(This essay first appeared in CREATIVE NONFICTION, Issue 44, Spring 2012. CREATIVE NONFICTION nominated this essay for a Pushcart Prize; it was also selected as a Notable Mention in 2013’s Best American Essays. It was further included in the anthology ON FOOT: GRAND CANYON BACKPACKING STORIES, edited by Rick Kempa (Vishnu Temple Press, 2014)
A National Park Service ranger found the man’s discarded backpack a little ways off-trail. The following day, a half-mile south under a large overhanging boulder, another ranger discovered a stash of food, including a can of tuna fish, which the man had crushed open with a rock, as though in a frenzy to drink the juices. The boulder was between a series of dendritic drainages that merged into a small canyon, which in turn ran less than two miles into the Colorado River.
I figured the hiker was a fool who either overestimated his abilities or underestimated the Grand Canyon or both, and if he was dead—which seemed likely, as he was reported missing Tuesday and we flew in Friday—well, then he had died a fool’s death as had the five or six a year in the six years I’d worked on the trail crew in the canyon.
But then Cullen and I split from the others and slid down several slopes covered with scree, down past the boulder shading the snack cache, down into the narrow canyon, and in the dry stream gravel, I saw the first footprint. I followed with my eyes the wavering line of tracks down canyon, and something settled over me, something that still settles in fits and starts of memory and meaning.
I watched the change take hold of Cullen, as well. Cullen had come to work on trails right out of college; he was young, baby-faced and shy in the face of the rough-and-tumble camaraderie that characterized a trail crew. Four years later, he was a confident and wiry desert rat, who had logged more time hiking and climbing in the canyon than most anyone I knew. Cullen swings between hummingbird-like exuberance and sullen lethargy. When he is down, he is way down, but on this search, he was up, way up, his blue eyes sparks above the red earth, his forearms rippling in knots and cords as he scrambled up boulders. When Cullen climbs, he dances along the rock, seemingly more at ease with being alive in the world on vertical rock than on the ground. Once in the canyon, on the tracks, away from the helicopter and the others, he calmed, became more reflective, as I have often seen him do when high on a route, working through a difficult move.
We followed the tracks. We pushed through branches broken by the man’s passage and stepped on boulders still smudged with sand once stuck to his shoes. We’d lose the trail in the boulder fields and move slowly, stopping to scan the walls, the shaded recesses … and then the prints would appear in a sand patch, always down canyon, always toward the river. The days between our passings had slumped the track’s edges into mere pressure spots, indents, nudges.
The heat was staggering. It was easily 105 degrees in the shade, but there was little shade. The air scorched the lungs. Heat waves warped the light to writhe around my shadow. The few patches of prickly pear had desiccated to flaccid, blanched pads, parched and partly skeletal. The antelope ground squirrels had slipped into hypnotic trances of inactivity called “aestivation.” Lizards crawled atop a rock, did a few half-hearted pushups, and retreated. The heat was not general: In pockets of purple shale or near-black mudstone, it was as though we waded through the heat, and I had to resist the urge to pantomime swimming. I had 5 quarts of water and doubted it would be enough to last the length of the three-mile canyon. I tried to breathe through my nose.
I stopped once and called his name. I thought he was dead, but I called out. No echo. The heat, or the pressing rock walls, absorbed the call. The natural world is a mirror of moods, reflecting one’s joy, claustrophobia, pain. But always, at the core, is indifference. I’d cut my hand on a sharp rock and wiped the blood on a rock, thinking, unforgiving, but even as I thought it, I knew the word didn’t apply to mute stone or catclaw acacia, that the word hung unspoken in the air, dissipating in the sun, its little truths having nothing to impart to stone or thorn. There is nothing to forgive, nothing to do the forgiving. Every way I turned, every indication from the raw surroundings reinforced what I already knew: Life here is hard and not to be taken for granted. Perhaps especially hard for pale, mostly hairless, upright primates, no matter our brain-size or will. But hard regardless—I’ve seen deer and sheep dead before their times in these canyons. I called out again. Silence. A fly would buzz then stop, and the heat, the silence, hissed in the ears. Cullen called from down canyon, and I continued following the two pairs of intermingled tracks.
Not two weeks before the search, Cullen and a mutual friend, Matt Snider, attempted to climb a Grand Canyon formation known as Newton Butte. They are both skilled and experienced rock climbers and mountaineers, and as Newton was not a technical climb, they hadn’t brought ropes. They scrambled up a series of natural ramps and small cliff faces but, at a certain point, deemed their chosen route unsafe and turned around. As Snider was navigating a tricky descent, the large rock he was using as a handhold peeled off the wall. He plunged 20 feet, bounced off a rock ledge, fell an additional 20-some feet, and finally landed on a large rock, shattering one of his feet. They were a few thousand feet below the rim of the canyon; at least three miles by trail. The sun was setting. Cullen climbed down to Snider, left him with his warm clothes, headlamp and cigarettes, and set off, up the dangerously exposed, skinny-as-a-sheep-trail route known as the Shoshone Point route. He then hiked a mile and a half to the road, called dispatch, and within three hours was leading a search-and-rescue medic back down the route in the dark. The medic later told me that, on the way down, she felt the wind rising out of the black night and realized it was coming from 400 feet of exposed cliff. They eventually reached Snider, shot him full of morphine, and, in the morning, attached him, with the medic, to a line hanging from a helicopter. Cullen, for the fourth time in 12 hours, made his lonely way along the Shoshone Point route. Later, he would tell me of the “instant and everlasting connection” that sparked between him and Snider in the seconds Snider plummeted past him, out of sight, seemingly to his death, before yelling up that he was alive.
The peculiar realities of this search were stitching such bonds between Cullen and me, hiking closely together now, as it was between us and the man somewhere down canyon.
Almost immediately, the dry streambed plunged off a rock shelf. It wasn’t a huge drop, maybe 30 feet, but sheer, and I scouted the steep bank of scree to the right of the pour-off. There was sheep sign and sign of something else, something heavier. I knew it was his path, because I was looking and because I have traced my own faint paths back when ledges failed or turned to cliffs. I knew because my work on the National Park Service trail crew—the hiking, the daily use of pick, shovel and rockbar—has made me intimate with the nature of disturbance in these desert soils: the broken crust, the scuffed rock. We avoided the pour-off as he had done.
Despite the pressing walls, the heat, the tracks, my eyes were caught by rocks and shells. In certain sections of the canyon, we crossed bedrock that had shattered into thousands of crystalline shards, all clouded reds and translucent pinks, speckled and marred by intrusive veins of dissimilar rock. I picked them up and held them to the light and pocketed the more brilliant. Dried millipede husks and flat, dime-sized snail shells glinted amidst the red shale slopes. I picked them up, and they powdered at my touch.
My job on the trail crew entails drilling holes into boulders in order to split them into workable blocks. We use a large, gas-powered rock drill, which rattles and chatters, hammering as it drills, necessitating double ear protection—earmuffs over earplugs. The world, suddenly muted, comes alive in unfamiliar ways. I’ll notice a single oak leaf, hung from a spider’s strand, spinning wildly, without a single other leaf moving. I’ll notice, on the flat surface of the rock I am drilling, minute sand grains popping like splattering oil to the vibrations of the drill; the muscle power of a raven’s tail-feathers angled when banking; the liquid slide of clouds over the canyon’s vertical relief. All these phenomena stand out in near silence and acute visual clarity, and strike in me an almost nostalgic chord, like waking in a strange place and not knowing where I am or like the detached contentment of a lucid dream. So it was then, in that canyon, following the dead man’s tracks, amidst the stones and shells. Some ineffable light, glancing off of them, caught me, held me.
Part of the surreal nature of the day, besides the stones and shells, the pressing walls, the heat and tracks, was that the standard geology of the Grand Canyon—a geology I have looked at and worked with for years—was warped and awry. The particular section of the Grand Canyon in which the man had gone hiking had long ago been rent by a series of enormous landslides, perhaps a dozen in all, the biggest landslide complex in the entire Grand Canyon. The streambed beneath our feet carved through the rubble of these slides. The canyon’s distinctive sedimentary layers were present and recognizable, but rather than layered striations, all was rubble, upturned and askew.
The evening was long, but dusk in the confines of a canyon within a canyon is brief. Cullen and I lay our sleeping pads over a stretch of sand broken by the man’s footprints and ate our freeze-dried meals in near silence. What we could see of the sky between the narrow canyon walls was veiled in clouds. Occasionally, a muffled star shone through. We didn’t talk about the clouds, about how sleeping in a sandy wash in a narrow canyon in monsoon season was a tempting of fate. But it was on my mind, and I knew it was on Cullen’s. I slept fitfully, in and out of dreams, bothered by the mosquitoes, the heat, the grit on my bare skin. I awoke in predawn to a rising nasal whistle, a “toweeeep” shriek, and only minutes later, hearing the “hoo, hoo-hoo,” did I recognize the owl screech and call. I lay on my pad and watched the bats swoop and twitch in the soft spreading light.
I have done many dangerous things. I did many of them at this man’s age: 19 years, the threshold of manhood. It was an age at which I found it inescapably important to challenge and prove myself. These challenges, predominately set against some natural form, some cliff or swell or slope, were more than a thrill. They represented everything I had come to love in this life—a furious and absolute presence in the moment, a unique natural phenomenon that sharpened the edge of life. I had, in large part, constructed myself as an insouciant individual, free to throw myself into such lovely risks. Yet, there came a time when this inner fire, this absolute need, waned. Falling in love had an integral role in the waning, as perhaps did the simple act of surviving long enough to age. I realized life is ever a series of challenges and hurdles to meet and overcome, and most of them are far more grave and life-affirming than the symbolic challenges of my own making. Certainly, I was beginning to suspect I would never be fully satisfied with my challenges—there would always be a bigger rapid, a harder climb. But perhaps the man-boy Cullen and I sought wasn’t seeking to test himself, and my dawn thoughts were just my idle projections of my past against another’s possible death. Most likely, he was just in over his head: no more, no less.
By the time we were up and hiking, the sun was sliding down the western slope like a guillotine. It was five days after he should have emerged. The first traffic on my park service radio concerned flying in a cadaver-sniffing dog.
Within 10 minutes of scrambling down canyon, we came to another pour-off. The bedrock streambed funneled between two cliff walls and abruptly ended, continuing a good 120 vertical feet below where we stood. I lay my belly on the burnished red floor and inched my head over the drop. The pour-off was overhung—I could look straight down at the rocky streambed below and crane my neck to see the cliff wall concaving under me. I suddenly remembered how, the night before we flew in to search, Snider, with his cast foot propped on a pillow and his eyes alternating between musing vacancy and sparkling intoxication, had told me he’d been praying a lot those last few weeks.
I made my way along the slope to the left of the pour-off, seeing if the man could have avoided the drop and continued down canyon. If not, there was no point in going over the edge. There was scant space on the steep slope between the sheer cliff above and the sheer cliff below—any misstep and I would have slid over the lip. The only person we knew to have ever hiked this canyon had described the rock as “manky.” We didn’t know what the word meant, but we didn’t have to ask: We knew how the canyon’s once solid rock had weathered into rotten choss. I stretched out each foot and scraped the manky scree to form a foothold before stepping into it; the loosened shale skittered into freefall. I stopped every so often and scanned the slope for similar tracks but saw nothing, perhaps because I was so carefully attending to my own footing. I made the traverse—certain the man-boy could have done the same—and returned to the pour-off. Cullen, watching my slow progress, had already pulled out our gear and set up the rappel.
I was accustomed to the heat but was ripe with sweat. The littlest things—fumbling with the radio battery, a slip of the foot —and the sweat sprang out all at once, coating my bare torso. I was happy to have it, for I knew there were only so many layers of sweat and that, in time, it would grow thicker, ranker, and eventually stop. I knew sweat was effective only if it evaporated, and I noticed the beads and sheets didn’t seem to be evaporating, just runneling down my skin. I also knew the instant irritation at the little nothings that cued some of my sweat flushes signaled the first stages of heat exhaustion.
We put on our climbing harnesses and clipped ourselves to the rope, which was actually two 150-foot ropes tied together and clipped to the anchor. The anchor consisted of webbing and cordelette tied around a large rock, which was perched on the lip of the fall. One after the other, we stepped backward off the edge, leaning back into the void. Our feet touched the vertical wall for two steps, then the wall curved away from us, and we hung, twisting slightly in midair. Cullen zipped down, the rope whirring through his harness clip. I played the rope slowly out of my tight-clenched fist, enjoying the vertigo that blossomed and pressed my stomach.
About 100 yards downstream, we came across a single footprint in a spill of sand. We sat for a while in the last of the shade and watched the track change with the rolling sun. The shadows marking the cupped earth seeped into the sand, and the bleached track all but disappeared.
The night Snider fell, a number of us had gathered to eat dinner—indeed, Snider’s car pulled up, and we cheered, only to have Cullen rush out and tell us what had happened—and talk turned to the canyon and how many of us believed it was, in a way, its own entity, an eminent force with a penchant for the occasional bitch slap. Most opined that this punishment was meted out toward those lacking the requisite respect, those who underestimated or abused the canyon, but others at the table argued that the canyon had more than a little Old Testament wrath and would lash even devotees: hence, the handhold that gave on poor Snider. But I don’t believe in a conscious or concerned force, be it the canyon or God. Nor do I believe that one can trace an effect back to a singular cause, be it a slight or a mistake.
As part of my job, I’ve spent countless hours clearing landslides from the trail. I have studied them in books and studied their scars on distant slopes, and though I resist the notion of simplistic causality, I understand the appeal to fixate inevitably on the split-second of initial action, that moment when the slightest tic can trigger collapse: one more degree of heat, one more night of freezing temperatures, one last carbonic acid molecule bonding with one last calcium carbonate molecule, one final grain of rock at last succumbing to gravity—so that millions of years of quiescence end with a crack and shudder of tumbling rock and dust.
Nobody knows the exact sequence of events that sparked the complex of landslides we wound through or even the time frame in which they occurred—whether as a sustained and gradual (albeit geologically quick) slumping or a more typical crash-and-boom collapse. We know many probable causes: the saturation and lubrication of an underlying shale strata, the exposure of that shale by the incision of the Colorado River, the significantly wetter climate. We know the result: a few million years ago, a 2-by-8-kilometer section of the Grand Canyon’s rim broke off, slumping into the space the river had removed—an event so large that many geologists don’t call it a landslide but “bedrock land slippage.” We know this, but a more exact sequence, a more detailed geomorphic anatomy has yet to emerge, if it ever will.
Nor will we ever know the exact sequence of events that led to this man’s journey down this canyon. We know he called his dad before he left and told him when he should return. We know where he parked his car, where he left his backpack, where he ate a snack. We know his brain flooded his skin with sweat, just as it flooded his capillaries with blood seeking temperatures cooler than his core. But the air that pressed against his skin was hotter even than his spiked core temperatures. It is likely that his head hurt, a heavy clenching of the mind. Perhaps the strange veil fell across his vision—a sparking of sunspots, his sight marred by floating, psychedelic dust motes. With all his blood pressing against his skin, less blood went to his muscles and brain. His brain had already begun to malfunction—dehydration, like inebriation, allowed bad decisions: abandoning his backpack, leaving the trail, striking off down an unknown canyon. His body, unable to dissipate the heat, began to cramp, stiffen, stumble. His stomach heaved with nausea. His world spun. He tore off his pants. His body became a furnace—at 104 degrees, his life was threatened. At 106 degrees, brain death began. He slipped into a coma.
We know where he died.
After edging past the last pour-off, he hiked downstream. The canyon walls opened into spread-out hills, with an open view of the Colorado River corridor barely a quarter-mile away. The river—water, life—was right there. Perhaps, then, he had hope, though that last pour-off was surely still lodged in his mind like a thorn. And then the open canyon, almost a valley, swung to the south, and suddenly the strata shifted into the banded purple-brown Tapeats sandstone, and there, after all that, so close, so scared, alone, crazed, he scrambled down a series of bedrock ledges, hoping that what he saw wasn’t what he saw, and peered off the lip of his life.
On a boulder at the lip of the final, undescendable pour-off was the dead man in the silent heat. He was draped across the boulder on his belly. He was naked below the waist, and his skin was burnt near black. It was as though he had fallen from a height onto the boulder. It was as though someone or something had placed him on the boulder. There were liquid stains on the boulder and bedrock ledge beneath his head. Maybe he died while bent over the boulder and throwing up; maybe he stood and fainted forward and died, and, in death, his swelling body’s liquid ran out of his mouth. What sticks with me, more than the liquid stains, the red-black skin of his bare legs, was the twist in his left knee, the way the muscles and tendons and ligaments skewed and slackened in death.
After some time regarding death, or perhaps in reaction to it, I studied the rock he died on, a water-smoothed boulder of Temple Butte limestone. I thought of how billions of ancient sea organisms died, piled up on the sea floor, were covered by silt and sediment, and, after hundreds of millions of years of pressured weight and heat and uplift and erosion, became this boulder now squatting at this cliff lip, serving as a cradle for death. I thought of how, in a millennium or two, the boulder will be pushed off toward the river and of how it will crumble in time and make its way as silt to the ocean floor. As would this man-boy’s body, a body like a potsherd in the dust, a ruin, now with other, still animated men’s bodies moving about it, not touching it; as would this body be taken out of this canyon, in a bag attached to a helicopter, and buried in real soil with grass on top. I looked at the body, and I looked up at the implacable face of the distant slopes, the pockets of beauty I had become accustomed to, pockets my ancestors had to learn to find beautiful, and past them, I looked into the white-blue sky, the spark of the sun in cold space.
If I seek some connection between cold space, the violent creation of this certain section of the Grand Canyon and the violent death that then lay before me—I stretch. There is no connection. It was an easy place to die, and a man died. But some tenuous connection stretches between me and these forces and events. On the map of the Grand Canyon above my desk, I catch myself, months later and hundreds of miles away, searching for that small stem of a canyon. I hold the crystals I found that day in my hand; I smell the sulfuric tinges of the heat they once held. I peer into their clouded transparencies and know that, like the canyon’s rock walls, his death is but a screen upon which I project my own shifting thoughts: He was a fool—he was like me—and to ask what his death “meant” is as useless as attempting to point to a single cause or to presume I could find an answer lurking within the clouded crystal.
Yet, I ask. And I realize, in fragmented answer, that the man-boy, like death itself, had moved from abstraction to intimate stranger and back again, and it was never him moving, but me, just as I still move between the need to challenge myself and a more general contentedness. The old challenges and the man-boy remind me that I most appreciate living when touched by death. This still holds true, though I have learned to attempt courage, grace and satisfaction outside of wanton disregard for danger. I’ve learned to seek beauty and meaning in the sparks of life rather than in death.
(The featured image is part of Friedrich von Egloffstein’s “Big Canyon at the Mouth of Diamond River.”)