I shared this story at Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville on March 23, 2015. This was my 13th story at Tenx9 Nashville.
When The Narrows Came On Me Like I Was In the Trash Compactor In Star Wars
The year: 1997. Around two years since my last road trip out West. If you are a regular listener/reader, you likely remember that story as the “random-naked-pictures-trip” with my friend Susan after grad school. The time across Kansas, I went with my oldest friend, Arlene. Because I was a Preacher’s kid and moved around a lot, I didn’t hold on to the friends I had when I was a kid…it was the 7th grade before I had a best friend. She was it.
Arlene stood out. She was an artist. The daughter of German parents, straight out of Germany – with a magically bohemian mother and clothes that rarely matched. I loved her. She was fearless and I was a quaking skin-sack — whose clothes always matched.
I loved her so much that when I found out she was Catholic, I did my darndest to convert her. Several times. I drug her to church and told her I’d hate to see her burn in eternal flames. Eventually, I knew there was no way she’d go to hell. She was too cool.
Fifteen years later, we set out in a Toyota van (the ones that look like a pill you wouldn’t want to take) with her German Shepherd. We spent a lot of time in Colorado and Utah, eventually landing in Zion National Park. Cutting through the Park is the Virgin River, softening the sandstone, but not eroding it. The 6 mile hike is into a gorge, with vertical cliffs from 20 feet 2000 feet high on either side of the river, the width as small as 30 feet wide at times. The water at times is chest-deep and there are sections you may have to swim. You are advised to pick a walking stick from the banks and be careful where you step.
There are signs telling of hikers who drowned in The Narrows because of flash flooding. If it rains, there is simply no place for the water to go. WARNING: If it begins to rain, don’t be a dumbass, turn around and don’t mess about. Ok, it doesn’t really say that, but it is definitely implied.
In we go.
I am not fast. My ankles kind of suck and I am known for my clumsiness, so…I take careful steps between boulders. Arlene sprints through, frequently calling back to me to hurry up. We hike along people from all corners of the world, gathered to experience this sacred space. French and Korean and Japanese and Appalachian and German, plodding through the water and gazing at the red, smooth sandstone, shooting straight up from the River.
Just a reminder. Nature can be unpredictable and humans can be headstrong.
From Wikipedia: Thunderstorms can cause The Narrows to flash flood during the summer. Rain showers upriver can cause flash floods in the canyon without it raining over the canyon itself. Hikers should exercise caution when hiking The Narrows during rainy periods as the winding canyon and sheer walls make approaching flash floods all the more sudden and difficult to evade.”
Rain starts with a sprinkling. This was when a few tourists began turning around. On this hike, you hike in to a waterfall and go back out the same way. At this point, we were a little more than halfway to the waterfall. Without even a discussion, we kept on.
Then the rain got heavier.
A page from my journal. Written the night of the hike.
Then the tourists (who were sane) left in droves. I’m talking, 80-90% VANISHED back toward the start. I call out to Arlene and ask if we should leave. She looks at me like I am being ridiculous and continues deeper in. Another time she says, “We will never have this chance again. I’m not going back.”
After it had been raining for about thirty minutes, we are the only ones visible on the hike going forward. We are greeted by harried, elated hikers on their way back from the falls, advising us to try the hike another time. Arlene is fixed. She is determined to finish. I have no choice but to follow. Even as it began to storm.
Here’s what I remember: Hours of walking with such fear. Praying for protection from the Universe, crying and walking as quickly as possible. Feeling the cliff walls too close on both sides, claustrophobic beauty. Walking. Not feeling my legs and feet. Walking. Being really angry with her. Walking. Letting all of it go and walking. Confined, but walking.
The only way out was further in.
We made it. It was harrowing and we were deeply alone. I felt truly insignificant in that canyon, intruding in a way. But burrowed somewhere in the panic was the peace. That I was not in control. That all I could do was to continue as long as I could. The big picture was out of my hands.
It felt like a spiritual quest afterward. Like I was meant to fight for each step, until fighting became reverence and reverence became the simple act of moving forward.
The best thing Arlene ever taught me was about actively discovering the line between being brave and being reckless. Oh and that she will win every single argument. Even if it kills me.
This was my prayer. And I am not a believer.
” Rise up slowly.
Love your child
Grant safe passage —
Mother of All
Move me through
Move me through
With no small amount of amazing grace,
The quick ones survive.”