Walking on Water

I am four thousand feet below the rim of the Grand Canyon. My camp is on the fringe of a basin in the vast Clear Creek drainage, a short distance above the point where the sandstone horizons narrow and the creek begins its dive into the Inner Gorge. It has been a lazy morning. For a long time, I lay in my sleeping bag tucked beneath an overhang, watching as the stars dimmed and the world reclaimed its colors. Later, cross-legged in the dirt with my back against the cold rock, I savored not just one but two cups of tea—steam bath, hand-warmer and eye-opener all in one. I even filled a few pages of the notebook with my jottings, an activity usually reserved for candlelight.

My rest has been hard won. For four days my pack has been bearing down on me, compacting my backbone, making me more earthen. Stooped as I was, my field of vision was a three-foot patch of dirt booted forward by my leather toes, bounded on each side by the blur of swollen fingers and above by the shadow of my eyelids. To look beyond this field in any direction required a slow, machine-like pivot, and beforehand, the considerable effort to simply stop. 

This is harder than it might seem. Momentum rules the backpacker. On level ground, motion feeds on itself, and your legs labor to keep up with the surging mass above. On the steep downhill, you know the trucker's thrill of being barely in control or perhaps the quick terror of losing it. (In a reckless moment on my first day out, I garnered in the palm of my right hand enough pincushion spines to keep me busy at every resting point since then.) The only thing that requires more effort than stopping is starting up again, and so after awhile you don't stop, unless you have to.

Psychological laws compel you forward as well. On the trail, you wear the map in your pocket, and you always know, or think you know, your place on it. And although you may make a point of leaving your watch in the car, that act alone does not erase the consciousness of time; you study the passage of the sun instead. You have an itinerary—serious word!—to follow. You are expected "to be somewhere" by day's end, and if you fail, you may not get where you are "supposed to be" tomorrow; you will "fall behind."

Today, however, there can be no falling behind. Thanks to an uncommon burst of good sense, I have scheduled a break from the first beast-of-burden phase of the trip and will keep the same camp two nights running. This is not to say that I will lie dormant; true to form, I have made for myself a destination. According to the map, I'm about five miles as the raven flies to the point where Clear Creek meets the Colorado River. But the dotted-blue line of the creek is so sinuous and the elevation lines on either side are stacked so close together that the actual distance is impossible to figure, and to stare too hard is dizzying. I’m not even sure I can make it there and back in a winter’s day that is already well under way. I have to remind myself that success will not be measured by whether or not I do so.

Finally, I put aside my mug and reach for my boots. I lace them, struggle to my feet, and don my daypack. With two quarts of water, a light lunch, and small bag of emergency gear, it weighs nearly nothing. Zig-zagging down the slope from camp, I find that I too am weightless, and a little tide of freedom washes over me. Like a dog that has just been unleashed, I exult in it. I come up against a boulder in the creekbed and rather than go around, I scale it. From that vantage, I glimpse the sun-splashed crest of a far-off butte gleaming like the top-knot of a red-headed giant, and so I charge up the slope on the opposite side of the creek until the butte’s head and shoulders come into view. Then I am stunned, driven to my knees, by a spectacular show of lichen on the lee-side of a boulder. I take out my pocket magnifier and enter that world—the brilliant yellow and orange that I thought existed only in toy stores, the elaborate tendrils swirling out like psychedelic galaxies. A shadow of a thought flits across my mind, and out comes the notebook and pencil stub. This doesn't last; the early-morning air numbs my fingers. Blowing in my cupped hands, I notice, in the cliff-face across the creek, a cave that just might be approachable. And so down I go, headlong leaping and sidestepping, across and back up. 

Such giddiness is to be expected of anyone who has long been lashed by a conspiracy of straps to a great weight. Once it subsides, I take my bearings. On all sides the Vishnu Schist imposes itself, its jagged, twisted rock vaulting higher, the deeper that Clear Creek cuts. The canyon is at most a hundred yards wide, and in some places so narrow that a couple of hikers holding hands could span it. The flow of the creek is steady, a slow trickle in the gravel beds where it widens out, a wild gushing in the chutes. The bed is full of rocks from edge to edge. They are a thousand variations of round and of a hundred hues; not even the absence of direct light can mute their colors. And they are of every size, from the minute pebbles that I scoop up by the thousand to the house-sized slabs that clog the narrows and threaten, with one final shift, to block the flow altogether. I consider how best to make my way downstream. I can cut corners where the creek doubles back on itself—threading through thickets on the benches or clambering up and over loose talus slopes. Or I can stick to the bed and select which level of rock—small, medium, or large—to address myself to. I decide to let the feet decide.

 

*****

First motion is erratic, a stop-and-start affair. Boots need tightening, a shirt must be shed. The body parts are not yet working together; each step is a distinct event for which one foot takes credit, sending its signal upwards—the sensation of its impact against the rock, something between pain and pleasure. Like a couple of well-meaning but distractible kids whom you can't quite trust to follow you, the feet have to be closely watched.

But not for long. In the same way that when kids hold hands they steady their motion, the feet become partners in something larger. Always one foot is planted and one blurred, the two of them pivoting around a center of balance that hovers somewhere near the navel. The arms are participants too, and the hips, chest and head, and all the various motions are balanced by reference to that center which is itself moving downstream, describing a more-or-less straight line that constitutes my direction.

If my focus is interrupted for any time frame longer than a blink, if the kerplop of a toad in re-entry phase beguiles me to turn my head, then, like the sailors who fell within earshot of the Sirens, my power to sustain motion is broken. My toe snags on a rock and I must fling out my arms to clutch for balance. Watch it you idiot! I shout out. Pay attention!

But I do not so much have to "watch my feet" as attend the world through them. They are tactile organs feeling me forward, even through their wool and Vibram shields. My eyes, locked on the moving field beneath me, supply the connection that closes the circuit. Meanwhile, my other senses cover for me and take in some of the world I move through. Every airflow is a story reading itself out loud to my skin: a final breath from last night that has been quietly held against the cold cliffs and then exhaled; a first wisp of warmth that finds me, harbinger of a place downstream where sun, or at least the reflection of sun, has been preheating the oven.

The same with the ears: What painting of the stream do they describe? Sometimes the cool murmur of water sliding over slickrock, or the little tinkles of it leaping from pool to pool (a thousand crystalline notes!), or the white water's constant pressure in the ears, or, most startling of all, the silence, where deep sand has collected and the water has gone under.

*****

On a flat-topped boulder in one such stretch, I stop, drop my daypack, and uncork my water bottle. For awhile, my glugging throat and thrumming heart and loud breath are all I hear. Then the silence sets in, a quilt against my skin. I raise my eyes to the jagged line where black meets blue.

A tinkle of a dislodged stone, and I scan the shadowed cliffs. The sound subsides and then abruptly multiplies, hissing and clattering and thumping. I flinch and look wildly about. Finally, with a flurry of pebbles, it peters out. All the while, the only motion I perceived was not seen but felt behind my eyes; my forehead and temple are pulsing with the effort.

The blinders are lifted just a bit; the unseen object was a shard of truth, this morning's small allotment, tumbling home to me. Up until now, I have been thinking of the Grand Canyon as backdrop, a palette for the bold strokes of my motion. Suddenly it is clear that in such a vastness as this, motion of any sort—by a pebble, an eyeball, or a foot—is so small that it’s laughable. Unless you are a rock, connected to the other rocks by some secret sense, you are alone. And such aloneness! I am a tiny speck amidst the vastness. What's the use of seeing anyway? I close my eyes.

This makes me dizzy, and so I sit down. Then I am smiling, for I have found relief from a task I didn't even know I had, keeping my balance. My eyes are flooded with coolness, and all over my body my pores start to tingle, as they become aware of their role as sense organs. Life as a rock, I think. I could get used to this. I wonder, does time even pass for a rock? If being out of time is an attribute of god, then a rock, which is much less in the grip of time than a man, is more godlike. The longer I sit, the truer this seems, as, one by one, the virtues of rock—consistency, steadfastness, imperturbability—show themselves to me.

Another cascade of sound washes over me, this time the cadence, eight crisp, sweet notes, of a canyon wren. I don't bother to look; I know that the wren is perched on some thin ledge overhead, brown feathers blending in. But a surge of emotion is released. Now I know why this song has always uplifted me, whenever it filled the silence of my solitude: In the vast world of mute matter, the wren affirms what it means to be a creature, to have a life span. "Yes, I am falling. You might even say dying. But listen to how I am accomplishing it." And I too resume, for this is what creatures do.

*****

Yesterday I was an earth-bound backpacker, gravity's pawn, a Dumbo. Today, I am a student of new motion.

The rocks underfoot do not move; I do not allow it. I address myself to each one individually, aware, in the instant that I hover above it, of its rootedness. I meet it in a manner that adds to its stability, that affirms its place in the creekbed. And if one has a mind to make a movement of its own, it must do so in my wake, for the moment I touch it I am leaving it behind, my weight shifting smoothly from the ball of the foot to the toe. 

The message is clear: motion in its purest form demands utter presentness. If I would enjoy it, the habit of caution must be quashed. Thus, when a gap appears on the fringe, rather than rein myself in, I give the planted foot more weight and fling my body outward. Something is there at the other end to accept me. This is a matter of certainty. With my arms as rudders, I steer my body toward it; I alight.

The rock field exerts itself, nudging me sideways. I yield to it. An order is passed through the nervous system—to the left, now!—and all the parts—feet, thighs, torso, eyes—respond. Then the field guides me right. Muscles that have been dormant but alert slide into gear. Then a succession of reverses is required—left, right, left—and I move in several directions at once. All throughout, the fulcrum flows steadily forward. The muscles ripple with confidence. Test us; we are ready.

And so when a waist-high boulder presents itself, I gather my energies and vault upon its back and enter the realm of Big Motion. Strength more than suppleness is required here, and a greater measure of faith. I raise my head a little as I approach each brink so that my plane of vision broadens and a shadow appears, reason enough to let fly. I span gaps and gulches, quicksand and waterfalls with my leaps, and meet the inevitable boulder on the far side with the full face of my boot. Whatever its surface—smooth or knobby, horizontal or slant—my sole adheres to it. My knees flex to absorb the shock, then push forward, up and over, to where I throw myself once more into space.

Gods live outside of time, or else they scorn it. I too in my presentness am beyond its grip. The assumption of duality—mind and body, self and other—is exposed as falsehood. There is no separateness.

I cultivate silence. Only without words can one know the mute earth. Only without words can one know the motion. My feet are silent too; I make them so. They touch the rock as one touches a cheek with one’s fingertips. I soar soundlessly.

On I go, and on and on. I accelerate, or I slow down. Whatever my speed, my breathing is even; there is no need to rest. I move from the realm of solid shade into the crisp world of reflected light, into, at last, the first shimmer of full sun—my flesh tingles with delight—and back again into cool shade, and back and forth, sun and shade and sun. The sudden squawk of a raven—aha, old trickster, you want me to look up but I won’t!—the crackle of his wings overhead as he trails me downstream. Once, twice, his shadow crosses over me, until he grows bored, leaves me.

The shade banks shrink, the heat intensifies, and I resist, gently, the imperative of the creek bed that would channel me out into it. I tend instead toward a cool thread beneath a sloping cliff, where I slow down until it gives out, and then, upping the tempo, angle across the white blaze of mid-creek to the shrinking shade on the far bank. In this way I navigate the bowls and buttresses, the oxbows and goosenecks. Sun on my forehead, sun on my neck, and on my left flank and then my right. Once, the rasp of a rattler just ahead, and I veer away, glimpsing the mottled back and the quivering tail as my shadow touches it.

And all the while, be it torrent or trickle or slow drift, be it upon the surface or in the interstices between the grains of sand or in underground channels, the water is moving beneath me. And all the while the air is moving too—molecules buzzing in the heat, infiltrating the shade banks, gathering themselves and swooping upstream or down.

I should mention that I arrived at the river. I found a patch of sand there, chewed my lunch and washed it down, dutifully looked around. And all the while my legs were aching, not because of what they had done, but because of what they wanted to do. They wanted to keep moving.

 

*****

Day is ending. The sun has long since left the cliffs, and the shadows are thickening in the bottoms. A wind gust sweeps down from the heights, chilling my skin. Suddenly, the world shifts. Last light floods the upper atmosphere and spills down, and all the colors in the creek come alive—jet-black obsidian, limestone, gray granite and rose quartz, ivory and peach and orange and brown and yellow sandstones, a spectrum spanning a billion years. Each rock asserts its own identity, its history and presence. Each is pulsing and flaring—look at me! look at what I am! I am treading upon a jeweled path, and I am overcome with thanks.

Just as abruptly, the colors drain away. The rocks become anonymous shapes, and I too feel the dullness. But wait! Now the sky comes alive in the water; it becomes the water, a suffusion of pink and blue out of which the rocks, dark footholds, arise. I am not looking at the rocks anymore, but into the water, into the sky. I am walking on water.

Because I am not a god, I can only walk like a god for so long. The light recedes farther into the sky, deeper within the water, emerald blue to slate grey, ordinary. I grieve its going. Here it is again, I think, mortal man’s plight, played out on a private stage underfoot: our very best, most holy attributes—youth, vigor, revelation—flare, then dissipate. And having abandoned the world for a thought, having made a metaphor of it, the world retaliates. A rock dislodges and I lurch sideways, and the water is no longer sky but a cold, wet thing, knee-deep. I yank out my leg and press on; apparently I have forgotten how to stop, forgotten that there can be reasons to do so, such as to drain a sodden boot. The balance that was mine for so long that I thought it was mine forever is now gone. My feet are uncertain. The boot soles slide instead of grip, and a squishiness accompanies every other step. But I have been afoot too long for this disruption to persist. Gradually, the water in the boot settles. A new rhythm arises, and the wavering center of balance again arrives.

A different thought now freezes me in place, sends my eyes darting upward, my mind groping back to the other, vanished end of day: somewhere at the foot of the blackening cliffs is a sleeping bag, a teapot, a sack of food—an identity to reclaim. The one thing motion has not revealed in my marriage to it is the final truth about itself: like everything else in the universe, it is finite; it runs down. 

Animal instinct guides me home.

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