On our last full day on the Colorado River, we don’t go far before pulling into shore for our first hike. Deer Creek Canyon is a gorgeous waterfall thundering in a romantic grotto. The power of the falls generates a massive mist-infused wind that steals our breath and rattles our bones.
We climb, mountain-goat fashion, to an upper canyon that spawns this silver curtain. Sometimes we cling to handholds with mere inches between our heels and a 600 foot drop. The guides are there at every step, calm, professional and helpful all the way. The view is also there at every turn, ever more magnificent, ever more enchanting.
In the upper canyon, a small pool is fed by a tiny waterfall that most of us climb into. We shriek with delight at the touch of the cold, clear waters, a welcome blessing after the arduous climb.
Later, back at the base, we dive into the grotto and frolic like children. The water is cold, the air hot, and the sky a dry and blinding blue. Life tastes full and lush, and we feel utterly in the moment, at peace and full of joy.
Just after shoving off from our lunch stop, the day turns overcast and a cool breeze rustles through the sagebrush.
We prepare for the inevitable by donning our rain gear. Within twenty minutes, thunder rumbles through the canyon, ricocheting and amplifying off the walls in ways not usually heard outside a special effects heavy motion picture. Sheets of rain follow, hanging in the wind like shimmering gray curtains. The rain is far warmer than the river, so getting soaked is no hardship. As temperatures in this part of the canyon usually reach into the hundreds, the rain feels more like a blessing.
The Grand Canyon in the rain has a scent unlike anything I have ever smelled before or since. It’s more than wet sand and sage. It’s old wet sand and thirsty sage. And very old wet rock. It’s water hissing on very old rock straight from the Earth’s core. Close your eyes and you can imagine visiting a time billions of years ago when the earth was new. You can almost smell…time.
It stops raining by the time we make camp mid-afternoon, but the wind is strong and rain still hangs thick over the canyon walls. Many excellent camp sites await us on this wide, sandy stretch of beach. Though we are told to wait a bit, most of us eagerly pitch tents for the first time on this trip. Maybe we’ll sleep I them. Maybe they’ll just be closets for our bags. Either way, we’re having fun erecting tents in the wind. Each one takes a team of people to pop up and anchor with rocks so it won’t walk away, but one-by-one we get them up and soon admire a small village of wobbling blue houses.
I know I’ve turned into a river rat when I take a leisurely bath in the cold river water under a leaden sky. I’m buffeted by gusty winds and shadowed by thunder as I scrub off the day’s grime. How strange, I think, that I am neither cold nor annoyed or even self-conscious. If anything, I feel remarkably peaceful. The canyon has done this to me, and I am in no small awe of the feat. Had someone painted this scene for me a week ago, I might well have considered changing my mind about this adventure. Not anymore. From now on, whatever it is, I can do it. After this week, as I sit here in my tent, the wind gently flapping the rain shield, I know: I can do anything I put my mind to.
For our last night, the crew produces the traditional captain’s dinner, even dressing up for us in formal wear of a sort—not counting shorts and bare feet. They wander the beach, offering up shrimp cocktails and sauce to clumps of us gathered among the tents, chatting. What a marvelous experience to eat such wonderful food in the company of new friends in this primeval environment.
For dinner we gather in a giant circle and enjoy delicious trout fillets, baked potato with trimmings and cabbage salad. Dessert is cake, fresh baked and covered in melting frosting. We manage to light a candle long enough in the wind for the birthday boy to blow it out. Then we raise a cheerful chorus of Happy Birthday for the young man who will be eighteen in just a few short hours.
The musicians pull out their guitars and provide entertainment with many funny verses of the infamous drunken sailor, bits and pieces of which have haunted us on a nightly basis since this trip began. But when one of the guides takes the guitar and sings us an original song entitled Going Home, an awed hush settles. Her voice rises bell-clear into the breezy night and merges with the rushing murmur of the beloved river of which she sings. Many are deeply moved.
The bond we formed with the river, the canyon, and each other is tightening and we secretly dread having it broken tomorrow.
In the darkness around us, the bats have risen, their twittering squeaks a comfort now. We are part of nature. We are one. All is right with the world.