Wild Sacredness: Floating through the Grand Canyon
Here begin the terrors
Here begin the miracles
―The Legend of the Grail
Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time?
That the river is everywhere at the same time, and that the present only exists for it,
not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha
“Oh, Eeyore, you are wet!” said Piglet, feeling him.
Eeyore shook himself, and asked somebody to explain to Piglet
What happened when you had been inside a river for quite a long time.
― A.A. Milne
Something certainly does happen, being inside a river for quite a long time, as I found out on our wonderful eighteen-day dory float trip down that part of the Colorado River that runs through the Grand Canyon. The question is: what exactly happened? To say I was totally saturated through-and-through by the grandeur and sacredness of the canyon does not fully explain it. I am loath to call it a religious experience because that brings forth ideas and concepts that limit and categorize the experience in ways that may not do it full justice.
What happened is this: I rediscovered myself through intimate contact with wildness and sacred landscapes, both inside and outside myself. I floated through time, experiencing eons in each moment and the secret timelessness of the river. I embraced anxiety, fear and joy through the miraculous and terror-filled wild chaos of a free-running pristine river. I gradually transformed my neurotic fear of white-water into a loving respect and fondness for the emerald-green “pillow” of the tongue of the rapid and the churning white waves that pounded our small craft. I understood at a deep level the knife-edge path we walk in our daily existence and our utter dependence on each other, our boatmen, and powerful forces I cannot understand. Although I felt these forces as full of love I also experienced them as totally indifferent to any of my personal desires and needs.
My experience is one of being beyond time and the demands of our modern world. No phones, no TV, no email, no advertisements. Our touchstones became dark and dawn, first and last canyon-wall light, night-time campfires, the big dipper, and shared stories, meals, and lives. As we descended further into the canyon each day, we floated through layers of rock sediments: Kaibab formation, Coconino sandstone, Redwall limestone, Bright Angel shale and others. I also traversed an inner landscape, becoming aware of and traveling through the many layers of my personal history and conditioned self: playing in streams and marshes as a youngster, college life and a year abroad, marriage and children, divorce, protest rallies, working with the homeless, reaching retirement, and being with dying parents.
I had time to recall, welcome, and savor these events as we traveled deeper into the core of the canyon. As we descended we naturally welcomed more intimacy, became less concerned with modesty and shared our lives more deeply. As we encountered the smooth dark luminous granite at the bottom of the canyon, I felt I was touching parts of myself that are often hidden and forgotten. With the time and space to just be on the river, all these inner landscapes were present at once in a mysterious way, similarly to all the different layers in the canyon being present right now—evoking a powerful sacredness, timelessness, and gratitude that touched me at the core.
What happened was a trip to the center of my being—literally, figuratively and spiritually. All this happened with laughter, bawdy jokes, freshly made guacamole, the roar of rapids as we fell asleep, sand permeating everything, the smell of coffee in the morning, and a sense that this was a trip of a lifetime from which I will always be totally wet-to-the-marrow.
Returning from the river, I find myself moving more slowly and seeking out places of natural beauty and solitude, especially those places with the sound or sight of water. I rarely have the TV on now, and am finding it difficult to keep up with the hectic pace of urban life. I welcome this shift and am grateful for what I experienced and learned from being “inside a river for quite a long time.”
Like other experiences that touch the inexpressible radiance that is always present, one cannot easily talk about it and whatever one says falls short of the actual experience. I give way to Rumi to capture just a taste of it:
Let me show you one tiny spot of the beauty that can’t be spoken.
I’m like an ant that’s gotten into the granary, ludicrously happy
And trying to lug out a grain that’s way too big.