I felt fear three times on the first trip to the Canyon. The kind of fear that comes from the brain stem and calls on all bodily resources to do what it takes to survive. Heart pounding, stomach clenching, and breathless. An inner voice screaming, “Run!!!”
The first time was the dream, or not, in which something crawled over my bare arm in the night. I tried to scream, but nothing would come out of my mouth. I woke up enough to look for what had to be a snake, but saw nothing. Weirdly, I went right back to sleep.
The second time was as we approached Lava Falls Rapids at mile 180, rated 8-10 on the Canyon’s 1-10 scale of difficulty. We had run 64 rapids in the days before, one of which, Crystal, is considered as difficult as Lava. All the runs were successful. No one ended up in the water, no one was hurt, and everyone had fun. We had scouted Lava: all the guides and passengers who wanted to hiked above the rapids to determine the best way to approach them. The guides were the most sober they’d been the whole trip. All the instructions we’d been given at the beginning of the trip about what to do if you ended up in the water were repeated. Our guide (nicknamed Turbo), a constant trickster in camp and always smiling, became serious. He asked us to be silent in the approach to the rapid so he could concentrate on finding the best line – the route that had the best chance of getting us through without crashing into rocks or being sucked into holes that would pull us to the bottom of the river. The roar of the rapids warned us to enter at our own peril. Turbo shouted, “Hang on!” The raft crashed into house-high waves we couldn’t see until we were in them. At that point, there was no time or space for fear, and I released myself into the moment, screaming and shouting, along with everyone else in the raft.
The last time I felt fear in the Canyon involved jumping off a ten-foot cliff into the River. We were just a couple of days from our take-out at Diamond Creek, the end of the trip. I was feeling fully alive and fearless. Up to that point I’d hiked narrow ledges, climbed steep rocks, and was an old hand at hanging on through wild rapids. I was cavalier and even excited for the experience right up until the moment I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down. My body seemed to think I was standing at the top of a skyscraper and did everything in its power to make me walk away. Everyone else had gone once. There was a line behind me of people excited for their second turn. All but a couple of the two dozen passengers on this adventure were raring to hurl themselves off this cliff – again. I needed to decide, and quickly, so that I didn’t become the focus of well-meaning attention. The choice to do the trip in the first place was about facing fear. I knew I’d be sorry if I let fear dictate my actions this time. So I walked away from the edge, turned and ran toward it. And jumped. Screaming all the way to the River.
In the months, weeks, and then days leading up to that first trip I lived with more fear than I was willing to say out loud. It started with the Acknowledgement of Risk form we had to sign. I made fun of the language while at the same time wondering if I was up to so much risk at age 62. Trauma. Mental anguish. Impaired health. Injured. Death. Hypothermia. Heat stroke. Snakes, scorpions, fire ants. All were subtly downplayed. All were mentioned, I assumed, because at some time someone had experienced them. One of the books I read prior to that trip was about all the deaths that had occurred in the Grand Canyon, including deaths on the River. Oddly, that was reassuring. Most Canyon deaths in modern times involved alcohol and stupidity, neither of which were going to be factors for me. Still, what if my aging and moderately out of shape body wasn’t up to the challenge?
Not really trusting the list provided by the company, I was afraid of not being adequately prepared. I read and reread the list, scoured the company website and blog, studied pictures for clues. I worried about privacy, going to the bathroom, and living with complete strangers for two weeks. What if Walt and I didn’t get along? What if my new hip couldn’t handle the rigor? What if, what if, what if. I countered the fear voices with lists, and piles of gear, and reading everything I could get my hands on.
Ultimately, the anticipation of the absolute magic of what we were about to embark on won out. The minute our raft floated away from shore into the River, facing downstream in the hot June sun, all fear disappeared completely.
I didn’t even read the Acknowledgement of Risk form for this next trip until today. Walt typed my name at the bottom and sent it in last February. All the things I worried about before the first trip either happened and were handled, or didn’t happen. All the things that I didn’t worry about, and would have if I’d known, happened and were handled, and did nothing to diminish the joy of the trip.
It seems like I should be afraid, maybe just a little, as I prepare to experience the Colorado River for the second time. I do get little niggles of something gut-squeezing when I consider the ants and the scorpions and the rapids. I got lucky the first time. The more often a person goes through the Canyon, the more likely they’ll experience more of the less pleasant aspects. And this time I’m going alone. Without Walt to rely on or turn to or talk to, I’ll be on my own to solve problems and face the world in all its messy glory.
Passengers can be jolted, jarred, bounced, thrown to and fro, and otherwise shaken about during rides through some of these rapids . . . . It is also possible that some participants would suffer mental anguish or trauma from the experience of being thrown about in the rapids.
When I read that statement from the Acknowledgement of Risk form today, my mind went immediately to my brother. My middle brother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in March. Our journey with him in his physical and mental decline, much more rapid than any of us were prepared for, has been much like riding the rapids of the Colorado River. Fear sneaks up on me in the nether hours of the night when sleep should be healing me. It slithers across my arm, leaving me breathless. While I was relieved at first to have an answer to puzzling behaviors that emerged over the last couple of years, now I’d rather not make the journey through these particular rapids. Rapids that no amount of scouting will really help me travel through without a fair amount of mental anguish. I’ll think I’m getting used to this new normal, and then my brother does something uncharacteristically thoughtless. Evidence that he can no longer manage his life overwhelms hope that medication will buy him time. I look over the cliff into the unknowns of where this disease and his response to it will take us and I want to turn and run the other way.
I wonder what I’m afraid of with my brother. Snakes and cliffs and rapids all threaten physical harm. Those fears are rational, or at least have roots in something concrete. My brother’s decline will not harm me physically. The loss of him as I’ve come to know him in the last few years does not threaten my life. His is not my first major loss. But it is unique. He’s my brother. He’s still here and likely will be for some time. But all that makes him essentially him, all that our current relationship is built on, is slowly disappearing with each new cell-death at the center of his brain. So the grieving is unfamiliar. And the unfamiliar is fertile ground for fear. There is no amount of reading or information gathering that will ease the pain or smooth the journey. My newly acquired expertise in Parkinson’s Disease does nothing to soothe me or ease the fear of the huge unknown at the edge of this cliff.
What can I do except what I’ve chosen to do every time fear tells me I can’t. I do exactly the opposite of what it says. And so with my beloved brother, whom I hardly know any more, I walk away. I turn. I run full tilt and launch myself into the air. Screaming all the way, but airborne and committed and refusing to be dictated to by fear.
It may be part of the power of a River experience through the Canyon. There’s no way to get through it or life without being shaken about and suffering in some form. Living with my brother’s decline and the loss of relationship that brings is the latest rapids I’m finding my way through. I had decided that I didn’t need to jump off the cliff on this second trip on the Colorado. I didn’t want to experience the stomach-lurching, heart-freezing, run-like-hell feeling again. I might change my mind. Perhaps experiencing that real challenge of fear will give me the strength I need to continue launching myself into each new unknown as it presents itself with my brother’s illness.
When I head south in six weeks, I will travel with the sadness of the losses that accumulate daily. I will search for wisdom in the River and the billion year old rocks and the song of the canyon wren. I will seek peace under the blanket of the Milky Way. I will surrender myself, and my fears, to the heat and the beauty and the flow.