I first posted this article back in July 2007 but since I used to get so few visitors to my blog back then, I don’t think many people read it; so here it is again.
Back in the middle of summer in 1979, at the age of 23, I had some time off from my job as a laser light show operator in the carnival, so I visited the Grand Canyon by myself.
I literally had my breath taken away, when I first saw the Grand Canyon. As I stood at Bright Angel point and looked over the edge, I was so awestruck that I could hardly breathe. I was also overcome by a feeling that I would be sucked into the chasm, and I had to push myself from the barrier and turn my head away from the vista, just so I could breathe and stop myself from fainting. I always thought such things were the stuff of purple prose, and never in my wildest dreams did I think, that one could have their breath taken away by natural beauty. I was gobsmacked.
When I got my breath back I turned around and drank in the view for at least an hour. It was my intention to hike to the bottom of the canyon the next day, so I went to the National Parks office to put myself on the permit list, only to be told that I would have to wait three days, because only 75 people are allowed to stay in the canyon overnight to preserve the fragile desert environment. I had a week off from work, so I didn’t mind that much. I just was a bit concerned about how I was going to spend my time, in the interim.
Back in those days I used to think that sleeping on camping mats was for softies, and I also thought that staying at hotels was a total waste of money. So I used to just camp out in the bush in my sleeping bag without a tent or mat and that’s just what I did at the Grand Canyon. In the morning I would just pack up all my stuff, put it into my backpack and leave it with the concierge at the Bright Angel Lodge for a small fee.
As I waited the three days for my hiking permit, I sat at the cliff edge and boggled on what I saw.
While I was staring into the chasm for hours on end, I couldn’t help but think about how much time had passed as the multitude of geological strata had built up. The bottom layers of the Grand Canyon were so much older than the beginning of life on Earth. I found myself thinking about entropy, while contemplating the erosion. It seemed to me that solidity was a manifestation of time and given enough time, everything was basically liquid as entropy caused matter to succumb to gravity and flow to the lowest point.
As I had this revelation I reached out my hand to get the attention of whoever was next to me and tell them about what I’d thought. But I was alone, and as my arm swung through the vacant air, I realised that there was no one there. I felt bereft. It occurred to me that all my life, up until that moment, I had never really felt lonely, in the sense of needing to have the company of other people for company’s sake. The reason why I felt bereft was because I had wanted to share the moment and my thoughts with someone who mattered to me. It came to me in a flash that this was the first time in my life I realised why people formed relationships for other reasons besides money or amusement. Up until that point I thought that couples were in relationships just because they found each other attractive and wanted to have sex with each other rather than share their lives. No wonder I wasn’t in any long-term relationship at that time. I was too young anyway.
The three days eventually passed and I got my permit to hike to the bottom of the canyon, and stay overnight at Phantom Ranch. At the beginning of the hike I met two other travellers, and we hiked down to the bottom and stayed at Phantom Ranch overnight.
The next morning we left fairly early and started on the long hike back up out of the canyon. We left early, because in the morning, it was still a bit cool and at the bottom of the canyon temperatures can get up to about 50°C (about 120°F) as the day wears on. At the same time that we left, a little old lady from Austria, who was about 70 years old, also set off.
Being a couple of young guys, we tore off up the track, until the going got steep, and we had to stop and rest at frequent intervals. As we were standing around in the shade getting back our breath, the little old lady from Austria would catch up to us and we would take off again. This tortoise and hare race happened about 4 or 5 times, until the little old lady said to us “boys, boys, boys, you’re doing it all wrong!” Then she said to us, “ walk with me and I’ll show you how to walk up steep hills”. So off we started again, and before we knew it, we almost left her in the dust again, but as we noticed we were leaving her behind we slowed down, until she caught up with us again. Our Austrian hiking coach explained to us that if we walked in very slowly we wouldn’t get tired. So for the rest of the day we walked with her at her slow pace. Sure enough, we didn’t take a break for the rest of the day and made it up to the top without a stop.
Thanks to what that little old lady from Austria taught me on that day, I have been able to enjoy walking up long steep hills without being constantly out of breath.