Backstory, In More Ways Than One

Looking back on it, writing poetry was probably my entry point into writing, period. I wrote my first poem in 6th grade; I then set poems aside as one of life’s “childish things” and began writing short stories in college. (Poetry didn’t sell, “they” said, not mentioning that short stories don’t, either.) After a hiatus of 25 years, I circled back. I’m not sure what kind of poet you’d call me. Probably a shy one.

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 5, 8 p.m. ET), I’ll read my poem “Metamorphism” as part of the online celebration for the pre-publication of Wayfinding: Poetry Celebrating America’s Parks and Public Lands.

“Metamorphism” had its catalyst in a hike M, Older Daughter, Younger Daughter, and I made from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River and back, way back (2014) when Younger Daughter was 8, Elder, 12, and I was nearing 50. I wrote an essay about the hike soon after but never did anything with it.

Seven years on, my hips aren’t what they were. It’s hard to know how that hike would sit with me now. Elder Daughter is a college freshman a country away from us; Younger hardly remembers that hike but knows more hiking-lore than M and I ever did.


It seems like a good time to dust off that backstory.

According to National Park Service surveys, the average visit to Grand Canyon National Park lasts six to seven hours. The average amount of time visitors spend looking at the Canyon itself is 17 minutes, a paltry blink of the eye when juxtaposed with the fact that the Vishnu Schist formation at its bottom is almost 1849 million years old.  The crumbling Kaibab sandstone outside El Tovar Hotel’s sprawling porches at the top is, at a mere 525 – 270 million years old, positively youthful in comparison. 

But no matter how brief a visit you make to the Canyon, it’s impossible to look on it and remain unaware of the majesty of time, whether it’s geologic or more human in scale.  The shuttle buses that ferry visitors from viewpoint to viewpoint along the South Rim are surprisingly punctual (the 7 a.m. Hiker’s Express we took to the South Kaibab Trailhead drew up to the curb at Bright Angel Lodge at 7:01), but the South Rim mostly runs on what visitors sometimes wryly call “Canyon Time.”  Yes, service could be a little more prompt in the El Tovar Dining Room sometimes, but really, what’s your hurry?  As long as you can catch sunrise from the rim, when the silence of the canyon rings like a bell, you’re golden.  Unlike the rest of us, the Canyon doesn’t punch a timeclock. 

By the time we lugged our backpacks up the stairs of our motel room on the rim the night before we started off, it had been five years since I first showed A and P pictures of the cabins at Phantom Ranch.  P was eight now, A, twelve.  As a family, we had hiked hundreds of miles.  With each hike, we had experienced the ways our national parks truly are, as Wallace Stegner put it, “our best idea.”  At Kennesaw Mountain, we had learned the significance of the scallop shell tied to the backpack of a man on the trail (an indication he had hiked El Camino de Santiago in Spain).  In Great Smoky Mountain National Park, I’d admired the fortitude of a couple who packed three days’ of dirty diapers down from the top of Mt. LeConte.  We had seen pristine parks and parks in danger of being loved to death.  A and P had learned to keep themselves hydrated and Leave No Trace.  M and I had learned about teamwork, and to keep up morale.  We had also learned — practically despite of ourselves — something about time.  An eight-year-old will always ask how long until we get there?  In the end, as long as you put one foot in front of the other, you will.   

The night before we set off, the yawning majesty of the canyon 50 feet away from the motel room made it hard for me to sleep.  In some ways, I’d spent the past 12 years preoccupied with safety.  While pregnant I’d done research on the safest crib, the safest car seat, the safest car. A and P’s pajamas were fire-resistant; our kitchen cabinets had been carefully child-proofed when they were younger. Most of the parents we knew seldom let their children play in their front yards because something bad might happen. What had we gotten ourselves into? 

But in the end, hiking breaks things down into their smallest increments.  Success depends simply on putting one foot in front of the other, over and over again. Earlier, we had decided we would periodically evaluate how we (by that M and I mainly meant the kids) felt as we walked. What percent did P feel, I asked as we got off the shuttle at the South Kaibab Trailhead the next morning. 120 percent! she replied.  We waved ahead a group of older hikers who seemed far too cheerful for the early hour.  After asking another hiker to take a commemorative photograph, we adjusted our backpacks one final time, and set off.  The bottom of the canyon was a long way down. 

Throughout the morning, we walked. We drank water.  We ate our salty snacks. We walked some more.  The color of the dust changed as we moved downward through one type of rock formation into the next. Know The Canyon’s History, Study Rocks Made By Time was a mnemonic that would help us remember the different layers, a sunburned river runner on the way down to the river with a client told us during one of our breaks. We walked from shadow into sun. The girls perched on a shelf of reddish rock to watch a uphill mule train pass, the riders who had spent the night before at Phantom Ranch all simultaneously clutching for their saddle horns as their mounts swung around the hairpin turn. When we stopped for lunch, we huddled in the shade cast by the composting toilet at the Tip-off with a group of pink t-shirt-clad women who looked to be in their fifties, who’d met when their children started preschool.  They’d been making hikes “like this” — in Bryce, to Havasupai Falls — for the past six years.

Later, we lingered over our first glimpse of the Colorado, revived by the glint of malachite green far below that bore a tiny raft around a bend.  We caught sight of the Black Bridge over the river being traversed by tiny bright specks— the pink ladies we’d shared lunch with! Slowly but surely, we walked and walked and walked — into Canyon Time. 

We had been assigned Cabin 10, flanked by soaring rock and the tumble of Bright Angel Creek on one side and the hitching post where pack mule trains unload supplies on the other.  After we deposited our packs and stored our snacks in the provided food safe, we returned to the Canteen, where, aside from an occasional foray down to the creek, we would spend the afternoon in the dappled shade, listening to the stories told by fellow hikers.   One couple, retired two weeks before, was making a leisurely trip from rim to rim. One group had had their last visit thwarted by the governmental shutdown the previous fall.  Another group consisted of three generations, including an older man we had seen laboring on the trail as we descended, who muttered that this trip to the bottom would be his last one.  Those who gathered underneath the cottonwood trees, whether mule riders or hikers, had two things in common: everyone was overjoyed to be where they were, and when they stood up, their sore muscles protested.  Most of us, M observed, were walking a little bit like ducks.    


Later that evening, after a hearty supper of Hiker’s Stew, cornbread, chocolate cake and — miracle of miracles!—fresh salad, we all headed to the nearby outdoor amphitheater for the nightly ranger-led talk. The light faded from the sky; the shadowed canyon walls were drained of their rosy hue. A tiny twinkle far above us on the rim indicated the location of the Yavapai Geology Museum, where telescopes make it easier to glimpse Bright Angel Creek far below.   Up top, visitors were congregating on the porches of El Tovar to gasp over the sunset.  The buses full of tired tour-goers were headed back to Vegas. 

But all that felt very far away.  Earlier, A’s legs had carried her swiftly down South Kaibab Trail.  Later in the afternoon, P had crouched over a dam she’d constructed in Bright Angel Creek.

Somehow, putting one foot in front of the other, we had come to an oasis.  Here, communication with the outside world required a pay phone (the Instagram-savvy girls had never seen such a thing).  Here, our bodies fell into older, less complicated rhythms:  later that night we would fall asleep before nine p.m.. We’d awake the next morning before sunrise, refreshed.  

Life is full of sweet spots like this, when everything is exactly as it should be, although we’re often too distracted, too hurried, and too fearful to recognize them for what they are when they occur.  We might, in fact, live in a world that’s almost inimical to recognition of them. And how many of us are any good at carving out the space in which things like serendipity or mindfulness can even occur?

One doesn’t need to travel all the way to the bottom of the Grand Canyon to find that sort of space, of course. But somehow, in the Canyon’s vast reaches — because of its very vastness — it is able to remind us how beautiful time is, no matter how tiny and inconsequential the granules of it might initially seem to be.     

That night, a ranger strode to the front of the outdoor amphitheater.  Introducing herself as Mandy, she stooped to light a lamp.  After she finished her talk, that same lamp would cast just enough light to show us the way back to our home for the night, which was also not-home.

Only one percent of all visitors to Grand Canyon National Park ever visit Phantom Ranch, Mandy said by way of introduction.  What did that make all of us?

Nuts, a voice called out in the darkness, and we all laughed, rueful but proud.