I wandered for alms.
I leaned on a stick.
My whole body was weak
Suddenly I fell down
and could see clearly
the misery of this body.
My heart was freed.
-Dhamma in The First Buddhist Women
I pull up to the rim at dusk, craning my neck out the window of my truck, in anticipation of the view. View, when referring to the Grand Canyon, deserves all the superlatives, the oohs and ahs, the looks left and right given to other visitors to confirm the sheer magnificence of what lies in front of your eyes. All my prior visits to this place, have been defined primarily as a visual experience. To see, is what I come here for. This time though, standing atop the South Rim in the waning evening light, I come for something more than is perceptible to the eye.
After the Zane Grey 50 last April, on my way back north to Colorado, I’d made a (very) last minute decision to squeeze in a double crossing of the Grand Canyon. I’d set off early evening from Phoenix for the four hour drive up to the canyon. Due to other obligations, the only way to fit the run in would be to do it at night.
At about 8pm, I busy myself preparing my gels, water and headlights. I haven’t even started running but I’m already pretty beat down. The long day in the Arizona heat is weighing on me. I resist the temptation of crawling into the back of my truck for a good night’s sleep. It feels cold in the wind, so I overdress, opting for tights and a long sleeve. The dark abyss that presents itself in front of me is intimidating. It takes me a moment to motivate with a few deep breaths, then I drop in.
A star and the crescent moon, shine bright in unison, coloring the night in a silvery glow. On the first turn, a violent gust of wind kicks up the burnt red dust, staining my skin and lungs, stinging my now watering eyes. I plummet blindly down to the Colorado River letting my body ride the rails of the gravity driven singletrack. After crossing the suspension bridge, I sneak by the tents of campers, all sound asleep and push on quietly into the night. Fox comes out to greet me. Scorpions lie on the path keeping my attention focused a few feet in front of me. When I do look up, dozens of eyes light up in the surrounding brush. Bands of elk skimper furtively away up the hillside. The clamorous roar of the Colorado mutes all other sounds. The air, thick and tactile, smells of sage and wind. I crouch down by Ribbon Falls, clasping my hands together to drink its water and splash my neck and face. Thus far the running has been smooth and relaxed. I chuckle inside at the idea of cheating time. Who needs sleep anyway?
I reach the North Rim just before midnight, a touch dehydrated. I debate for a minute whether to run the extra mile and half to the ranger station to fill my bottle, but opt not to. For some reason, the simple act of making a 180 degree turn to head back to the South Rim changes my mental disposition. Nearly instantly, I find myself stumbling back down the trail overcome by fatigue. I suck down a gel in an attempt to jolt some energy back into me to no avail. After all sleep deprivation is a form of torture. Halfway back down the hill, I start glancing over my shoulder in furtive paranoia. My breathing is fast and shallow. I sense something is following me. Ghost shadows of a skeletal bird much like the one emblazoned on my shirt, flicker on the rocks, on my heels, in my head. My light is so dim, I can barely see anything. I stop just below Roaring Springs at the pump house spigot to change the lamp and refill my water. The new light literally and metaphorically brings me out of the darkness. Strangely, I can see several other beams coming towards me. What are people doing up this late? A couple comes my way. They’re hiking the route in 24 hours with 5 other people trailing right behind them. For a moment, I’m brought back to the real world. The world of hiking, of eating and sleeping. I’m brought back to the marked trail, in one of America’s most visited National Parks with campgrounds, informational signs and even a ranch along the way. Their companions come and go in a blurr. I am soon alone again. The beam of my light catches the tall cliff across the river. Three large symbols form on the rock- a dagger, an upside down coptic cross and a totem. I am not sure what to make of this; I’m not sure what any of this means. My mind drifts to a story my wife recently recounted to me about her time on the Hawaiian island of Kaho`olawe. She’d hiked up to the island’s highest point on Moa‘ulaiki mountain, in her bare feet. The basalt and pumice stone cut and tore at the frail skin of her soles. This was an act of homage to an island torn apart by 50 years of bomb testing by the U.S military. This seemingly small act was a way to experience some of the island’s pain and suffering, to take it on as her own. There is beauty in sacrifice. Sacredness of place is not always revealed in the way we wish to see it.
The canyon, the night, gradually chips away at me, peeling off layers of my being, leaving me raw, naked. The sun pushes above the horizon as I near the top of the rim. With the first rays of light, the bats that had been circling above my head for most of night, vanish as fast as they’d came. I catch a toe on a protruding rock and fall to my knees. This is why I am here. To work this body, to work this mind, as hard as can be. This is how I want to go to the grave- haggard and well used. Bowed down in a cloud of dust, I surrender to my most vulnerable state. The rocks, the wind feel closer, more intimate here. There is no me. There is no separation between body, mind and elements, just the fluidity of existence and a free, open heart.