Today I reach the Grand Canyon. My usual indirect trajectory takes me through Horseshoe Bend, Vermillion Cliffs, Marble Canyon, damn impressive places to behold. With each new sight I am inspired and concerned – this journey is strengthening my wanderlust even as it appeases it.
Like so many places I’ve passed before, the Grand Canyon is the sort of place that can only be properly absorbed with long and intimate acquaintance. I decide to see what I can take from it in a day.
Hours and miles pass; I find myself entering lands quite unlike where I began the day.
For one thing, it’s cold. I finally get to use the military surplus gloves I picked up in Ottawa. They do a fantastic job of insulating my fingers from one another so they can dissipate heat more efficiently. I knew I was going to regret not springing for heated gear; I reflect to myself as I sip warmth from a watery $2.00 coffee.
The view from the North Rim tourist complex is impressive. I read about the original explorers, how they could barely wrap their minds around the scale of the thing, and walking out to Angel Point, I understand exactly how they felt. After the dropoff the panorama seems more a painting, my mind failing to grasp perspective against the enormity of the great chasm, lost in layers of depth. I try and imagine a person somewhere in that vast canvas and have to keep zooming in to even envision a body as anything more than a speck.
Nobody would even see you fall.
I decide to take some time for just the two of us. There’s a sketchy looking trail to the impressively named Point Sublime that reads “4×4 Only” marked on the tourist map. I’m advised that it’s dangerous and a bad idea to go alone.
No further encouragement needed.
Internal debate: I’m feeling pretty confident in my technique after all this riding. Making it all the way to Argentina means avoiding unnecessary (and potentially costly) rough riding… but if I was just going to cruise on highways I would have gotten a bike that was twice as comfortable and half as fun.
Lost fires up and we venture down the trail, nearly eating it almost right away after deking around a backhoe only to discover treacherously deep soil freshly spread over the road. My experience in Moab pays off with interest as I manage to keep the bike upright and catch up to some 4x4s stopped in a clearing ahead. After a brief chat with the Portuguese tourists I continue ahead of them. The road steadily declines in quality – or improves, depending on your perspective. I’m white knuckled but not wide eyed as baby head sized boulders compete with landslides and washouts to send me careening either off the edge or into the cliff face. As I realize this is, once again, the gnarliest road I’ve ever ridden, I am somewhat relieved to think that at least there’s someone coming up behind me.
About an hour of this later I acknowledge that there is going to be no-one coming up behind me. Those tourists were with their families and would have turned around long ago. I’m not feeling so smug at this point, stretching my skills to their limits just to keep going. After a tight curve the path disintegrates into two ruts, one that leads off the cliff and another that takes me into a small boulder. I pin the throttle and gun it for the rock, unable to pull out of the rut. The speed necessary to make it over is such that my forks bottom out on impact – and then the bike slams back against me, windshield bashing me right on the chin. The well secured full face helmet is the only thing that keeps me from acquiring a permanent lisp right there. Cresting the hill, a new canyon vista awaits.
I shake it off, and park the bike to enjoy the view. A little lizard leads me on a merry chase around the cliff edge and I notice a tempting series of spires jutting out into the canyon.
Survival reflexes have their use, but the psychological and physiological framework we’re built on needs to serve, not dominate, our consciousness. Most humans can hold their breath for over four minutes, but only if they can overcome their body’s reflexive protests.
We default to the safe route; humans are risk averse creatures and there’s value in that. But too often, opportunities are sacrificed for the fear of loss, irrationally magnified against the true magnitude of the risk.
This is what is going through my mind as I walk again from my tripod to the ledge of the cliff, eyeballing the distance to the next spire over. Ten second timer. I can make it in that time. I know the photo won’t even be that epic, but the important part to me right now is I look at this and immediately know I can do it. There is no doubt – this is well within my power. It is only my treacherous fear that holds me back. I recall my earlier reflections on the canyon. Even if there are people on the South Rim looking directly at this point – no one would even see me fall.
What good is it to know what you are capable of, if you lack the willpower to make it happen? All over the world I have seen people overcome circumstance and obstacles to manifest their will. Am I to be one of those who will look back, smugly reassuring themselves of all the things they could have done to excuse shying away from new challenges?
I’ve assessed the risk and my abilities, and made it this far. This is a chance to hone willpower above all.
I push the ten-second timer on the camera, already moving. The edge approaches, the only thing that can harm me now is hesitation – I commit, fly, and suddenly rock is scraping under my soles and hands as I skid to a stop on the spire. No sweat.
Now how do I get down?
A short scramble later I’m back and unimpressed with the photo. Looks like a condor is carrying me off to feed its young. But the moment it captures is glorious – chains of fear and doubt cast off, fleeting freedom. One day I will live every moment like this, unflinching mastery of the self. For now I drink in the giddy adrenaline high and get back to the main mission.
Lost and I wrestle our way out of the soft pine-needle carpeted landing and catch the trail that supposedly will take us to Point Sublime. I’m already thinking of it as Point Solitude. Each curve, each tantalizing peek at the precipice, I am sure we’re almost there. But the trail just goes on and on, mud and water crossings and more rocky tracks. Now it’s really getting late… Just one more curve. Okay, that one wasn’t really all that curvy, I’ll turn back just past that corner… alright well wait til after checking out what’s after that bend… I must have gone on for an hour telling myself to give up and head back while there was still light like any sensible person would do.
Finally, as I am berating myself for not having turned back while I had the chance to make it in daylight, the trees thin out and I find myself on a sandy trail winding upwards and towards the edge of the canyon. Surprisingly, I find an older couple in a 4×4 – Joy and her husband show me a map with a not-so-secret track that leads right out of the park, apparently significantly less rigorous than the one I just survived. They leave me with some peanuts and fill my pots with water, I bid them goodbye with thanks.
The spectacle is mine alone as the sunset turns the canyon a spectacular blood-red. Things keep blurring past just overhead, birds so fast they cut an eerie a hollow sound into the wind.
After the sun sets I hurry back to camp to set up my hammock and boil my rice before darkness overtakes me. To my delight I find two solid trees about five feet from the precipice, and set up my hammock stepping carefully on the scree. The crows have gotten into my spice packet by the time I get back to my rice, but I finish off what they’ve left with my mostly-cooked meal. This stove seems to be less efficient every time…
I think of New Orleans with a smile as I clamber into the hammock, dislodged pebbles skittering over the edge and into space. Don’t get out of the hammock and die… The canyons focus and echo an airstream that howls ever louder as nighttime settles, rocking me slightly in my hammock while I visualize the simple slipknot suspending me. If I were to fall on this slope, cocooned in my mummy sleeping bag and hammock, I wouldn’t even have time to free my arms before sliding helplessly over the edge, screams reverberating through the dark canyon walls.