Like the Inca Trail in Peru or the Camino de Santiago in Spain, river-rafting the 277 miles of the Grand Canyon is more than just a trip. It’s a pilgrimage.
It’s a journey from one place to another entirely — both physically and mentally. An expedition through Native American, geological, and river-running history. It’s a voyage of reflection and self-discovery, a mile beneath the earth’s surface, that will leave you forever changed.
When we first stepped off the chartered bus in northern Arizona and nervously bid farewell to society, I had no idea exactly what the coming week would bring — that the strangers I’d sized up during orientation would become not just friends to me, but family; that along with the traces of blood, sweat and tears, I’d also leave my cynicism, inhibitions, and grasp of the universe in that canyon. No — I was too busy wondering if I’d remembered to have the post office hold my mail, and worrying if I’d brought enough warm clothes. Turns out, I hadn’t.
Because along with the fun and adventure I had expected came something I definitely had not: a storm.
Within minutes of settling onto our inflatable home for the next eight days, the clear spring skies turned ominously grey. Thunder roared in the distance and soon, we were pelted by heavy droplets. Our guide paused his welcome speech to take a safe position in the raft as we drifted wordlessly into the canyon, suddenly drenched and silent. I saw lightning begin to flash in my peripherals; the rain turned to hail. And here we were, in hour one of what was to be two hundred — drifting into the world’s greatest canyon, unprotected, in a hailstorm. Our lack of conversation said what we couldn’t, or wouldn’t: What have we gotten ourselves into?
My natural reaction in these situations is to look for a way out. Surely we can turn back and try again tomorrow? Isn’t there a road out of the canyon, if the storm doesn’t pass? But of course, there wasn’t — naturally, the river only flows in one direction. As the rain soaked my dry suit, the realization slowly hit me. The only way out is through.
My prayers that the rain would stop evolved into hope that I could find comfort in the rain. To accept and even embrace the place I was in, rather than try to change it. Before long, the sound of heavy droplets pattering into the slow-flowing river reminded me how rarely we stop to listen to our surroundings. How seldom I myself sit in silence; how few people have ever sat at the bottom of the Grand Canyon in a downpour. I tried to memorize that sound, and the stillness, as the drops lightened and the clouds began to part.
By day two, the storm was a memory. We soaked up blazing sunshine on exhilarating rides down whitewater rapids. We frolicked through narrow creeks, swam in impossibly blue pools, bathed in idyllic waterfalls. We hiked to stunning vantage points, clinging to steep canyon walls, precarious ledges testing my will to see what was on the other side.
We sipped hot coffee at the first light of day, swigged beers beneath warm afternoon rays and swapped stories around a roaring campfire. Chitchat on the river morphed into philosophical conversation under a blanket of stars, and the bond within our group grew stronger. I learned how much disconnecting from the outside world could help forge a connection with those around me.
We spent an afternoon following an osprey’s flight through a meandering gorge. Pondered the complexities of our planet while watching airplanes draw puffy lines across the blue sky. Burrowed into the warmth of our sleeping bags as a bright full moon rose over the towering red walls. I began to see my place in this world a little differently from the bottom up, and learned how much slowing down could nourish my soul.
Our guides taught us much about how the multi-million-year-old canyon came to be: the ancient tribes that have called it home, the explorers who first tackled the wild river, the stories they’ve left behind. During an impromptu performance, we discovered the incredible acoustics that happen in just the right spot, bringing our group to tears. I was astounded to find that it was possible to feel so small, yet so full I could burst. My gratitude, respect and adoration for this place was overwhelming.
I could never have anticipated how deeply connected I would become to the Grand Canyon, and how difficult it would be to say goodbye to such a magical place and to the people with whom I’d come to know it. That I would genuinely weep as the speedboat whisked us away from our rafts and our guides at the end. I already knew that the trip would be worth every penny, but I was overwhelmed to learn it was worth so much more.
That’s the thing about Mother Nature. She teaches you things. I’ll never forget the ascent towards infamous “dead woman’s pass” on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, how impossibly far away and unattainable the peak appeared to be. I affixed my gaze towards the ground and told myself, it doesn’t matter if I can make it to the top. All that matters is that I can take one more step. The notion got me over that mountain, and across several of life’s mountains since. Similarly, I recall analyzing a map of the seemingly endless Camino and realizing how much more encouraging it is to look at how far I’ve come, than the distance I’d yet to go. These journeys have a way of imparting unexpected wisdom along the way. I challenged myself inside that canyon, and came away braver and stronger than I started.
In the thoughtful words of our river guide: “The size and age of the canyon is a reminder of how small we are, and how short life is. A trip through the canyon is a celebration of our brief time on this earth.” It’s a celebration I am eternally grateful to have experienced.
For more information on how to make this celebratory pilgrimage for yourself, contact Grand Canyon Expeditions.