Traveling In Time
Our last day in the Grand Canyon dawns gray and thick with the promise of rain. One last time we enjoy breakfast in the wild and break camp. Soon after we push off, the storm that has hovered all night starts up with mighty gusts of wind rippling across the now-muddy river. Something upstream has clearly “flashed” or flash-flooded.
The rain comes in sheets drifting through the nigh-cool canyon. We huddle in our rain gear, faces averted, backs turned to the gusts. No one complains. We have given ourselves to the elements and this is what they are—part of the experience.
An hour later, the rain has stopped and we gawk at muddy waterfalls tumbling off the canyon walls. It’s an early cold front moving through as we learn later, but we don’t know that just yet as we float past, awed by the raw, dynamic beauty.
We bump up to Devil’s Anvil, a black boulder the size of a small skyscraper in the middle of the river. Formerly a plug corking a volcano, this chunk was catapulted here when the cauldron blew. It’s covered in scraggly mosses and looking ominous on this gray day. All “fair maidens” are invited to bestow a kiss on the thing to ask good fortune in the upcoming Lava Falls, the last of our big rapids. Welcoming the opportunity to move around and warm up, the ladies wobble to the front of the pontoons and leave wet lip prints on the smooth, black stone.
Lava Falls turns out to be only mildly less daunting than the stunning Hermit was. It’s like riding a washing machine on full churn. We bounce and slam, and waves of mud wash over us. For several moments it’s hard to tell where our boat ends and the river begins. But like the seasoned river rats we are by now, we handle the rapids with good cheer.
By late morning, we pull into Withmore Wash, our exit point. Other rafts are milling about. A pile of bags and a small herd of above-rimmers in fresh, clean clothes sit about. They watch dubiously as we make our last fire line, retrieve our bags, and shed our dripping rain gear. The air is alive with the thunderous clop-clop-clop of a helicopter landing on a sandy hill nearby. After a week in the canyon, this level of hubbub feels like a major airport at rush hour.
On account of the unnatural quantities of rain that have hit Las Vegas, there are delays all over the place, including here. Rather than boarding a helicopter and riding out, we wait. We make ourselves at home on the crowded little beach, snacking, singing, chatting, sizing up the newbies for seaworthiness with a critical eye because we’ve been there and done that and feel a little possessive about “our” raft and “our” canyon. Our paradise.
Finally the boss of the airlifting operation—a weathered ranch hand in faded jeans, plaid shirt and worn cowboy boots—appears among us. He brandishes a clipboard with our names and demands to know everyone’s weight. He finishes his intro with “You lie, you die. Any questions?”
Nope. Got that. I just gained ten pounds, maybe fifteen, and I’m okay with that.
Then everything happens very quickly. The weight math has me and five others designated as the first to leave and leave fast. As the others realize what is happening, many race up to the landing zone and throw themselves into our arms. We know that we’re all meeting just up on the rim at Bar 10 Ranch, but this is the moment where we’ll be separated by more than a few yards for the first time in days.
This is the moment the magic breaks.
As the helo revs up and lifts off, my spirit soars with the expanding views of the red-brown river in its ancient, winding walls. But my heart sinks when I see the tiny blue rafts and the frantically waving figures on the beach drop away. That raft was my home, those people my family. Has it been only six days? It feels like six weeks.
I have to swallow a small wave of panic. Sitting across from me, the woman who gave this trip to her son for a graduation present looks much the way I feel. With a grip of the hands we silently confess a bout of separation anxiety to each other.
We rise from the cloud-shrouded bowels of the earth into the sun-drenched world above. We float over chasms and canyons and finally into the prairie and Bar 10 Ranch. Six by six we meet again, make sandwiches for lunch, shop in the Trading Post and revel in hot showers. Or try to. The water is too warm, and I keep dialing it down until—you guessed it—I’m soaping up in a stream of cold water.
We dry wet clothes on the lawn and lie by them, drinking in the vista and the warmth. We share hugs and laughs and one last story of the big wave that almost got us, the rattlesnake some of us stalked, the bats that patrolled our camps, the rocks we found, the decisions we made, and the lives we will change.
Eventually the planes come, bouncing to a landing on an old air strip. With hand-written boarding passes wadded in our pockets, we reluctantly climb aboard.
As our boat captain promised the night before, Las Vegas is a shock to the senses. I look at it and feel a little like Katnis entering the Capitol. The waste of space and resources is epic. All I want is for the plane to turn around and take me back…
Take me back to the wild beauty on the Colorado river. Take me back to the peace and quiet of a riverside camp. Take me back to the beginning of time.
Take me back…