Chelsea‘s essay was published in the The Grand Canyon River Runner in the Summer Issue of 2012. She still runs the river, dances ballet and modern, and writes better than anybody I know, including myself.
The greatest man I have and possibly ever will work for tossed me one of the most enlightening nuggets of wisdom as pertains to human vanities I might ever get: “From birth until mid-twenties, you care desperately about what everyone thinks of you. From your mid-twenties until fifties you desperately don’t care what anyone thinks of you. From fifties on, you realize no one was thinking of you in the first place.”
If I was feeling slightly more sentimental, I would tell you he bestowed to me that adage on my birthday at Fat City Camp after I had scraped over the Cheese Grater rock and almost lost the only passenger that had been brave enough to ride with me in the worst run through Lava Falls Rapid I hope (against hope) to ever have. We sat together on my boat listening to Erica and Walt belt out Fire on the Mountain upstairs, me on the verge of trying not to blubber in front of Bill Gloeckler and, thereby, give away the fast apparent FACT that I was not cut out for this. Truth be told, the only thing he said to me on my 18 foot Avon that night was, “What the hell happened at Lava today?” I explained, he exited, and I sniffled myself to sleep wondering if my old bartending boss in San Francisco would hire me back on short notice.
It was the next day, celebrating the warm weather in October and enjoying a beer (or maybe three), chatting about nothing in particular with no significance whatsoever, when the Midas Gold popped out of Gloeckler’s mouth, knocked me right on my nose, and changed my view of the Grand Canyon and humanity within it forever. Well, not forever. That’s the point I would like to make.
What hooked me on my first trip through the Grand Canyon was not the beauty—there’s too much to untangle the first few days of a trip before you develop an eye for it—nor the geologic implications of the fluidity of space, time and matter. A nineteen year old girl from Los Angeles couldn’t possibly comprehend that, nor the thrill of the rapids—terrifying! What reeled me in was the unavoidable heat, and the ungrudging acceptance of it the group adopted. I had never spent much time out of temperature-controlled climates, and giving in to such obvious discomfort without complaining about it was a new and freeing philosophy. After all, we were all experiencing the same thing. Taking my boatman’s lead, I decided to not take the 120 degree offense personally, and started sliding down a slippery rabbit hole into a new world where I was no longer the center, axis, and jeweled possession.
I won’t go into the beauty of the Grand Canyon because many have explained it with more color and eloquence than I could ever hope to express. But I will say this, and mean it: the Grand Canyon is BIG. Big place, big weather, big geology, big time. Staggeringly big. Stephen Hawking big. Incomprehensibly big, which is why I think it will always draw scientists and artists alike who must comprehend it. Dinosaurs weren’t even a glimmer in Evolution’s eye when the youngest layer within the canyon, the Kaibab Formation, was hardened. The canyon itself was formed twice again as long ago as the first Homo sapiens appeared. I’ve heard it speculated that it took roughly 4,000 years to form each inch in the towering 500 foot cliffs of the Redwall Limestone. Come on—that’s fourth dimension Big. More importantly though, maybe more so than it is big, we are just so so so small. It’s only big because we say so, and who are we?
As I rack up more years as a guide for Arizona River Runners and Grand Canyon White Water, I am finally starting to understand what 250,000,000 years, the age of the youngest layer in the Grand Canyon, means. It means that evolution’s greatest trick on the human race was to bestow us with a notion that we are significant in the grand scheme of things. Heat, Lava Falls Rapid, 18 foot Avons, good bosses, Los Angeles, ALL fleeting. Not that they are not important and very real in my own little “desperately don’t care what anyone thinks” space-time continuum. I won’t be presumptuous enough to imply that I more so than any other human have transcended my biological and hormonal make-up to an enlightened, unaffected plan such as that. But I do think that spending copious amounts of time in the canyon tweaks one’s perception processes. (“Which canyon?” one of my close friends always asks ironically, implying that Grand Canyon guides suffer from an elitism similar to San Francisco’s “the City” locals). A general though not completely universal pattern has appeared to me as I’ve befriended and slyly studied the guides I have been privileged enough to spend arguably too much time and too little sleep with.
I have noticed that newbie swampers, armed with knowledge from this geologic book and that historical canon about Powell read over the winter, tend to turn the Grand Canyon into a clinical, chewable, fragmented case study. A few years down the road in the realm I now occupy, the Grand Canyon evolves into a cohesive idea more so than a collection of facts. Even further down, say a couple decades, the Grand Canyon turns fickle lover. A female lover for that matter, since the majority of those boatmen tend to be men. And once you get into triple and quadruple decades like one of my favorite people to row with, veteran boatman and story-teller extraordinaire Jimmy Hendrick, everything is just funny. I like this progression.
It seems that our continual proximity to the notion of the Grand Canyon’s seeming infiniteness coupled with our developing awareness of our own mortality warps the brain a little. At first, like children, we want to understand it all, and right away. It is very important that everyone we know knows how much we know. As we relax a little and escape just enough carnage to finally be able to sleep through the night, we start to take ourselves out of the equation and live through the enjoyment and discoveries our passengers reap for their first times, while relishing the fact that the canyon is so much greater than all of us. Then, as we live through more and more carnage, seeing good friends and role models drop off but somehow luck out enough to stay in the game ourselves, we start morphing the canyon into a goddess-like entity/consort that will continue to allow us through if only we can keep saying the right words and refrain from hubris. “She loves us in Her way.” How generous of Her. The fortunate few, whose dedication to the place outlives most men’s dedication to their wives, have a common Buddha-like sense of humor, and quite a healthy dose of crazy to boot. An acceptance of impending death, because statistically speaking, they should have been dead long ago.
Finally, “Nature wasn’t thinking about you in the first place.”
All just thoughts from a still-novice city girl turned river guide with too much time during the off-season to overanalyze people who deserve more from her. There really might be something to it though—maybe obscene amounts of time spent in the Grand Canyon could be just what our society needs to pull our collective head out of our collective arse and stop taking this life so seriously. We will all be dust before “She” even notices we’ve been here, after all. Or maybe we’re just getting too much sun down there.
In 2002 I discovered the Grand Canyon as a passenger with my mom on a 13 day row trip, and spent the next five years elbowing my way— WFR, CPR, and Back Country Food
Handler’s license in hand—back into the most majestic ditch in the world. Since 2008, I have been blessed with the best job a city girl could dream for herself. I hope to spend the rest of my life learning more about the canyon, and sharing our little world with
people just as excited about it as we are.