"The earth is our grandmother and our mother, and she is sacred. Every step we take upon her should be done in a sacred manner; each step should be as a prayer."
"Behold! All that moves in the universe is here!"
"Help us! We wish to live again!"
"So tell the truth, and be sure that you make up nothing! Even the tiny ants and the crawling worms may have come to see you up there when you were crying for a vision; tell us everything! You should tell us nothing but the truth.
- ceremonial invocations of the plains Indians
The walls of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado river are divided by erosion into big hollows called ampitheatres. To one standing on the rim, looking down, the scale of the canyon is so huge, the order of the geography is so different from normal experience, that it is like looking down from space onto another world, where one might expect to find new and unusual things. Each ampitheatre could be a microcosm, a world unto itself, separate from and, perhaps, wholly different from the one next to it. When I first stood on the rim I was already walking in my mind's eye, into one ampitheatre after another, walking up the wash and scrambling up the increasingly steep slope to the foot of the fifty story wall of red-stained limestone, to where one could climb no more, perching there and looking back out from whence I had come, the whole universe in my sight. Even today as I stand on the rim fourteen years later, with twelve trips under my belt, I can not shake the idea that there is a whole universe in each side canyon.
Cremation canyon, a three armed side canyon, lies just east of the south rim visitor complex. Though convenient to the well maintained, but strenuous South Kaibab trail, it is seldom visited by hikers. National Park Service rangers have hinted to me that it is a place where strange things happen. The Cremation name is partly due to its hot and unforgiving nature (it is waterless in the summer) and partly to the story that local indians once burned their dead and threw the ashes off Shoshone point, down into the main arm of the canyon.
27 December 1996 Friday
I looked out of the tent at seven thirty in the morning and saw that the sky was completely overcast. The door to the sweatlodge was shut and those inside sat in the darkness of ignorance. I wanted to go up Cremation canyon to its head. I had been before, in other years, several times. Each time was different. Each time was mysterious, ominous, and once even foreboding. That time I had arrived at one of the ampitheatres at its head, almost a room, with a smooth rock floor and straight walls that towered so into the sky that they felt almost like an overhanging roof. I felt powerful things in the place, and was suddenly, violently ill. When I recovered from my weakness, I stood up and looked around again, and heard a whistling. I looked up toward the noise and saw a blur coming down the wall, through the gloomy air. There was a "smack" as the rock the size of a soccer ball hit the ground twenty yards from me. That was the only rock I have ever seen fall in the canyon, and I took it for a sign. I left in a hurry. This was four or five years ago, and though I had camped at the mouth of Cremation canyon several times since, I had never had the courage to go back up to the top. Every time I had gone up and come back, and especially that last time, I had the feeling that I had left something unfinished.
Today I did not know if I wanted to go again. I wanted to, but I was afraid. Maybe I would just go down to the river. It might rain. If I got hurt up in Cremation canyon, I could die unnoticed. I did the morning routine, getting dressed, airing the sleeping bag, eating, and drinking tea. As I was eating, I saw two people before me in the distance, heavily loaded, hiking up over the big hump between the middle and west arms of Cremation. I straightened up camp, combed my hair, so as not to look too out of it. As they came up out of the west arm, they saw my camp, and stopped on the trail below me. We spoke. They had come down the Tanner trail Saturday(!), then gone to the Little Colorado (I suspect that they had been to the Sipapu, the salt well where the Hopis say they came up from below into this, the fourth world. Trespassing is forbidden to non-Hopis. I suspect, but I did not ask.) and now they were going on to the Hermit trail. This is a formidable trek. I said "Wow!" out of respect. They asked what I was doing today, and I said I was trying to make up my mind whether to go up there (pointing to Cremation) or just to walk down to the river. They said goodbye, and as they walked off, he said to her "I guess they'll give people permits to do just about anything they want" and she said "I wonder if he's some kind of ranger?" That was the second time this trip someone had said that. I said "What?", but they went on without reply. I decided on the trip to the end of Cremation.
I would avoid the discordant thoughts, the inharmonious spirit of yesterday. "Every step is sacred," I told myself. I packed, cleaned camp and, the last thing before I left, I played two songs on the recorder. First, the old slave spiritual "Were You There?" which has the chorus "Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble" and a hymn of my youth, "Just As I Am" which says, in all humility, "I come, I come". I felt these to be appropriate to me today, and I felt much better when they were done. As I walked down the inner arm of west Cremation toward the junction with the main arm, I said "Every step is sacred. May each step on the path be firm. Everything is sacred." When I got to the scramble around the eight foot dry waterfall, I joked "Every climb is sacred." As I walked up the wash past the Tonto trail crossing, I tried to compose my spirit to receive what revelation might be offered, and to understand it if I could.
Here in the Grand Canyon, I felt my humility, truly. C.S.Lewis once put into the devil's mouth words like "to human animals on their knees, God pours out self-knowledge in a quite shameless fashion... There's such a thing as getting more than they bargained for!" The first piece of self-knowledge came, appropriately, from a tiny green bug, not much bigger than a pinhead. I was getting up from a short rest, and I saw the bug on my pack. I poked at it with my finger, to see if it was a tick (thoughts of Lyme disease in my head), and my mind said "Insect! Get rid of it!" and I flicked it violently away, as though it had been a poisonous and indestructible tick, or the scorpion I had found in my tent, two years before, and not just a harmless, easily squashed green bug. At the moment I flicked my finger, it said to me "My lesson for you is that not all insects are ticks! And that even the tick, and the scorpion, can be calmly recognized, and disposed of without panic and its ensuing violence. Think before you act!" But it was too late to stop my finger! Why, oh why have so many of my lessons been learned only as I destroy someone or something? What flaw in me makes others pay the price for my self-knowledge? All this in a pinhead-sized bug. "Think before you act!" Newly humbled, in a sacred manner I continued. In spite of my new knowledge, the clouds of ignorance continued to build. It got darker, and a drop or two of rain fell.
In the middle reach of the canyon, the wash became narrower, and more rough. Here there is more vegetation, now large tree-like shrubs. A bird darted in and out of one, finally settling in the middle of it, where it had its nest. Most birds flee the nest at the approach of the unknown, so as not to betray the nest's location to danger. Could the bird tell that I approached in a sacred manner, and was no threat? As I passed, I reassured it, and in reply the winged told me "I dwell in a holy place, and everything I do is sacred. You, too, can always dwell in a holy place, if every step you take is done in a sacred manner." And I went on.
The next creature I saw was a large black beetle. We were high up in the canyon now, where the stream bed climbs. Up here there are trees. It is not just dark, but cold, too. I was surprised to see so large an insect crawling around in the cold, but when I looked at him, he changed his course and started crawling right at me! I stood entranced, and waited. I could see each leg work, how the joints adapted each leg to its new position on each pebble, how the antennae felt each turn on the beetle's path. As it felt its way it moved slowly, cautiously, but with no uncertainty, each step firm. "As you walk, be observant!" it told me. "Every step is sacred" I said, to myself, and out loud to the world.
I was very near the top now, and it was dark, and cold. The ground was rough, the slope steep. I remembered the falling rock, and my sickness. I was beginning to be afraid. In the juniper to the left of my path sat a small bird. It began to sing, and was soon joined by another bird in a bush to its left. They sang "Do not be afraid. You approach in a sacred manner. Fear not! Approach. It is OK." I climbed on. As I climbed toward the end, that was now in sight, I said "I come in a sacred manner. God, grant me knowledge." As I said the word knowledge, a large rock on which I had set my foot gave way under me and rolled down the canyon. I recovered my step and said instead, "God, grant me wisdom." I climbed on, and found myself, not in the stream bed, but on a ridge, a fan of debris, rocks and dirt that forms the west wall of the uppermost branch of Cremation canyon. Slowly and carefully I made my way up to the top, and there, where the dirt meets the redwall, I sat down amidst the juniper bushes, looked down and out of the canyon, put my face in my hands and prayed. I wept for my misspent life. I pleaded for wisdom and, yes, even knowledge. I asked that I might live again. When I finished, I sat for a while, seeing all I could see, so I might remember this place and time. I stood up, took Elisabeth's turquoise ring from my finger, and pressed it against the redwall, to capture some of the place and time.
Then I began to make my way down the precipitous slope into the head of Cremation canyon, which my sacred spot overlooked. It was tough going, dangerous, and several times I said without joking "every descent is sacred." Finally I got to the bottom of the stream bed and made my way up the last few yards to the place marked by the long white mineral stain where the water falls down the redwall. I stood for a long time, looking in all four directions, then down, then up. Awe, and beauty. Again, before I left, I pressed Elisabeth's ring into the redwall.
As I made my way down the difficult, boulder-clogged bed of the upper canyon, (slowly, for a slip and fall here could be fatal. "Every step is sacred.") I turned back many times to look again. Each time I turned, I saw the spot had changed aspects, and finally I saw it disappear behind the intervening cliffs. As I came down the stream bed, I knew it was not the one I had come up. I had ascended one to the west of this, had climbed over that little ridge, and then gone down into this drainage. As I walked, I watched carefully for the fork where the two routes would meet, to know it another time. When I got to the fork, I could see that this, the main drainage, here looked only like a secondary branch, and appeared to go off to the left instead of up canyon. I stopped, tried to memorize the place and the view. I even got the global positioning system receiver out and recorded a satellite determined waypoint. This was too much, for as I was fooling around with the buttons on the GPS, naming the waypoint and adding it to a route, I heard rocks falling! Looking quickly around, I saw it was only a handful of dirt and pebbles, come loose from the high bank of unconsolidated stream bed deposits which formed the rim of the wash, but this was only the second rockfall I have ever seen in the Grand Canyon! It was time for me to move on! I put away the GPS, and resumed my path.
As I passed through the middle canyon, I saw a grassy plant with actual flowers, tiny yellow flowers in December. What did it mean? I knew I was leaving Cremation canyon again and, like all the other times, still with unfinished business. And then the sun came out, light dispelling the darkness of ignorance, as when the door to the sweatlodge is thrown open, symbolizing to those being purified inside, the dawn of a new era. My business might be still unfinished. I would be back for more, but I had come far in the last few hours. I began to review all I had seen, all I had been told. I started thinking about writing it down. Not just this account, but a variation of it for the people with whom I work. I would try and make the spiritual aspect more palatable to them by writing it as a sequel to the description I wrote, years ago, of another ascent of Cremation canyon, in which I intermixed the sights and thoughts of my climb with what was going on from moment to moment with my comrades, back on the job. That story even got nationwide distribution in the company newsletter! This time my imaginings of the work episodes were less charitable, and when I got to thinking about describing the warehouse, I could only mention Bob in very unflattering terms! Another lesson struck home, hard. Even Bob is sacred. Please, God, work on him, soon!
I walked along thinking of Bob, the little green bug, the scorpion, every step sacred. I crossed the Tonto trail and headed down into the maze of the lower canyon, my own backyard route home, avoiding the park service's climb of the three dips, down the eight foot slide, out of the gorge, into the big sandy open place, with even a tree, where the main and middle arms of Cremation canyon meet. And there I saw more flowers. A tiny bush, covered with white blossoms. Like the yellow flowers back up the canyon, this bush was blooming in midwinter. This was the meaning of all these flowers. It is not too late for my life to bloom. Even at the long-passed-springtime age of forty-five, my life can flower as though I were young...
Finally I arrived back at the camp. The sun was low over the rim, shining in under the cloud layer. It illuminated the whole north wall of the Grand Canyon with that magical late afternoon low angle light which shows so well the superfine texture of the Grand Canyon's walls, like corduroy, but with ribs so fine that it has the texture of velvet - green, red, brown - the texture which indicated to me, on my first sight of the canyon as a tourist, the immensity, the magnificent, timeless, awful grandeur of this holy place. Now, in this afternoon sun, I saw it as I had seen it the first time, all new again - always new - forever!