Wild Times in the Grand Canyon


“We got smashed last night,” the girl says as she pulls long on her cigarette, trying to get a last drag in before we start our descent down the Angel Bright trail. You know a trip is going to be good when the first party members you meet are a veteran Burner and a pair of drunk smokers.

Just a week before that, I was driving home thinking about what groceries I’d forgotten and the other things one considers in a responsible adult life when my phone rang. “Hey Ammi, someone backed out of our Grand Canyon trip. You wanna come?”

I had a thousand good grown-up reasons to not go. A mortgage, a medical practice to run, a kid who occasionally needs food prepared for her. And the small reality that I had zero whitewater experience. It seemed like a great idea to me. I needed a dose of perspective, which is what I call my regular escapes from civilization and cell phones.

Within the first mile of the hike down, I felt purified. It was breathtaking. The trail winds down the canyon’s layers of red, orange, purple, and green in a steep descent, forming a line through the ancient rock until it stretches out across an emerald ledge then disappears again. Somewhere down there flows the mighty Colorado River, making no apologies for its muddy color or fickle mood.

We met our rafts at Phantom Ranch: four boats, sixteen humans, and a beer supply that I (naively) thought was obscene in its excessiveness. People were eating sandwiches and drinking Pabst and clearly not taking any of this rafting sport very seriously.

Photo of the Grand Canyon by Ammi Midstokke.
Layers of caved out millennia replace the shores of the Colorado. //Photo: Ammi Midstokke

The friend who invited me is an ultra-marathoner who chews up mountains for breakfast. I assumed I was getting in over my head, but no one told me to pack a beer bong. I quickly realized this group of people were mostly connected by their annual pilgrimage to Burning Man or a history of river rat escapades requiring the fitness level (and Marlboro habit) of a carnie.

I was assigned to a boat with a 350-pound Kiwi who, as far as I could tell, was all muscle, sandwiches, and cynicism. It’s difficult to know for sure because he only spoke in single syllable responses. He wore chunky black glasses, a green merino t-shirt, a pair of Chacos, and a life vest with the straps let all the way out. For the next week, I did not see him make a facial expression. He did, however, have a super power of seeing obscure and nearly invisible flora and fauna from miles away.

In the Grand Canyon, the rapids are measured on a scale that begins with class 1 and ends with class 10. Just after I boarded we hit the first rapid of the day—a class 8 that would have made me soil myself— except I wasn’t sure if that fell into borrowed dry suit etiquette.

I had read the statistics of how powerful that water is, how many thousands of gallons funnel through per second. I knew the rag doll consequences of falling out of a boat. Sure, grandmothers float this thing every year, but my propensity to turn an afternoon hike into a “Good Morning America” episode had me wary.

That week was a journey through time and cortisol levels. The river would have tantrums and toss us about the frothy water, and we learned to hoot and holler in praise until it spit us into the calm again. For hours we’d float through the mesmerizing colors and history of the canyon. Life on the river has a different time, like a parallel universe in which nothing matters but the present. Floating, paddling, setting up camp, breaking down camp. People who would otherwise never socialize became friends and cohorts.

Photo of Havasu Canyon by Ammi Midstokke.
Havasu Canyon. // Photo: Ammi Midstokke

I watched doctors drop acid and take nitrous hits with their morning coffee. I saw cowboys recite poetry and a college snowflake sing John Prine. I saw people pee in front of each other in the middle of conversation. Even my own shy bladder gave up the battle for privacy. I saw a Georgia girl cat crawl on the sand, lit up by the glow of the fire and mushrooms, casting her shadow on the canyon wall. I saw conflict and resolution, pettiness and pouting, generosity and acceptance.

I watched how the smokers went to war with the non-smokers and, for some days, expected a sort of “Lord of the Flies” revolution. If only I had found a conch shell. It was like I was witnessing a new kind of humanity, something basic and simplified without the external influence of the news and social media. I saw people judge each other by their immediate merits, such as their ability to make giant pots of pasta taste better than freeze dried camp food.

I also saw scorpions and lizards that were iridescent blue. I went for hikes into the canyons to see the sipapu—the waterfalls that served as the birthplace of the ancestral natives. I watched a man blow his brother’s ashes into the churning water as another goodbye to a loved one long gone.

One day I climbed by myself up to a treacherous cliff, only to realize that my situation was dire at best. I sat there on the eroding soil, scared and jacked up on adrenaline. I stared out at the gaping chasm in the earth. If this would be my last view, surely, surely, I had done something right in my life.

When I had the courage to move again, I crept back to safety without plummeting to my death. I topped out on a mesa, collapsed to the earth, and cried. They were tears of both relief and gratitude. I let the time continuum of the desert creep over me. There was no sound, just the gentle movement of spring blossoms. I could hear my pulse, feel my breath, and see the expansiveness that surrounded me. For the first time in far too long, my head, heart, and body were in the same place. //

Ammi Midstokke wrote about “foodphobia” in July.

Share this Post

Scroll to Top