Walking the Darkness Home

A journey to the bottom of the Grand Canyon defies the expectations (and clichés) of the famous landscape.

[Mark Klett]
[Mark Klett]

On August 6, 1905, Louie Muir, wife of the great conservationist John Muir, died of complications due to cancer. They had been married 24 years. Muir was devastated. Among those who sent condolences was President Theodore Roosevelt, who, just a few years earlier, had spent two nights camping under the stars with Muir in Yosemite Valley. Roosevelt was no stranger to loss. When he was 26 years old, illness claimed his mother and young wife on the same day, leaving him with a newborn daughter only two days old. Upon hearing of their deaths, he opened his diary, drew a big X across the page and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” Bereft, Roosevelt entrusted the care of his baby to his sister, quit politics and headed out west to the wilds of the Dakota territories to run a cattle ranch. Two years lapsed before he was ready to resume life in the East. In his letter to Muir, he offered this tonic: “Get out among the mountains and trees, friend, as soon as you can. They will do more for you than either man or woman could.”

What was it about their grieving that wanted the sky for a ceiling, a floor of something solid and ancient, milk-blue mountains in the distance, red canyon walls? A few days after I lost Paul, my own spouse of 24 years, a mantra appeared out of nowhere and surfaced each time I could not see a way through despair: “Keep turning towards the light.” And so I too strapped on my hiking boots and lit out into the open air, seeking the company of places so old that I may as well have entered eternity myself. I crisscrossed the Sonoran Desert ridges behind my house. I walked the Pacific beaches of Point Reyes, the Highland Moraine overlooking Lake Superior, the Montana Rockies, the Sky Islands of southeastern Arizona, backpacked Yosemite.

One late November afternoon I found myself standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. I had spent the day before buried in research at the National Park Service archives. As a reward for that confinement, I promised myself a 16-mile round-trip hike to Hermit’s Rest, the westernmost stop along a string of overlooks on the South Rim. I set out early, just as the season’s first storm began to build. Along the way, I watched clouds stream into the gorge, burying the immense anvils of rust-colored rock in eddies of dense foam. From time to time, sunlight shredded the mist, spotlighting ziggurats of Coconino sandstone and Bright Angel shale. Rainbows sickled out of the strange butterscotch light and then retreated behind angry black slants of hail. I walked until night fell, until there was nothing left to see, and then I caught the last shuttle back to my hotel.

“Grief has no distance,” Joan Didion writes in The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It waits, an ambush predator, in the tall grass of everyday life and never takes its eyes off you. Its closeness can trick you into believing that you will spend a lifetime as a herd animal gone lame, anxiously watching for a flicker of movement in the shadows, keeping your nose into the wind, ears cocked for the rustle that precedes the terrifying lunge. And when it strikes, grief never executes a clean kill. You cannot imagine that ordinary life will ever again be otherwise.

But standing on the edge of the canyon that day I received a temporary reprieve and a corrective — a wider field of view. The world opened up, and I saw grief as part of a whole in which both sorrow and joy could occupy the same space. To take a pain so raw that it flinched under even the gentlest scrutiny and hold it up to the immense beauty of the canyon was to re-open by degrees the broken aperture of the heart. This was no cheap and easy thrill. The English writer J.B. Priestley understood this when he wrote that the Grand Canyon “is not a show place, a beauty spot, but a revelation.”

I resolved then to return, to walk down to the bottom of the canyon around the winter solstice, when revelations were hard to come by. As a childless widow, the holidays became a season of protracted dread, when my longest nights of the year seemed to coincide with everyone else’s holiday cheer. What would I discover if I walked intentionally into darkness, wearing a heavy pack so that I wouldn’t — couldn’t — run from what I found? The mindfulness advocate Jon Kabat-Zinn advises that, in times of crisis, instead of fleeing from the things that deeply disturb us, we hold our ground and walk quietly and steadily toward them. “New and interesting things happen when we do not collapse in the presence of our fears,” he observes.

[Mark Klett]
[Mark Klett]

And so, a year later, at the winter solstice, I was back on the rim, steadying myself for a journey into one of the deepest chasms in the world. One trip became two, then three.

Today is my fourth hike. I wrestle my bulging pack from the car to the trailhead, running a gauntlet of couples snapping photos for the family album. It is like the emptying of Noah’s Ark, all the marrieds marching hand in hand. As I bend to fit crampons over my boots, I hear a voice call out, “Do you need help?” “No, thanks,” I say, turning to a woman in a powder-blue parka lined in white fur standing beside her husband and 2.3 children. Her face registers pity and concern. She glances at my wild thatch of silver hair and asks, “Are you going down alone?” In my mind, I rear up like a grizzly bear and paw wildly at the air. “Look, Ma,” I want to roar, “55 and older, no kids, no ring, your worst nightmare. Grrrr!”

Truth be told, her question gives voice to a deep unease. I slept badly last night and got a late start from my home in Phoenix. It is now early afternoon, and I should have been on the trail two hours ago. It’s a nine-mile trek to the cabin at Phantom Ranch, where I’ll be staying for four nights. My tardiness means that I will walk the last few hours alone and in the dark.

I hoist my pack, bow to the burden and cinch a wide strap around my waist until it feels snug, comforting, like the firm hand of someone familiar and beloved. I tick through one last inventory of the foolish extravagances — espresso pot and pottery mug, heavy writing journal and bedtime book, binoculars, gallon of organic milk, glass vial of fragrant skin oil — stuffed among the necessities of food and raingear. In a front pocket, I carry the woolen gloves and headlamp I will need when dusk catches up with me on the Devil’s Corkscrew. I look into the face of the woman at the trailhead and smile: “Don’t let the gray hair fool you.”

Interesting things happen when we do not collapse in the presence of our fears. I turn my back to the rim world and take the first step.

Not everyone who has undertaken a journey into the canyon has walked away with a heart full of revelations. Historian Stephen J. Pyne notes that appreciation of the Grand Canyon “was an acquired taste: it had to be created and then cultivated,” an attitudinal rehabilitation that began in earnest only around the turn of the 20th century. Case in point: In 1540, the conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado received reports of a great river west of present-day Tusayan. From his camp in Cibola, Coronado dispatched a contingent of soldiers led by Garcia López de Cárdenas, who traveled nearly three weeks before glimpsing the fabled river. They made rimfall somewhere between Moran Point and Desert View, becoming the first Europeans to peer into the vast space of the Grand Canyon.

By all accounts, the Spaniards appeared unmoved by what they saw. Looking down on the ruddy waters of the Colorado from their perch of hubris on the rim, they haggled with their Indian guides, insisting that the river measured no more than six feet wide. Cárdenas sent three scouts into the canyon to investigate, but after scrambling through the desert scrub for the better part of day, they made it no more than one-third of the way down before turning back. “What appeared to be easy from above was not so, but instead very hard and difficult,” wrote expedition chronicler Pedro de Casteñeda. The conquistadors were doubly bested that day: the scouts penetrated far enough to corroborate the claims of their native guides that the Colorado was indeed a mighty river.

That their journals weren’t peppered with superlatives tells us something about newcomers’ attitudes towards the land. Crossing the Colorado Plateau only left the conquistadors thirsty and disappointed that there was no gold to dig, no civilizations to subjugate. Such sentiments were little changed three centuries later, when army engineer Joseph C. Ives, who explored the canyon’s western end in 1857, declared that his expedition would be “the first, and will doubtless be the last, party of whites to visit this profitless locality.” Priestley would rightly declare of his ilk: “I have heard rumors of visitors who were disappointed. The same people will be disappointed at the Day of Judgment.” Still, it is possible to stand at some points along the rim today and remain unmoved, even irritated. Hard-core canyoneers sniff derisively at the Bright Angel Trail that I walk, seeking their revelations in more isolated reaches. For millennia Bright Angel has been used as a highway between the river and the rim, but in recent years the trail has undergone a series of “improvements” — soil-erosion bars, rock walls, the installation of toilets and potable water — to ensure that it is safe for the mule trains that supply Phantom Ranch and the day-trippers in flip-flops that one hiker friend calls “rim trash.”

[Mark Klett]
[Mark Klett]

In the 12,000 years of human occupation in the region, native people have created numerous other entryways into the canyon, many known only to archaeologists or extreme climbers. In Smithsonian, David Roberts described one such trail near the canyon’s east end. Roberts’s group dropped below the rim to pick their way among the spires and boulders of a cliff apron until the way forward seemed to peter out. Then one of the men located a series of six hollows in the rock face, deep enough to securely fit the human foot, which allowed them to navigate the sheer cliff. “We knew that these subtle depressions were man-made,” Roberts wrote. “More than seven centuries ago, some daring acrobat had pounded them with a rock harder than sandstone.”

For backcountry connoisseurs, Bright Angel is to these punched trails what Coney Island is to a stretch of wild, remote beach. Still, it has become my trail of choice. I like to hike in winter, when the ice on the first few miles keeps out the tourists. Most take a few steps down, slip, slide, scream, flail and then retreat to safety on the rim. Of the five million people who visit the Grand Canyon each year, less than one percent make the journey to the bottom. A solo hiker like me can have a sense of safety without compromising the need for solitude.

As I drop below the rim, I feel buoyant with exhilaration, looking down on the trail threading through the jigsaw of the canyon’s cliffs and templed rock. All of it mine, just for the walking! But I know better than to lengthen my stride. The trail is so steep that I do not trust the grip of my crampons on the ice, and I gingerly tap my way down with hiking staffs. The rock walls get higher, and I feel myself growing smaller as the path bites more deeply into canyon. From time to time, I pull over to the side, plant my poles in the ground and throw my head back to follow a great shear of cliff into a break of turquoise sky. Or I gaze out at the wedding-cake formations in the distance, where tiers of red rock alternate with banded slopes of pale green. Hiking the Grand Canyon is a full-body experience. Your thighs ache and quiver from the long descent, but the beauty taps at your ribcage and stirs a flutter of wings within. Then a door flings open in your heart, and feelings of awe and gratitude pump the air and alight.

The trail flattens out midway at a shady oasis called Indian Garden, where I customarily stop to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich before making the final plunge to the Colorado River along the spiraling chute of Devil’s Corkscrew. Today, I scout out a giant boulder in the sun. Without unbuckling the hip belt, I nudge my backpack onto a hitch in the rock. I close my eyes and lean back against its mass, which feels as solid as a human body. Relieved of their burden, my legs feel springy and light, and I sway from side to side as my body recalibrates a new equilibrium.

It is impossible to be unhappy here.

Indian Garden is lush with the living — playful, intimate, noisy — as if I’d spent the first part of my hike tiptoeing through the solemn naves of a great cathedral and then emerged into a busy street market. You can see the difference even from the rim. Indian Garden’s gallery of creekside willows and cottonwood trees forms a conspicuously dense green knot in an otherwise sparse and rocky landscape.

As in all arid places, water is the magic elixir that can pack a wallop of life into a relatively small place. Here the water begins as monsoon rains and snowmelt on the Coconino Plateau. It trickles down through the pores, faults and fractures of sandstone and limestone until it hits the deeper, more impervious layer of Bright Angel Shale. Then it moves laterally toward the canyon, bubbling from seams in the cliff, fanning out to form flowages such as Garden Creek. Although seeps and springs account for a mere 0.01 percent of the land area of the Grand Canyon, they are dense hubs of biodiversity. Researchers have measured concentrations of plant species that are 100 to 500 percent greater than in the surrounding landscape. Even more astounding is the discovery that no two springs are alike; each supports a different complement of plants and animals.

Although it is late December, the cottonwoods are just now ripening into gold. I smile when a sudden up-canyon breeze sets their leaves to flapping. Talks-a-lot trees, I say to myself. In previous years, I would have paused to listen to the rise and fall of their chatter, or pulled out my binoculars to watch birds scratching in the leaf litter. But I am dogged by anxiety. It is late afternoon.

I straighten up slowly. In 1919, when Grand Canyon was declared a national park, the Havasupai still tended small farms at Indian Garden. A photograph in the Smithsonian archives shows the last occupant, a man named Burro, seated on the ground beside a large clay pot, his jaw set firmly, the deep creases in his skin radiating in waves from his eyes. I imagine the old man’s heart at the final leavetaking: a clay pot breaking in silence and all the water poured out. Within 10 years of the park’s founding, Burro would be dead. In so many places around the West — even and especially in national parks — the taproots of natural beauty are sunk deep into human cruelty. I take one last look around — memorizing details like the slackwater in the creek, where a deep, clear pool has formed, and the blue iridescence that flashes from the throat feathers of a raven — and with a shutter-click of the spirit, send the image off to Burro in hopes that the dead can see the world they loved through the eyes of the living.

As the trail bends this way and that over the next mile or so, Garden Creek plays hide-and-seek. At times its splash and gurgle will sneak up from behind; minutes later, it will sound over my left shoulder, and then, like a bird dog in hot pursuit, burst from the bushes on my right. By the time I reach the sharp bend that opens up a long view of Devil’s Corkscrew, the sound of water has faded and the light is dimming. To slow erosion from heavy rains, the path is studded at regular intervals with timbers. From the trail crest, they resemble the rickety catwalks strung across jungle rivers in old Tarzan movies. Here, the blonde and russet tones of limestone, sandstone and shale give way to the more ancient layers of the Inner Gorge. Massive triangles of chocolate- and ash-colored rock thrust from the canyon’s basement. The first time I swung around the corner and Devil’s Corkscrew appeared without warning, I stopped mid-step and shouted into the wind, “You are so fucking beautiful!”

And yet there also is something menacing about descending into these towers of dark rock, especially at dusk. Mordor, I whisper. I half-expect to see hordes of greasy Orcs stream like ants from a crack in the cliff face.

The mundane dangers are far more real. By the time I reach the bottom of the Corkscrew, it is dark and I am lightheaded with fatigue. One misstep on the slippery cobbles of Pipe Creek could cripple an ankle, forcing an overnight stay in below-freezing temperatures until a mule train passes by. I know of two friends who developed incapacitating knee pain here.

As I plod along the creek, the small side canyon leading to the Colorado begins to narrow. One by one, stars appear in the wedge of sky overhead. The beam of my headlamp strafes the silhouettes of rocky ledges and clumps of catclaw and brittlebush. I begin crafting an escape plan should the light catch the eyeshine of a mountain lion wandering down to the creek for a drink. But after years of hiking this trail, I know that I am far more likely to be ambushed by physical exhaustion — and a terrible blackening of heart. Right on cue, the all-too-familiar ravens of bitterness, despair and fear come to roost in the branches around my head. Crawk! CRAWK!

[Mark Klett]
[Mark Klett]

In a flush of panic, I realize that things are unraveling fast. Worse, I feel powerless to stop them. Four days before Christmas, and I am dirty, alone, stumbling over river cobbles in the dark. The birds of despair now are perched firmly on each shoulder. Let go, let go, I whisper. But they only dig their claws deeper through muscle to curl around bone. My thoughts turn to the rim world now a vertical mile above me. At this moment, the marrieds will be sitting down to dinner in the honeyed light of the El Tovar dining room, carefully coiffed and wearing perfectly pressed jeans.

The last time I sat across a table from a man was a few weeks ago, on a blind date with a lawyer. I remember how early in the conversation he began to finger his wine glass, how he slowly sat back, cocked his head and remarked, “You know, you’re very attractive. Do you have fun?”

“Uh, yes,” I stammered in surprise and confusion.

He narrowed his eyes and leaned in, as if trying to trip up a star witness.

“No. Read between the lines. Do you have fun?”

When it became clear that he wouldn’t score the bargain he’d come for — bedding a horny middle-aged widow, desperate to sell companionship at any price — his shoulders slackened. Date over. But the gut-twist of humiliation remains.

Fun? I remember fun. Many years ago, on a winter night like this, I returned from a community meeting to a silent house, dimly lit.

“I’m home,” I called as I walked through the back door. “Paul?” No answer.

On the floor at my feet was a scrap of white paper cut into a shape that resembled a mushroom cloud. Then I saw another, and another: a paper trail of exploded atomic bombs. When I turned up the lights, I realized they were the crude outlines of erect penises, and that they doubled as arrows. Charmed, I walked the Trail of Cocks across the living room and down the long hallway to our bedroom. The penises grew incrementally larger until, at last, I reached one cut from paper taped end to end five sheets long. The mega-phallus pointed toward Paul, who lay on our bed, jay-naked and grinning, with his legs crossed at the ankles and arms propped confidently behind his head.

A down-canyon breeze brings the cool, sweet scent of freshwater. The Colorado River is not far off. Two more miles to camp. Every step an effort of discipline and will. This is not fun.

“Fuck you, Paul,” I say aloud. “Fuck you for dying.”

In the middle of the night on March 8, 2005, Paul awoke in a sudden coughing fit, mumbled a few incoherent words and died as I watched.

The strands of our lives were by then so tightly plaited, the loss so sudden and so complete, that I quickly gave up trying to make a full accounting of everything that had been destroyed. Every once in a while, nearly eight years later, I still find debris fragments from my blasted life. Oh, I’d forgotten, I say to myself. This, too, gone.

At age 49 I became a widow — or as the funeral director called me, the “surviving” spouse. At the time, the term startled me. Survival? What I experienced did not feel like survival. It was if I had died and slipped into a parallel universe featuring the stage set of my old life, recognizable and yet distressingly fake and unfamiliar. The sense was sometimes so strong that I would hold my own hand out before me, studying the tributaries of blood vessels that flowed through the buckled plain of knuckles and skin and whisper: Me, and not me. Years later I recognized the nature of my tenancy in this troubled, liminal space in the words of the poet Marie Howe, who described her disorientation after the death of her beloved brother. It’s this feeling, she said, that “my life has changed, and I don’t know how to live it anymore.” A therapist once told me it would take time for a “new normal” to establish itself in my daily life. Although the sensation of extreme otherness has eased, in the nearly 3,000 days since Paul died, I have not had what I could call a normal day; that is, a life that looks and feels like my own, a life lived in clear focus instead of blurred at the edges.

I come closest to the familiar when, each morning, I carry out the ritual of making coffee. At home in the desert, I rise in the cloistered hours before dawn, put the espresso pot on the stove, bundle up in a blanket and step outside while the coffee brews. My favorite time is winter, when the mountain just beyond my fence is silent, and in the silence a circle of bright constellations appears, undimmed by the city’s light: Orion, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, the Big Dipper. Often trailing behind them is the hard, hot-white nub of Venus. They will never dim or disappear in my lifetime, and so to love them with something approaching abandon is safe. And so I do, with abandon.

[Mark Klett]
[Mark Klett]

Carrying out this ritual on my first morning in the canyon is especially delicious, thanks to a tiny camp stove I’ve affectionately named the Java Rocket. When folded, it resembles a dead spider you might find in the corner of your kitchen, its filament legs folded around a central core. It screws into a palm-sized fuel tank, and one by one the bent-metal tines unfurl to make the cooking platform.

Stiff with pain, I ease my legs out of the cabin’s narrow bunk bed and pad across the room to fumble in my pack for the Java Rocket. Sometime in the middle of the night, the long muscles that run the length of my inner thighs began to tighten, first one and soon the other, like the metal strings of a piano cranked to near breaking. Unable to climb out of bed and walk off the cramps, I could do nothing but pound my head into the pillow and curse until the pain subsided and I fell back asleep. Now I hobble outside, bundled in fleece, and wait for the espresso pot to sputter on the blue flame. A sprinkling of stars falls out of the Big Dipper’s upended ladle. “Cheers,” I say, raising my cup to the sky, drinking the stars. Savoring the day’s first cup of coffee is no minor ritual. Sitting in stillness, in a blessed communion with the stars, I signal the self that it is safe to return to the body. Things fall apart, yes. But they also come together.

It doesn’t take long to plan the day. My time at the bottom of the canyon follows a rhythm so satisfying that I’m content to simply repeat it year after year. There’s the first cup of coffee, and then an hour of journal writing over a second cup. Breakfast of yogurt, granola and fruit. A little reading until the sunrise appears in a band of buttery-yellow light on the cliff opposite my cabin. Then it’s time to work out the soreness in my thighs and calves on a long, leisurely hike. Somewhere along my ramble, I find a comfortable backrest in the rock to read and write. Mostly, though, I spend my time being a good animal — looking, smelling, touching, listening, noting the particulars of the world around me. Here at the bottom of the canyon, I do not think of myself as a middle-aged woman past her prime. I celebrate knees still fluid enough to bend and straighten on the canyon’s rocky steps, ears that can hear a dipper’s ecstatic cries above the froth and rush of Bright Angel Creek. I recall my friend Nina who, after her grueling physical therapy sessions following a complicated surgery for brain cancer, celebrated the parts of her body that still worked or were struggling to relearn their former skills by touching each part in turn and exclaiming, Thank you, leg. Thank you, ear. Thank you, eye. Her ritual of gratitude has become mine.

On these long, solitary walks, I give in to a healing influence that Barbara Kingsolver describes as the “subterranean ebb and flow of being alive among the living.” The canyon bottom is home to organisms that seem to have an especially ardent desire to persist. This is a place that doles out catastrophe with one hand and deprivation with the other. Torrential floods pummel the creekbed with a roiling wall of mud, rocks and trees. Plants like cottonwood trees and coyote willow learn to flex with the current, abide amidst chaos or quickly resprout from the wreckage of torn roots and stems.

The cliff face offers refuge from floods but presents other challenges. The plants are strafed by greedy winds that suck dry each dollop of moisture, and the summer sun bakes the rock until it is sizzling hot to the touch. In winter, snowmelt seeps into hairline cracks, expanding as it freezes to peel away small flakes of surface rock, weakening whole cliff edges over time. Resources are scarce, and yet every crack, dimple and hollow big enough to collect a few thimbles of soil has a resident: a spray of fern, mound of moss, a grass plume. Large trees grow horizontally to catch the shafts of light that penetrate the canyon’s depths in winter. Long chains of beavertail cactus give in to gravity, cascading down the cliff like bedsheets knotted by desperate prisoners. They learn to endure, to be frugal, to flourish.

To flex, abide, endure, to begin again. All around me, life is trying to keep its footing in a place that quietly crumbles or is raked by catastrophe. People often ask me how I can spend so many days in silence and solitude. My answer: I am never without the conversation of beings exactly like me. Coyote willow, cottonwood, beavertails, dippers, canyon wrens; the list goes on. The trail is as noisy with life strivings as high noon on the streets of Manhattan. I am just one more creature in the throng. “We have been put into life as into the element we most accord with,” writes Rainier Maria Rilke, “and we have, moreover, through millennia of adaptation, come to resemble this life so greatly, that we, when we hold still, through a happy mimicry, can hardly be distinguished from everything that surrounds us.”

It is late afternoon on Christmas Eve and my last day at the bottom of the canyon. I leave the gold, dappled light of the cottonwood oasis at Phantom Ranch to climb the open scrub at Clear Creek Trail, a farewell ritual that marks the end of every visit. It’s a short hike. In a mile or so, I reach my destination: a shallow undercut that curves like a parenthesis into the rock wall. Though the day is cloudless, it is cold and blustery. I sit on the ground out of the wind, lean against the sun-warmed rock and pull out a small bag of salted almonds and two oranges. From here I can see the Colorado both upstream and down. Unlike the sound of the ocean, which pauses between waves to catch its breath, the river exhales nonstop. Beneath these fast-moving currents are boulders that have tumbled from the surrounding cliffs or were swept here by the massive floods that scoured the canyon before the Glen Canyon Dam, built in 1966, evened out the river’s highs and lows. The flowing water causes the boulders to grind against one another, their contact points eroding over time until they fit neatly together, nested on the river bottom like spooning lovers. The process is known as suturing. Eventually they form an interlocking pavement, remarkably stable and resistant to change.

[Mark Klett]
[Mark Klett]

That anything — much less river rocks — can find refuge from the forces of change here is astonishing. Just during the time it takes to peel my orange, two pebbles come loose and clatter down the walls of the alcove behind me. One day the overburden of rock will collapse and tumble toward the river. Like most visitors, I read the narrative of the Grand Canyon as one of cataclysmic change on spatial and temporal scales that boggle the human imagination. “Most erosion in Grand Canyon results from catastrophic processes,” writes hydrologist Robert H. Webb. Torrential rainfall can loosen pinnacles and temple towers, dropping “tons of debris on the slopes below, instantly moving sections of cliffs.” Boulders, fractured chits and dirt can roar into the Colorado River in a great hash, as during a December 1966 rainstorm at Crystal Creek, which turned “what once was a very wide and easily run rapid … [into] the greatest obstacle to whitewater navigation in the Inner Gorge.”

But the sublime drama of these episodes is only part of the story. “High-magnitude” events, Webb is careful to point out, are also “low-frequency.” Long periods of great stability are much more the norm. Webb and his colleagues traced the journey of railroad engineer Robert Brewster Stanton, who took more than 2,000 photographs while traveling through the canyon in 1889–90, and they rephotographed 445 of these views from 1989 to 1995. Comparing the two perspectives, the team documented individual plants from 41 different species that were present in Stanton’s views and survived to modern day, proving that a wide range of plants — big galleta grass, fine-leaf yucca, creosote, beavertail cactus, Mormon tea, live oak — can live long enough to join the Century Club. Some may even be thousands of years old. Scientists say that the current distribution of plants in the Grand Canyon likely coalesced about 4,000 years ago. It’s possible that some of the creosote bushes we see today were among the first migrants to the canyon, plants that found a propitious roothold and flourished for millennia. Creosote bushes that make up the King Clone in the neighboring Mojave Desert date to an estimated 11,700 years of age, among the oldest living organisms on the planet.

The long view of scientists who study the earth in geologic time and space can collide with nonscientists who understand the world through the more tightly scribed trajectory of a human life. Our attachments to the particulars of the world — especially those that have delighted us with their beauty year after year or reliably sustained us in difficult times — can be fierce and their disappearance experienced as a crushing loss. Webb recalls a 1990 flood that swept Havasu Canyon, “devastating what for many was a paradise. I remember that while talking with a long-time river guide I maintained that floods were natural, that Havasu Canyon would recover, and that ultimately the flood was beneficial. The response, unshakable, was that Havasu Creek was damaged and would ‘never be the same.’ And perhaps it would not. We label change, particularly swift change, as bad; we like environments that are stable, at least in our lifetimes. We rarely value natural processes for what they are.”

We like lives that are stable too, in which change occurs so slowly that it is nearly imperceptible; we presume the person we are today will be the same one we greet in the morning. Then something happens in the night that we never could have imagined: a hillside collapses, a house burns down, a loved one dies.

I have unleashed my share of protestations since the night Paul died, when I sank into the floor of our bedroom in my pajamas as paramedics stretched his body out in the living room, smoke curling from his chest each time they attempted to shock his heart back into rhythm. “Please help him. I can’t live without him,” I cried, shaking and rocking. But I survived the unthinkable: the loss of the thing I loved most in the world. I accompanied Paul to the edge and then took the long way back alone into life — even though the woman in worn boots who sits on a ledge at the bottom of the world, eating an orange on Christmas Eve, the one who keeps a box of carefully folded paper phalluses in her closet, may always be something of a stranger to me.

I stand, zip up my pencil and books and brush the red-rock dust off my pack. Looking out over the mighty exhalation of the Colorado River, I find myself repeating the words that Barbara Kingsolver cried out when she emerged from a dark and terrible time in her own life. “High tide! Time to move out into the glorious debris. Time to take this life for what it is.”

Author's Note

Special thanks to the sharp eyes and generous hearts of the COM 598ers: Jennifer Baum, Cameron Byerley, Roberta Chevrette, Lou Clark, Stephen Des Georges, Kim Steele, Trisha Hoffman and, our leader, the master of the yellow-highlighter test, Lee Gutkind.

Adelheid Fischer, “Walking the Darkness Home,” Places Journal, September 2013. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/130904

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