I won’t be in the Grand Canyon physically until next week, but most of the rest of me is already there. As I pack, every item I put in my duffel reminds me of the first trip. While I work to get things ready here so I can leave feeling like I’ve left ducks in a row for Walt, I already feel his absence next to me in the raft. Every story I read about the Canyon and the Colorado puts me back there. I feel my whole being lighten whenever I’m given a chance to talk about how much I’ve fallen in love with that place. Memories from the first trip resurface as I look at pictures, reread my journal, remember the person who was in this place two years ago.
Big Ed was the Navajo driver who took us from Flagstaff to Lee’s Ferry. He informed us early on he was Navajo, not Hopi, which turns out to be an important distinction. His single braid, bandanna headband, and slightly accented speech were the first indication that I was leaving the world as I knew it behind. He told us the Colorado River changes people. He joked that the changes would run deeper than our sunburned faces and blistered feet and two-weeks-without-a-shower fragrance. I was eager to discover what the River and the Canyon had for me, how I would be different at Diamond Creek 13 days down river. I had hopes: a deeper understanding of God, my marriage revitalized, renewed energy to finish a career that was sucking the life from me.
As it turned out, I was able to retire just a year after that first trip – three years earlier than we’d originally planned. After two weeks in the Canyon with no demands other than simply being and enjoying my experience, I came home knowing deeply that I was not willing to lose any more time than I absolutely had to. Now, at the end of my first year of retirement, I know that was one of the wisest decisions I’ve ever made. It’s an interesting symmetry, two Canyon trips bookending my last year of teaching and my first year of retirement.
While Walt and I left the Canyon feeling closer than we had in years, the day-to-day wiped that out pretty quickly. Both of us are at the beginning of old age, but each is traveling the road very differently. A friend provided the analogy of a bridge. I’m moving forward, eager to see what’s on the other side of the bridge in front of me. Walt seems uninterested in what’s across the bridge, and is content to stay where he is golfing and napping and watching television. While we decided together that I would do this trip solo, I worry about crossing one bridge too many. About losing sight of each other completely.
It seems like I’ve spent my whole life trying to understand God. The minute I thought I had an answer to a question about God, a new question would emerge and I would be left more confused than before. I grew up with a mom who used God as a weapon and taught that God hated liars. I went to churches where we were taught that following rules and Jesus made God happy. I joined a cult where I was taught that all the answers to all the questions were in the Bible. I had questions all along. Questions for which the answers always seemed weak or wrong. Questions that were taken as doubt and rebellion and answered with scripture that told me to believe and not question. The questions would not go away, so I asked them in different places. Buddhism offered sanctuary and a new way of seeing, being, thinking. I didn’t find answers there, but I did find new questions that left me feeling more alive and somehow on the right track.
I figured if I couldn’t find God in the Grand Canyon, I probably was never going to. Natural beauty, solitude, vulnerability – the perfect conditions for hearing the God voice. What I found was a realization that the mystery that is God, and the magnificence that is the Canyon, are both far beyond my human ability to corral and define and absorb with any level of complete understanding. The existence of one, the Canyon, seems to me to prove the existence of the other, God.
While we were in the Canyon, it felt like we were guests in God’s garden. Evidence of God’s presence was so palpable there was no way to deny it: the grand vistas, the falling trill of canyon wrens, the bright tropical blue of the Little Colorado. The rainbow that emerged over the canyon wall at dusk while we listened to the trip leader tell us stories. The full moon that lit our nights with the gentleness of candlelight, and the dark nights that revealed universes beyond comprehension. The River itself carrying us along like a sentient being whose purpose was to teach us how to be human, maybe more than human.
If I can’t really grasp the mystery and magnificence of either God or the Canyon, the next best thing is to spend time with them.
When I decided to go back, I didn’t really think about how I wanted to be changed this time. I wanted the feelings I had then. I wanted to experience the Canyon without the distraction of the anxiety inherent in any new adventure. I wanted to spend time in God’s garden, and maybe, just maybe, catch a glimpse of his face this time. I still want those things, but there is something else, too.
About halfway through the first trip we stopped at a place called Blacktail Canyon. At the back of the canyon there is an exposed place in the rock called the Great Unconformity. While this unconformity stretches through much of the Grand Canyon, in this place it’s low enough to touch. Geologically an unconformity is a place where there is missing time between layers of rock. The Great Unconformity spans over a billion years. In one of my favorite pictures from that trip, I’m standing with arms outstretched, hands on the canyon wall, a billion years unaccounted for in between. I’m grinning at the camera like that missing time makes sense. The truth is just the opposite. Like so much of the Canyon and floating the River, the vastness of it, the aliveness of it, the Great Unconformity is far too much to absorb.
The fact that no one has an answer for why a billion years are just not there leaves me both unsettled and almost giddy with the mystery of it.
One of my favorite things to do as we floated endless hours on smooth water under skies as moody as March was to ask questions of the guides. Most of those questions were of the “what’s that?” variety. Some were “who are you?” questions. Some were about the history of the Canyon. All of the questions had answers, and I found that satisfying, even as those answers triggered more questions. As I’ve prepared for this second trip, the company has sent a number of emails inviting me to ask them any questions I might have about the trip.
The logistical questions were all pretty much answered on the first trip. I’ve done as much research as is possible, and read every blog post the rafting company has written. The questions I have about who the guides and passengers are, I don’t want answers to until I can see for myself.
The most important questions I’m taking to the Canyon can’t be answered in an email. Certainly not by the employees of the rafting company. Maybe not at all.
I wonder what’s going to happen to my marriage as we seem to drift farther apart each day. I wonder what this next year of retirement will bring, and what might be the best next steps for me. I wonder how I can matter. I wonder what’s going to happen with my brother as he learns to live with Parkinson’s, and fades away from me like the last embers of a campfire. I wonder about my relationship with my other brothers as we all cope with the loss of our middle brother differently, and not always in a loving way.
I wonder how much time I have left. I wonder about dying and death and what, if anything, is on the other side.
The poet David Whyte says, “a beautiful question shapes a beautiful mind. And so the ability to ask beautiful questions, often in very unbeautiful moments, is one of the great disciplines of a human life. And a beautiful question starts to shape your identity as much by asking it as it does by having it answered.”
Soon I will make a second pilgrimage into God’s garden, his personal cathedral. I take my questions with me, tucked in my bag along with sunscreen and a map. Instead of looking for answers this time, I will release those questions, and search for new ones. Questions that will shape my end of days, my marriage, my relationship with my brothers. Questions that will reveal my true shape and calling and open my heart to all the uncertainties of life. Questions that will lead to more incomprehensible questions that will carry me home.