The Space Between Things
A writer returns to the Grand Canyon again and again. And again.
National Parks | Winter 2016
By Kate Siber
Click here to read story on the National Parks magazine website
It’s not easy to get to the Deer Creek Narrows, tucked deep in Grand Canyon National Park. You must descend over a vertical mile from the remote North Rim, down through layers of rock formed over millions of years, along slippery slopes of cobbles, and across vast undulating sheets of sandstone. Last spring, five friends and I undertook the multiday journey, encountering chilling winds and snow flurries on the rim, raging stream crossings, and nerve-fraying heat on the canyon floors.
When we finally arrived, wearily, on a perfect 70-degree afternoon, the Narrows seemed almost magical. A nave of curving sandstone striped with shades of terracotta and crimson, this slot is graced with perennial waters that tumble in rivulets and waterfalls and collect in clear green pools paved with stone marbles. The sounds of rushing water filled the canyon, punctuated occasionally by the lilting song of a canyon wren. There was no sign of civilization.
We stripped off our salty shorts and t-shirts and slid into the pools. Sunning ourselves on perfectly flat ledges, we wordlessly agreed to cut our chatter out of respect for this rare place. I had been to the Grand Canyon many times but never a corner of it quite like this. It was just the latest episode in a love affair I never expected to have.
A decade ago, when I was in my 20s, I met an elderly woman while hiking in Canyonlands National Park in Utah. She had silver hair, a sturdy gait, and an air of quiet confidence. We got to talking, and she told me that she came here often even though she lived on the other side of the country. She had traveled all over the world, but now, instead of seeing new places, she preferred to return to the same one—to hike different trails but see the same spires and hoodoos in different moods and seasons.
I thought she was crazy. At the time, I was addled with wanderlust, hell-bent on constant movement. What could possibly be learned seeing the same place over and over? Now I am beginning to understand.
You don’t need to go out searching for a place to return to. In the course of your travels, it eventually finds you, sinks a hook, and beckons you back again and again. I traveled to the Grand Canyon as a child, but for years, it stayed in a drawer in my mind. Then, in my early 20s, I moved to the Southwest, and since then, I’ve returned to the park eight times for trips ranging from a few days to 19. At some point, around the third trip, I realized what was happening. The Grand Canyon had become that place for me: It had drawn me in and wasn’t letting go.
The first thing most people notice about the Grand Canyon is its stupefying grandeur and scale. When I first encountered it, I was ten years old, embarking on my first backpacking trip. My dad bought me a pink-and-teal backpack, filled it with camping gear, and cajoled me—with no previous hiking experience—ten miles down to Havasu Falls in a day. I whined and cried and collapsed from exhaustion, unable to go a step farther until I’d wolfed down some oranges and candy. But in my delirium, I also felt like I had passed through some mysterious curtain to a secret world of towering cliffs and glowing turquoise waterfalls that seemed as tall as skyscrapers. Growing up in a big Eastern city, I had never dreamed the world could look like this.
The next time I visited, I was in my 20s on my first long rafting trip: 18 days and 226 miles on the Colorado River with 15 friends. Over those many hours floating on the river’s grand stage, we ran out of words to describe the huge amphitheaters going by. I don’t think there’s any way the human mind can actually grasp the scale of time the cliffs so eloquently illustrate. The result is a sort of suspension of hubris, a constant feeling of wowed, grateful humility.
On that trip, I trained myself to look beyond the magnitude to see the intimate beauty of the canyon—the soothing sound of a tiny riffle, the delicate beauty of a cactus blossom in a throne of needles, the way the water’s reflected sunlight dances on overhanging stone. These are things that take time to notice, and I began to realize that you must spend weeks—months, years—here to gain a real understanding of its rhythm and tone. I also began to see that part of the allure of the canyon is not only its beauty, but its danger.
In the middle of that trip, one cool, sunny day in April, three friends and I switched from a raft into the group’s wooden dory, a craft that bucks like a carnival ride. Just as I was getting used to its jerks and shudders, the boat capsized in Dubendorf Rapid, and in a nanosecond, I was hurled into a wall of water and enveloped. I gasped for air and was shoved beneath again, bouncing off rocks like a doll. The next few minutes were a jumble of darkness and light, air and water. Finally I reached flatwater, spotted the three others—all swimming—and swam back to the overturned dory, which we eventually wrangled to shore. The river had claimed an oar and gruesomely smashed the bow. I was unscathed but my mind replayed the incident incessantly. I felt small and vulnerable, cowed by the indiscriminate power of water. But I was also, in part, thrilled. So often in daily life, we are insulated from the ever-present reality of our own fragility, and it was exhilarating to see beyond the delusion.
When we left the river after nearly three weeks, I felt bereft. It wasn’t just that the canyon was so beautiful and exciting. Being in such a place, so connected to my body, to other people, and to feelings of fear, humility, and belonging made me feel more human than I ever feel surrounded by civilization. I knew I had to return not only to try to understand this inscrutable place but to remind myself of who I am.
A few years ago, I applied for a permit to backpack the Nankoweap Trail without ever looking at the trail description. “You know, this is a pretty scary trail,” my friend Amanda told me as we drove through a starry evening to get to the trailhead and camp. She unfolded the description and read aloud. “This is NOT recommended for people with a fear of heights.” She looked at me with her eyebrow raised. The next day, we hiked by Saddle Mountain on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and peered down. A rolling cliff face dropped into an abyss. The narrow thread of a trail appeared impossible.
Somehow, with the help of some wires holding rocks to the slope and well-placed logs to prevent erosion, a trail made its way down into the canyon. This was the way it went: We looked ahead and deemed it undoable. And yet, step by step, we moved forward.
This time, what the canyon required was unbroken concentration. Our shoulders grazed a cliff on our left as another dropped away on the right; one misstep could have spelled disaster. I trained my gaze on the path ahead and wired my attention to my feet: heel, toe, heel, toe.
Eventually we made it all the way down into the canyon and along a stream to the Colorado River, where ancient granaries overlooked a ring of cliffs and the river twisting off. But what I remember best was taking a moment, on that tightrope trail, to stop and look around. It was as if the uncluttered calm it required to walk the path safely allowed me a sharper view.
Billions of years’ worth of happenings—climates changing, seas coming and going, sediments blowing and moving—were all preserved here in this labyrinth that stretched to the horizon. A charcoal smudge of rain traveled among the uplifts. Elsewhere the sun illuminated the layers. I had always experienced this place as a landscape of stone, but, standing there, perched in the middle of a huge cliff, I realized it was just as much a landscape of air and silence. It seems there are only certain moments when I’m able to see the spaces between things.