The first time I hiked down the Grand Canyon was in 1985. I was 33 years old and my dad was in his early 60’s – probably close to my age now. We had planned this trip via phone calls and letters, scheduled the overnighter at Phantom Ranch months in advance, and naively prepared ourselves physically for the trip. We wanted to see both trails – the Bright Angel and South Kaibab so we decided to take the shorter South Kaibab trail 1st – it was 7 miles down and I do mean straight down….
We should have realized that 7 miles versus the 10 mile Bright Angel Trail meant that it was much steeper and much much harder on knees. Knees that were unaccustomed to being put through torturous pounding and cartilage smashing with each declining step. We were hurting badly. Things were different then. Backpacks, canteens, and hiking boots were heavier and information for planning not as readily available to novice Grand Canyon hikers. I knew we were in trouble after the first descending mile. It was hot, rocky, and steep. Our knees were screaming curse words at us, almost immediately. Needless to say, it was a long hike down….
We reached the bottom and I remember looking at my dad as we crossed the bridge over the river, leading to Phantom Ranch. He had turned around to tell me something and the toll of the hike was written boldly in the deep lines of his face. He looked old, tired, and miserable. He’d aged right before my eyes. I now realize that in our sixties our faces are like traitors – they begin to betray us and it’s impossible to camouflage how we feel.
So we limped our way to the camp and I tried desperately to figure out if there was any way to get us out of the Canyon without being air-evaced out. I called my mom from the phone booth at the bottom and told her that I didn’t know if we can make it out the next day. “Our knees are hurting, we are tired, we are sore, and we got beat up by the South Kaibab trail.”
We were bunked in separate dorms and my dad was there wrapping his knees. So I found a bench by a campfire and waited for him. An older woman came over and sat beside me. She noticed the pained look on my face – the transparency of my despairing thoughts and fears showing through like a neon sign on a dark night. We talked awhile. I told her my fears. We talked like we’d known each other forever. She comforted me. She encouraged me. She told me that “tomorrow will come and you’ll feel better”. She said our knees would make it. She said “you’ll be ok”. She got up and left and I never saw her again.
Our paths crossed just that one time, but she meant something to me and I have never forgotten her. She’d helped me through a difficult, painful, and weak moment. She gave me friendship. She gave me hope. She threw me a lifeline to pull me out of my defeated stupor and gave me the encouragement to get through that night and wake up to a new and promising day.
We did it, my dad and I. We woke up, our bodies refreshed, our knees not screaming at us. Ten miles later we accomplished our mission as we hiked that last switchback out of the Canyon, feeling proud and happy. We’d proved that we could do it. Our father/daughter hike turned out to be the best memory that we ever made in the course of our lifetime full of memories. In his honor, my kids and I hiked down the Canyon years later and made a new story for the next generation to cherish.
I remember that woman I met at Phantom Ranch sometimes. Her face has blurred with the 30-year old memory but the feeling that I had and the time that we shared remains clear and strong. She will never know what she gave me or the impact that our short conversation had on my soul. I wish that I could meet her again and thank her for what she did in those few minutes at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Sometimes, we meet people along the way in our life that add meaning to our life in a way that we can’t even describe. A conversation. An encounter. A relationship that feels good. A simple glance across the room that makes a soulful connection. A meaningful friendship that lasts in our mind beyond the time spent together.
Whether it is someone you may see again or someone that you will never see, those people are given to you as a gift. A gift that is brought into your life for a reason. Another layer in the makeup of your soul that adds meaning and flavor to the sum total of who you are. A blessing. An angel in disguise. A smile when the memory is recalled. A comfort in the recognition that it was real. A purpose in the moment.
Keep this in mind when you go throughout your days. Catalog these people and these historic and precious moments under “Moonflower Blooms” – the ones that make you happy and add meaning to the story of your life. Look for those moments. Be the person who makes them for someone else. Create them. Savor them. Cherish them. They are the only ones that truly matter.