The Grand Canyon is probably the most famous gap in America after the one between Donald Trump’s ears. It’s the stuff of Wild West legend. It’s so big that in the day I spent on the rim, gazing out at that shotgun blast wound of Earth I only saw ten percent of it. Everything from my toes to the horizon for the duration of the day was just a tenth of what it was even possible to see. Probably less than ten percent considering I have quite bad eyesight at distance.
The Grand Canyon was the third trek in three years I signed up to do through work. The previous two were across the Sahara desert and over the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. In comparison the Grand Canyon trek did not sound like it was going to be as hard. The reason being that you can fly out of Vegas on a helicopter, loop around the Canyon and be back at the Bellagio in time for a Bellini. What we were doing was trekking through the depths of the canyon and camping out. It still didn’t sound quite as hardcore as Morocco or Peru but there was something about the idea that stirred me in the place I like to get stirred if I’m considering a trek. What really sealed the deal was a BBC documentary by Dan Snow called Operation Grand Canyon where a team rode traditional wooden rowboats down the mighty Colorado river. Seeing the scale of the canyon walls, the power of nature and the plight of ordinary man took me over the edge. The next morning I signed up for the trek.
My favourite thing about trekking, about getting away from it all and setting my Out Of Office email notification, is the change from my life. There’s nothing quite like going without washing for a few days, only working with what you and the team can carry, eating as much as you can and never being full, watching the sun go down and realising you miss this incredible feat every other day. That’s a number of things all under the umbrella of change from life.
When I was in the Sahara I couldn’t believe how excited our guide Saaid got as the sun headed for the horizon each day. He made sure we were out of our tents and with him. We would crouch down on the nearest dune and watch the colour of the sky change from blue to orange to red to blue to black. It was incredible. It was life affirming. It made me realise that it didn’t matter what pacifiers I had in my life, I could strip them away and there were all these amazing things I could spend my time with instead, these awesome people who had been strangers just days before. There was an incredible bond we shared as we watched the sun go down. With nothing manmade in our way the sky was an opera and it happened every day no matter where you were.
Knowing I was heading out on another trek I decided to include watching the sunset on my list. I had got so much from it in the Sahara and the idea of being in an incredible setting like the Grand Canyon and watching something like that filled me with a renewed joy for what I was embarking on.
Of course the reality is never the same as the expectation and the Grand Canyon was no change. It was great. It was grand in fact. It had the most varied wildlife and flowers and fauna. It could go from bizarre Wile E Coyote rock formations to lush greenery in just a couple of miles. I got to climb down dynamite-blown passages in the rock and I got to swim in waterfalls. I captured the kind of moments that would make my social network jealous. I wanted them to know how much fun I was having. Then came the sunset. Now the issue with the sunset in the Grand Canyon is that it comes at about four in the afternoon. It isn’t the same as the sunset on the horizon because you’re several hundred feet below the horizon so the sun just sort of goes and then it’s black. I’m sure from the right position in the Canyon it would be possible to watch the sun descend all the way down between those huge walls but we didn’t get that. We got the sun and then the darkness and there wasn’t a whole lot in between.
What was fantastic was heading back from camp to Havasu Falls to see if we could make out the stars. When we looked up from where we were you could just make out the closer and brighter ones. We knew we needed to be away from the few lights in the camp itself in order to get a clear view. We would have suggested it as a group exercise but when we turned around the others were playing a game where they tried to pick a cardboard box up off the ground with their mouths. They stood around, egging each other on and jeering. It seemed there were two kinds of people in the camp and we were the kind who wanted to watch the stars.
Somehow we managed to find a spot where the canyon was wider than anywhere else I had seen it. The moon was behind us, giving just enough light for our shadows to be a mixed grey stretching out across the brush. The amphitheatre to the heavens was free and we all had front row seats. The stars were strong so far from artificial light, they wished us well and offered us peace and safety. The longer we looked upon them, the brighter they shone, in the way love works. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you have come from, there’s something incredibly enjoyable and humbling about looking up and wondering about just how big or small we are. Nothing else seems to matter. There’s everything you need in the exact moment you are in. We all felt it, that strange pull from the beyond and that’s why nobody said anything for so long.
We were only interrupted by outside interference, by the flash of others heading our way with a pair of flashlights. We considered hiding, just keeping it between us, not allowing people outside our purposeful group to join. Eventually we allowed them into our secret society with the special handshake of a flash of our own torch and gained another two members with absolute respect for the great beyond above us. The silence resumed, our muted respect for the world above. A prayer and a gift and a wish and a belief. We were together and we were apart.
‘I’d rather be here than playing with a box in the dirt’ said my friend. It remains the most profound thing I heard while in the United States.