ain’t nothing but a canyon mile

You never know what you’re capable of until you take yourself to the edge.  You don’t really know who you are until you break a little (or a lot).

After months of inactivity, thanks to the need to recover from a chronic running injury, naturally we decided to go backpacking in the Grand Canyon for our Christmas holiday in 2016.  No big deal.  Piece of cake.  Easy as pie, and all the other cliched platitudes about the relative lack of effort such an undertaking might entail if one doesn’t think too hard about the actual task at hand.

Neither of us had been to this National Park, which is supposed to be (and is) one of America’s treasures, a place of wonder and beauty and mystery.  Luckily we got a permit for our first preference itinerary, and the planning ensued.  Meal planning, getting there planning, clothing planning, gear management and acquisition (such as crampons and gaiters, thanks to winter conditions).

Along with regular purchases of gear came constant monitoring of weather patterns. When I say constant, I mean looking at the forecast each morning, reviewing historical performance and searching for other myriad predictions. Snow was the main problem. Lots of snow.  And chain restrictions and icy trails. Over the few weeks leading up to the trip, we thought we were going to get snowed out, or stranded.  Two days before we were supposed to head out the weather was still changing, still unpredictable.

When we finally arrived at the Grand Canyon for our first night of camping in the cold, under the stars, a shroud of fog had veiled the landscape.  The adventure on which we were about to embark remained hidden from us. There was no canyon, no plunge of land going down for one vertical mile.  There were no layers of geologic time, no cliff faces.  There were only the dense particles drifting before us as we walked along the path at the edge of the South Rim.  They stuck to our clothes, our eyelashes, my glasses. The air coated us in its heavy breath.  It was only after we ducked into one of the lodges for a beer, only after we reemerged that the fog had retreated a little to give us our first hint of the scale of the canyon, and its vibrant banding color.

Veiled Canyon

Veiled Canyon

Giddy.  Smiling and not even minding the other people who were rushing to the railing’s edge to take their photos with selfie sticks.  We looked at each other, and grinned at what we were about to descend into.

That night, snow flurries flirted at the South Rim as clouds raced across the sky. We caught glimpses of the stars through the wounds in the clouds, and tried to light a fire with wood that refused to burn, even though it was dry and the kindling was good.  As we drank port wine amid the pine trees, fresh snow dusted the ground and cold infused the air with biting teeth.  We fretted about putting up the tent, not wanting to start off with wet gear.  We fretted about the cold.

Our second day at the Grand Canyon was the real beginning of our adventure.  We parked at the backcountry office, checked our gear one last time and took the shuttle, with heavy packs on laps, to the Bright Angel trailhead.

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Gear management

Though it was early, a regrettable number of people in designer boots or simple sneakers already populated the trail.  And what they were there for was not what we were there for.  Photo ops.  Daring pictures. Claiming the space and polishing their brand through two-dimensional captures. Being there for some people was less about the experience itself and more about documenting you were having the experience, all with an eye toward curation of who you want people to believe you are rather than who you are.

But these travel companions were temporary, as elevation is the ultimate filter.  Past the Three Mile Resthouse, we encountered few people.  They tended to be thoughtful and quiet, and had impeccable trail etiquette.

After lunch near Indian Garden, the weather shifted once again.  A drizzle began, which would plague us for the rest of the day.  It was at this point when I realized the Canyon had invaded my muscles and my bones. Already.  On day one before we were even halfway to the Bright Angel Campground.

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Jessica’s last happy moment for the day

The Canyon’s extreme nature also emerged.  The elevation, the terrain of varied rockscapes, the water, which was everywhere.  I was hot one second, and freezing in the time it took to take off my beanie and gloves.  Rain, rain, and rain.  My mood steadily declined until I plodded on in silent rancor.  I was acutely aware of the muscles in my legs by the time we reached the vista for what’s called (we would later discover) the Devil’s Corkscrew. The Corkscrew is a long rambling switchback descending further into the Canyon floor.  Before even reaching it, I wondered how in the hell I was going to get back up to the rim.

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The Devil’s Corkscrew (photo was taken on the climb back up)

A. started talking about heading back, but in my mind the only way was forward. So we did the Devil’s Corkscrew, and we came to the next Resthouse, and we finally saw the Colorado River, angry with mud and swollen by the rain, and there was no sign (none, not a single evidence) of the Bright Angel Suspension Bridge.

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Bright Angel Suspension Bridge (photo taken heading back out on day 2 in the Canyon)

I wanted to cry.  By the time we reached the bridge (which took an excessively long time and what felt like another mile of traversing), I was in the gutter.  Legs: agony. Pack: a burden. Body: barely propelling itself forward. Emotional and psychological states: despondent.  Crossing that bridge with no indication of how far the campground was, I did start crying.  I had nothing left.  I hurt, I wasn’t having fun, and for the first time in my life, I had encountered my true edge.  I had reached the limit of my ability, and I wasn’t sure I could get myself out of the Canyon.

This was my threshold.  Every time we step through a door, we cross over a threshold. Most of the time it isn’t the physical crossings that impact us, but the mental ones. Afterall, thresholds mark a transition from one state to another.   We can feel when we encounter a boundary, just the same as we can feel when we’ve overcome that boundary. I wasn’t very grateful at the time, but now I cherish meeting that significant threshold.

Why is hitting my breaking point a gift?  I got to experience how I genuinely react in an extreme situation. Those reactions were not dressed up or contrived; they were 100% me. I got to see what my body could do, and understand better what I wanted it to be able to do.  It helped realign my expectations, and devise a plan to improve my overall conditioning.  And it revealed that my mind was powerful, because in the end determination was the only thing that got me back on my feet.

The next day, we awoke to clear skies, and the sun dancing on the edge of the mesa far above us. The aspens were chattering, and the world was quiet, and peaceful.

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It was at this point we made a conscious decision to enjoy the hike up to Indian Garden. We would take photos of the beauty surrounding us, take our time getting up to the next campground, take the time to solidify our memories of this amazing adventure. Indian Garden was a beautiful oasis to hobble around, and the next day we got up and ascended back to where we had come from, but not from where we started.  Later we would call how tricky it is to judge and cross distance in the Grand Canyon “a canyon mile”.

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the places you’ll go

A compass should point North.  That’s how they’re built.  That’s what they’re supposed to do.  This one doesn’t, though.  I’m standing here with this lump of metal in my hand. It snaps and bites.  And it points, but not North.

The shopkeeper who sold it to me had cackled as soon as the door jingled the bells.  He was curled over like a question mark, and his paper bark skin rasped.

“I have what you’re looking for,” he said.  His voice sounded like his skin.

“How do you know what that is?”

He smiled.

“You have a Roman coin?  It has a capricorn on one side, and the face of a bearded crowned man on the other.”

His laughter ricocheted inside my head.  He shuffled around the counter and disappeared through a door.  A moment later he came back with a overcooked and stained box in his hand.  He placed it near the cash register.  “That’ll be 150.”

I peeled the lid off and peered inside.  The tarnished dented casing of an old, obsidian-faced compass stared back at me.  “Is this a joke?”  But I had picked it up.  My nerve endings crackled, and the needle spun and spun.  The whole thing heated in my hand.

“150.  And you best start moving before that thing burns you.”

I spread the cash over the glass, and drifted out the door.  As soon as I had crossed back over the threshold and returned to the haze of smog, the screaming of sirens and people and vehicles, the needle slowed.  The compass cooled in my hand and the needle came to a stop.

The rules of the compass are simple.  Go where it points.  And keep going and going.  It lets you know when it’s displeased.  And you can never let it go.  It is your shepherd.

Ice sheets have a language.  They are white and cerulean.  They breathe and cry.  The floor of a redwood forest is dense with ferns, and fallen tree bodies.  Roman ruins are shells, pilfered of most things of value except for the very fact they exist. That commodity has to be enjoyed in situ. Volcanoes gush ash, stone, lava or gas.  Crabs scuttle sideways.  And when a landscape ends, it can be abrupt, defined by an edge and spilling into forever.

I only know these things because of the compass, and the places it commands me to go.  And now I’m here, standing on a street that’s been empty for decades.  Cracks break the asphalt into chunks.  Skeletons are hanging in broken windows of stores, which once sold ducks and dumplings.

Up the street it compels me.  I go.  I can only see the steep slope, and the empty shops.  There is no wind here.  No birds or crickets.  No cockroaches.

The top of the road is the end of what’s left of the city.  Bridges, two-story row homes, Victorians, and skyscrapers rest in a jagged pile.  The needle whirls again and points me into the mess. I go.  It is a maze of beams, splintered wood, fractured pipes, and shards of glass.  Fire lances the underbelly of some of the old neighborhoods, and smoke dances soulfully.

Finally, I am standing on the bare wooden floor of a living room.  The house lists toward the grey sea, and there is a chair by the window and a figure in it.

The compass has stopped.

It’s not telling me what to do any more, but I drift toward the chair.  The mummified woman stares out the window across the inlet at a house not unlike this one. There is a hole in her chest, waiting.

“I think this is yours,” I whisper, and place the compass in the desiccated wound. I’m almost out of the door when I hear her sigh.

“Thank you,” she says.

the things we leave behind

the things we leave behind

On the streets of Antigua Guatemala, February 2015 © JL Colomb

It’s afternoon.  We’ve been walking the streets of a foreign city for hours, taking pictures and talking and absorbing our environment for hours. The lighting in the city is surreal.  Clouds migrate above us while the stone streets and plaster walls glow.  We come upon a street corner and there, carefully placed upon a ledge, is a used doll. I love things like this.  Her face is smudged, and her little pink jumper suggests a state of undress.  The absurdity of this trinket – reeking of a kind of innocence left in a place that is hard, effervescent with life and all its requisite hope and desperation, its meager achievements and monumental failures – appeals to me.

I don’t know what the doll’s story is.  Perhaps a child dropped it, and some well-meaning stranger discovered it and left it in the most protected place they could so the thing could be recovered.  Maybe it was thrown in rage, or simply left as a sort of goodbye to a past, which has no shape in the future.  In any case, there is this discarded thing, disconnected and waiting.  But material possessions are not the only things we leave behind.

We abandon habits, people, and beliefs. Friends, lovers, childhoods and visions of the future.  I’m chagrined to think that I have left people to the past, that I have few vestiges of family history. It galls me and at the same time it has very little importance.  As appalling the notion is that things with inherent intrinsic value can be cast aside, it is also necessary.  Life is a process of acquiring and discarding. Destroying and rebuilding or building from new.  This is true for our physical environments, our bodies and also our psychological and spiritual selves.

People, thoughts, bits of knowledge, beliefs, and other things in our lives serve a purpose in our development.  Like a tank of gas, they carry us to a certain point until they are spent.  Maybe we are grateful for the territory covered.  Maybe not.  But it is our journey, and these things we leave behind have given us shape and meaning.  We would not be who we are and where we are without them.  And when the time and the reasons are right, like a doll left on a ledge, it is okay to let them go.

this place is not home

Antigua-Branding

The plane swoops through the clouds, which separate the pale blue of daybreak from whatever lays beneath, just waking. When we finally get a peek, we see volcanoes sitting heavy atop the land, over the lips of tectonic plates. And then the staccato of buildings rising up competes for attention. Blocks, and webs of streets, and the pulsing of cars, busses, and bodies.

Once we step off the plane, we are surrounded by new smells. A new language tickles the canals of our ears. As we weave out of the airport in someone else’s car, a familiar sight accosts our eyes. And another, and another. American fast food companies populate the city almost as much as the chicken busses. Another American contribution made.

My brain twitches at this incongruity. We get to Antigua; the streets are cobblestoned and the buildings are faded, streaked and peeling colors of rust, mustard, lilac, mold and forget me nots. And yet there’s a sandwich shop, a pizza place, and a fast food burger joint, which I can see everyday in my normal life, here in this place that’s supposed to be different.

This place is not home, but it looks familiar in the most mundane ways. We’ve come here to be someplace different. And it is; it’s not home but the sameness is surprising and, for it’s presence, overwhelming.

eXpeRiMENtal

IMG_5890v2Protocols. Rules. Methodical steps followed faithfully and through to the period. I admit it. I am guilty of this, of letting myself be seduced by the sure comfort of a recipe. If you add a cup of this, a tablespoon of that and whip vigorously, you end up with something delicious. Deviate from the path, and who knows what could happen.

How about serendipity?

Enter infusions. Lately I’ve become obsessed with the notion of them. My history with experimenting with alcohol is a little spotty. Years ago I attempted to make my own limoncello. I fretted over the bottle filled with highly flammable grain alcohol and lemon zest. It was going to be awful.

Instead, the liquid transformed from clear to golden. And after adding a little simple syrup, I had trance-inducing nectar stocked in my freezer.

Fast-forward to now, and the current experiment.

Lemon. Peppercorn. Ginger. Grapefruit. Darjeeling tea and honey. Cinnamon sticks. Just to have fun. Just to see. Some of these experiments might turn out like dog piss, but that’s the point. To challenge the fear of failure. Even embrace failure. By poking at the edges of our comfort, our awareness, and by standing at the boundaries of our experience, we can open the door into the unknown just a little. This is how we grow. This is how we evolve.

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The Anatomy of Adventure

The notion of adventure connotes a sort of breathlessness, poised and waiting on the edge of an unveiling. And at this perch we stand, crawl, kneel or are otherwise in the domain of the unknown. Adventure is rubbed in the spice of daring, smoked in the hot char of danger (even if just a hint). How do we come to adventure? Does one land in our lap, like a little present hand delivered by toga-wearing gods? Do we seek them out; make them? Are they good for us?

First things first: Toga-wearing gods. There’s something to this. I feel it quivering in my bones, anointing the fibers of my muscles with the intoxicating nectar of excitement. Why? Because it conjures images of Odysseus stepping out of his realm to set sail and go out there. Don’t stop here. This isn’t the exciting thing. (It’s not nearly nerdy enough.)

I would like to butcher–I, mean enlist Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. He observes that the hero trope generally starts in one way. Boring. The hero or heroine is going about their usual business, minding their manners, doing a chore they’ve done a thousand times. Then it happens. The “Call to Adventure”. Whether the hero knows it or not, it’s about to go down. The thing about this moment is complacency. The hero is cozy in his/her reality. Nested. Sure. They think they know the world and their place in it. This is where the hero is when the call comes. This is the state of mind. Business as usual, and then the hero departs into adventure, embarks into the unknown.

We peel back adventure’s skin, its muscles, peer into its circulatory and nervous systems, examine its bones. A whole series of events plot the hero’s journey. The hero accepts the call, eventually. A guide appears along the way. This person has traversed rough waters, circumnavigated circles down into the pit. The hero loses connection with past realities as he sinks into newness. There’s more, but I’m not making a list. The point I want to make is this: adventure is a vehicle of transformation. Not all adventures are hero’s journeys, although even mundane adventures hold the potential for transformation.

When I went backpacking a month ago, the trip leader guided us a few choice sites. I’ve done some desert camping. The other occasions had a little bit of wildlife, gorgeous geologic formations, but nothing like this. Yonis were sprinkled around the valley. Obviously modern minds find this graphic and sexual. That component should not be dismissed, nor can it override the symbolic aspect. Fertility is associated with this symbol. So is the metaphor of birth, which is transition and transformation, movement from one realm into the next, leaving the known to face the unknown. The great punctuation in life is birth and death. Campbell argues that we face many deaths and births over our lifetimes. We shed fragments or whole identities as a snake sheds it’s skin. Adventure is critical to the process. It is not easy, or pleasant at times, but it is better to step into new skin than accept the smothering embrace of stagnation.