Into the Earth

A journey for the soul

Author: Barry Lopez ’66, ’68M.A.

Nankoweap Grand Canyon

Editor’s Note: Barry Lopez, an acclaimed chronicler of the natural world and its vast expanses, died last week at age 75. His contributions to the magazine over the years included this 1981 experience of the Grand Canyon with a musical accompaniment.

I am up to my waist in a basin of cool, acid-clear water, at the head of a box canyon some 600 feet above the Colorado River. I place my outstretched hands flat against a terminal wall of dark limestone which rises more than a hundred feet above me, and down which a sheet of water falls — the thin creek in whose pooled waters I now stand. The water splits at my fingertips into wild threads; higher up, a warm canyon wind lifts water off the limestone in a fine spray; these droplets intercept and shatter sunlight. Down, down another four waterfalls and fern-shrouded pools below, the water spills into an eddy of the Colorado River, in the shadow of a huge boulder. Our boat is tied there.

This lush crease in the surface of the earth is a cleft in the precipitous desert walls of Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Its smooth outcrops of purple-tinged travertine stone, its heavy air rolled in the languid perfume of columbine, struck by the sharp notes of a water ouzel, the trill of a disturbed black phoebe — all this has a name: Elves Chasm.

A few feet to my right, a preacher from Maryland is staring straight up at a blue sky, straining to see what flowers those are that nod at the top of the falls. To my left a free-lance automobile mechanic from Colorado sits with an impish smile by helleborine orchids. Behind, another man, a builder and sometime record producer from New York who comes as often as he can to camp, hike and wander in the Southwest, stands immobile at the pool’s edge.

Sprawled on a rock is our boatman. He has led the climb up from the river. The Colorado entrances him. He has a well-honed sense of the ridiculous, brought on, one believes, by so much time in the extreme remove of this canyon.

In our descent, we meet others of our small group. Most stopped climbing at one of the lower pools. At the second to last waterfall, a young woman with short blond hair and dazzling blue eyes walks with me back into the canyon’s narrowing V. We wade into one pool, swim a few strokes to its head, climb over a boulder, swim across a second pool and stand together, giddy, in the press of limestone, beneath the deafening cascade — filled with enchantment, awe and energy in euphoric proportion.

One at a time we bolt, fish-like, across the pool to ground slowly in the fine white gravel. We descend to the last pool, stopping to marvel at the strategy of a barrel cactus, or at the intricate structure of the boulders to which we cling. We share few words. We know hardly anything of each other. We share the country.

The two of us are in the middle of a 10-day trip down the Colorado River. Each day we are upended, if not by the landscape itself, then by ourselves, by what the landscape does inside us. It snaps us like fresh-laundered sheets.

After lunch, we reboard three large rubber rafts and enter the Colorado’s quick, high flow. The river has not been this high or fast since Glen Canyon Dam — 135 miles above Elves Chasm, 17 miles above our starting point at Lee’s Ferry — was closed in 1963. Jumping out ahead of us, with its single oarsman and three passengers, is our fourth craft, a 12-foot rubber boat, like a water strider with a steel frame. In Sockdolager Rapid the day before, one of its welds broke and the steel pieces were bent apart. (Sockdolager: a 19th-century colloquialism for knockout punch.)

Such groups as ours, all but unknown to each other on the first day, almost always grow close and protective during their time together. They develop a humor that informs similar journeys everywhere, a humor founded in tomfoolery, in punning, in a continuous parody of the life-in-civilization all have so recently (and gleefully) left. Such humor depended on context, on an accretion of small, shared, events; it seems silly to those who are not there. It is not, of course. Any more than that moment of fumbling awe of one feels on first seeing the Brahma schist at the dead bottom of the canyon’s Inner Gorge. Your fingertips graze the 1.9-billion-year-old stone as the boat drifts slowly past.

With the loss of self-consciousness, the landscape opens.

There are 41 of us, counting a crew of six. An actor from Florida, now living in Los Angeles. A medical student and his wife. A supervisor from Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles. A health-store owner from Chicago. An editor from New York and his young son.

That kind of diversity seems normal in groups that seek such vacations — to trek in the Himalaya, to dive in the Sea of Cortez, to go birding in the Arctic. We are together for two reasons: to run the Colorado River, and to participate with jazz musician Paul Winter, who initiated the trip, in a music workshop.

Winter is an innovator and a listener. He had thought for years about coming to the Grand Canyon, about creating music here in response to this particular landscape — collared lizards and prickly-pear cactus, Anasazi Indian ruins and stifling heat. But most especially he wanted music evoked by the river and the walls that flew up from its banks — Coconino sandstone on top of Hermit shale on top of the Supai formations, stone exposed to sunlight, a bloom of photons that lifted colors — saffron and ochre, apricot, madder orange, pearly gray, copper reds, umber and terra cotta browns — and left them floating in the air.

Winter was searching for a reintegration of music, landscape and people. For resonance. Three out of four times during the trip he would find it for sustained periods, drifting on a quiet stretch of water below Bass Rapids, with oboist Nancy Kumbel and cellist David Darling; in a natural amphitheatre high in the Muav limestone of Matkatameba Canyon; on the night of a full June moon, with euphonium player Larry Roark in Blacktail Canyon.

Winter’s energy and passion, and the strains to solo and ensemble music, were sewn into the trip like prevailing winds, like the canyon wren’s clear, whistled, descending notes, his glissando — seemingly present, close by or at a distance, wherever someone stopped to listen.

But we came and went, too, like the swallows and swifts that flicked over the water ahead of the boats, intent on private thoughts.

On the second day of the trip we stopped at Redwall Cavern, an undercut recess that spans a beach of fine sand, perhaps 500 feet wide by 150 feet deep. Winter intends to record here, but the sand absorbs too much sound. Unfazed, the others toss a Frisbee, practice Tai-chi, jog, meditate, play recorders and read novels.

No other animal but the human would bring to bear so many activities, from so many different cultures and levels of society, with so much energy, so suddenly in a new place. And no other animal, the individuals so entirely unknown to each other, would chance together something so unknown as this river journey. In this frenetic activity and difference seems a suggestion of human evolution and genuine adventure. We are not the first down this river, but in the slooshing of human hands at the water’s edge, the swan-like notes of an oboe, the occasional hugs among those most afraid of the rapids, there is exploration.

Each day we see or hear something that astounds us. The thousand-year-old remains of an Anasazi footbridge in twilight shadow, high in the canyon wall above Harding Rapid. Deer Creek Falls, where we stand in turquoise water encircled by a rainbow. Havasu Canyon, wild with grapevines, cottonwoods and velvet ash, speckled dace and mule deer, wild grasses and crimson monkey-flowers. Each evening we enjoy a yespers: cicadas and crickets, mourning doves, vermilion flycatchers. And the wind, for which chimes are hung in a salt cedar. Those notes leap above the slash and rattle, the grinding of water and the roar of rapids.

Grand Canyon

The narrow, damp, hidden worlds of the side canyons, with their scattered shards of Indian pottery and ghost imprints of 400-million-year-old nautiloids, open to the larger world of the Colorado River itself; but nothing conveys to us how far into the earth’s surface we have come. Occasionally we glimpse the South Rim, four or five thousand feet above. From the rims the canyon seems oceanic; at the surface of the river the feeling is intimate. To someone up there with binoculars we seem utterly remote down here. It is this known dimension of distance and time and the perplexing question posed by the canyon itself — What is consequential? (in one’s life, in the life of human beings, in the life of a planet) — that reverberates constantly, and makes the human inclination to judge (another person, another kind of thought) seem so eerie.

Two kinds of time pass here: sitting at the edge of a sun-warmed pool watching blue dragonflies and black tadpoles. And the rapids: down the glassy-smooth tongue into a yawing trench, climb a 10-foot wall of standing water and fall into boiling, ferocious hydraulics, sucking whirlpools, drowned voices, stopped hearts. Rapids can fold and shatter boats and take lives if the boatman enters at the wrong point or at the wrong angle.

Some rapids, like one called Hermit, seem more dangerous than they are and give us great roller-coaster rides. Others — Hance, Crystal, Upset — seem less spectacular, but are technically difficult. At Crystal, our boat screeches and twists against its frame. Its nose crumples like cardboard in the trough; our boatman makes the critical move to the right with split-second timing and we are over a standing wave and into the haystacks of white water, safely into the tail waves. The boatman’s eyes cease to blaze.

The first few rapids — Badger Creek and Soap Creek — do not overwhelm us. When we hit the Inner Gorge — Granite Falls, Unkar Rapid, Horn Creek Rapid — some grip the boat, rigid and silent. (On the ninth day, when we are about to run perhaps the most awesome rapid, Lava Falls, the one among us who has had the greatest fear is calm, almost serene. In the last days, it is hard to overestimate what the river and the music and the unvoiced concern for each other have washed out.)

There are threats to this separate world of the Inner Gorge. Down inside it one struggles to maintain a sense of what they are, how they impinge. 

In 1963, Glen Canyon Dam cut off the canyon’s natural flow of water. Spring runoffs of more than 200,000 cubic feet per second ceased to roar through the gorge, clearing the main channel of rock and stones washed down from the side canyons. Fed now from the bottom of Lake Powell backed up behind the dam, the river is no longer a warm, silt-laden habitat for Colorado squawfish, razorback sucker and several kinds of chub, but a cold, clear habitat for trout. With no annual scouring and a subsequent deposition of fresh sand, the beaches show the evidence of continuous human use; they are eroding. The post-flood eddies where squawfish bred have disappeared. Tamarisk (salt cedar) and camelthorn, both exotic plants formerly washed out with the spring floods, have gained an apparently permanent foothold. At the old high-water mark, catclaw acacia, mesquite and Apache plume are no longer watered and are dying out.

On the rim, far removed above, such evidence of human tampering seems, and perhaps is, pernicious. From the river, another change is more wrenching. It floods the system with a kind of panic that in other animals induces nausea and the sudden evacuation of the bowels: it is the descent of helicopters. Their sudden arrival in the canyon evokes not jeers but staring. The violence is brutal, an intrusion as criminal and as random as rape. When the helicopter departs, its rotor-wind walloping against the stone walls, I want to wash the sound off my skin.

The canyon finally absorbs the intrusion. I focus quietly each day on the stone, the breathing of time locked up here, back to the Proterozoic, before there were sea shells. Look up to wisps of alto cirrus overhead, the hint of a mare’s tail sky. Close my eyes: tappet of water against the boat, sound of an Anasazi’s six-hole flute. And I watch the bank for beaver tracks, for any moment.

The canyon seems like a grandfather.

One evening, Winter and perhaps half the group carry instruments and recording gear back into Blacktail Canyon to a spot sound engineer Mickey Houlihan says is good for recording.

Winter likes to quote from Thoreau: “The woods would be very silent if no birds sang except those that sing best.” The remark seems not only to underscore the ephemeral nature of human evolution by the necessity in evaluating any phenomenon — a canyon, a life, a song — of providing for change.

After several improvisations dominated by a cappella voice and percussion, Winter asks Larry Roark to try something on the euphonium; he and Rumble and Darling will then come up around him. Roark is silent. Moonlight glows on the canyon’s lips. There is the sound of gurgling water. After a word of encouragement, feeling shrouded in anonymous darkness like the rest of us, Larry puts his mouth to the horn.

For a while he is alone. God knows what visions of waterfalls or wrens, of boats in the rapids, of Bach or Mozart, are in his head, in his fingers, to send forth notes. The whine of the soprano sax friends him. And the flutter of the oboe. And the rumbling of the choral cello. The exchange lasts perhaps 20 minutes. Furious and sweet, anxious, rolling, delicate and raw. The last six or eight hanging notes are Larry’s. Then there is a long silence. Winter finally says, “My God.”

I feel, sitting in the wet dark in bathing suit and sneakers and T-shirt, that my fingers have brushed one of life’s deep, coursing threads. Like so much else in the canyon, it is left alone. Speak, even notice it, and it would disappear.

I had come to the canyon with expectations. I had wanted to see snowy egrets flying against the black schist at dusk; I saw blue-winged teal against the deep green waters at dawn. I had wanted to hear thunder rolling in the thousand-foot depths; I heard Winter’s soprano sax resonating in Matkatameba Canyon, with the guttural caws of four ravens which circled above him. I had wanted to watch rattlesnakes; I saw in an abandoned copper mine, in the beam of my flashlight, a wall of copper sulphate that looked like a wall of turquoise. I rose each morning at dawn and washed in the cold river. I went to sleep each night listening to the cicadas, the pencil-ticking sound of some other insect, the soughing of river waves in tamarisk roots, and watching bats plunge and turn, looking like leaves blown around against the sky. What any of us had come to see or do fell away. We found ourselves at each time with what we had not imagined.

The last evening it rained. We had left the canyon and been carried far out onto Lake Mead by the river’s current. But we stood staring backward, at the point where the canyon had so obviously and abruptly ended. 

A thought that stayed with me was that I had entered a private place in the earth. I had seen exposed nearly its oldest part. I had lost my sense of urgency, rekindled a sense of what people were, clambering to gain access to high waterfalls where we washed our hair together; and a sense of our endless struggle as a species to understand time and to estimate the consequences of our acts.

It rained the last evening. But before it did, Nancy Rumbel moved to the highest point on Scorpion Island in Lake Mead and played her oboe before a storm we could see hanging over Nevada. Sterling Smyth, who would return to programming computers in 24 hours, created a 12-string imitation of the canyon wren, a long guitar solo. David Darling, revealed suddenly stark again against a white lightning sky, bowed furious homage to the now overhanging cumulonimbus.

In the morning we touched the far shore of Lake Mead, boarded a bus and headed for the Las Vegas airport. We were still wrapped in the journey, as though it were a Navajo blanket. We departed on various planes and arrived home in various cities and towns and at some point the world entered again and the hardest thing, the translation of what we had touched, began.

I sat in the airport in San Francisco, waiting for a connecting flight to Oregon, dwelling on one image. At the mouth of Nankoweap Canyon, the river makes a broad turn, and it is possible to see high in the orange rock what seem to be four small windows. They are entrances to granaries, built by the Anasazi, who dwelled in the canyon more than a thousand years ago. This was provision against famine, to ensure the people would survive.

I do not know, really, how we will survive without places like the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon to visit. Once in a lifetime, even, is enough. To feel the stripping down, an ebb of the press of conventional time, a radical change of proportion, an unspoken respect for others that elicits keen emotional pleasure, a quick, intimate pounding of the heart.

Some parts of the trip will emerge one day on an album. Others will be found in a gesture of friendship to some stranger in an airport, in a letter of outrage to a planner of dams, in a note of gratitude to nameless faces in the Park Service, in wondering at the relatives of the ubiquitous wren, in the belief, passed on in whatever fashion — a photograph, a chord, a sketch — that nature can heal.

The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge the pain trails away from us. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to; that comes later. You can hear your heart beat. That comes first.