Desert Medicine : The Grand Canyon

“Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.”

– Edward Abbey

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Albeit with mild reluctance, I showered off 8 days of sweat and B.O, replacing the pervasive smell of campfire with the flowery Spring fresh smell of body wash; I’ve scraped away the stubble of hair from across my legs and in my armpits, and I’ve officially unbraided and detangled my long frizzy head of hair….there’s no denying it now, we’re home from our epic trip to the desert.  

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For over a week Zack and I drifted from California to Nevada to Utah to Arizona on this trip, but the truth is I had been slowly and steadily making my way to the great Grand Canyon way before this trip was planned….Before I knew  who I was really, and way before I met Zack (my person).

The Grand Canyon had been on my bucket list for over 4 years.  I’m not sure what took me so long to get there. I mean, I tried to pull together a solo trip a few times over the years but things always seemed to fall through until now. The funny thing is,  I can’t tell you how and why it even ended up on my list of “must go’s” at all- other than the obvious reason of it’s self evident magnificence.  

Perhaps I wanted to simply connect to nature… Maybe I  wanted to be reminded that I was part of something big and grand and beautiful, or maybe I wanted to see vastness and wonder in a world that at times deeply confused me….

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I don’t really know to be honest.  But as I sit here writing this, reflecting back on my life about five years ago it kind of makes sense in a strange way. The Grand Canyon popped up in my mind, and onto my bucket list a little over four years ago, around the time I was making some big changes in my life…..

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My adult life (and much of my youth in fact) thus far has been marked- some times charred- with hard turns, away from the “image” of what I thought (expected) my life would look like, and towards being true to who I am beneath the surface. Over and over again I turn into my curiosity about who I  am and allow that curiosity to thrive, even if it means letting go of some certainties along the way. 

But about five years ago I was stuck. I didn’t think I knew what I wanted in life, I was confused, fearful, and even though I had tons of love and support around me I felt terribly alone, this made me feel small.  I was  confused about the relationship I was in at the time, anxious about the unknown, and discouraged by how draining adulthood seemed to be. But here’s the thing, on the outside my life looked the way others thought it ‘should’, it even looked the way I sort of expected it to. But the secret I carried was that beneath the surface I was very disconnected from myself and my life,  and deep down I knew something was terribly wrong.

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The details of this time in my life are for a different time, it’s another story that maybe one day I’ll muster up the courage to share. The meaning of me sharing this now and how it relates to this journey I’m taking you on is that about four or five years ago I walked out of the long term relationship I’d been in, moved towns and into my own place with close to zero in my bank account, began to fix my focus on seriously building a full-time career in what I felt most passionate about, and most importantly I made the choice to learn who I was and what I loved, I made the choice to explore how I felt about and how I fit into society, and most importantly I sought out to understand- as Mary Oliver puts it- ‘what it is I plan to do with my one wild precious life’.

This time in my life was when the Grand Canyon landed on the top of my Bucket list. So you see now, this place has been calling to me almost institutionally, as a coyote might howl into the blackness of the starry night sky. It asked me to come towards it, and of course I would.

I did. 

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Looking back on it now in retrospect having finally made it to the canyon, I see that my pull towards this place was tightly tethered to my desire to feel connected to something bigger, to feel that I too was big- bigger than the past dramas of my personal life. In a way I think I wanted proof of something, to see for myself how erosion, and corrosion, and damage are brutal and inevitable, and how those very forces of change are what inspire the deepest beauty and grand adventures.  

This is my journey through the canyon; my call of gratitude to the journey of water. A story of the power and persistence of that which goes with the flow, and how the power and persistence of fluidity creates beauty in nature, and in us all. 

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We blew into Grand Canyon National Park around 4:30pm on a Wednesday evening in April and headed straight for the Ranger Station. I was beyond excited. We had no real plans other than wanting to backpack, and considering that we always want to backpack this shouldn’t even qualify as a legitimate plan (we’re the ‘we are gonna wing it’ kind of folks). So we walked into the building, used the public restroom (always), then snagged a map and scoped out a possible and feasible backpacking route while we waited in line fidgeting with excitement, hopes high that the ranger would issue us a permit. I mean, why wouldn’t she/he….we clearly have our shit together and planned this way in advance. 😉

I’ll be honest, this could have gone south and not in our favor, but we ended up scoring a little pre-trail Trail Magic with the Ranger we got. While she did not issue us a permit for the loop that we ‘planned’ (I couldn’t write that with a straight face) she did issue us a permit for an AWESOME loop she pulled together. Her recommended loop was made up of unmaintained trails through a low traffic area of the canyon – Hermit’s Rest.  Permit in hand, we floated out of that ranger station on cloud nine and overflowing with stoke. We stopped to watch my first Grand Canyon sunset from the rim, then headed to our cabin to organize our gear from the trip and get a good night sleep before our early morning wake up call.

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Our first day on the trail absolutely blew my mind and tickled my soul in the most unfathomable way, quickly descending down through the layers and layers of rock and the millions of years of erosion made me instantly aware of the delicateness of time and my own lifespan in the most humbling of ways. It was apparent to me, almost immediately, that sense of time was going to be different down here. Time as I’d known it  up to this moment simply did not exist in a place like this.  

With freedom our feet catapulted us down the trail, minds emptied of everything that happened before this moment. My soul felt blessed; as if the spirit of the canyon somehow washed my soul clean with the sacred red dirt that dusted an aura around me with each and every step, as the surrounding walls of sandstone barreled through my eyeballs and dug a portal deep down into my soul and reassuringly asked, “So what again are all those worries and cares you think you have?”….

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Here, there is no end to the amount of inspiration and fascination possible; layer upon layer upon layer, the persistence and power of water drawing us deeper, fossils sprinkled on rocks along the trail, the neon bloom of wildflower fields among a sea of earth tones, and the kind of quietude and quality of solitude that seems unnatural (or at least untouchable) in this technological age.

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On the second day in the canyon we meandered to the very bottom, the Boucher (pronounced, Boo-Shay) Rapids of the Colorado River.

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Burr, that river’s an ice bath – freezing even with our Northern California Pacific Ocean tolerance. But it seems sacrilegious to get to the bottom of the canyon and not get in the Colorado River. Determined, we tried to creep in but the truth is neither of us could handle going all the way in. The best we could do was wade about knee deep, holding tightly to ourselves with butt cheeks clenched, our tension was our armor as we waded in the water until our legs felt like they were going to fall off….I’m not exaggerating. It’s the kind of cold that is almost humerus in it’s torture.

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We spent hours playing around on the beach of the river that day. Running and climbing around in our underwear, being loud at times, being silent at others, my braids slapping my cheeks and flying sand blinding my eyes every so often when those barreling gusts of wind cannon balled through the walls of the canyon.

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It was as if we’d been down there our whole lives, that life itself did not exist outside of this canyon. Contentment in it’s purest and most natural form.

The world and all of life was unfolding inside these canyon walls. 

And I was part of it all. We are part of it all. 

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The whoosh of the warm wind, the bright blooms of cacti, the almost dried out water holes that taste like dirt. Each and every moment generated just a little bit more space, ease, and amazement in my body and my mind until that’s all that was left of me.

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On our final day of the trip we hiked from the bottom back up to the top via the Boucher (pronounced, Boo- Shay) Trail. The Boucher Ttrail  was one of both mine and Zack’s favorite parts of the whole trip – walking miles through a dried up ancient river bed, scaling big boulders, the brutal cacti overgrowth we trudged through….

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We nicknamed the trail“ Bouchady” ( Boo-Shady) because of how brutal it could be at times- miles and miles without shade, zero water for 7+ miles, the way the trail would just disappear for long sections at a time (gratitude to the often times hard to see Cairns that kept us on the up and up).

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We loved every bit of it.

Ever few miles one of us would say something like, “ Bouchady is awesome. “, So BAD ASS”,” So f’ing cool!”, with a few “are you kidding me?” and, “ which way is the trail?” sprinkled in for good measure.

By the time we made it back up to the rim completing our backpacking trip, I laid sprawled out in the parking lot of Hermit’s Rest, looking up at the sky in wonder. Sure, I was exhausted, starving, completely dehydrated, but I was also unbelievably happy.

 I’d finally made it here, I finally made it to the Grand Canyon.  The place that for years spoke to me in my dreams, feeding me the strength and inspiration I needed to shift my perspective, my lifestyle and my priorities, in order to see the beauty that comes out of erosion and the grace that flows through change. 

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So friends, if you ever get to the Grand Canyon, don’t just take it for face value. Sink below the rim, venture into the depth of the canyon, and let it teach you a thing of to about life, time, and the beauty of change. 

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Photography and writing by Erin Cookston

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