Still and quiet is not something familiar to a person who battles anxiety, depression and PTSD daily. Half of my mind is running on the toxic nitro fuel of fight-or-flight fear. The other half enduring the contortions of a mind that wants to die in a body that fights to live. It was spring break, my companions and I standing at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, our pent up road trip energy quieted at the edge of such splendor. Just one day ago I was a stressed out, lapsed ex-artist, over-achieving college student, an abuse survivor, an alcoholic, dependent on a dangerous combination of pills and booze for three or four hours of sleep, and tediously suicidal.
There, staring down through layers of strata and time, following the blue-green ribbon of the Colorado River, I was only human. The chaos of my mind stilled for a moment and allowed me to be a person instead of an illness. I think that was my first time really knowing peace.
Our trip to the Grand Canyon was a sporadic, last-minute thing. We vowed to take in the views and relax. We took in the views from the rim trail, from the restaurant, from the gallery. We drove through quiet roads at dusk to watch the elk graze and stayed up late to watch the stars.
On the second day: Screw the view, we wanna hike!
We set out in our skinny jeans and barely lugged boots, small bottles of gatorade in our messenger bags and soft sided coolers slung over our shoulders, our fool heads bare to the overhead sun. We decided to take the boundary-designated Hermit’s Rest trail because it had less tourists – like us. We set off, giddy with excitement, ignoring our lack of fitness and our hard drinking habits. We were those hikers, those not-hikers, we knew so little that we had no idea what we didn’t know. We were a park ranger’s worst friggin’ nightmare.
We hiked down narrow single track and deep-set stone steps. Large, dark crows freewheeled and bickered overhead as we kicked up small clouds of red dust. It is dangerously easy to get caught up in the impersonal grandeur of the canyon and forget your own mortality. It is particularly easy when you want to die on a frequent basis, and a damn near guarantee when the canyon is a salve to years of struggle.
Did we become a search and rescue story? A small snippet in the local news? No. About two miles down the trail we stepped aside as a group of backpackers made their slow and steady ascent, their old-school external frame packs towering over bent heads, their hands full of trekking poles and nalgene bottles. One tried to say ‘thank you’ and what came out with a dry grunt. The rest nodded their appreciation, but one stopped to talk to us.
Niceties. How are you enjoying your trip, is it your first time at the canyon, so on and so forth. Then “Is that all the water you have?”
“We have gatorade in our bags” I replied. Sometimes I hate myself for legitimate reasons and this is one of them.
He frowned and an awkward silence settled upon us.
“We’ll start heading back.” A member of my group offered in an uncharacteristically meek tone.
“Great!” He said, brightening as he turned to continue his climb “Enjoy your hike!”
I stared longingly at the descending switchbacks while the more pragmatic of my group turned to follow him. My curiosity was ablaze and I yearned for more of that peace and quiet, mortality be damned. I watched the group of backpackers make their slow ascent and reluctantly began to follow after them.
Then something in my mind rebelled from years of degenerating programming and viciously cruel mental self-immolation. Blame it on the fresh air, the heat, the altitude, but I thought “I wish I could do that. Take everything I need on my back and just be, wherever I am. I can do life if it’s like that.”
In reply: You’re not strong enough. You’re not smart enough. You won’t even die, you’ll just rack up a ton of medical bills and be even more of a burden then you already are. Seriously?
Like a well-trained dog I accepted this as fact. Then rebelled. Just a little. It was the first rebellion of many against this lifelong tyrant “Yeah? Okay, but I can do one more mile. I can do that, at least.”
If I survived the way back up.
Going down is optional. Coming back up is mandatory, and it was excruciating. We stumbled and sometimes crawled back up the trial. We ran out of water. We ran out of food, and then we ran out of warm gatorade. One of my companions thought cutting through scree-laden switchbacks was a great idea. I believe one of my finer counter-argument points was “You are not a goat”.
Another of my companions attempted to inspire us on our umpteenth break, holding his phone aloft and proudly blasting his gym playlist. The song rang, thin and tinny, from the speaker. We just looked at him, sweat-logged and hunched from exhaustion. It would take far more than an Enrique Iglesias club remix to help at that point.
We were at the mercy of the trail, our own fool selves and pure dumb luck. The heat became oppressive and quieted even the most enthusiastic of us. Our footing became sloppy, our minds dulled. One of us could have sat on a rattlesnake and got bit on the ass before anyone noticed.
I had long given up on figuring out which switchback, exactly, would be the final one. I focused on my feet and the five feet or so of trail in front of me, taking one laborious step at a time and forcing my body to do the unfamiliar and relax. “Stop pushing so hard. You can’t out-badass the canyon. You can’t randomly grow wings. Just walk, like you were built to do.”
In a way I welcomed the discomfort and the pain. The burning in my legs and lungs with the feeling of my blood pumping strong, the sweat on my brow and the blissful cool as a gentle breeze started up. It was a pain that offered simplicity and clarity. The mental gymnastics needed to fight depression and anxiety and the ones required to be depressed and anxious are exhausting. Eventually they manifest in psychosomatic aches and pains, circadian dullness from too little or too much sleep, cluster headaches and stress migraines and a plethora of other symptoms as varied as the people who experience them. In contrast, on that red-hued single track overlooking the canyon interior, switchbacking its way through layers of geologic time, the pain was without judgement and the relief of it without a single caveat.
“I see cars!” One of my friends screamed, and there we were, at the trailhead parking lot, our arrival anticlimactic and sweaty. We sat down in the shade of a small tree. I stood up again on wobbly legs, ping-ponging through the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy as I stumbled to the vending machine. A stellar’s jay called irately to me, tilting his head to see what I had in my hands. I saw the brilliance of his blue feathers against the red canyon walls. I remembered what it was like to paint.
It’s been three years since that day and I’ve had my one more mile many times over, in surreal desert landscapes and amidst towering redwoods. I’ve felt the mist of the rugged northern Californian seashore against my face and the dust of Death Valley beneath the tread of my boots and Jeep wheels. I’ve brought my painting kit with every intention to paint only to use it as a pillow to take a nap, cuddling my dog, the only drug in my system a strong and comforting breeze. I’ve solo’d backpacking trips, introduced my 80-year-old grandmother to easy hikes, and set up backcountry camps in the company of wonderful people.
I wish I could say that I left my illness on some dusty switchback far below the rim. The truth is it takes the skills of medical professionals, medications, and strong support from good friends and family. I left nothing in the canyon. Instead the canyon gave me the burning curiosity and willingness to survive for that one more peaceful mile. Somewhere along the way I’ve collected and been taught to see clearly the many other reasons to stay breathing.
In a week I return to the Grand Canyon for the third time, my painting kit lashed to my backpack ready to capture the soulful beauty around me. The journey isn’t over. Sometimes I doubt it would ever be. There are days I feel lost without a compass or map, doing an unintentional bushwhacking loop back to square one. There are others when the trail is clear and my boots are on solid ground. That’s okay. The canyon is vast enough to give me space to figure it out, step by step, down to the Colorado river itself, through layers of red-tinged time, mile after mile.