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This is another of the first posts on this blog that I’ve revised. It describes an incident from many years ago, but the experience gave me an image of healing that has never left. I come back to it again and again whenever I need to push off the weight of depression.
My wife and I were hiking with three friends into the back country of the Grand Canyon to spend a couple of nights at Phantom Creek. Most people hiking into the Canyon for a day trip go down the main trail from either north or south rim and wind up at Phantom Ranch, where the Bright Angel Creek joins the Colorado River. (Phantom, Bright Angel, who came up with these spirit names?) Our trip started in just that way, but then Ken, who was guiding us, found a trace of trail next to a campground, and we switch-backed our way up a steep hillside – hoisting our heavy backpacks on ropes at one hard-angled spot. The heat was at a 100 or so, and, having already spent hours on the initial descent down to the Colorado, we strained and groaned in the early evening up that slope onto a natural shelf of long, broad boulders.
In that unlikely spot we made camp, in sight of a good starting point for the morning. As I lay uncomfortably on that craggy stone surface, looked back down the canyon at face after shadowed face of massive rock, reddened and purpled in the late summer day’s very last light, my mind was rapidly darkening and an anger was rising that I wasn’t even aware of. Those towering cliffs suddenly seemed threatening, and I felt completely out of place. I couldn’t help saying aloud, though it was far from the camaraderie and happy escapism of our little adventure, What on earth are we doing in this barren place? I could see what was happening until the next day, but the depression seemed to worsen overnight.
Waking on rock, we got an early start, climbing up a craggy slope to reach a ridge covered with boulders and cactus where the trail disappeared. The sun climbed with us, and the heat penetrated mind and body after a couple of hours. I was still aching after the previous day’s descent and suddenly I was seeing the worst in everything. Like the others, I tediously picked my way through cactus thorns and rock edges, sliding backwards on a bit of gravel every now and then, lurching into balance with the heavy backpack. It was sweaty torture in the 100+ degree heat. Then an inner rage started to pour out of me.
This had happened before on hikes into the Canyon, a purging of every negative thought and feeling, dark clouds through and through my mind. Every muscle started to ache, I had to stop more and more often in the heat, and a stream of acid thought kept eating into everything I was, everyone I knew. My wife and friends disappeared in the haze of fatigue and disgust and a kind of bile I could taste. Every step I took felt like a blow against some idiot who had angered or hurt me, every thought a comeback I had failed to make, every breath a wheezing out of hate. Though I thought I had been falling behind the others, I stopped at one point near the top of the ridge and looked back to see them working their way carefully through the last of the cactus, chatting and laughing as they went. I felt badly that I was so out of synch with them, so full of anger and discomfort (another reason to beat myself up), but I couldn’t shake it, couldn’t get out of that smothering embrace of what felt like an evil twin.
We made our way down the far side of the ridge, a much smoother walk, and got within site of the creek itself. I looked on that as a final destination. I could not imagine taking one more exhausting step beyond it. Drained of all energy, hideous in my shell of dark thinking, I just wanted to drop right there. But as we finally approached it, Ken came up from behind and pointed ahead, beyond the creek. “We’re close,” he said. “It’s only another mile upstream on the other side to the campsite.”
A mile, when I couldn’t move at all! I just stood still – adamant. “I’m not moving another step.” My tone and barely suppressed fury were immediately obvious to the others. They just marched on, ignoring what I’d said, removing their shoes, stepping through the shallow creek and quickly heading up the trail. I planted myself there for a moment and tried desperately to summon one bit of energy, just to get across the creek. Finally, I bent down to get out of my shoes and liberate my sore feet. I took the hiking shoes in one hand and stepped into the water.
Then something happened. The cold water of the shallow creek – running just a few inches deep – trickled over my bare feet, and in the few seconds of my quick steps to the other side washed out that stain of anger, exhaustion and hurt. The heaviness of it all dissolved in the cleansing swirl of tiny currents, and I felt completely light and buoyant, full of energy. My mind dawned again, and I knew I had taken back my own self, after a strange captivity elsewhere.
I stopped on the far side of the creek, sat on a flat rock to put my shoes and socks on, and just stared at that small motioning stream, as if looking at the outside of a complicated machine, trying to understand how it worked. What the hell was that? I was puzzled but elated, thinking maybe I should do that again, walk back and forth a few times, but no I didn’t do that.
Whatever the stream had done to me was complete. It had simply healing me. It was an instant of strange warmth in a cold stream that restored a deadening soul. What spirit was hiding in there? How could this be? That’s all it was, a moment that was over before I could even grasp what was happening. One moment I am as heavy as gravel, then I’m light and vibrant. Why?
I hurried up the trail to share the good news. Of course, when I caught up to them, busy in setting up camp, it was hard to find any words. All I could say was something like, I’m back! – and I hoped they would see what I meant.