I was also asked if I would give a short reading from my work. I gave it some thought and decided to pick an excerpt from a new article that will be published next year in a college textbook about Southwest Adventure Careers, and in a slightly different form in, An Anthology of Grand Canyons Hikes. Here is the text to the short story that I read at this event, called:
"On Being A Trail Guide"
How did I get here? In a sentence, I just followed my heart. In high school and even college, I never enrolled in courses with the primary outcome to define a career. I remember feeling incredibly lost as friends all around me identified their life choices at the age of 18 - heck, I didn’t even know that college students majored in something. So I enrolled in classes that solely were interesting to me. I followed my heart and in those wilder and freer days of the early 1970’s, I wandered into and discovered the Grand Canyon. Instead of a career path, I got a footpath. I found satisfaction far beyond a fat paycheck, a fancy car, or a big house. I became a Grand Canyon trail guide.
So what is it like? Many times each year I drive up to the canyon and enter an orientation room with nine or ten strange faces staring back at me. They seem uncertain, wondering perhaps what the hell they’ve just signed up for. Some of them are here because they’ve backpacked the Appalachian Trail and want to try their luck out west. Others are unwilling spouses, sisters, or dads who signed on reluctantly at the urging of a relative. Occasionally, a few of them are in denial about their advancing age and figure that if they can drop one vertical mile in just seven miles of trail, then maybe they still “have it.” You see all types of people who come to a Grand Canyon hike and if there has been one unexpected surprise in this line of work, it’s that people are interesting – especially when thrown hard out of their comfort zone.
The first day of a typical trek to the bottom of the Grand Canyon is devoted to getting to know one another in this classroom setting. I look at their gear and make sure they do not bring too much stuff. (Stuff is heavy, and the lighter you go down, the happier you are). It’s a great exercise to pare down your needs to a bare minimum, but at the same time it’s a fine line between sneaking through the canyon without that hardcover edition of “War and Peace” (camp reading) and leaving your boots behind (it happened once). In the course of looking at all that trail mix and underwear I slowly get a picture of my trail companions. Sometimes it makes you worry when you realize that the last time this person was on a trail was when the Boy Scouts still thought it was a good idea to bring a hatchet on a hike. Most of the time, it gets you really excited to know that you’re about to take people on the trip of a lifetime, one that they will accomplish on their own two feet. I love it.
After a day in class, it’s time to head down the trail. Invariably, someone is late to meet at the appointed time, and more often than not it’s a married couple or the person you had some concerns about the day before. I’ve noticed that folks who fail to show up on time for this little deadline are also the ones who were likely conflicted in their decision to attempt the trip or not. No matter, we’ll deal with that later and it’s time to start.
At the trailhead, people are keen to take a picture of themselves while they’re still clean. I usually do the honors, but oftentimes there are rim-bound individuals nearby who are recruited for the job. This is a great opportunity for me to have a little fun with everyone. If the chubby visitor who soon has nine cameras dangling from their wrist does not ask, I always throw out a baited comment like, “We’re going down for four days!” This usually yields the intended response: “Four days? And you have everything you’ll need in those backpacks?” Thoroughly imbued with confidence, we begin our descent.
The trail starts out steep and never lets up. Occasionally, I’ll look up after descending the Chimney and see that someone is already inordinately behind. Oh-oh, what could that be? So I stop at Oh-Ah Point and wait. I show the others what’s visible from here besides all of creation. We look east towards Desert View and in those 25 miles of unfathomable space numerous side canyons slash their way down to the Colorado River in deep but regular intervals. Between each of these drainages, jagged rows of rock project up from the recesses, with their familiar lineup of weird-looking but spectacular buttes, spires, mesas, knobs, and temples. Yes, even temples. Zoroaster. Vishnu. Brahma. Deva. Isis. Shiva. The list goes on.
Many times in these instances I wish I weren’t a guide. I wish I could be out here on my own, with my own schedule and not constantly having to tell people to keep drinking water or tie their shoelaces. I wish I could just stop here at Oh-Ah Point with my hands crossed and look in perfect reverence at a landscape that I have become intimate with through almost four decades of hiking its trails. In this imaginary solo journey, I am a prayerful and silent worshiper paying homage to bare naked rock—the most essential of all earthly gifts. Nowhere else is rock exposed in such a grand and sublime fashion as here in the Grand Canyon.
But then I come to my senses and realize that were I not a trail guide, I most likely would not be privileged to know the canyon as deeply as I do. It’s a small price to pay to experience this joyful intimacy in the great rock cathedral. I bring others into the temple and while they experience its magnificent beauty and many charms, I become intimate with it in the process. It’s a circular perfection that never seems to lose it’s meaning to me.
Wait a minute—what about “Susie”? I forgot all about her way back up on the trail. She’s missed out on all of these subtle musings as she fussed with her hiking poles or emptied the red dirt from her boots. I’m beginning to worry about the slow pace we’ve started out with and whether we’ll make it to the cantina in time for a cold lemonade. Wanting to speed things up, I ask her, “Hey Susie. How’s it going?” She looks at me, and then the group, and wonders if maybe she should apologize for holding us up. “Come on over here Susie and check this out,” one of her companions exhorts to her. Sure enough, Susie is impressed with the view. But I am far more impressed at the lessons my groups repeatedly teach me on each and every trip—camaraderie on the trail is more important than speed, togetherness is better than aloneness. I smile. It’s going to be a good trip.
I am honored and humbled by this award. Thanks to all, including my wife, Helen.