I am seated, my back braced comfortably against a rock, partway up a gorge that rises from the south side of the Canyon. To my left, a narrow but powerful stream cascades from the heights, passing over and through a series of enormous reddish pockmarked boulders wedged tightly into a cleft. Below the falls, from a pool large and deep enough for swimming, the creek winds gradually downward amid small rocks, gravel, and banks of fine red sand. Exploring there a little while ago, I found an oval skull about three inches long; its jaws, equipped with tiny white fangs, were clenched tight. (Later I was told that it had probably belonged to a cacomistle—one of the ring-tailed cats that inhabit the Canyon.) Behind the falls lies a cave from which it is possible to climb to a second story, an upper cave; courageous souls can jump from its projecting lip into the pool. To my right, the sides of the gorge widen out, towering in shadow. Invisible and inaudible, somewhere far below, runs the River. Beyond it, to the north, I see the sun-illuminated face of a vast sheer cliff, pale orange-red in color, made up of layers of variously-patterned rock, some marked by narrow horizontal striations, others broken by widely spaced vertical lines into great oblong blocks. Over all rises the blue of the desert sky—a blue darker and more intense than its mild New England counterpart. A few big white clouds, partly hidden behind the upper rim of the cliff, are drifting lazily eastward.
This morning, we beached the five rubber rafts that make up our little expedition about an hour after starting down-river from our campsite. Mike, the trip captain, announced that there would be a hike up the gorge. It would be a “scary” and “tough” hike, he said, and no one hampered by a bad knee or shoulder, or made “queasy” by heights, should go. For those who chose to stay, there would be a “nice place” a short way up to rest and swim. A slight tendency to acrophobia would not, I think, have prevented me from negotiating the heights creditably, but I have one doubtful knee, and besides, the opportunity to set some words down on paper comes as a godsend. I must record something of what I have seen and done, must consider what the experience has meant to me. Is it what I had expected? What, in fact, had I expected? What had I come for? Why should I, a sixty-one-year-old professor of English, in good shape for her age and accustomed to walking several miles a day, but with little experience of hiking on trails and none at all of mountain-climbing, have been possessed by the desire to spend eight days in the Grand Canyon, taking part in what the brochure called a “Raft Adventure”? More to the point, would I be up to it? Well, so far so good, but the end is not yet, and in the meantime there is much to look back on.
The way to and from the Grand Canyon passed through Las Vegas, Nevada. I deplaned there on September 18, walked to the terminal building under the broiling sun of the desert sky, awaited my baggage, found a taxi, and set off for the Desert Inn. The hot, dusty drive into town ended in the shade of an immense marquee. From the distance, I had seen the Inn’s central high-rise tower, identified by an enormous spangled sign projecting horizontally at a height of several stories. Across the Strip from the Inn, the imposing Frontier Steak House was flanked on one side by the Silver Slipper, topped by an outsized effigy of its namesake object and advertising BOY-LESQUE, and on the other by an enclosed shopping complex, clad in dark brick and surrounded by an almost empty parking lot. Later, I looked there for a few useful items, but found only jewelry, furs, high fashion clothes, perfumes, and cosmetics.
I was ushered through the glass doors, along with my smartly embossed tan vinyl suitcase and my disreputable gray-green canvas duffel bag, bought for the trip, as the brochure had recommended, at an Army and Navy store, and bearing the name Sam Williams printed in ink. The suitcase, containing handbag, wallet, and credit cards, would stay at the hotel; the duffel bag, supplemented by a small knapsack, would fly with me the following morning via Scenic Airlines to the South Rim of the Canyon. Once inside the building, I found myself in an utterly changed world, where heat and glare had given way to a cool, soothing twilight. A steady stream of arriving and departing guests conducted their business at long, dimly illuminated Registration and Cashier’s counters. Beyond them, elevators were guarded by a uniformed trooper seated at a desk. Rows of display cases nearby glittered with silver and gold merchandise, and the shelves of glass-walled shops offered bric-a-brac of ceramic, porcelain, and crystal, including colorful slot machines. Signs standing here and there in the half-darkness brightly advertised food, drink, and entertainment, and in the middle distance I could make out a circular bar whose penumbra of small tables merged into the lobby furniture. But by far the largest part of my field of vision was taken up by close-ranked rows of slot machines receding into the distance. In the aisles between them, green-topped game tables had attracted circles of players and spectators, or stood empty, attended only by a dealer waiting for trade. Through this strange automated forest ran a continuous, pleasing music: the whirrings, rustlings, and jinglings emanating from the groves of slot machines (punctuated at regular intervals by a leitmotif of five rapidly descending musical notes), the murmur of voices, an occasional far-off burst of shouting from one of the tables. This soundproof, sunproof enclosure knew nothing of the alternations of daylight and darkness, of summer heat and winter cold—whatever the hour or the season, the scene before me would remain one and the same. When I inquired about dinner in the least exotic of the Inn’s restaurants, the smiling hostess said, “We serve 24 hours a day.”
Six days after my stay in Las Vegas, I find it hard to imagine that such a place as the Desert Inn exists. Another hike, billed as longer, harder, and “scarier” than the one I declined to go on earlier, is in progress. I am writing standing up at a natural desk formed by a smooth shelf of rock, overshadowed by the cliff above, and within sight and sound of a waterfall whose dimensions are such as to fill me with atavistic dread. It thunders down from a height of at least ten stories, and the impact of its narrow torrent at the base causes a vaporous wind to blow out from it, an invisible wall offeree hindering the approach of the casually curious. I have no wish to approach it. My journey today will be mapped out in words, and it begins in mid-river.
Imagine, then, a raft, about 17 feet long by 12 feet wide, its roughly oblong, forward-tapering circumference formed by an outsized inflated rubber tube, its bottom of rubberized canvas. On this base rests a metal framework which in turn supports a wooden deck. The raft is loaded astern with a dozen or so black rubber bags containing our tents, bedding, and personal belongings, all lashed securely in place. Amidships, on a slightly elevated platform, sits one of our guides, perhaps Mike, perhaps the redoubtable Liz, plying a pair of long slender oars. We four who have elected to travel together for the day—perhaps Bob, Pete, Frances, and I—-sit forward side by side on a crosswise strip of deck. Our feet rest on the canvas bottom inside the bluntly-pointed bow, within which triangular space there are never less than two or three inches of water sloshing around. (Feet, shod protectively in jogging shoes and heavy socks, or tight-fitting “booties” of thick rubber, are wet at all times aboard the rafts.) If we were gliding steadily along on calm water, one or two of us would probably be sitting on the front end of the inflated rim, facing back towards the others. But at this moment, by decree of the captain, we are huddled together on our crossways seat, leaning forward, clutching whatever we can hang onto behind us with one hand and the canvas strap clipped to the bow in front of us with the other. We are about to enter one of the many rapids that interrupt the smoother course of the River as it, and we, travel gradually downward to the west. For the past several minutes, we have been listening to its slowly intensifying roar. Now, at last, we have begun to descend the long, glassy, slightly convex slide that draws us into the wild water. We reach the end of it, and at once are in the midst of rampaging waves that break toward us from every angle. We head straight into one with whoops of anticipation, but our buoyant vessel climbs up over it, only to plunge headlong into a seething hollow. Now a big wave breaks over our port side, spilling twenty or so gallons of water into the bow cavity; we duck, shrieking, and are inundated. Bob looks at me and laughs aloud in pure infectious delight. Another ride up, another downward plunge, another drenching or two, and we are moving out into calmer waters. We hear the command to bail, and one of us grabs the big green plastic bucket hanging from the canvas strap and starts to unload our unwanted ballast.
If the rapids are exhilarating, the long stretches of quiet water are idyllic. The river, laden with silt, is the color of coffee ice cream. Its surface is variegated in texture, here glossy-smooth, there dimpled and swirled. Eddies flow backward along its sides, and a moving network of wrinkles divides it mysteriously into zones, like the lines on the palm of a hand. Like the palm of a hand, too, the surface offers itself for interpretation; the ability to “read the water” is a necessary part of a river-guide’s expertise, and becomes indispensable when he or she must calculate the safest entry into rapids whose changing and treacherous currents sweep past projecting rocks. For the present, however, such risks are out of sight and sound. We chat; we call each other’s attention to this or that feature of the landscape; we fall silent, waiting for the scene that lies around the next bend to reveal itself. Occasionally, our oarsman puts the raft through a lazy full revolution as it moves along, whether to take advantage of the patterns of the current or to give us the pleasure of a panoramic view. The sun beats down; we dry off and get hot again in our waterproof parkas and tightly fastened life-jackets.
Always we are encompassed by the magnificence and vastness of the Canyon. We pass between cliffs so high that we must strain our heads back to see their upper rims, yet beyond these, at some incalculable distance, rise the tops of other cliffs and crags, of different color and formation, inhabitating a different space, bathed in a different light. Idol-figures stand atop the heights and colossal altars and temples, squared off in classical fashion, or domed, or pyramidal. Every structural feature, every embellishment known to architecture has its counterpart here: turrets and spires, buttresses and colonnades, pillars and pulpits, loopholes and niches, battlements and porticoes. Most memorable of all are the colossal sheer red ramparts which, as the landscape slowly changes, successively dominate the upper horizons: fortified cities ruled over by hundreds of Amerindian chieftains, manned by thousands of unseen sentries, guarding the lower cliffs, the gorges, the rockfalls, the scree slopes, and the dry stream beds.
A land of likenesses—or so my proliferating similes would seem to suggest. And yet, in assimilating the sights of the Canyon into familiar things, they diminish the actual impact of its immensity and strangeness. I rest content with my figurative description of the interior of the Desert Inn; that place is indeed a simulacrum, a fantasy world nourishing the illusion that the most unabashed of human wishes are about to come true, But the Canyon resembles nothing, by which I mean that it imitates nothing. Its forms, in all their spectacular multiplicity, have emerged over a period of ten million years of mindless geological process: designs without design, patterns without plan, symmetries without measurement. Living in it day by day, we learn not only that we are tiny, evanescent specks of jelly, but that there is another order of being than our own, a history from whose vantage point human history is a sideshow.
Everywhere around us are the motionless signs of change. Rocks piled up hit-or-miss fashion on the heights seem to await the single strong gust of wind that will topple them over. Projecting formations, already half split off from the parent cliff., lean precariously into space. Fragments of rock lie tumbled and littered on every hand, heaps of them, banks of them, cataracts of them, from two-ton blocks to the smallest of gravel chips. Yet six days have passed, and I have not seen one fall. We have had fine weather, and it is late September; in due course the heavy rains will engender the flash floods; rain will become snow and ice, snow and ice will melt into spring torrents. Further changes are assuredly in store, and they will accomplish themselves in the fullness of time (I realize that I have not grasped the meaning of that phrase until now). All the same, this termless respite, this casual cessation of process, makes me uneasy. I keep wanting the work to go forward. I have brought with me into the Canyon a concept so familiar that I have never questioned it, that of the time-by-which, the deadline that challenges and measures accomplishment. In my world, the future, so to speak, already exists; it is a visible expanse, ending in an horizon and marked off by a receding series of boundaries to be crossed one by one. Futurity in this sense is unknown in the Canyon; here, there is only perpetual emergence. I am reminded of Benjamin Lee Whorf’s observation about the native languages of the American Southwest, that whereas Europeans, accustomed to thinking in terms of prefabricated blocks of time, can speak of an event as occurring “two weeks from now,” an Indian would speak of it as occurring “on the fourteenth day.” Having become unaware of the days of the week and forgetful of my wristwatch (which in any case is closed away all day in my waterproof ammo box), I realize that to undergo this mind-bending wrench, though I did not anticipate it, is part of what I have come for.
I have been thinking that this trip, or any trip like it, is of the nature of an ordeal. It involves experiences we know in advance will be unpleasant, it involves an element of uncertainty, and it is undertaken as a test, for the sake of some larger than personal goal.
The voluntary forgoing of accustomed creature comforts is of course a part of any sojourn in the wilderness. Trekkers and backpackers know that they will have to get along without enclosed shelters, furniture, toilets, sinks, bathtubs, electric lights, and hot and cold running water; Living under such conditions, I find myself vividly aware of my body, especially as, again and again, it makes the transition between sitting or lying on the ground and standing up. You cannot walk into a pup tent; it must be entered on all fours. Once inside, you must find what you need by rummaging around at ground level.
Labor adds to the physical effort intrinsic to the wilderness experience, especially if, as with us, there is a change of campsite every day. Our privileges as paying guests do not include assistance in fetching and carrying, and after a single lecture on such operations as the raising of tents and the proper sealing of rubber gear-bags, we are left on our own. We get up at first light, and it is understood that departure from camp is to take place as soon as possible after breakfast. Each morning, I summon the resolution and strength necessary to pack quickly and efficiently, stuffing clothes, dishes, and other personal belongings into one of my three black rubber bags, sleeping bag, pad, and bedclothes into the second, my tent into a third. Once ready to travel, I lug everything down to the water’s edge, along with my freshly filled canteen, life jacket, footgear (to be pulled on over bare feet before boarding), and the metal “ammo box” that holds everything I expect to need during the day. The guides stow our bags on the rafts, but we passengers must rope our own ammo boxes to the metal frame somewhere near the forward crossdeck where we sit, and in such a way that the rope, once fully taut, cannot work loose.
The end of each day brings its complementary set of tasks. Bags, ammo box, canteen, and life jacket must be lugged up the bank, tents pitched, sleeping bags and personal belongings laid out, wet clothes changed for dry, before we gather on the beach where the guides have started to prepare dinner, gratefully looking forward to each other’s company and a can of cold beer.
In addition to its workaday responsibilities, the trip has its adventurous aspects, and these bring stress and, at times, fear. The excursions scheduled during our days on the River range from the short and easy to the long and arduous. All of them are billed as “voluntary”: we are ostensibly free to go or refuse to go, as we wish. But in fact we know well that each of us is expected to venture forth to the limits of courage and endurance. For me, those limits had been both reached and exceeded, before the trip began, in the course of the ten-mile hike down into the Canyon on Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch. (The instructions in the brochure had strongly discouraged going down by mule; in any case, this means of transport could be arranged only months in advance, and for a minimum of five people.) I had familiarized myself beforehand with the conditions of the hike—its length, the terrain, and the number and location of rest stops—and I undertook it sustained partly by the considered judgment that my strength and staying power, if expended to the utmost, would see me to my destination intact, partly by the knowledge that this was literally an entrance requirement, a hurdle to be cleared if my dream of a raft trip in the Grand Canyon was to become a reality.
The first half of the trail led down, via an elaborate series of switchbacks, to the oasis called Indian Gardens, where I would rest and eat part of my pack lunch. As I began the descent, I found myself in a tremendous gorge at whose bottom, far below, a creek wound its tiny silver thread along to join the River somewhere out of sight. My progress was monitored from the top of the western wall by a series of lofty, pale peaks culminating in a promontory topped by a domed butte; ignorant of their true names, I called them the White Watchtowers and the Red Mausoleum. I walked easily in the cool of early morning; the sun, hidden behind the eastern wall, left the trail in shadow. To be part of such a scene, at the beginning of such an adventure, was good fortune beyond all imagining. Nothing, it seemed, could enhance the moment, yet something did: a mule deer, his long erect ears topped by a fine set of antlers, appeared out of nowhere, stared at me curiously, and clattered off again, only to reappear several times and repeat the process at intervals of a few moments. When I arrived at Indian Gardens I was still going strong, save for a slight trembling in knees and calves that came on whenever I took time out to stand still. After a pleasant hour of rest and refreshment, I set off with confidence to hike the remainder of the trail. Alas! In about an hour, I discovered with a stab of alarm that I had somehow rounded a bend and entered a different landscape. My friendly Watchtowers had disappeared; a second gorge, steeper and more rugged than the one I had descended earlier, now opened out before me. The River was still nowhere to be seen; the bottom of this new gorge was, so far as I could make out from the heights, entirely closed off by cliffs. The morning was by this time far from cool (to descend the vertical mile from rim to river is to pass through a series of increasingly warmer climatic zones); the sun, high in the sky, cast little or no shade, and I sweltered in its glare. Of the rest of the hike I will say only that, as the miles passed, every minor irregularity of the trail—every boulder too big to step over, every series of log steps reinforcing the steeper slopes—came to seem an intolerable, nay, an undeserved further trial of patience and fortitude. The River I had so longed to see, when it finally appeared, rushed along turbulent and forbidding, brown with its load of silt, and the trail that followed it ran, not on the level, as I had fondly imagined, but upward over rugged terrain. Numbly I plodded on, vaulting ambition scaled down to the proximate goal of one more successfully completed step, one more foot set down safely on terra firma and not on an unsteady piece of rock. That I finally reached the rendezvous point was due neither to courage nor to perseverance. There was simply no way of turning back.
During the trip, my limitations were again spelled out by the hike up Havasu Canyon to Beaver Falls, four long miles up and four even longer miles back. For some of the others, the definitive trial was the 14-mile hike up the Tapeats Trail to Surprise Valley, from which one participant had to be shepherded back with a badly strained knee. The youngest and fittest were subjected by Mike to a supplementary expedition several miles up Havasu Canyon beyond Beaver Falls, at full speed and without rest stops. Our guides, who regarded the most strenuous of our group activities as (in their phrase) “a piece of cake,” staged competitions among themselves demanding enough to strain even their equanimity. One day they egged each other on to jump by turns, from a projecting rock perhaps 25 feet high, into the Colorado. To land in the shallows would have been to risk serious injury, and I could scarcely bring myself to watch as each of them strutted back and forth before takeoff, working up the necessary nerve.
The danger of such a performance as this is obvious, but then there is danger in everything we do. We have come for adventure, and there can be no adventure without risk. Mike’s orientation lecture is calculated to instill caution into the hearts of the most foolhardy. He says we must watch out for scorpions and rattlesnakes; he tells us that it is easy to become dehydrated or badly sunburned in the desert without realizing it; he explains what to do if one of us should “go for a swim” (the standard euphemism) and how to get out from under the raft if it should overturn. The River is frigid; anyone immersed in it for more than a few moments risks hypothermia at least as much as drowning. Recreational swims, for us passengers, at least, are strictly forbidden. The worst of the rapids are dangerous, even for our strong and experienced oarsmen. One day, scouting out Crystal Rapids from the shore, we see a raft belonging to another party tip over. No one is injured, but the sight makes us realize that safety on the River, even under the best of auspices, cannot be taken for granted. On another occasion, negotiating the approach to a long stretch of white water, Mike takes our raft into a side-tunnel carved in the rock by the river’s violence. As we careen through it, one side of the raft suddenly slams hard against the wall. I hear Mike shout “Grab the oar!”—he must have lost hold of one—and I see the side that has hit going under in a rush of foam. A thought, “We’re in for it,” half-forms in my mind, but at that moment the raft levels off again, we emerge into the light of day and calmer waters, the oar has not been lost, and a vigorous session of bailing puts all to rights.
If the River is inimical, the rugged terrain on which we hike is equally so. Loose rocks catch our feet on the trails, teeter unexpectedly when we step on them, give way as we clamber up the slopes. Harmless-looking trees and shrubs are armed with wickedly sharp thorns; cactus needles, barbed like fish-hooks, fester if not completely removed from calf or thigh. Our bodies are subjected daily to bruises, scrapes, cuts, and strains; to ward off more serious injury, we must constantly keep our balance and our heads. Extreme physical weariness undoes coordination and erodes prudence. During the last mile or two of a hike, I must consciously hold down the pace at which I am walking, lest an increase in forward momentum makes me stumble or pitch forward. If someone has to get hurt and become a burden to the others, let it not be me.
At this moment, all trials are recollected in tranquillity. We are encamped. It is about five in the afternoon, and the work of settling in is done. The heat of the day has abated; the sun has gone down behind the cliff that overlooks our campsite, and a delicious light breeze blows intermittently. At the foot of the beach, the broad brown river hurries along, washing its banks with low, diagonally breaking waves. A short distance upstream, a patch of rapids churns and tosses. The canyon wall beyond the River soars heavenward in rugged terraces and rock-strewn slopes; directly opposite me, a silent Niagara pours its detritus down from the summit to the river’s edge. Expanses of lava, petrified long ages ago, stand out glossy black against the pinkish and brownish greys of the underlying granite. Sitting here alone, I feel flooding in on mind and senses a happiness that is easier to recapture in memory than to describe in words. I am at rest and at home, and my presence here has a meaning whose depths I have yet to explore.
There is satisfaction, of course, in the knowledge that I have well and truly earned the right to be here. I have paid for this moment in advance, first by enduring the hike down to Phantom Ranch, then by doing the daily work of the trip, lugging my belongings back and forth, pitching and striking my tent, packing and unpacking my bags. I have slept on the hard sand, washed (and peed, squatting ankle-deep) in the Arctic cold of the River, picked my way along creek beds, clambered up and down rocky slopes, done my share of bailing, spent much of each day soaking wet. “Sweet is pleasure after pain,” says the poet: “No pain, no gain,” say the trekkers. This euphoria is partly of my body, a body which, having been stretched, strained, scraped, drenched, and otherwise taxed with effort and discomfort, feels its release from such durance as joy.
Not only have I done these things, I have done them in the company of others and under the supervision of the guides who have us in charge. The trip has its boot camp aspect, and aloof, ironic Mike is type-cast in the role of drill sergeant. As every recruit knows, such a way of life has its painful episodes. As I wrestle each morning with my wayward rubber bags, I hear Mike’s voice on the first day out, speaking contemptuously of the “poor,” “sloppy” tying of the bags our group had given him to stow on deck, and of the “very, very bad” consequences of not closing them properly. I have been taken to task for appearing in the chow line with a poorly washed plate, and for neglecting to slosh my shoes free of sand in the river before clambering over the rubber rim to come aboard. But few, if any, of the others have escaped such moments, and talking about them at the end of the day is part of our companionship. For the most part, we know that the guides respect us, as we respect each other, for participating actively and competently in the work of the trip and thus helping to make it possible.
Pleasures enhanced by discomforts past; happiness purchased by the sweat of the brow and the willing acceptance of discipline, therefore to be savored without guilt. So far, my thinking lies safely within the bounds of my native New England Puritanism. And it is inadequate. Our in some ways rigorous mode of life has a meaning that amounts to more than the working off of debts and racking up of benefits in a system of moral economics. Every rule, every condition we have submitted to rests on a single underlying imperative: as human beings, we are bound to respect the integrity of the place whose inhuman magnificence has drawn us here. It follows that we must so far as possible avoid cluttering it with our civilized accoutrements, let alone our trash—though these are of fly-speck dimensions, to be sure, in comparison with the monumentality of our surroundings. Sleeping without a bed, sitting without a chair, eating and writing without a table, and hiking on ground unsmoothed by concrete or asphalt, I have done away with a layer of artifacts interposed by civilized life between my body and the natural world. To that extent, I have repossessed my biological inheritance, have moved backward in time toward a physical and imaginative identification with the animal life of which humanity is an inseparable part.
I am not under the illusion that this is a survival course. We have not had to forage for our own food, make and maintain our own fires, or construct our own shelters. Our guides rustle up excellent hot breakfasts and dinners, and our picnic lunehes are prodigal of cheese and cold cuts, along with fruit, breadstuffs, trail mixture, and granola bars. This daily abundance makes for a sense of security, reminiscent of early life in the family, that counterbalances the austerities of the testing ground. Exempt, as a child is exempt, from the responsibility of planning my own days in pursuit of ever-receding goals, I am free at this moment to respond to the spectacle of the Canyon as fully as my inner powers of eye and mind permit.
I have come face to face with a portion of the cosmic magnificence that dwarfs both the tragedy of the individual human life, whose denouement is known in advance, and the tragedy of human history, whose denouement has yet to be acted out. And like everyone else who has seen the Canyon, from the native Americans who lived in it and the Europeans who explored it to the recreational visitors of the present, I have brought to it a gift which, on this terrestrial globe, at least, can be given only by human beings. The gift I mean is epitomized by the act of naming. To give something a name is to take cognizance of it, to assign it an identity in the realm of consciousness, and thereby to recognize it as having significance. Being what we are, we literally cannot conceive of a reality that remains wholly unwitnessed and unknown; the thought of such loneliness is alien to us at the deepest level of our nature. I find myself wondering whether the Canyon is now somehow fulfilled by the presence in it of beings capable, as humans are capable, of seeing, of knowing that they see, and of knowing what they see. It is possible that our response to the splendors that exist apart from, and on a far vaster scale than, our lives represents the fulfillment of some latent intention, the working of a minuscule portion of leaven placed by design in the primordial lump?
I am back at the Desert Inn, reunited with my suitcase, handbag and credit cards, and possessed for the night not only of two queen-sized beds, an overstuffed sofa, and a color television set, but a square bathrub, a sink set into a vast counter, a stall shower, and a flush toilet (with adjacent telephone), all of rose-colored marble. Before I succumb to this luxury, I must write a few more paragraphs to round my meditation off and make an end.
The last day on the River is also, we know, to be our shortest. No white water of any consequence lies between us and the debarkation point at Diamond Greek, from which we will be taken out of the Canyon by truck. The weather is flawless; the clear, sun-saturated air is almost still. Mark, our oarsman, has little to do but keep the raft from being carried shoreward by an occasional sideways pull of the current. On other days, our time aboard the rafts has been taken up in part by conversations in the course of which we have been moved to tell each other the stories of our lives and to express our personal philosophies. But today we travel along in a stunned silence, gazing without interruption at the scene as it unfolds during the last ten miles or so of our journey. No one exclaims over anything or points anything out; no one expresses pleasure in the beauty of the day or of our surroundings. Each of us looks out from a solitary point of vantage, yet we are experiencing these last hours as one. I am struck by the look on Pete’s face; I have seen that look before, but cannot think where.
During the past two or three days, the scenery has changed. It has been some time since we last glimpsed the exposed stretches of Vishnu schist and Bass limestone at the River’s edge—rocks which predate our era by more than a billion years. The walls of the Canyon have diminished in height, and the Canyon itself has seemed to widen as its upper plateaus and peaks assumed tapering, pagoda-like shapes, rather than rising spectacularly sheer over our heads as at first. Vegetation has become more abundant. We have seen more and larger gardens of prickly pear and barrel cactus, more bayonet-leaved agave plants, more cocotillo bushes waving spindly branches of pale green. Willow trees and beds of long grass grow lush beside white beaches. The more familiar look of the landscape heralds our return to home terrain.
Suddenly I know where I have seen the look on Pete’s face. It expresses not thought, not feeling even, but pure attention. I have seen it at concerts while the music was playing, and I would have seen it at art galleries if I had been able to look out at the spectators from the frame of some great painting. It is the face of what the poet Wallace Stevens calls “the concentered self,” wordlessly taking in a reality that exists prior to and apart from words. Together on this last morning we strain toward the fullness of apprehension, that we may afterward experience the fullness of memory.
Several hours have passed. We have loaded ourselves and our baggage into the open back of the big pickup truck which finally lumbered into sight as we waited restlessly in the shade of a ramshackle lean-to. We are hot, disheveled, and, for the first time in eight days, impatient. We laugh and joke a little, but our shared sense of familial companionship is fading. Already, each of us is preoccupied with personal arrangements—the hotel room, the plane flight, the whereabouts of tickets, papers, cash. I look again at my watch. Almost one-thirty, and the charter flight from Peach Springs to Las Vegas is to leave at three. At last, we hear the ignition switched on. The truck vibrates, lurches into low gear, and begins the upward climb.