FAST WISDOM™ NEWSLETTER
By Lonner Holden
Grand Canyon: River at the Top of the Mountain
For ten days in the middle of this month, I wandered Southern Utah and Northern Arizona in search of new locations and trail routes to highlight my annual October Grand Canyon group trip. Diverging in this issue from the usual format, the following article is composed of excerpts from my trip journal.
Starlight as Connective Tissue
No moon, no clouds, no lights. The Ponderosa branches silhouette against the starry night like the feathers of a great bird in flight through black space. And I? I live in symbiosis within this plumage, living off the body they are so beautifully arranged on as I do my best to not harm this being upon whom my life depends; tending it, walking lightly through its cherished landscapes, singing softly. We fly together, me riding the Bird of Paradise, courting Heaven for another chance to be known by Creation. Stars are everywhere. Their light radiating in every direction; starlight intersects at every point in what we call emptiness. Space a-weave with luminance, brimming with infinite points of light connection as if to hold the universe together; as if to create infinite pathways of possibility - all viable, all waiting to be tried, all lonely for to be seen, appreciated and perhaps even worshiped. Invisible fabric connecting everything; invulnerable to hopelessness, pessimism, doubt, fear.
Healing Hands for Mules
The dogs wag welcome through every muscle; eyes, tails and tongues agog at my new presence. Two mules and three horses shuffle along in the corral kicking up puffs of light-filled dust in the warmth of the midday sun. The day is warmed from the night’s Autumn chill. My hostess greets me, introduces me to the mules, Chub and Magpie, retired Grand Canyon trail mules. Sturdy, gentle, friendly, big. Chub suffers from arthritis. I ask him for permission to put my hands on him. He holds still, relaxes into my touch - one hand at the base of his neck, the other on the base of his haunches on the same side. A few minutes pass and his head slowly lowers as if he is going to go asleep standing here during our brief healing session. These points of contact on his onyx black body - as on any body - remind me of the starlight from the night before. Of how points intersect and communicate with one another through trails that connect. Everything interrelated and interdependent. Outside sipping tea at the patio table, we pour over maps - I have the attentions of a long-time local guide who holds many secrets, not all to be disclosed at once. With the strong tanned hands and lined fingers of a person who lives and works largely outside, she traces roads and pathways to and between distant viewpoints with vistas reserved for the hardy and informed few; ancient ruins not found with the slightest wrong turn on a rough-hewn and weather beaten forest service road; slot canyons difficult to discern on topographical maps because they are so narrow, elevation lines cannot be printed legibly close enough to define them; where the ground is reliable, where to be cautious of quick sand. Upon parting, Chub and I touch foreheads together in farewell. Our two heads share one point of connection. We are still and quiet together for a long time.
Sunrise at Marble Point
Climb out to the point boulder over boulder over boulder to where empty space falls away defining the end of this narrow razorback ridge. The east end of the Grand Canyon lays below me, pale green velvet in the twilight cut by parallel drainages, some of them hundreds of yards wide, yet appearing thin as the cracks between my tightly held together fingers. The sun’s first splash strikes the tops of the pines which encircle my campsite a quarter mile behind me. The bright paint drips down the trees, across the plane of the North Rim and quickly rushes at me, coating me in glorious pale gold. Light with no warmth, yet. Light whose endowment is to first make all things seen before it becomes generous, releasing later the energy from its golden treasure. Hat secured on my head against the brisk alpine air, gloves forgotten back at the tent, fingers stiff as they embrace the cold rock I sit on, feet dangling over the edge. The Cocks Combs - a geologic string of huge rock humps - undulate before and below me in and out of a sandstone sea like a massive stone serpent trapped in time along its five mile north to south length. The humps cast the first light in long parabolic shadows towards me, as if I am being sensed by the creature. Am I prey? Am I a neutral presence? Am I a mere curiosity? But I am saved from capture as the sun slowly and determinedly rises higher. The shadows shorten; the serpent withdraws its interest, moves away from me back into its frozen path.
Campfire Stories At Paria Canyon
Arriving after dark, the contours of the sandstone cliffs above the campground are concealed, jealous stars demanding all the attention. The high desert chaparral visible only by the rude intrusion of my headlights. I invite even later arrivals to share my fire. Four young men - students at University of Utah drove all day from Salt Lake. Fall mid-term break. Their dinner, prepared by one of their mothers - hovers in foil on the grill of the fire pit above the flames. We share stories: most amazing travel destination, most awesome moment in the wild, politics, degree majors, biggest wish, philosophy - such as why does beauty affect us? The dinners warm barely enough beyond the chill of the cooler and down they go. The firelight jumps around on our faces, distorting expression but never distorting the words. The stories carry character, difficulty transcended, facing the unexpected, triumph, irony, confusion, hard-won wisdom and offer new curiosities. Our stories are strung like beads on the same threads of empathy. The necklace encircles us. Though strangers, we share the jewelry of being human. Before tossing my sleeping bag out under the spell of shooting stars, I sweep the sand smooth with a piece of firewood to see the tracks in the morning of who my critter night visitors were.
Colorado River Condor Tracks
The river boat lands on one of several beaches on the four hour drift down the Colorado River from Glen Canyon Dam to Lee’s Ferry. Minutes before we had seen a California Condor soaring along the top edge of an eight hundred foot high shear cliff. Its wing span so broad it made the red sandstone cliff appear only half as high as it really was. With only ten minutes for this stop, most make a direct inland rush for the pit toilets. I make a rush down the beach for tracks. Some domesticated dog, as this is still BLM land where you can come upriver in your boat with your dog. Then this strange set of fresh large bird tracks walking perpendicular to and towards the gentle and clear, cold water’s edge. Not the tracks of the Great Blue Heron we had seen shortly ago, but certainly the stride of a heron. These were more like game bird tracks. More like Turkey Vulture tracks. But much bigger and a much longer stride than Turkey Vulture. The tracks held a story of who was here and what they were doing. They beckoned to me to inquire deeper and in doing so connect to the story. I looked carefully at them and into them. Their details and their feel; the broader context of where they occurred and of what would this creature be doing here? Condors need to drink, too. And this is the only water source for miles. Condor tracks in the sand. A beach without predators where humans in boats could be easily detected in time to take to the air. The questions link me to the story. The path is not always obvious, but is always there.
Grandview Pitch in the Dark
Lock my keys and gear in the van just before my scheduled late afternoon descent down into the Grand Canyon for the solo five day excursion into remote and primitive territory. Elevation - 7,400’. Hours later a kind and skilled Ranger arrives to sneak my keys out of the glove box. “Be careful. The first part is steep and bordered by a cliff.” I hike down Grandview Trail in the dark with two head lamps - one on my head and the other around my waist to graze the trail with detail-revealing light. Where they shine into space and no image shines back is a five hundred foot cliff defining the outside edge of the trail. Hiking poles click on the rocky substrate like twin blind man’s canes. What is stable, what insecure, what trickery? Every step deliberate. My heavy pack rocks side-to-side occasionally, pulling me off-center just enough to elicit a small gasp and a quick correction. Crickets quiet as I trundle by. Sometimes, when I stop, there is more silence rising from inside the Canyon than warm air. I feel conspicuous but there is no one around to see me. I am beginning to arrive here - the great shrine of listening.
Trail as Character of Landscape
Second day in the Canyon. Long, hot trail day, one water stop at Hance Creek. No water for about five to six miles passed it until the Colorado River. The East Tonto trail follows the uneven plane of the Tonto Plateau in and out of a hundred small drainages and tributary canyons. For many stretches the unmaintained and remote end of the trail out here is indistinguishable from the rest of the terrain. I stop, look around and see spaces between the low prickly pear cactus and sage brush or between rocks. Any of these spaces could be perceived as the trail. But only one is the true path. Alone, I carry higher risk and therefore a higher mandate of risk management than I would if traveling with others. Getting lost is not an option. I covet my topo map, pick my way along carefully, no time for day dreaming. In many places where the terrain becomes a jumble of boulders across a drainage, there is absolutely no discernible trail but for the cairns of stacked stones left by previous travelers which mark the way. They can be seen one from the location of the other, especially where the trail is most vague. I imagine traveling thorough these stretches, tired, hungry, dehydrated, mind weak and easily confused. Worse, all these conditions at night. Were it not for the cairns, losing one’s way would certainly be inevitable. Getting lost uses valuable calories, one weakens, begins to make rash decisions. The Grand Canyon is filled with stories of rescue and death when these circumstances prevail. I begin to have reverence for the nonchalant stacks of stones. They are life-savers. This is how Canyon backcountry sojourners care for one another. My way, while not seeing another soul for hours and miles of hiking, is being lit by people who preceded me whom I shall never know. This is a stone dance of empathy. A way we connect with one another as one traverses, connecting the dots made by others. I begin to repair fallen cairns and create more new ones. Cairn service becomes my practice. I create security for others who will succeed me whom I will never know. I am traveling solo, but am not alone. In this state of strengthened trust, I begin to feel the character of the trail. I relax my analytical approach to discerning it. My body seems to know the way, seems to feel the subtle tones of what is traveled and what is not. There is a compass in my belly and the trail pulls on it harder than does the surrounding terrain. I am beginning to connect to this place; it is beginning to connect to me. As if the trail has its own volition calling me to attend to it, the trail is becoming the destination.
Itinerary as Axis of Travel
Thunder storms coming. A late monsoon season has been hammering the entire region with flash floods. Now headed so far east to the river that my permit itinerary requires me to hike back ten miles in one day tomorrow to Cottonwood. If the drainages flash flood, and the hard to see trail gets washed out, I could get trapped and stuck without enough drinkable water, risking hyperthermia. I change my itinerary, get back west a day earlier than planned while Thor punishes me on the trial with strong gusts and heavy showers. I make it half-way of the ten miles back to the west side of Hance Creek. If it flash floods, I will be on the continuing side and not trapped. Lightning spits off the rim nearly a mile above me.Thunder rolls and echoes for long stretches like a pride of great lions bellowing in a stone labyrinth. A brilliant rainbow spans the full width of the Canyon inside the towering walls, bridging the river’s Inner Gorge. Rain pelts down on the tent fly off and on all night. The right itinerary decision will be worth the added weight of lugging a wet tent the next day. I may not sleep well, but will rest peacefully.
I - Thou Backcountry Awareness
The two women are in their twenties. They have just begun their hike in; I am nearing the end of my hike out. I notice their boots and feet as they pass me. “First time to the Grand Canyon?” I ask. “Yes,” they both reply in unison. “You might want to add another pair of liner socks, Mole Skin, too. Helps to reduce rubbing on the feet and prevent blisters,” I offer. “Nope, I have hiked on the Appalachian Trail. I don’t get blisters,” replies the leading woman. “Well, it’s pretty steep for the next four and a half miles to Cottonwood - a drop of another thirty-nine hundred feet.” “Nope, I’m good. But only four and a half miles?” “Yep,” I respond. “Well, then I am carrying four liters of water. I am going to dump half of it. I don’t need to carry that much weight.” I caution her, “That four and a half miles is maybe three to four hours from here with no water sources. How do you know it won’t heat up quickly and you will need it? And how do you know someone else coming up the trail won’t need your extra water? I just gave half of the water I had left to someone coming out who needed water.” She looks at me, then at her pack, reconsidering. “What’s Mole Skin?” asks her friend. I reach inside my pack and give her my remaining Mole Skin and all the rest of my adhesive tape and tell her how to use it to care for her feet. “Welcome to the Grand Canyon,” I turn and extend my hiking poles forward into the uphill slope, cherishing every slow and steady step as if it were my first.
Climbing out of the Grand Canyon is like climbing a mountain. But the mountain is inside me, it is the walls that separate me from myself, nature and others. The river calls me back to it. The bath I took in the Colorado’s forty seven degree water down at Hance Rapid, miles from anyone, the place entirely to myself was a pinnacle of a sense of belonging in a wild place. Flow is not a property of matter, it is a state of mind. It is the attitude of caring for others as much as allowing to be cared for by others. To lead and be led; to inquire as much as provide answers. The inhibitions which alter the balance of these states inhibit flow - inhibit the river of life from moving freely. I ascend the Grand Canyon trails to the top of the mountain, bringing the river with me. Bring into my life a renewed relationship with what sustains me and connects me to deep reciprocity. The river is you, me, mules and Condors, the stars, geologic formations, lightning, cairns, and shared water and mole skin. Perhaps we are affected by beauty because we are also beautiful. When we bathe in the river at the top of the mountain, we are closer to the fabric of possibility, of your life and my life being possibilities for each other as we ride this Great Bird of Paradise on, finding our way by instinct, shared stories and shared silence, speaking as much as we listen.
NEXT MONTH: After Diagnosis: What Would My Practitioner do?
PICK OF THE MONTH: Michael Meade, Touching the Soul of the World November 19th, Mill Valley
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Fast Wisdom™ is the newsletter of my Holden Healing Studio practice. Each issue explores a theme of living approached in the context of healing. Included is a simple Jin Shin Juytsu® Healing Hands Self-Care exercise, as well as a Restorative Nature Practice™ activity to practice which relate to the newsletter theme of the month. Nutrition and health tips too, so you can live a happier and more vital life infused with well-being, improved health and more effective and empowered recovery.
© 2015 Lonner Holden