Culture of the Canyon

A Grand Canyon river trip is a revelation


I was a few weeks away from my 25th birthday when my old friend Gabe invited me on a Grand Canyon river trip. I was adrift, a year after graduating from college with a degree in philosophy. I had no house, no job, no girlfriend.

I should have realized that the trip was a big deal. After all, Gabe drove two hours to find me at my rock-climbing campsite and make the invitation. But to me, it seemed like just another outing. Sure, I said. Why the hell not?

That October, I joined my dozen-and-a-half companions-to-be at Lees Ferry. I was one of only three Grand Canyon virgins on the trip; most of the others were veteran raft guides, and this was their post-season vacation. My primal fear of cold, raging water would provide comic relief on the trip, along with the fact that I packed as if for a backpacking trip. Rafting is not backpacking. We would carry enough meat to eat it at every meal for 21 days, and enough booze to ruin our livers many times over — even without my stockpile of Hamm’s Ice, the world’s worst brew and one of the cheapest available at the Page grocery store.

On the river, hours of leisurely contemplation of light and rock and stillwater were broken by moments of sheer terror and violent hydraulics. No matter who we are in the real world, boatmates become intimate companions. I learned that everyone on the trip was almost as lost as I was, that the appearance of relative stability in their lives was just an illusion. We descended into more than a few alcohol-induced, cathartic Lord of the Flies moments — a lawn-chair inferno; an airborne kitchen. On a solitary hike, I saw a river pouring from a cave in a desert cliff. I ran barefoot six miles after my sandal imploded on a hike. (We were trying to get back to the raft before dark. We didn’t make it.)

And then it was over. As we neared the takeout, I felt as clean and smooth as the dark granite that emerges from the muddy red river, all my doubts and uncertainties purged away. Now, civilization awaited, along with my directionless life and my credit card, maxed out for the sake of that last case of Hamm’s. My fear of Lava Falls was nothing compared to my fear of returning to the other world. 

I imagine Grand Canyon river guides have this kind of intense experience each time they run the river (sans the Lord of the Flies moments, I hope), and feel the same loss when they emerge. This shared experience has forged a distinctive Western subculture that converges each spring for a sort of homecoming at the Grand Canyon Guides Training Seminar. In this issue’s cover story, writer and guide Brad Dimock takes us on a leisurely float through that event.

Enjoy it. And if anyone ever invites you on a river trip, drop everything and go.

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