An Essay by Chad W. Lutz
Two falls ago, I decided what the hell and attempted a rim-to-rim-to-rim crossing of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Just writing it out makes my right knee hurt, which is exactly what happened. But the knee is fine now, and the IPAs I’ve imbibed have more than neutralized any pain I would be feeling, that is, if everything wasn’t velvet-glove fuzzy at the moment. Thinking back, it seems absurd something so grandiose even fits into the long-listed catalog of events that make up my life. Flashes of red desert here. A setting crimson sun and a bright white moon blanketing everything under the night sky in a soft cocoon of bent, yellow light.
I don’t bring the excursion up as a means to brag or to even remotely revisit play-by-play. I never made it through the entire hike. In fact, I had to stop at the North Rim lodge halfway, so I won’t bore you with the thirty-some-odd hours it took to get there in exacting detail. There’s fresh snow swirling on a wicked wind outside my cozy cabin this evening, and when it catches the eaves just right, it howls like a banshee across the river as icy waves lap at its frosted shores.
A part of me would rather go outside and light a fire and spend the next few hours drinking beer and forgetting the pain of being man by staring into the flames and watching the way the light from the stars and moon bounces off the surface of the rolling waters. But I feel compelled to sit here in the warmth of my cabin and write about what happened to me today and how reminded I am of the doomed trek I made across the bottom of a desert chasm in what feels like ten lifetimes ago.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Earlier this afternoon, I went cross-country skiing for the first time in probably twenty years. Being the full-hardy chubber of confidence that I am, there wasn’t a single second thought that crossed my mind. I simply laced up my boots, clamped on my skis, grabbed my ski poles, and out the door I went. I figured, after being considered an elite athlete in something as difficult as marathon running for the better part of the last decade, it’d be a piece of cake. Nothing to it. In my head, I was thinking, “Psshhh, I got this.” But all I got was yet another painful reminder of how fragile the human body is and how flimsy memory can truly be.
It’s amazing how twenty years can distort anybody’s perceptions of, well, anything.
I awoke this morning to the sound of the cabin’s heater clicking over. Scratching my tummy and slowly making my way to my feet, I went to the nearest window and looked outside: blankets of white snow piled ten inches high and covering everything within sight. Above the landscape, a v-formation of Canada Geese flew silently over the bay. I watched them until they became nothing but dots in the air and then disappeared into the horizon.
Watching their flight, I felt isolated and a part of everything at once; the same way I’d felt at the bottom of the canyon looking up at its mile-high walls in absolute awe, like a bug inside a cup, only this time trading the desert for the tundra, Arizona for Ontario. After eating and shitting and all those other mundane morning tune-ups we find ourselves unconsciously loping through each day, I grabbed a bagel, topped it with peanut butter and sliced banana, and made my way over to the Wellesley Island State Park nature center to scope my routes and grab a couple maps.
The park is located right smack dab in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River in Upstate New York and anchored by the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. To the south of the island lies Densmore Bay, which made me think of Jim Morrison and Robbie Krieger (Re: John Densmore), but if John Densmore and The Doors were a raging snowstorm, instead of a super psychedelic relic of an era gone by. South Bay (aptly named) also sits just off that same portion of the island, with Lake of the Isles tucked neatly into the centerfold of the whale-shooting-its-blowhole-looking scrub of land. In total, Wellesley Island consists of 12sqmi and calls home to just shy of 300 people. The park is divided amongst different parts of the island but controls around 2,600 acres. All of the park’s trails begin and end at the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center. There are about ten trails altogether, many of them looping and lapping back over one another.
It took me about an hour to walk the mile and a half from my campsite to the nature center. Along the way, I stopped and took pictures with my pocket Canon, running into not a single soul as I went. The roads themselves had yet to be cleared of the previous night’s snow, so the going was slick and sludgy. Tall, white-frosted pines poked out of the ancient glacial granite isle. The clouds had cleared, and so the sun was a blindingly bright light in the sky, made even more arresting by its reflection off the snow.
When I got to the building, which was a white-sided, wood-frame structure, with a big, glass atrium and a high, pointed lobby roof, I went inside and wandered around the beaver pelts and other taxidermied creatures: wolves, foxes, quail, squirrel, that were on display. Toward the back end of the lobby was a large, scenic window, where kids able to pinch quarters from their mothers’ purses could pop into viewfinders to stare out into the vast, chilly nothing happening across Eel Bay, which sits due west of the park and island. After twenty or so minutes of poking around, I eventually meandered back to the brochure and information racks setting by the front entrance, located the trail maps I was after, and then made the return trip to my cabin to grab a quick bite to eat, pack my Nathan Vest with my water bladder and little snack foods, change, and head out. Not once did I second guess what I was about to embark on. In fact, if I remember correctly, I’m pretty sure I had Queen’s “We Are the Champions” blasting through my iPod on repeat as I made my way out the door.
I felt that exact same kind of blind and gratuitous confidence rolling around my cerebellum when the grey Cube driven by my girlfriend’s father, Ted, pulled into Grand Canyon National Park a quarter past eleven in the evening. It was the first week in October; hard to believe now a year and a handful of months ago. We were tired from our travels, but in good spirits, despite the hour. None of the three of us, Ted, Maggie, or I, had slept since 5:00am that previous morning. Eastern Time, mind you. We’d gained two hours in practicum, but our bodies couldn’t be convinced otherwise, and staring down a 6:30am wakeup call to try and beat some of the heat on the way down the following morning, this should have been a red flag. Not just for my ill-fated knee, but all of us.
Impervious to logic, I openly welcomed our wake-up call only a mere five hours from the time we finally laid our heads down on our pillows and said our anxious goodnights, each of us dreaming of whatever adventure the next day would hold.
Within ten minutes of setting out on my first cross-country ski trip in at least twenty years, I found myself lying on my back and staring up at a cloud-whitened sky, a tangled mess of ski poles and skis, with a fresh batch of snow settling into my underpants. For a while, I just lay there, listening to the sound of the winds coming off the river sweeping through the naked trees. Trying to gain my feet, I immediately fell right back down. One of my skis was wedged squarely under the other.
Great, I thought. Perfect way to start out.
And so I turned my attention back toward the sky to collect my thoughts and center myself. After all, I’d planned on being out there for a couple of hours. But when I looked back up, it was just in time for a huge clump of snow setting on a nearby tree limb to fall and hit me right in the face. I laughed, already sweating through my all-weather jacket and red in the face from exhaustion, thinking to myself, “This makes running look like a breeze.”
All I could think about was the canyon.
We were somewhere around our seventeenth mile, heading into our eighth hour on foot, when my right leg suddenly began to feel funny. Tight, really; a pinch, to the inside and back of the knee. At first, it was just a sensation I felt here and there, maybe once every ten to fifteen minutes. I’d stop, shake it out, and feeling like it had passed, start back up again. But, over time, the sensation worsened, my body stiffened, and my gait significantly began to suffer.
I winced and drew hard, sharp sucks of wind with every breath. After a while, I started limping, which eventually turned into hobbling. The hobbling made my hips hurt, which caused me to land on my feet weird, and soon they started hurting, too. It was the damndest thing: not two weeks prior, I took fifth place overall in a major marathon featuring a race field of over 3,000 participants, clocking an unbelievable 10mph per mile for the entire race, and here I was casually walking along — a tourist for crying out loud! — at a clip of maybe two or three miles per hour and feeling like my body was a glass sheet about to shatter.
Trying to focus through the pain, I grew completely silent and concentrated on the trek itself. I was determined to get to the other side before things got worse; before, the only option of getting out was by way of rescue helicopter. At the Bright Angel Trailhead, there had been a sign that encouraged hikers to give whatever it is they think they’re about to do one final, serious consideration before heading off down the sandy path.
“DO NOT ATTEMPT TO HIKE FROM THE CANYON RIM TO THE RIVER AND BACK IN ONE DAY. EACH YEAR HIKERS SUFFER SERIOUS ILLNESS OR DEATH FROM EXHAUSTION.”
We were making at least quadruple that effort, and when my knee began to hurt, there was still a 6,000ft. climb to think about.
But we were all struggling, the three of us. We’d stopped at the Cottonwood Campground to rest for a bit just before the sun went down. We ate couscous flavored with hot sauce packets I’d stolen from the lodge cafeteria (for the sodium) and took turns going to the bathroom one at a time while the other two watched over our gear. With still another six miles to go to the top of the North Rim and the entire hike back, we sat at a picnic bench and shot grave, weary looks at one another.
“Chad, how’s your knee?” asked my girlfriend’s dad, as he messed around with the temperamental Jet Boil burner to prepare the couscous.
He must’ve noticed me massaging it.
“Tight,” I said, standing up to stretch. “I should be alright, though.”
What Ted said next, I’ll never forget.
He said, “Don’t be a hero. Not out here.”
The words hit bone, so loud you could almost hear them echo back and crack off the canyon walls.
By the time we made it to the park bench at the Cottonwood Campground, all of us looked worse for wear. Ted had a migraine and sore feet. Maggie had lost most of her steam around Phantom Ranch, some three or four hours before, and found it hard to eat.
My girlfriend’s dad, noticing the pain I was in, started telling jokes to take our minds off how tired we all were. There was no way I was going to let that happen. Not only would it cost the park service time and money to gas up a chopper and pay the rescue workers the overtime necessary to life-flight me out of the bottom of the canyon, but I’d have to later admit why, and a sore leg seemed like a pretty flimsy excuse for all that hassle. It’s not like it was broken.
On we pressed. Minutes felt like hours. Hours like days. At points, the canyon swallowed the moon, and with it, every ounce of light you could see. We stumbled on like this through total darkness. Ted’s jokes helped some, but after thirty minutes of feeling anything but the desire to laugh or be around other people, I sped up my pace and retreated inside my body. I blocked out the canyon, I blocked out the night, I blocked out the pain, the heat of the day, and the wear and tear on my resolve. I started marching up the canyon like I was on my way to a funeral I didn’t want to go to. In a way, it ended up being my own funeral.
My knee hurt so bad that I was forced to huddle in an alcove along the North Kaibab Trail wall, shivering and bracing against 40mph gusts of wind snaking over the cliffs of the North Rim like pushy fingers and standing less than two feet from a 2,000ft. drop. And there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. I could feel the tendons flex and strain beyond their want and will every step of the way, and after a while, I just got stuck. My leg locked, entirely. Stranded there while I massaged my knee and shook my leg to work the muscles out enough to start back up again, I kept thinking and rethinking and triple-thinking what it would take for me to be able to go the whole way, not just up the rest of the incline, but to complete the goal I’d set out to accomplish. Even then, I couldn’t allow myself the humility to say, “This is my line.” The thought of watching what I’d set out to complete might as well have been carried off on the breeze, and I remember clutching my arms and whimpering, realizing, like a running headlong into a brick wall, I’d bitten off more than I could chew, regardless of how or why.
I felt my heart plummet inside my chest; my head slunk in shame. It was as if the canyon was slapping me in the face. And, rightfully so. Here I was, living out a feat most people only dare to dream, having walked close to thirty miles in one of America’s most storied and celebrated natural spaces, and the only thing I could think about was how far I could push before I hurt myself for life. And for what? Just so I could complete a hike I could technically do again at some other point in my life if I really wanted to?
Right at that moment, as if on cue, a group of hikers appeared around the bend in the trail just a few switchbacks below, talking about a van that was waiting with fresh clothes and warm food and rides for the members of their party who were calling it quits at the top. And, wouldn’t you know it, they, too, were staying at the South Rim and had just enough room for one more passenger.
The ride back to the South Rim from the North Rim Lodge was silent and eternal. It takes about four hours to drive from one rim to the other because the highway can’t just cut through the canyon; you have to go out and around. I fell asleep within ten minutes of our party pulling out of the parking lot, but awoke with enough time to spend the last two hours watching the sunrise over the hills in the east, dousing the landscape in firelight. Blue and purple clouds drifted lazily through the sky like temperate-colored logs in a hot ocean of oranges and reds and yellows against the browns of the earth and greens of what few pine trees dwell in the desert at such high altitudes.
“You awake back there?” the driver, a UA grad student studying geology named Matt, asked after hearing me stirring on the middle bench. I looked up to find him eyeing me in the rear-view mirror. Groggily, I confirmed.
“How’s the knee feel?” he said next without missing a beat. I attempted to give my leg a good bend but couldn’t. It was stiff as a board.
“Pissed,” I hissed back, not meaning to. He must’ve understood my frustration and nodded, turning his eyes back to the road and the increasing forests around us.
“Better than it was, though,” I said a handful of seconds later, realizing I’d taken the air out of the cabin. But the damage was already done. There was no way of hiding how defeated I felt. It was as if every painstaking mile had caught up to me in that van all at once. My feet throbbed, my quads were shredded; my glutes and hamstrings felt like they were made of stone. Even my lungs hurt, and the muscles in my neck, where my daypack had rested, were so tight you could have plucked major and minor chords.
“This your first attempt?” asked the person in the seat next to him, sensing the tension trailing in my voice. His name was Mark, another UA grad student. He had a curly mop of hair and a big scruffy beard that bounced as he spoke, unlike Matt, who was clean-cut and looked freshly shaved. Both had kind, sympathetic eyes that told me they’d had their own ill-fated run-ins with a canyon cliff or two in their day.
Behind all that unruliness, Mark’s decision to keep pressing put me at surprising ease.
“Yeah,” I said, drawing a deep sigh and letting it all out before I continued. “First time.” Some minutes passed in silence. A family of elk crossing the road stopped our progress, and we waited patiently for the gang to move. While we waited, I thought about the impermanence of our bodies and how we’re only given the ones we have. I imagined myself pressing on, maybe making it back to the South Rim on foot, and how it would have been a testament to the human spirit if I had.
But I also thought about how life isn’t about any one moment, or even a handful of moments; it consists of all the moments we ever are, that we’re ever so lucky to live, and how grateful we should all be that we’re even able to run into obstacles like elk in the road when all we wanna do is get back to the lodge, eat, and pass out for twenty-four hours so we can fly back home and ice our knees and lick our wounds in private.
The elk eventually moved on, and we drove the last half hour in about as much silence as we’d begun the trip. Right around the time, we started seeing signs for the South Rim entrance to the park, Matt interrupted the silence to ask if I thought this would be my last time attempting rim-to-rim-to-rim. I watched as a bright, white smile grew as wide as the canyon in the rear-view mirror. The giant Chevy Astro lurched as Matt downshifted, causing Mark’s hair to bob.
“Not likely,” I said, unable to help myself from smiling back. “I don’t know my own limits.”
And as the gears ground out, signaling our entrance into the South Rim’s Grand Canyon Village, both Mark and Matt came back with a single reply.
I fell thirteen more times this afternoon before I finally realized 1.) I had picked hiking trails to ski instead of cross-country ski trails, and 2.) the clasp for my right ski was missing. I’d also lost one of my heavy gloves at some point, and the backup pair I’d brought along were already soaked through from the snow. Eventually, I took the skis off and carried them back along the trails to my car, which I had parked nearby, just in case this very side-show scenario happened.
Every time I went down today, I could feel the forest; the rocks and trees and the steep banks of the island shores like stony faces opening their frigid mouths into the ice-cold sounds below; I could feel all of these things laughing, howls made audible by the whining winds, reminding me the indifference nature takes toward human beings, of a canyon wall that offered no solace, no easier track to get to the top, and absolutely no relief where the topography proved otherwise. But no matter how many times the natural world jested and spread me flat on my duff or stung at my face and hands exposed to the biting winter weather, I stood up, brushed myself off, and laughed.
I’m fine now, nearly all the way through my fourth beer and thinking it’s about time to retreat outside, despite the cold, and light that campfire. Light that fire and maybe laugh a little at my own expense for what the world will eventually take from me, the thing I was so blindly willing to sacrifice for nothing: tomorrow.
Chad W. Lutz is a speedy, non-binary writer born in Akron, Ohio, in 1986 and raised in the neighboring suburb of Stow. They graduated from Kent State University with their BA in English in 2008 and from Mills College in Oakland, California, with their MFA in Creative Writing in 2018. Their first book, For the Time Being, is currently available through J. New Books.