Thursday, August 18, 2022

Book Review: Afterworld, by William Matarazzo

Look, I know it is most unusual. I am about to review my son’s book – a book I helped him with in terms of editing, discussion and input, throughout its creation over his entire high school career. But – there’s stuff I want you to know about it. And you should also know: I didn’t steer him too much. The story is truly his. 

The book is called Afterworld and it was published last June. I have just finished my non-editor read-through: just me lying on the couch and enjoying the tale, without grammatical or critical eyes. (For the most part. It’s tough.) 

Here is the back cover overview: 

"Erik's innocence faded when his parents were slain in battle and being forced into his princely duties proves to be a much heavier responsibility than he expected. With these responsibilities comes the appearance of a strange, lone Mermaid. The closer the two of them get, the more they uncover the secret of the Mermaid's past, and the mystery of an Orc whose obsession it is to relentlessly hunt her down. Erik unwittingly plunges into an adventure beyond his wildest fantasies. Upon discovering that the man who killed his parents seeks to bring about a second apocalypse to erase Humankind, he takes it upon himself to set out and stop this horrible fate from coming to pass. To defend his father-figure, his friends, and the woman he grows to love, he must muster the strength to save the human race while dealing with the ghosts of his past – all the while trying to survive as the priority target of all the forces of darkness. Afterworld is a novel in the epic fantasy tradition, but with many modern storytelling elements, including romance and intrigue. The perfect "read" for those who love fantasy and adventure."

Afterworld is a true “epic fantasy” novel, coming in at over 750 pages and containing a healthy sampling of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” elements. It is arranged in three internal “books” and Will is not shy about his inspiration having been Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (he thanks Tolkien in the afterword.) Despite the nods to the grand-daddy of all fantasy novels, it is not a LotR copy, in any way. (In order to avoid spoilers, I will simply mention that there is a logical, plot-based reason for any-and-all similarities.) 

The book finds its own modern/classic voice and the characters are relatable in terms of their struggles and self-doubts. The circumstances might be different, but their inner monologues are relatable. Will sometimes elevates the prose for effect, but one never feels the characters are flat – they never read like someone out of …Gilgamesh… Each of them deals with things like embarrassment, awkwardness and even lack of sleep: after one great battle, the main character, Erik, dozes for eighteen hours straight. Will even references PTSD at one point. I just can’t imagine Beowulf falling victim to PTSD, but I can imagine it happening to a battle-tested individual, like Erik.

One thing that I find very comforting – nay, future-affirming -- in the book is that Will has created female characters who are strong, tough, and of consequence in their own world. At the same time, there is never a whiff of agenda in it. These women never require suspension of disbelief – they are never Lara Croft, armed with a dagger but beating off 700 enemies armed with assault rifles. All I can guess is that Will is of a generation that has seen and, so, believes in the undisputed strength of women. He doesn’t feel he needs to make a case for it: it is his reality. (Maybe the world is doing something right? Maybe his parents did – or his mom is just that reality!) All of the characters, of both sexes, in the book, are, at turns, vulnerable and powerful; you know…like real people. In this fictional world, femininity and masculinity are worn like lounge clothes, not as armor. There is balance. Elaina, for instance, is softly beautiful, gentle, and feminine, but she will wrestle an Orc into deadly waters and slit his throat before you can raise a brow. She is not asked, by Erik, to stay behind for her own protection. If she stays behind, it is to do something he trusts only her to do. 

In terms of plot, there is plenty of world-built depth. Seasoned fantasy readers will enjoy both the lore of the world and the incredibly rewarding Easter-eggs that refer to our own world. However, as I have found with all good fantasy, one could simply read the story for the plot as it relates directly to the characters –  a plot which contains romance, adventure and action galore – and sort of let the lore flow by, but the story becomes more rich if one doesn’t. 

The action sequences are worth a mention, as well. As with many modern writers, Will is inspired by both film and fiction and his action sequences are cinematic in nature. Both in his action scenes and elsewhere, he displays a natural articulation, sometimes jumping around a battlefield between separated friends and enemies and sometimes describing fights in tight quarters with multiple characters. His attention to detail is sharp and engaging. Sometimes action sequences in fiction are invitations to skim. Not here. 

One of the most noteworthy things about the plot is that, while hitting many of the required notes of the genre, he also avoids a lot of clich├ęs. Things don’t always happen in the order one would expect. Sometimes, they don’t happen at all…

Negatives? Try again. I’m reviewing my son. But any literary type who sees the flaws in this young writer's work who can’t also see the shocking level maturity of craft isn’t a literary type at all. 

Will has accomplished something few eighteen-year-olds ever have. It puts him, at least age-wise, in the company of Mary Shelley and fantasy genius, Peter S. Beagle (though Beagle took another year). As a guy who teaches English and creative writing in high school, I can tell you that the boy stands out. (Oh, shut up – I’m being as objective as possible.) If he were one of my students, I’d find myself in that place of not wanting to freak him out too much with my assessment of his potential as a writer. He gets is. Sure, fantasy is not everyone’s cup of chai, but one can’t hide talent nor shine dookie. It’s there

Afterworld is a book about love and courage – courage driven by love and fear that is often borderline crippling. (Again, no Beowulfs , here…)  It is, at turns, funny, violent, harrowing, heartwarming and lovely. It builds on its inspirations by paying those inspirations homage and then morphing into Will’s imaginings. It’s a book in which emotion is a struggle, as it is in real life. Erik fights with his protective instincts; he wrestles with the urge to crush evil – even to seek satisfying revenge by bringing pain to those who have brought his loved-ones pain. Still, he knows that the chance for redemption is a birthright… but woe to him who does not seize that last opportunity… 

You gotta draw the line somewhere. 

...because, subtly…sprinkled throughout: God is watching. As I said, Will is not about agenda in his writing. You could almost miss it: here is this “Afterworld,” so different from ours, and though the rituals have dimmed and though there is never mention of a church or religion, God is peeking around the corners of the story. Not some Sky Spirit; not some retelling of a fantasy god, but the “Our Father” God. Abba. Yaweh. 

I have just put far more emphasis on it than Will does in his entire book. I’m reading like the trained literary critic I am. For the average reader, it would probably slip by. For the careful reader, it is a detail of note. And is shows a young writer with a sense of craft: if you miss it, you miss it and the story stands up. If you catch it, you get it: redemption is His thing and it’s a major theme.

In the end, the book is a page-turner. Sure, the length can scare off some readers. And, I can tell you, I was a little worried: Can I read this thing again (third time through) and actually enjoy it? The answer is yes. It is a perfect escape; a great late night read with enough thematic depth to keep it from being an episodic Cliff's note. This is not sword-and-sorcery. This is the tale of real people in fantastic circumstances. The dark magic they have to deal with just looks different than ours. Whether we are fighting The Fiendthane, Virion, or being beaten down by a domineering boss or the threat of terminal sickness, all of us lie beneath the covers some mornings, struggling to summon the strength to fight another day. We all do battle with monsters at some point. 

Pro tip: Use a small pillow for support. Sucker’s heavy. 

And, yeah. I'm proud as heck. 

Afterworld is available as an e-book and as print-on-demand, HERE. Also on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc in e-book form. Hook a brother up. 





Monday, August 15, 2022

Eight Days in the Grand Canyon (Supplement 2): On "Community"

One doesn't want to be a curmudgeon as one ages; at least this one doesn't, futile though the effort may be. That said, I have been sick to death of the word "community" for years. With the advent of the Internet, I would be willing to guess that it may be the most overused word in the language. Every site; every Instagram; every YouTube channel refers to itself as a "community."

It all falls flat for me. Can we be in a real community with people we will never meet? One can argue that we can, but it just doesn't feel right. 

In the real world, our towns are often referred to as "communities." This makes a little more sense, I suppose. Other than a few close neighbors, though, it doesn't feel that way to me in my town. It hasn't feven after two decades. 

As someone who is an introvert by nature, being in groups is generally my last choice. Years ago, however, I think I wrote about the film Witness, with Harrison Ford, and a scene, therein, in which the Amish people come together for a "barn raising." That is the kind of community I can get behind: people willing to really help each other -- not people just organizing Little League together or people reporting each other for having too many weeds at the curb -- but people really being there for each other. 

I was thinking about this last week when my wife and I spent eight days, with a bunch of other expedition members, rafting the Colorado River the entire length of the Grand Canyon. (The entire, longish, story is here.)

According to our trip leader, at any given time, there are about one-thousand people in the Canyon. (It's strictly controlled by the National Park Service.) Given the scope of the place, that's not a lot. And what is cool is that all of them are there for the same reason: to experience the power of Nature, to challenge themselves and to escape the "rim world."

Over those eight days, the common purpose made not just our expedition of thirty, but the other groups we ran across, feel like a real community. Add to that the fact that rafting the Canyon is a kind of filter: most of people go there and see it from the rim, but how many people want to live in there for eight days? -- the proverbial "birds of a feather," that's who. 

Despite different backgrounds, there was kinship in our group. I'm a musician/teacher; Karen is a nurse; one guy works for General Mills. We had a retired bus driver and a Spartan racer; a college student and an air-traffic controller. Our captain works full-time on a ranch and another group member is a retired school bus driver. The trip leader is in construction; one of the swampers is a diesel mechanic. There was a police officer and an airman in the United States Air Force. 

It was like a Chaucer thing: he mixed pilgrims from walks of life who would never have interracted in Medieval society when he wrote The Canterbury Tales: craftsmen, priests, nuns, knights, etc. They had a common purpose, though: a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. Of course, Chaucer was doing a literary experiment, but the situation was not implausible. On such a trip, a knight might find he had much in common with a lowly carpenter or a housewife -- people whose circles he would never otherwise have run through.

We were in the Cathedral of Nature in that Canyon -- pilgrims with a common purpose. (And we got along much better than Chaucer's pilgrims did.) It's yet another proof that what we do isn't who we are. (I once heard a wonderful quotation: "We are not humans doings; we are human beings.")

This trip was, as I said, really a filter for people. First, it had to be people who had evern heard of this kind of trip -- real delvers who did their research and didn't just settle on a fifteen-minute gawk over the rim. Second, it had to be people who were willing to inconvenience themselves for eight days with no showers in intense heat and sun. Third, it had to be people who were willing to shell out the money required for this experience -- similar money for a trip to a resort, but without the comfy hotel, swimming pools and room service. And...no cell service.

The result: people like...us. A true community, if you ask me. 

Ben, our trip leader, said (and exemplified) numerous times: "We take care of each other down here." And that might be the final ingredient for, at least, the kind of community I respect. 

There was no hospital; there were no police or fire organizations, but there were plenty of opportunities to get hurt or lost or stuck. Who was going to do the rescuing? 

Us. We depended on each other. 

Even when there wasn't a need for dependence, the general attitude was complete camaraderie. If you saw boats from another trip, it was all smiles and waves and Grand Canyon yelps of joy; it was all wishes of "Have a great day," or "Have fun at Lava!" 

So, yeah -- I don't really want to hear about online communities or groups of people just claiming the title as a result of proximity. Community has to be in the flesh and it has to be real. At least, to me. 

This was it. 


Friday, August 12, 2022

Eight Days in the Grand Canyon (Supplement 1): My Physical Take-Away

A few months ago, I was texting with a friend of mine and I mentioned that I'd been working on getting in shape for our trip to the Grand Canyon. (See previous post for a full account of the adventure.) He immediately made fun of me: he had seen the trip and knew it was motorized -- not a paddling trip like one we had taken on the pretty deadly Upper Gauley river in West Virginia, a few decades ago -- so he good-naturedly accused me of being dramatic. I shared a laugh at the joke; but I told him that I really wanted to be in shape for the side-hikes and other physical challenges of the trip. And the heat. (Though, there really was no preparing for that heat.

For a few months, I went, every day, to a three mile system of trails near my New Jersey home. I'd wait for the hottest time of the day (or, at least, not worry about how hot it was) and I would walk my usual paths and then speed-climb a central hill (the lazily-named "Blueberry Hill") two or three times before going back to the trail head.

On the Canyon trip, as a result, I was pretty proud of how I held up. I felt strong on the trails, the whole time. My back was good (occasional issues there, in the past) and I suffered no aches and pains. (I had started out taking Advil, preemptively, at night, but I stopped that on the third of eight days.) My cardio was pretty solid the whole time: no excessive panting with climbs and camp setups/breakdowns; no insane heart-thumping. 

It all raises the question of the connection between weight and fitness -- a question that has been a central one for my wife and me for the past year or so. 

I am simply not at a weight I want to be. I'm at least twenty pounds over, by my standards. Maybe, at this point, I have to admit that I have been telling myself a lie for years: that wanting to be thin is not out of vanity. I think it may be, but I also think that might be okay.

I used to say that my desire to be thin is a result of two things: 1) How I feel. 2) Having this notion that I have a "thin mind," so I want my body to follow suit. It just helps with social clarity. 

Well, when it comes to No. 1: I feel pretty good now and it is because I have been moving. I'm 54. My joints and muscles feel good. My back is fine. I can motor along on a trail or scramble up rocks with the best of them... If I keep my regimen of hiking and stretching up, I should keep feeling this way. 

Then, I see myself in pictures, and I think: Who the heck is that? He looks neither like the guy in my head nor the guy in the mirror. (I can only hope that it's true about pictures adding ten pounds and some quick research shows it is probably true, so I got that going for me...) Sometimes I look at pictures of myself and tell my wife that I look like Peter Griffin, from Family Guy. I say this to be funny, but it also kind of hurts the old pride.

I do have thin mind. That, I keep in shape with constant exercise. I may not be a genius, but there is certainly no belly flab in the old mellon. 

Maybe I need to see all of this as a prompt for a separation of thought. I used to look at diet and exercise the way we are told to: as partnered weight-loss efforts. For me, it's better to think of them as separate goals: Exercise makes me feel good, physically; weight loss makes me feel good mentally. 

And both are important, right?

In the end, I guess it is more important to be strong than to be pretty. We'll see where that takes me. 




Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Eight Days in the Grand Canyon

PROLOGUE:

"Goooood moooorning Grand Canyon! We got hot coffeeeee, hot tea, hot chocolate..." 

This, in a sonorous sing-song, punctuated by a "barbaric yawp" that would have warmed Walt Whitman's heart, was the way Matteo (Teo), the colorful "swamper" on our boat, the Matkatamiba, would awaken us at five-fifteen, AM, in camp. Answering yawps would then chain-fire from Ben, the trip leader, Dustin, our boat's captain, and James, the swamper on the Fern Glen: the other boat on our eight-day Colorado River journey through all two-hundred-seventy-seven miles of the Grand Canyon. ("Matkatamiba" is Havasupai tribe's word for "horse," but it is also the name of a slot canyon at mile one-forty-eight of the Grand Canyon.)

It was the best alarm clock of all time, echoing down the canyon in the dry, grey heat of an August morning: it jarred you awake and made you smile at the same time. 

I have always felt a little...insufficient that I had never seen the Grand Canyon in person. It's kind of like the "American" thing to do, going there. People tend to look disappointed and mildly shocked when they hear you haven't gone. This summer, we set out to rectify that. We'd just planned to visit the rim, but Karen, my wife, found Grand Canyon Expeditions, and after some discussion, we figured, why not live down there for spell? 

That oughta make up for it, right?

The trip was a mix of luxury and of burden; payoffs and sacrifices. Somehow, through a system of precise logistics, really hard work, and much backstage planning, the guides provided us, nightly, with restaurant-quality meals [I kid you not: filet mignon, for instance...and mahi-mahi...], but the trip was no joke in terms of physicality and tolerance of conditions that we, in the "rim world," are simply not used to: heat, biting red ants, sand, constant wetness, severely inclined (but always voluntary!) ankle-rolling hikes, loading and unloading of boats in the violently insistent sun, and even a few scorpions. 

As our leader, Ben, said: "Make no mistake. This is an 'expedition.' You will be uncomfortable most of the time. But the pay-off is all around you." 

He was right. So unbelievably right. The payoff was perspective; the payoff was beauty; the payoff was wonder; the payoff was a Romantic taste of Wordsworth's much sought-after "sublime" in Nature. 

Let me spin you the yarn...

DAY ONE:

We'd done orientation the night before but reality set in when our loaded-up bus, after passing through what literally started as roadside construction sites and then just looked like constructions sites, and then transformed into rocky, western beauty, stopped in a town called Fredonia, AZ, to pick up one of our boat captains: Dustin. 

We'd been told at orientation, by Julie, that Dustin was a "real cowboy." He climbed up into the bus wearing a pale cowboy hat, the sides bent up tight, with a formidable six-inch brim, front and back. But there was no pretense to this guy. This was not a costume slapped on by some cat at a Luke Bryan concert, nursing Miller Lites and pretending he'd worked all week as hard as the song characters had. Dustin works a massive ranch that runs right up to the Canyon rim, "punchin' cows," and he pilots river boats through class-five rapids (class-ten, on the Colorado [just double the number of other rivers to compare]) with a level of skill that made me smile every time. The hat? Arizona sun, man. 

Dustin turned out to be an engaging storyteller, as well as a treasure-trove of Canyon lore and geological information. A man to admire. He had an honest sense of humor and, in conversation, a philosophical outlook on life, death and...living that we could all benefit from. 

After a stop for some ridiculously tasty cookies at a place called The Jacob Lake Inn, we rumbled on for the last land leg of the trip to the river. 


We met the boats, the Matkatamiba and the Fern Glen, at Lees Ferry, the beginning of the Grand Canyon -- river mile zero -- after unloading our dry bags and ammo cans, which were filled with our belongings for the journey, Ben, the trip leader, greeted us, standing atop the bow of the Fern Glen. 

Ben:


He wore a baseball cap and shades. His dark, full-coverage beard was flecked with a little grey and he was sun-browned: arms, legs and face. From his first words, you felt you were in good hands. He has a softly-delivered matter-of-factness about him mixed with a gently earnest but uncompromising bearing. He was going to tell you how to stay safe, then hand the responsibility off to you.  He respected you enough to implement the widsom he presented. But if you blew it, it was on you... The right attitude, if you ask me. (Later on, Dustin, on our boat, would underscore this type of attitude: "If you fall out on the rapids, you have to be an active participant in your own rescue.") 

When a group member started to walk off to the bathrooms during Ben's "borientation" (his term) he just asked, in a slight North Carolinian accent, "You done? You leaving already?" 

"We were just going to use the bathrooms before we go. Is that okay?" the person responded. 

"Yeah, it's okay, I guess. Talking about safety. Like you to hear it..." 

I liked him from that moment. He handled his passengers just about exactly how I manage a classroom. 

We then formed our first of many "zipper lines" -- a line with people staggered on opposite sides to minimize twisting -- and we passed the dry bags and ammo cans up to the boats. The swampers and captains lashed everything down and we climbed up and found spots to sit. There were some comfy seats back in "the chicken coop" toward the stern, but Karen and I sat in the front. There, you were either on "the couch" (which was just a pile of bags on a line of camp chairs) or on the the deck. This was not going to be a comfortable trip; not if you wanted more fun and more splash. And we learned quickly: more splash is better in the heat of the Canyon, which is, on average, twenty degrees hotter than the temperature at the rim. The Arizona rim. Which is, as you know, already hot. 

We were soon underway, trailing Ben's boat, Dustin piloting ours from the back. And -- whoosh -- you were in the Grand Canyon. (It became a refrain for me, for eight days. I'd be eating or talking or brushing my teeth by the water and the thought would pop up like a text notification in my brain: "Holy Moly. I'm in the Grand Canyon...") The Canyon walls loomed up in their characteristicly diverse desert colors and the they only got higher as we went along. If I spend too much time describing what only makes sense in person, this piece could run a book's-length of adjective overload. We and our fellow passengers went silent, for a long time, just craning our necks and trying to remember we were still on Planet Earth. And, in a real sense, our connection to what we knew on a daily basis was cut: No phones; no news; no daily check-ins with loved ones, for eight days. 

My very first thought was that the Grand Canyon was soul of America and we were going to get to travel through it. If you could take a slow trip through the soul of your best friend, or your wife, or husband, or child, you'd really understand that person, wouldn't you? Really understand

That first bend in the river felt surreal: This is it. Everything powerful and deep about this country; every Native American or every immigrant to this place who ever accomplished anything profound or good or bad was drawing or had drawn from the energy of this place -- a place that had been patiently carved over five or six million years by a trickle that became a river mighty enough to sculpt stone into whirling curves and caves that are now haunted by the ghosts of former incarnations of the same atmospherically-recycled water that we've all experienced as a drink or rain, or as a swim. The Canyon is the conduit of the proverbial river of time. It is inconceivably massive, even (especially) when you are deep within it, and it contains everything from mile-high walls and football-field-sized boulders perched precariously on tiny Roadrunner-cartoon bases, to the lone, Nerf-ball cactus comfortably crouching on a ledge, living where it should not be able to thrive. It's the diligent and adorable quest of the Bighorn Sheep, sure-footed and never quitting in their snuffling for food, regally turning to watch us pass, with dignity and surity, on the most narrow of footholds. It is an entryway into the bloodstream of a nation. Each of these things felt like the genesis of all that we admire about our country's history.

Then, Matteo, our swamper, came to the front of the boat to start to learn our names and introduce himself. For many of us, he became the heartbeat of the trip (see our wakeup call above), but on our boat he was diligent, adept at his duties and a first-rate entertainer. You had to love the guy: 



At one point we saw a blue heron, so Matteo educated us: 

"You know what it means when you see a blue heron in the Grand Canyon?" 

"What?" we asked. 

"It means you saw a blue heron in the Grand Canyon." 

All this wonder and top-notch dad jokes? It was more than I deserved. 

Matteo was kind, knowledgeable -- he taught us tons about the Canyon and about river facts -- and sweet. You'd think a "river guy" would be nothing but grit and guts, but Teo was a picture of emotional intelligence and concern, showing his kindness and patience with the younger kids on the trip (he let one young man help bake a cake for his birthday) and treating everyone else with constant concern. I saw his face when one of the passenegers fell from the boat as she was getting off: genuine fear for her safety. (She was okay.) 

But he also had grit and guts. In fact, all of the guides had grit and depth, as well. 

That night, we set up camp in a relatively tight spot near a small section of rough-running water. 

At dinner, Ben came and sat with a small group of us. It turns out Ben is originally from our area of the country (Philly area) and he'd once guided a local radio personality on a trip who later treated him to a night out for Donkey's steak sandwiches, in Camden, NJ. Once two guys talk about the wonders of cheeseteaks, a bond is made. We talked a little Philly and a little Grand Canyon until it was time to hit the proverbial sack. 

As Ben walked away, someone pointed out the rough water just beyond our camp. "Are we going to get wet right away tomorrow?" she asked. 

"Oh, that won't be there tomorrow," Ben said, in maybe the best deadpan of all time. 

As I walked to our spot, I thought: Wait...was it deadpan? Will they -- the tiny rapids -- really not be there tomorrow? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but, I'm an English teacher...what the heck do I know?

(They were there.)

We were close-together and everyone set up cots on tarps, with the intent of sleeping outside. We snoozed until the rain started falling. Now was the time to start putting comfort on the back-burner for the week, I figured. Karen and I pulled the sandy tarp out from under our cots and draped it over us. I fell asleep for awhile until I heard muttering and commotion and when I glanced out from the edge of the tarp, I saw tents. ("Where the hell did those come from?") I climbed out from underneath the tarp and, within three seconds, Ben materialized out of the darkness with a completely assembled tent. 

"Need a tent?" 

"I do indeed," I replied. 

Presto: we were in a tent. It was the only night we slept all night in one [tent = oven, in the Canyon], but we set them up every night, just in case. 

It was the monsoon season, after all. 

DAY TWO: 

I'm not much of a pancake guy, but when someone offers you blueberry pancakes in the Grand Canyon you take them and you devour them. Teo was a wizard in the camp kitchen, and these were impressive, coupled with a pile of crispy bacon. 

Later, we left the river for short hike to visit a Puebloan ruin: the foundation of an old building that might have served as a meeting house for the tribe (it would have had only a hole in the top from which to enter). Next to it was a coffee-colored rock, about ten feet around, that was covered with ancient petroglyphs -- probably some sort of "message board" for the tribe, according to Ben. 

The rock, Ben, and the ruins behind him:


Ben explained the logistics of ancient farming in the Canyon -- the Indians would plant on the banks of the river in the silt when the river receded -- and about the myth of the disappearance of the "Anasazi" (now, sort of a derogatory term). It turns out they didn't really disappear -- they moved to the rim. And until resources were slim, they lived as a completely peaceful people. Poverty can breed violence. That song is as old as the Canyon. 

As we'd made our way to the ruin, a member of our group had broken off and climbed up to some caves about fifty-feet up on the Canyon wall. Ben was not pleased, but, remember: he is no babysitter. 

"Are you gonna yell at him?" someone asked.

"I'm not gonna yell at him," Ben said quietly, as if taken aback by the idea of one man yelling at another, pushing some pebbles around with his toe.

When the guy returned, he joked about having broken away from the group. Ben softly, yet firmly made a point: "Well, this is sacred ground..." 

Sacred to Ben. Sacred to the Indians. Sacred to me, too. I hold other people's religions sacred -- sacred not because I necessarily believe they are accurate, but because I am a human and if my fellow humans believe deeply in something, at the least, I owe that thing empathetic reverance. (Once, I told a group of Catholic school kids who were entering an historical Episcopal church in England, to be reverant and to take off their hats, etc. A fellow Catholic educator on the trip said, "Why? It's not Catholic?")

I'm pretty sure he was kidding, but some people do hold that attitude. 

Ben was very visibly connected to the Canyon. He felt it -- didn't just thrill-ride through the place. On hikes that challenged us, he'd hop, elf-like, through the rocks in flip-flops. At intervals, he'd step up onto a rock and put his hands out for balance. At the same time, he'd very subtly circle his wrists in a way that reminded me of the motions of Native American smudging rituals. I don't know if he was aware of it or if I am imagining things, but I found it moving. The man was serious about the place and he was part of it. On the intellectual side, he'd quote papers he had read on the geology of the Canyon. (He was eager to get home and read one he had not gotten to yet; that's what I'm talkin' about, as the youngins say.) The Canyon was in his head and in his heart. 

Farther downriver, we reached Redwall Cavern. This is a huge shell-shaped opening in the cliff walls that the pioneer of Canyon exploration, Major Powell, reckoned would hold 50,000 people. We debated that number as a group. Most people believe it's an overestimate. I tried, by sight, to imagine the students in my high school (about 1000) sitting in the auditorium. When I multiplied that image, I figured on more like five to eight thousand, but...who knows? Let's just say it would hold scads of blokes. 



The scope of the cavern was breathtaking. For some of us, anyway. 

Despite the sheer depth of the place and the Canyon-red glory of the vaulted roof that looked like a stylized microcosm of a sunset sky, members of another group chose to spend their time tossing a Frisbee around. I couldn't imagine doing anything, the entire time I was in the Canyon, that would distract me from the grandeur. I didn't want to kill time, I wanted to slow it. 

I don't want to be judgmental, but man did that make me judgmental. Frisbee? Really? Why not play solitaire atop Everest?

The next stop was a slot canyon hike to the gloriously cool (literally and figuratively), and neck-bending Redbud Cavern. It was narrow, compared to Redwall, but lofty, with a water-cut window to the sky. A gent in our group climbed so high on the narrow ledges (same guy from the Pueblo site) that I had to just hope he was an expert. I immediately tried to imagine how they would get a helicopter in there if he needed to be "medevaced" -- which was the only way out of the Canyon in emergencies, deep into it as we were. 

(More on medevacs later...) 


At one point in history, there had been a plan to build a dam at Marble Canyon. Thank goodness it never happened, but they did get as far as to dig test shafts into the Canyon walls. Good luck for us -- we got to explore one. 

We donned our headlamps.  It felt like air-conditioning inside. Once we got to the end of the shaft, Ben told us the weird story of the plan to build the dam and then proposed we switch off our headlamps and just experience the silence in the cool, complete darkness. It was a mostly beautiful experience of sensory deprivation, except that a member of the group decided not to turn off her phone but to just press it against her leg (again: we had no cell service for eight days, but some used phone cameras). It emitted the tiniest glow -- enough to remind me: you are still in the real world, Chris. This is only temporary. (Another Frisbee in the cavern.) 

Me, heading in, in the light of Karen's headlamp: 


In camp that night we had the best mahi-mahi I have ever gobbled down. A storm briefly moved through, but Karen and I slept out on the cots under stars that looked as if God had dumped out a sandbucket of silver. You could feel yourself surfing on the very visible Milky Way. I felt well-fitted into my own insignificant notch in Creation as I dozed off with a bellyfull of delicious fish. 


DAY THREE: 

Copious cowboy eggs for breakfast along with about one-hundred and forty-three sausages. 

After breaking camp and a brief stint on the river, we beached up at the site of the Puebloan granaries: storage areas carved into the rocks seven-hundred feet above the river. Fortunately, the day was cloudly. (In fact, we had had several cloudy days, so for the first four days, the temperatures were not overwhelmingly hot.) 

The hike up was a mix of walking and scrambling and the incline was pretty severe (nearly vertical, at times, really). Being a teacher, I have had off most of the summer, so I had been religiously walking/hiking every day for a few months to prepare for the trip. Karen has not had the same amount of free time. She takes care of herself, but the hike was slow-going. We'd move a little and rest; move a little and rest. I tried to get her to quit, about halfway there, but she said, sitting on a rock, "I came this far. I'll be damned if I'm quitting now."

And she did not intend to be damned. 

We made it to the top last, as most of the group had started to make its way back down. Ben was sitting on a small ledge, waiting. He had snacks -- common practice on the trip, I think both to replenish electrolytes and to make us want to drink more. Serious dehydration was always right around the corner. 

Karen took some candies and a handfull of trail mix. 

"Pretty sure I have depleted my glycogen stores," she said, panting. 

Ben replied, "Is that a fancy way of saying you got your ass kicked?" 

"Yep," Karen admitted with a laugh. 

Later, Ben would tell me that Karen's effort was inspiring. It was. A tough wench, if there ever was one. This was the view from up there; we'd hiked up from the river: 

Around lunchtime, we passed the confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado Rivers. Both rivers were running muddy as a result of monsoon season, but the Little Colorado looked like Willy Wonka's chocolate river. You could see the darker swirls intermingling as we motored by: 


Despite some ominous clouds, and flashes of lightning, a brewing, nasty-looking storm cleared before we got to it. 

In camp that night, we ate pork chops the size of our feet; again, delectably cooked-up by Teo and the guides. Here's a glimpse of "the kitchen," in action:


After a brief sit in the kilns tents waiting for the rain to clear and watching a spectacular lightning show, we slept out on the cots under the silver sandbucket. 

It's worth mentioning, at this point, that we had spent three days covered in sand and coated with muddy river water. (You have seen, in the pictures, that the Colorado was running very muddy owing to monsoons.) For the record, I hate the beach. I hate being sandy. Now I was living and eating on "beaches." My hands were always covered in sand embedded in old sunscreen. My hair, according to Karen, had gone from its usual white/grey to tan, from the muddy rapids. This might make your skin crawl. It would have made mine crawl two weeks ago. But we sort of...just forgot about it. 

After some time in these conditions, I stopped doing "the beach-crouch" to avoid the sand. Setting up the tent, I'd just plop my to my knees. I stopped thinking about being wet. None of us were showered any further than a few quick baths to wash pits and torsos in the muddy river. But...we were in the Grand Canyon. Living in the Grand Canyon. This was enough to push away the constant need for comfort we tend to develop up here in the rim world. The payoff was, as Ben had mentioned, more than sufficient recompense for the inconveniences. We really do get precious about things, up here. This trip was the true example of what people mean when they advise us to venture away from comfort zones. 

Every human should do this trip, if you ask me. 

Anyway, good night. The Milky Way goes blurry...

INTERLUDE:

I know you want to know, so I'll just tell you about the "bathroom" situation. At each campsite, we had, as Ben so had eloquently put it, "A Poo with a View." The guides would find a spot down a path into a private area and there they'd set up a camp toilet (for No. 2) and a red bucket (for No. 1). Everything has to be carried out of the Canyon. There is no digging holes and using biodegradable paper, as in other camping. When we'd break camp, the guides would seal up the toilet with an industrial-looking lid and stow the whole caboodle in the little hold in the Matkatamiba. 

As for daily bathroom breaks, the National Park Service's policy is to "control polution by dilution" as Ben put it, so all "No. 1" functions during the day took place in the river. Talk about getting to know people quickly: the approach was "ladies upstream, men downstream." (The reason for this presents itself, if you really think about it.) Everyone behaved with the maximum modesty possible, but there was no ignoring the fact that your new friends were "doing their business" only feet away. Everyone was respectful and averted their eyes at the proper times. Civility remained, despite the situation. There are some good things about civilizaton.) Again -- discomfort? Yes. But, the payoff... And it served as another question prompt: How important are our little hangups up here in the rim world?

As for No. 2, on the river, it was best, as Ben had said at the outset, to "get on the camp schedule" but for several of the older gents (not me, for the record; I'd rather have died from some rare bowel disease), this was not possible. The process amounted to a sealable foil bag and hiding behind a big rock. I happened to catch a glimpse of someone handing Ben a...used bag at one point. Ben took it, and blithely said, "Nice doing business with you," and ran it off to some secret stowage place... (A sense of humor was indispensible on this trip.) 

The guides also set up handwashing stations, every time we ate or camped, with soap and a foot pump for clean water. Handwashing, in light of COVID protocols and recent nasty norovirus outbreaks in the Canyon, was constant. Before breakfast, lunch and dinner, the bellowed matra from the guides was, "____ is ready. Wash...your...hands." You had to stand in the handwashing line before touching any plates or food. I washed my hands more often while camping in the Canyon than I do at home, by far. And I wash my hands a lot. 

DAY FOUR: 

We were informed, at the outset, that day four would be a day of rapids. This was good news, because the sky was an unbroken blue. When the sun showed up in camp, it didn't feel like an East Coast sun that taps you on the shoulder in the morning and gradually warms up. In the Canyon, the sun immediately slaps you awake like a bullying sibling and steps right up to high-noon intensity. 


After a sweaty (there was still some humidity) camp-breaking and boat-loading, it felt good to hit the river. The temperature difference on the water was surprising. The rapids were numerous and refreshing, and Dustin, our boat captain, piloted us expertly through the most intricate ones we'd yet seen. I told him, later, that, "I don't know much about what you do, but I can tell you are great at it." 

Dustin had high standards for himself. When he made mistakes we couldn't even see, you'd hear a few choice mutterings from under that awning of a hat brim. But it's always such a pleasure to watch someone so highly skilled at what he does. If I could ride, I'd love to spend a day on the ranch just following Dustin around. I'll bet his standards are just as stringent there, and his skills just as impressive. 

After awhile, we passed Phantom Ranch and Bright Angel Suspension Bridge. These areas are accessible from the South Rim, so we saw some people hiking down into the Canyon. Teo wryly warned us, as we looked at the hikers: "Look -- wildlife. Don't make eye contact. It's mating season."

That night, in camp, in a place called "The Dune," that was backed by a dramatic cliff wall, there was a large area of submerged sand dune out in the river, and we all imitated the guides, setting up our camp chairs in the river and cooling off, sipping from our water bottles or from cans of "river cold" beverages that always stayed all day in "drag bags" that trailed behind the boats, in cans that came out looking like antiques from all the jangling around.




At one point, Karen mentioned that she'd like (because of the heat) to be towed behind the boat like one of the drag bags. I announced that, from then on, I would be calling her "my little drag bag." 

Ben looked up from tying a knot and said, "You got some b___s, Chris." 

"I guess not for long," I replied. 

But Karen clarified that we make fun of each other all of the time like this. 

Ben looked relieved. 

After a nice grilled chicken dinner, it was off "to cot" for another night under the dazzling canopy after a choreographic display of dancing lightning over the dark walls. 

DAY FIVE: 

Now it was for real. 

We'd been lucky with (relatively) cooler days, for the first half, but the sun was now unfettered. Arizona, as you know, is famous for being hot as heck. As I have mentioned, in the Grand Canyon, the temperatures are typically twenty degrees hotter than on the rim. 

Over the first four days, we saw temps of around 90-95 degrees down there. On the river, you felt almost cool. On the last four days, though, under the sun, we saw temps of up to about 110 degrees. This was when we started experiencing that famous "dry heat." (In camp, I tried to clean my glasses by huffing some breath fog onto them, as you do. Nothing doing. The glasses would not fog.) 

On the boat, we were all covered up (long sleeves, hats and hoods with thin fabric). Hydration became a mission -- no one fell to dehydration, but a few wound up cursing at themselves in camp for not having done well enough: big headaches and some weakness. I managed about a hundred and twenty ounces a day or more with a supplemental Gatorade out of the drag bag at most lunch stops. Karen and I had no real issues, but hers and many of the ladies' ankles swelled up quite a bit because of the increased water intake. 

The Grand Canyon Expeditions had recommended sarongs for everyone as part of the equipment checklist. These served many purposes out there (bed sheet; changing cover up...), but the most useful was to wet it with river water and drape it around you. With those temps, it felt like air-conditioning -- for a few minutes, anyway. They would dry in a flash, but we would just re-dunk. Teo would wet his and drape it over his wide-brimmed hat, turning him in to a kind of bearded, Virgin Mary figure. Many of us followed suit. 

Karen had had the idea to keep hers dry for other uses, but when I draped mine over her shoulders she became a convert. It was miraculous, if brief, how cool it felt, especialy when dipped in the running, clear water of a recently-flashed slot canyon.  

Below: Teo, near the umbrella, with his sarong in use; me with my sarong below:



If you should decide to go on a trip like this, do not forget the sarong. And pack light. I don't want to brag (which is what people say right before they brag), but I was labeled the "best packer on the trip" by Matteo. Karen hates that. She thinks she was better, but, the expert has spoken and it's my blog and she doesn't have the password. 

As we loaded the Matkatamiba that morning, Teo challenged Doug, one of our group, to a race to see who could thread the rope through the handles of the ammo cans faster. I don't want to say they cheated, but there was much hilarity as they endeavored to gain an advantage by interfearing with each other's progress. 


There was gloriously-shaded hike up a beautiful slot canyon that afternoon. We had avoided a few slot canyons on the previous days because of the threatening clouds. (Flash floods are a real danger in the Canyon and they will mess you up.) But on this day, the big sky was insistently -- nay, arrogantly -- blue. 

We also visited Deer Creek Falls (regionally, pronounced Deer Crick Falls). We spent some time soaking in a pool beneath its eighty-foot waterfall. It was the first clear(ish) water we had seen since the start of the trip, so it served as a kind of soak bath. The air pushed out by the falls was like Chicago street wind in winter. You almost couldn't face it. 

A fool in the falls: 


Dustin informed us that Deer Creek Falls is usually completely blue and clear, but, again, monsoon season had taken a toll: it was slightly brown on this day. We waited in there for a few hours while some of the group went on a hike up above -- half of us were content just to literally chill in this spot. After the first soak, however, it was hard to get back in. It made even me shiver, and I love the cold. 

Quite a bit of sad excitement in the camp that night. Remember the mention of evacuation helicopters? Yeah.

A few minutes after we had gotten set up and were relaxing on camp chairs with some of our new friends, Doug, Marcia, Penelope, Donna and Genie, Ben nonchalantly ambled over and said that there would be "a show with dinner." A helicopter was coming in to medevac someone from an adjacent camp, but our camp (and our side of the beach) was the only good landing spot. We had to move anything "that wasn't sand or plants" from the area so the helicopter could land and so that nothing would get sucked up into the rotors. The guides from both camps, and some of us, grabbed buckets and wetted down the beach to minimize sand spray. 

As we waited for the rescue, Ben was approached by a young member of the group who thought he had been bitten by a red ant. (They were everywhere. The antidote was to rub the bite with bleach.) Turned out it was a splinter or a cactus spine and the kid needed tweezers. He kept asking Ben, who patiently replied: "I'm landing a helicopter and trying to make dinner on a beach...first chance I get, I'll get your tweezers..."

The woman piloting the helicopter nailed her target (laid out as a red cross on the sand by our guides). Ben went fairly nuts with admiration for her skill, celebrating like she'd scored a game-winning touchdown. 


In a few minutes, the people from the other camp crested a dune with a woman on a cot/stretcher. Karen (who is a nurse) went over to check on her. The woman had broken a leg from slipping in the river mud -- an old injury made the leg weaker -- and it just went. The poor lady had to leave without her husband; no room on the evac. helicopter. The mood of the camps drooped a bit, but there was a great deal of gratitude and the other guides thanked us all for disrupting our camp for them.  

"On the river," Ben said, "we take care of each other."

There was a sense of that. From important things like this to a briefly-baffling stop Ben made, mid-river,  to another expedition's boat: 

Earlier, we'd watched, trying to figure out what he was doing and were enlightened when we saw the other company's guide hand over a few rolls of toilet paper. (Apparently, our group was pretty hard on the stuff... But, I guess...big pork chops, big... Never mind.) 

For dinner, I opted for the "Grand Canyon Special:" a flower tortilla, wrapped around a corn tortilla and filled with fajita goodness. James, the Fern Glen's swamper was serving them up. 

"Regular, or 'Grand Canyon Special?'" he asked.

"Gotta go with the Grand Canyon Special," I said. 

Ben, jogging by with a pair of tweezers, looked at me proudly and said, "I had no doubt!" 

There was a spectacular but short little storm that night, and, again, we slept under heaven's vault. 

DAY SIX: 

If you have ever, as I am sure many have, sat naked on a scalding frying pan under a french-fry warming light, you may have some idea how hot it was in the Canyon on this day. Some idea. To really really get the picture, you'd need to have someone iron the wrinkles out the bottoms of your feet with a Hamilton Beach steam iron at the same time. Dante's Inferno hot. None of this was hyperbole. 

But it was overwhelmingly beautiful out there. The walls of the Canyon were spectacular in the bright sun. And they shape-change so much as you make your way downriver -- the forms they take are innumerable and the sculptures the water created over the millenia are, at once, graceful, haunting, delicate and brutal. The view never gets boring. Infinite variation. 



For most of the day, we cruised along calmly, spotting tiny waterfalls and the occasional blue heron or Bighorn Sheep ambling by or grazing on the slanting banks. (One of our boatmates, Marsha, had a great eye for catching the wildlife and often directed us when we couldn't find this or that creature.) 

Later in the day, we made our way into a slot canyon that didn't have much of an incline, but that was not easy walking. There was more scrambling and a lot of ankle-breaking rocks that shifted if you stepped on the wrong ones. Residual streams from a recent flash deposited tons of pointy pebbles in my Keens as I went. (Those shoes were great all-arounders, but I often wished I had brought more sneaker-like hiking shoes.)  

After about a quarter mile, we reached a small shelf where everyone was resting, and I stepped up. Karen was behind me and asked for hand-up and. As I grabbed on and lifted her, I heard a sound like a carrot snapping and Karen let out a little gasp. 

She tore something in her knee -- an ACL or MCL, we think, now. 

She's done this before, on the other kneee, and she is a nurse, so she knows the feeling and the symptoms. 

I'm not a nurse, but I know knees are not supposed to make that sound. 

The rest of the group moved on. Karen had no stability in her knee, side to side, so we had to make our painstakingly slow way (over those same rocks and scrambles) back to the boat before the rest returned. Our new friend and boatmate, Genie, insisted on staying with us despite our protests, for which I will always be grateful. She carried our water bottles in her pack so I could help Karen. Kellianne and Phil, from the other boat group (a group who had all come together, unlike ours who met on the trip) helped us out, too, scouting out easier paths and grabbing Karen's hand on the other side when she needed it. 

We timed the long slog well -- getting back to the boats just as the others broke out of the slot canyon's entrance. 

Ben sidled over to us, not unlike a spy meeting another spy in a Moscow alleyway during the Cold War: 

"Why do I keep hearing your name?" he said, conspiratorially, to Karen.

"I tweaked my knee, but I'm NOT leaving. No helicopter, right?"

Ben shook his head dramatically and said, "Oh, no, no, no you are not. You're not going anywhere. As long as your pain is ok and you are comfortable getting around, you stay. "

He asked a few well-trained questions about the injury and Karen answered with clear medical terms. It was going to be an ACE bandage and hikeless trip from that point on, but no helicopter.

Oh, and Karen would have to get on and off the boat doing the "seal roll" from that point on. (In fairness to her, she did much better than that -- she just needed a hand up from me each time. Most of us had acclimated to a pretty impressive quick-hop up there by then: step on a strap between the boat and a pontoon, left foot on the deckplate, right foot bounces off of the pontoon and....equilibrium.) 

In camp, Karen sat out unloading this time, but insisted on helping set up our cots and tent. Ben brought over the ACE bandages and she did her nursely thing to brace up the wobbly knee. 

We had a fantastic dinner of shrimp and rice with egg rolls -- yeah, they even deep fried out there. It was at this meal that I noticed, with a grin, the height of the piles of food the swampers were eating. With the work they were doing, though, it was much deserved and probably necessary. 

A fifteen-year-old lad named Marcus was celebrating his birthday that night, and Teo let Marcus and his little sister help to bake his cake. I can't overstate how kind and patient Matteo was with these kids -- with all the work he had to do, he still took time to teach them how to bake a cake. Everyone in camp sang "Happy Birthday" to Marcus, and then it was nighty-night time. (It was pretty funny how quickly the camp went quiet, even with the other group winding up their nights in a circle with a few beers.) 

DAY SEVEN: 

This was our last full day. (Day eight would be all about meeting a speedboat to take us to the end of the Canyon.) We took some group pics before heading out. Our boatmates: 


Teo, with us on the boat:


Did I mention the heat? Remember the bit with the frying pan and the heat lamps? This time, fill the pan with lava, and you will have some idea.

This morning was my only "low point" -- outside of worrying about Karen -- on the trip. Waiting to load up the boat, I felt spent from breaking down camp and pretty listless; I wanted to be elsewhere, too, grandeur of nature be scratched. (Maybe I'd not hydrated enough on the previous night?) After a miserable zipper line, the fog lifted from my mood as we got on the water in the cooling breeze. I drank a ton as we went, and I was back to my old, stinky self again. 

There was a lot of time on the river that day, and Teo lead us all in a trivia match between the front and back of the boat. (Frisbee? Not really -- it was "Grand Canyon Trivia," so we were learning.) He sat perched on the pontoon, between us, with a book of Grand Canyon facts, draped with his sarong and doing his best gameshow host voice. We learned lots of things, including the fact that cameras cause more deaths than lightning or the rapids at the Canyon. 

People often plummet to their deaths trying to get selfies. That factoid made me want to wander off and live in the Canyon. 

In the middle of our game, Matteo pointed: "Look -- a boat is stuck." We looked over to see a small yellow paddle boat, from another group, just sitting still in the river. The woman in it was twisting around, trying to figure out a way off, the rest of her group waiting downstream. 

Ben guided the Fern Glen around a sandbar, to the downstream side, and turned his bow toward it. He handed the steerage over to James, to keep the boat in place, and we saw (from a distance) Ben lacing up actual shoes. He was heading out to help the stranded rafter. 

He grabbed a rope and disappeared into the weeds on the little sandbar. We couldn't see, but Teo scrambled off of our boat onto some rocks, river right, and watched, vocally disappointed that he couldn't help. 

Here is Ben's boat, awaiting his return; the stranded boat is to the right:


After about ten minutes, Ben emerged from the other side of the little sandbar island, sitting with the woman in the yellow boat. He jumped out and swam like a demon back to the Fern Glen to tumultuous cheering from the rest of our group and from the group with the yellow boat. 

In camp that night, when I complimented him on the rescue, Ben just poo-pooed it. "Karma," he muttered. "I'd want someone to help me. We all help each other on the river."

Yeah, we do. From the smallest gesture to the biggest rescue, again, there was a sense of real connection down there. People got stuck. People broke legs. People tore their ACLs. People ran out of toilet paper. People needed a hand up. You just helped each other out

After lunch, we beached up next to a place called Pumpkin Rock. You guessed it: It looked like the side of a pumpkin. It was a spring and there was a pool atop it that was filled with a neon green liquid that looked quite unhealthful (arsenic was mentioned...). I spied it on my way past, but neglected to get an inside pic.  Karen got this from the boat:


Next to it, though, there were some little cliffs that were perched over a section of the river that was very deep (over 100 feet, I think they said) and a handful of us hiked over to do some cliff-jumping. I thought of staying with Karen, who of course, had to remain on the boat for this one, but she gave me the don't-be-an-idiot look, and that was all the convincing it took.  I leaped into the cool water, first from about fifteen feet and then from the higher, twenty foot-ish ledge. We wore life-vests, so the rocket-like popping up out of the water was almost as exciting as the drop. Donna, a retired school bus driver, lauched herself over the edge with a joyful scream of bloody murder. (She didn't miss anything -- undaunted by even the toughest hikes, she was at first going to skip this challenge, but Teo talked her into it. She had a blast.) 

Teo? He did backflips. 


I just took a leap of faith:


Ben had tied a rope to a place where we had to climb back up, saying, "Take a look at the climb before you go. If you don't think you can make it back up, don't jump. We'll leave you here."

(He wouldn't have.)

In camp that night, we said our goodbyes to the guides. I shook Matteo's hand and gave him a hug; thanked Ben for waiting on us on the Granary hike: "Hey," he said. "We're a group. We say together." When I told him I had tried to convince Karen to turn back and she wouldn't, Ben said, "That was inspiring."

There would be no time for goodbyes the next day. 

DAY EIGHT: 

This was the day to switch to the speedboat at the aptly-named Separation Canyon by 10 AM to take us to meet the bus out. [Not only would we separate from our guides here, but, it was also the very spot at which three men of Major Powell's original expedition decided to leave and take their chances hiking out of the Canyon. Sadly, those three -- Dunn and the Howland brothers -- did not survive. Even more sadly, they were only 36 river miles from the end of the Canyon that day, though none of them knew it.] On the way, Matteo asked if anyone wanted to say anything and a few of us did. (This is when I complimented Dustin on his boatmanship.) 

It was a little emotional -- we had gotten pretty close, pretty fast. We had eaten 21 meals with each other; helped each other onto the boats; cleared a beach for a rescue; shared a profound experience with Nature and really depended on each other for eight days. And we'd laughed a lot, which I find to be a real glue in human interaction. Case in point:

Downtime on the river, Dustin told a story about a previous trip during which a woman had fallen into a diabetic coma. The river guide in charge helped her by "squeezing one of them honey bears" (meaning a bear-shaped honey container) up into her rear-end. In short, he'd introduced sugar into her (per rectum, as they say in medicine) for quick absorbtion, and she revived. I asked Karen: "Is that a tall tale, or would that actually work?" She looked at me like I was crazy. "Come on! A honey bear? Of course it's a tall tale." 

She'd misheard the story. She thought Dustin was saying the guide tried to shove an actual bear up there. 

There was much side-splitting laughter over that one among the group, especially when I mimed the guide trying to manipulate an actual honey bear. 

After some instructions from Ben as to the transfer onto the speedboat, we went downstream looking for Captain West, who would be taking us out the rest of the way to our departure point at Pearce Ferry. We lashed on to the sides, mid stream, and did our bag line to load up the front of the boat, and climbed in. The guides started off downstream, waving goodbye and give us nice, solid, Grand Canyon, barbaric yawps. They disappeared around a bend as Captian West gave us our safety instructions, and went into his wheelhouse. 

The speedboat slowly came up to full speed and, before long, we caught up to the guides again -- they had another five hours to go. The last thing I saw was Matteo, standing barefoot on the right pontoon of the Matkatamiba, yawping and swinging his red sarong in circles in the air. 

They yawped again and we all yawped back. 

I admit: my eyes got a bit wet...and it wasn't river water. 

EPILOGUE:

Julie, Ben's wife (who usually was on the river with him, but sat this one out) met us at the boat ramp where the bus was waiting, smiling vibrantly (and looking insultingly clean). She hailed us as a "seasoned bunch" (read: filthy) and we climbed onto the air-conditioned charter bus. We transitioned back into civilization by stopping at a little roadside shop for ice cream and/or "tallboys" and then started on our way back life on the rim world. 


Eventually, the Joshua Trees became buildings and the rest was left to memory, pictures and posts. But mostly memory. And my memories will be of a time during which we lived in true reality. So very few of the constructs of rim world life existed down there. 

I have said before that I believe that many of those things we have constructed in civilization are "fake." We have flipped things -- calling those constructs we have dreamed up "reality" (taxes, bills, for instance...) and seeing things like poetry and love and Nature as whimsical. But in the Canyon, those fake things dissipated. The only stuff that we brought in from the rim world were a few pieces of clothing and our sense of real community; the sense of cooperation and civility we have known since kindergarten: "On the river, we take care of each other." Formality disappeared. Makeup? Fashion? Comfort? The rat race? All of these things gave way to a more profound and brightly-colored picture; an HD philosophy; a closer connection with the true reality of the natural world; a first-hand glimpse of the culture of the real Americans, the Native Americans, and a filling of the five senses from dawn to dusk. 

As Matteo astutely pointed out: the river is now in our blood. We drank its water. It literally runs through our veins. We traveled the Canyon's length and breathed its oven-blast air. 

Now, we've truly been there. 

(Thanks to Karen, my awesome wife, for the all of the photography and for her chronological Instagram posts that I used as my outline for remembering what went with what days.)