I lived in Montana for a couple of years between college and graduate school. I had moved there from my native Midwest on a whim, with a boy, just to go anywhere but home. It didn't end up working out with the boy, but I fell madly in love with the mountains.
Years after I came back to the flatlands, one of my best Montana girlfriends was planning a trip to the Grand Canyon. Not just to visit the Grand Canyon, but to raft it — to travel the whole 280-mile length of it. Kirby — a raft guide by summer, ski-lift operator by winter, and yoga instructor in between — had applied for a noncommercial rafting permit and won. She would take five boats and 13 friends down the Colorado River from Lee's Ferry (near Lake Powell) to Pearce Ferry (near Lake Mead). Her 30-day expedition would launch on December 20, 2012 — smack dab in the holiday season, just one day before the winter solstice —and return to civilization on January 19.
When I heard about this trip taking shape, I begged Kirby to let me aboard. I didn't care that I had never spent this long in the wilderness, that I'm a slightly overweight academic, that I don't really like being cold. I didn't care that, unlike almost everyone else on this adventure, I am not a raft guide. (In fact, I'd only been rafting a handful of times.) I didn't care that I was very, genuinely afraid.
The Grand Canyon was summoning me, and I was heeding the call.
When I pulled into Lee's Ferry, the rest of my crew was already there. They had driven down from Missoula, Montana, in one big caravan. This was "Day Zero." We spent the whole day organizing our gear and packing the boats. I placed one final phone call to my boyfriend.
"I'm scared," I said with tears in my eyes, "but excited."
He said, "Hold on tight and have fun."
We spent the night there at Lee's Ferry, where the temperature dropped to 20 degrees. We laid our sleeping bags together in one long row, and in the morning, we were a package of frozen sausages. We ate granola and coffee as the sun broke through, then we packed up our sleeping gear and launched.
That morning, Day One, our crew consisted of 13 travelers: seven men and six women. Later that afternoon, our count would grow to 14. Legally, a person can only travel this stretch of river once per calendar year. Barry had done this trip earlier that summer. He'd done this trip eight previous times in his life. His bond with the Grand Canyon was immeasurable, his skills were invaluable, his knowledge of this river unquantifiable.
Barry had ridden down with Herb and Cassie. They'd dropped him off a few miles downstream. Barry camped all alone in the Grand Canyon wilderness, then he solo-climbed down the slick canyon wall to meet us on the bank. As our five buoyant vessels rounded a curve, high on optimism and adventure and also pot — we spotted Barry with his thumb in the air, his smile as wide as the canyon.
December 21, 2012, was Day Two. This signaling the end of the Mayan Calendar, it was only right to throw an End of the World Party. We watched the full moon rise on one side of the canyon and partied until it set on the opposite ridge, wondering if the world had ended without us.
Before embarking on this river adventure, I had done my fair share of backpacking. Living in the woods, for me, meant expert minimalism; it meant taking only that which is essential. A month-long rafting trip could not be more different. The river is hauling all your gear, and the boats are built for space. We brought costumes, drugs, and musical instruments. We brought tiki torches and sporting equipment. We brought wigs and face paint and temporary tattoos. We brought a veritable mountain of booze.
The End of World Party was just the beginning. During the day we would navigate world-class rapids, and when evening came, we would make camp, make dinner, and make merriment. We would celebrate Christmas (with pot cookies, holiday punch, and white elephant gifts), the Grand Canyon Olympics (with team sports and shot-gunned beers), and the Grand Canyon Prom (with dresses, dates, and a grand promenade).
Steve and Kate celebrated their two-year anniversary. Jane and Herb had birthdays. We held a 12-act talent show throw down. But the most epic, most outrageous, most elaborate celebration — in truth, to this day, the most fun I've ever had — happened on New Year's Eve.
Barry knew all the best places to camp. He said, "For New Year's, we've got to snag Bass Camp."
A few others had done this trip before, too, and everyone agreed. In order usurp other traveling bands who might have harbored the same bright idea, we pulled in the coveted Bass Camp on December 30 (Day Eleven), and set up to stay for two days.
Bass Camp was indeed magical. Levels of rock swirled with tamarisk bushes gave each of us little apartments. A circle of tall stones made an excellent fire room. Bluffs in every direction could be scrambled with ease, providing great views of our station.
On the morning of December 31, festivity was already afoot. We made breakfast, packed lunches, and set off in small groups for long hikes. As the afternoon drew late, and we arrived back at camp, wild costumes began making themselves known. Will grilled steaks on the fire grate while Jeff popped open champagne. We cheered and clanked and drank in big gulps.
We kept playing music. We kept singing. We laughed and laughed, oh my gosh, did we laugh. I laughed so hard that tears streamed down my face. Why was I laughing? I didn't know. I turned to whoever was next to me, exclaiming, "I am having so much fun!"
Jeff and Steve started giggling: the mischievous giggle of those with a secret.
"I dosed the champagne!" Jeff finally revealed, the truth-serum properties taking effect. "You're all tripping on LSD!"
Under normal circumstances, giving people acid without their consent probably isn't a good idea. But here, in the Grand Canyon, at Bass Camp, in costumes, on New-Year's-freaking-Eve, a more generous act there never was.
We had been on the river for 12 days. We were safe and free and alive. It was all happening. It had all happened already. It was all still to come.
The stars, so big and bright in the unpolluted sky, swelled into colorful domes. The river eddies swirled purple and blue. We played Sam Cook and Canned Heat and danced on the rocks. We wore only our costumes and threw sand in the air because we were finally toasty and warm. It was a new year. It was a new life.
Between bloody marys and joints, between mushroom tea and beach saunas, there was the dangerous, deadly river. The river was serious and handled with care. The rapids were not disrespected. We were defying death while worshiping gravity. We were tiny creatures on tiny vessels, in a massive expanse of water and rock. The water was cold, the edges were sharp, and the river was fundamentally unforgiving.
One person would row each boat while the rest of us white-knuckle gripped. We would stop on the bank to scout difficult rapids. I didn't scout personally. I stared at the fast flowing river with wonder and gulped. I trusted the people I rode with; I said quick prayers to the river gods; I held on really fucking tight.
Eventually, I got behind the oars. Mostly just on flat water, mostly just to try and do my part. Then one day — with just Barry and I on a boat together, and a medium-sized rapid on the horizon — I decided not to give up my post. This was Day Twenty-two. I was ready to hold my own proverbial oars, to navigate my own life. Barry told me what to do, and I did my best to listen. I tried to hit the waves head on; to maintain my grip; to make the boat move the way it was supposed to.
Barry cheered and waved a fist in the air and an ice cold wave splashed over us. He wasn't afraid of my inability. He knew what the Grand Canyon could do to a person. He was witness to my tiny scrap of courage, and cold water be damned, he allowed me to try. I did not flip the boat that day — 206 mile rapid was my rapid.
On Day Thirty, I found tears in my eyes. Paul Simon's Graceland played as I held hands with Anna and proclaimed that this trip changed my life. We painted our faces one last time. We sat life-jacket-less on calm water. We watched with somber reality as the canyon walls grew lower around us and civilization made itself known.
On the airplane back to the flat Midwest, I wrote this down in my notebook:
As far as I'm concerned this is Day Thirty-one and days henceforth shall be counted in this order. Prior to Day Zero, I was living just half of my life. Dramatic, I know. But I'm smoking the roach of this trip right now and I won't discourage delusions of grandeur. I feel both new and old, both different and more like myself.
In the years that have passed since this adventure, I have found my way back to the mountains. My memories of the Grand Canyon remain resolute. My romance with that geological masterpiece stays with me. Like Barry, like so many others, the Grand Canyon has my heart.