Like humans, the Colorado River traverses the path it carved. The Grand Canyon is the ultimate in manifest Karma. A harsh, brutal, climate created some of the greatest wonders on this planet. For some reason people like to go there. We like to float down the river. We like the danger of the rapids, the harsh weather extremes, the spectacular rock formations, the creeks and streams of the side canyons, the waterfalls, the long and arduous day hikes, and perhaps more than anything we enjoy the camaraderie of others on the journey. Painted toenails and grease bombs were vehicles of community building.
In November of 2012 I joined an expedition destined to travel the entire length of the Grand Canyon National Park by raft on the Colorado River. Sixteen hearty souls came together for an adventure of a lifetime. My invitation came from a friend in New Mexico. He won the Park Service lottery and earned a 25 Day Permit. He wrote an innocent enough email, “Hey, I won a lottery to raft the Colorado River. Wanna go?” “Sure,” I responded. There was no real thought about what rafting the raging river meant. Naively, I packed some books to read and pen and paper to write.
Ours was a ‘private winter expedition”, as opposed to a commercial enterprise. A commercial trip down the Colorado is managed by professional river guides who manage the boats, the camps, the kitchen, and even the groover (a portable toilet). Purchasing a Commercial ticket is nearly ten times more expensive than a private ticket. The difference is that on a private trip all participants are expected to managed the boats, set up camp, set up the kitchen, cook the food, clean the dishes, set up the groover, bread down the kitchen, break down the camp, and repack the groover. I had no idea.
Summer trips take around 16 days – ours was planned for 25 days. The difference being the amount of daylight available for travel. Top to bottom, the expedition covers 280 miles. With 25 days we had to average about 11 miles each day. Because of the winter angle of the Sun and the depth of the Canyon there were days we never saw the Sun.
Winter expeditions enjoy one luxury not available on summer trips. Winter expeditions are allowed to collect driftwood and have an evening campfire in a portable firebox. The evening campfire became the focal point of the community of weary travelers. With supper complete, the dishes done, the community watched the fire as we rehashed the excitement of the day and planned for the morrow. The evening event presented some interesting surprises for this old fool.
About half of our group were ‘river runners’. These are folks who make the harsh outdoors their home. Some of them were professional river guides from Durango, Colorado. As seasonal work, these folks often work as ski instructors in the winter. They, like I, took time from their regular routine for the opportunity to raft the Colorado. Five of us were over the age of 59. The hearty river runners were in their 20’s. There were times when I thought I was in the presence of an unusual breed – redneck environmentalists. I was wrong – these are thoughtful people concerned with the conservation of nature.
Our leader was a 28 year old woman, a remarkable woman, a woman with exceptional natural leadership skills. College educated, her regular life is managing a river rafting company in New Mexico. She took time from her life for this opportunity. Anna organized the whole trip. She rounded up the other river runners – tough people with strong hearts – experienced people who would teach the rest of us how to stay alive while operating an efficient camp.
These folks taught us more than just camping and rafting. We learned the ancient art, some say an old Navaho ritual, of igniting grease bombs. The process is not complicated – but does require careful execution. A can, in our case a beer can, is filled with the grease from the morning bacon. The can is gently placed in the campfire, surrounded by hot coals. Another can is filled with cold river water and duct taped to a long stick. When the can of grease is bubbling and begins to burn across the surface the can of water is carefully raised over the grease and quickly dumped into the grease can. There it is, a grease bomb.
An expedition like this is fraught with surprises. Our second evening around the campfire saw Anna take her overnight bag out and she dutifully painted the toenails of any willing soul. I am on old man from Missouri – my toenails had never been painted. I have no tattoos and pull my pants up over my underwear. I watched with some amusement as grown men offered their feet for service. The river runners said that too much time in the water softens the toenails and that the toenail polish protects from cracking and tearing. They did not realize I saw them winking at each other.
I was sitting there minding my own business one evening when Toby, a 28 year old research biologist from Vancouver put his naked foot in my lap and asked, “Gary, will you do my nails?” There was a robust laugh from the team. Determined to be a full member of the expedition, I agreed. “What color do you prefer?” Toby gave me permission to choose the colors of my desire. When all was said and done one of Toby’s feet was blue, the other orange. He laughed, “My Alma Mater!”
“Your turn Gary,” the group chanted.
With caution I responded, “OK, not tonight. I will do this on the last day of camp.”
Well, as we know, time has a way of moving forward. The last night of camp came and I had forgotten my agreement. Anna pulled a chair up beside me and opened her case. “What color, Gary?”
There is a sort of honor in being included in a community very different than one’s norm. As noted, I am from Missouri – not a State generally noted for cultural innovation or rebellion. “Whatever color you choose, Anna.” I was all in. Impulsiveness has presented itself in my past. Sometimes impulsiveness can be a good thing – other times not so much.
It is now March of 2013. My toenails are blue. Summer is coming. I have new sandals. My feet will be exposed. I live in Missouri. My toenails do not match my kitchen floor. Geez – what have I done?
There is a mentality necessary for a trip of this sort. Anna called it an “Expedition Mentality”. Essentially, the group is an interdependent community of people helping each other in the most remote area of the continental United States. The idea of helping each other is paramount. I was not afraid of the rapids because I knew if I fell out of the boat there would be 15 other people dedicated to my rescue.
I am certain of only one thing. I am honored to belong to a small community of tough people. I am not tough – thus my honor is more pronounced.