It's a hard place to capture, even a hard place to place, as it lives outside of possibility, a place so harsh that to survive, you must engage the world as a porcupine, an agave, a raptor, a barrel cactus bristling with anticipation of external contact while patiently awaiting the rains that come in sheets and rub you from your minuscule perch upon a rocky precipice.
The land in the southwest is marked by particular geographic features that are the result of worlds prior to this one. Long ago, the world was an ocean, and beneath its waves, layers of sediment slowly trickled to the bottom, stacking themselves into a thick mud containing all the signatures of its time.
When the world shifted, the waters receded, the armored plates of our iron core floated abruptly into each other and wrinkled like the corners of the eyes in a aged smile. The rocky mountains rose from the depths of the sea, creating a rugged spine across our continent, and at their base, the Colorado plateau was formed when the ancient seabed was thrust upward.
When humans arrived in this new world thousands of years ago, they were greeted by an eagle. They had just crossed the pacific ocean, island hoping for hundreds of generations as one island disappeared and the next appeared, until they arrived at the rocky coasts of this world.
The eagle tested them, piercing their hearts with an arrow, but these first humans did not flinch, and the eagle allowed them passage into this land. The first humans to walk this new world crossed it upwards, downwards, east and west, living in the highlands, the lowlands, the ice and snow, the tropical forests and finally, after generation upon generation of nomadic life, came to the great southwest to build their final home in the harshest desert they knew.
It was by choice that these people came to live in a land so hard that life becomes the great uncertainty, a land that required them to live on faith and diligence to a universal plan, an assurance that the world would continue to be as it should provided its occupants live within its fold.
As I descended into the canyon, pushed by the force that powers Las Vegas, with no hope of pushing back upstream against it, I was engulfed by stone walls a mile high offering no route to their pinnacles. This is the fortress of the earth, and I am pulled into it with an uncertainty that smells of fear but leaves the sweet taste of anticipation lingering.
Humans have indeed tamed this wild river, or as Floyd Dominy said, "put the river in business", we've built two concrete walls that hold back its flow and harness it's energy, we've spanned it by foot bridge and road, and we've devised resilient craft to navigate its swift waters. We have guide books that detail each of the side canyon's perilous hikes and describe the hydraulic formations that have drowned many a life. Our great birds of the air can swiftly pluck us from the fray, and our satellites above guide us with precision by passing on our signals with ease. Yet despite this great feat of our minds, or persistent domination of the natural law, as I floated into the mouth of marble canyon, two hundred and twenty five miles upstream from the nearest road, I suddenly felt very alone, and firmly in the grasp of a force much greater than human imagination.
Each day in the canyon became a contract, wherein I, the dutifully informed, became subject to the actions of the universe. In exchange, I was given awareness of my place among them, a human, a wanderer, and observer and an actor, the spirit of love an laughter, alive to sing praises and vibrate in harmony with the world around me. I had no power to change my universe, to construct my reality, to place a phone call and lift my spirit from the depths of the canyons, to grow my food, to build my home, all this was decided for me by the current, the waves and the eddies, the shape of the rock walls towering over me, the spinning of the stars around the anchor Polaris, the decision of the sun each morning to shine its radiant glory upon my face, the slow and steady departure of the moon from the sky and its gradual return, the first wisps of cirrus clouds drifting across a sliver of blue sky, and coming around the corner to find the canyon blocked by a deep, dark grey wall of wind and water traveling my direction. These were the forces that conscripted my participation in an obligatory manner resulting in my survival and emergence from deep within the earth. Within a few days it became quite clear that this contract was not optional and that a failure to honor it would entail certain death.
Life within the canyon, in the desert, is regulated by necessity, not desire. The frigid water that carves through solid rock was once the life blood of the canyon, depositing silt upon the shores to create deltas and beaches hospitable to human form, carrying a multitude of fish and other life along its boulder-strewn path and offering food and nourishment to all those that lived by its waters. But now that we have put the river in business, its wild and unpredictable floods have been tamed, its silt is sifted by the sieve of engineers, and its waters run a life-less, frigid course from the depths of lake powell.
Although evidence of prehistoric human life within the canyon exists in places like Nankaweip with its masterfully built stone granaries and Unkar delta's ruins, life in the post dam canyon with out the aid of modern technology seems impossible. Their is little food in the desert to be found in adequate quantities to satisfy a human's metabolism, and the few camps that remain provide scant evidence of agricultural opportunity.
Today, life in the canyon is a transit, from one dam to the next, with the concrete assurance of safety from its torrential floods. All food must be carried into the canyon, and all waste carried out to maintain a semblance of an ecosystem. A permit holder is the government sanctioned pioneer of a well-trodden trail through its walls, and an expedition the predictably equipped crew carrying out its legislated duty to observe and protect this great wonder of the world. We are not here to be the canyon, to play a part in its life, we are here as documentarians, recording the world we separate our selves from with layers of polypropylene, neoprene, vinyl, nylon, gortex, polyethylene, polyester and polyurethane, and returning to broadcast our results.
As we travel, our bodies are worn, despite our protective covering, and they begin to look like the canyon walls themselves. The desert consumes, slowly and surely, with a defiance of all protective layers, spines and extrusions, the solid form of stone becomes fluid with the wind and the waves, and our skin becomes cracked and separated like the drying mud. As we flow downstream in our steadily degrading rubber rafts, our food gets soggy, then moldy, rancid and spoiled. Our clothing frays, our bedrolls grow irreparably soiled, our water filter laden with sediment, and our spirit of perseverance is worn through by the relentless tide of the elements. Yes, humans have lived here, in the heart of the desert for thousands of years. Many of them have come and gone, entire cities packed up and disappeared, perhaps because over time, their spirits were also worn through, but some have stayed, some remain perched high on the mesas. living simply and harmoniously through it all, unafraid of the wind and rain, unchallenged by the scarcity of food and the rarity of water, the Hopi, their name meaning 'peaceful', adherent to the the universal plan, compliant to the way things are.
As I emerge from the canyon, tired, no exhausted, scraped, cut, torn and bleeding, my first view is of the Hualapai reservation town of Peach Springs. i see rows upon rows of delapidated, fenced in box homes of sheet rock and commercial negligence, the bare bones of what the government can provide and still consider 'aid', a redskins flag hanging in one window and a fence around each and every yard, government issued as an answer to escalating violence. We continue on, leaving the dirt road for concrete and asphalt, confronted by a string of billboards offering lavish and decidant rewards for our participation in this new contract, we continue over the dam that holds back the mighty river, a fortress of engineered perfection, standing in defiance of nature, an act of water conservation that stops the river and transfers its force into powerlines as thick as your arm, strung across steel titans that receed in rows towards the glowing light on the horizon, the spotlights projecting miles into the sky to bounce of the growing clouds and back onto the illuminated strees of las vegas.
I am now aware that I passed through the canyon as an act of will, but survived as an act of grace. I delved into the depths of the canyon seeking adventure, stories, documentation of this wild and inhospitable chasm of the earth, and I returned solemn, aware and akward in my former surroundings. For nearly a month of my life, I signed a contract with the universe, allowing me safe passage through treacherous waters, and I fulfilled my terms with adherance to the order of the universe and I paid the price through a fundamental reconstruciton of my heart. I asked for the power of the canyon, for the healing of its walls, i listened to the stories of its history and heard the tales of its futures, I obeyed its irrefutable command with the diligence of a feather in the wind, and I returned knowing my place in this world is small, on a narrow rocky ledge that I must struggle to cling to, growing as the water and sun provide and standing tall and proud, knowing that all is right and good and the universe is unfolding with certainty, exactly as it should.