by Jeffe Aronson
Searching for light miles underground.
The air is cool, damp. The walls coated with long undisturbed, powder-like talc, virtually liquid. My feet sense every irregularity of the limestone floor through the thin plastic soles of Chinese slippers. I cannot tell where the water is–the pools mere phantoms, perfectly clear, perfectly calm, air melding into water as if there were no boundary at all. I am startled by my foot splashing, making ripples.
The absence of light is smothering, tangible. As is my immediate danger.
I have been wandering deep into this cave for a very long time, my whole life it seems, seeking rivers. It has beckoned since that café in Sausalito. Now, at long last, I’ve arrived. To my great peril.
I shake my head, and as I do, the headlamp comes back to life for a moment, flickers, dies again. I must seize that singular moment of vision, commit it to memory, recall precisely the contours of the tunnel. From my taught crouch I must burn into my bones its direction, keep my head still, absorbing the utter blackness. Then, I must try and remember which way is out.
Who could have guessed I would be in the Grand Canyon, kayaking the Mighty Colorado, on my very first season of river guiding? Teal offered me her spot on the thirty-seven day trip, choosing Africa for herself. The others; Jimbo, Stitch, Patch, Danny, Cathy, mostly “old-timers”, having guided for two, three, even four years. I’m the rookie. We’ve left our commune of tipis, treehouses, organic garden and goats–for this.
This, in fact, is why we exist in the first place.
My contribution is an old, leaky, patched, contorted raft with bubbles spoiling the sunbaked material, a bent and rusty steel frame, a set of heavy grayed oars, duct tape over the splits, and the corroded boxes and battered bags to go with it. Borrowed from ETC, who get all their gear from the commercial outfitters when it’s ready to throw away. Patch didn’t have a boat, is rowing mine. I’m in my fiberglass kayak, where the world is right and good.
We haven’t worn much clothing since we shoved off at Lee’s ferry three weeks ago. Breech-cloths, flimsy blouses and bare bottoms, home-made leather sandals with used-tire soles, floppy hats. I crave the frantic whitewater. The thumping waves. I want to feel my heart beat. I want it so badly I’ve been paddling directly into the most awful places deliberately, with predictable results. I need to plunge deep, touch more than her surface. She demands ferocity, something I can give her. Later I’ll get to familiarity, intimacy, explore with care, consider her past, try and comprehend. For now, I’m content with tumbling and tussling. Impatient, greedy.
The morning drifts through my mind as I crawl along, ever so slowly, muslin skirt tucked into my woven belt, scraped knees feeling the way… A breakfast of oatmeal in the purple dawn, squatting on my heels on the raft, gear spread out on the plywood deck, the still concealed rapid talking in tongues. A whispered farewell as I pass a couple curled in their sleeping bags along the sandy trail through the willows.
“Where are you going so early?”
“The cave. The other one. Beyond Thunder. I’ll see you guys back at camp.”
She knows I won’t be.
My daypack swings effortlessly, soon forgotten. Up the switchbacks, washing down the dried mushroom taste, trying not to gag.
Mile after sinuous mile of waist deep creek wading, leaning against the current. I’ve leant against currents all my life, know it well. Overhanging gardens dripping with Maidenhair Fern, Scarlet Monkey Flower, Stone Crop, clinging upside down to the moist limestone, glittering water showering off their leaves, leaving ripples in the pond below. No trail, no footprints. Tiny footholds along the narrow gorge provide pathways around the deepest pools, steepest falls. Occasionally I find myself scarily high, realizing too late I was on a precipice. Climbing well, notwithstanding my cotton slippers, slowly traversing this untamed landscape, following the frogs and dragonflies back to the flowing water. The hot sun baking my body, caressing me, laughing at my folly, loving me anyway. Someday I will learn. For now, just accept.
I pause at a fork in the Canyon. Water rushes and roars from the small slot on the left, a twisting notch of marbled sandstone belching foam and froth. The water surges over unkempt piles of massive, jagged boulders–beckoning. From the main canyon, unexpectedly putrid, algae-choked yellow slime trickles in. Left it is.
Immediately, overhanging walls converge, leaving me shivering in their shade. Thoroughly wet now, having to wade deeper, clamber along knife-edged corners above bone-shattering drops. Layers of purple, green, tan, brown, burgundy. Coarse grains of sand frozen in place by time and pressure and desiccation, ancient beaches that once fronted primal seas. Recently re-sculpted by the source that I hunt.
The slot canyon yields into a curved bowl of deep emerald, shot with crimson Indian Paintbrush, blue Penstemon, yellow Columbine, White Evening Primrose. Monet. Water framing everything–tumbling, pouring, cascading, tiny rivulets and gushing channels. Vegetation shaking, rattling, vibrating. Swaying to a concert of water. Beloved Cottonwoods, giant Willows, protective, watching over it all. Too much. My blood will burst out of my body–also vibrating and swaying–to mingle and flow downstream. Still I climb, following something too deep to name, moving because I must. I must find the source. I must enter the womb. I must certainly die if I don’t.
Perhaps I will even if I do.
Red dust fills my nostrils. A puff of wind billows my skirt, rustles the Juniper next to my leg. My face is pressed into the impassive stone, hands cling to a seam. Something is missing.
The sound of water. That’s it. I seem to have left the water behind, somewhere. I turn, warily, leaning into the pulsing, radiating wall, without letting go.
Two hundred feet up the Redwall cliff, there is quite a bit of air. On a ledge–a Peregrine’s aerie covered with white excrement–I survey my folly, missing the essential solidity of earth on all sides but one. Vacant, teasing cobalt. A thousand feet below, the green bowl. Swallows dive past me, reminding me of earlier days of rock and rope. Joyous, carefree swallows.
I peer over the lip. A fine crack system leads up to my perch. Difficult to ascend, insane to descend. Not much choice.
Plastered against the smooth limestone, arms to my side, palms back and caressing the rock to remind me what is real, spooked but good. The immensity consumes me: holy, sacred, ear-pounding reeling vastness takes my breath away.
I groan–in ecstasy–and close my eyes. My head writhes, rolling against petrified seashells and bones. Steady, now.
Step by step, handhold by handhold, the lovely dancing roar returns–the mist, the green. I take a deep breath, traverse towards the left. Bouncing off boulders, skipping along loose scree, laughing, alive. Just made it. Again. The nearness of death, that’s what we need to keep us awake, appreciative.
I pause, drink the last liquid from my water bottle, survey the rocky gully below. I won’t find the cave this time. Time to head back.
Something–vast, powerful, insistent–tugs. Not scary–but worth paying attention to. I’ve ignored too much in my life. Sooner or later I’m going to have to start listening. Once again, I find myself turning.
Directly behind me is a tunnel big enough to drive a train through. A cool breeze drifts out, touching my face.
Left? Maybe right, but I think not. I remove the headlamp, fumbling it open and dropping the dead batteries. Shit. Control yourself. Now on my knees, I find them, scrape each end with my pocket knife, hoping for a few precious seconds more of juice, replace them, all by feel. The only light is behind my lids; flashes of iridescence like plankton on a disturbed night sea. Turn the switch–a dull glow illuminates my womb-like world for a moment–gone.
Okay. Breathe. Shake off the mushrooms. Focus.
Left it is.
Keep one hand high, in front of your head as you crawl. Doesn’t matter. I clunk my head, anyway. Every so often bang the headlamp with your hand. One, fleeting flicker, return to blackness, trying to summon every detail. It’s all up to you. Nobody knows where you’ve gone, what you sought, would recognize it any more than you did if they saw it themselves.
Dead end. Wrong way. Lost. No prospects.
The water; leaking out of the bottom of some shimmering lake, miles away on the north rim. There, a deer drinks nervously, a hawk dives for a trout, a squirrel tosses an empty husk off a branch into the shallows, all unappreciative of the sanctity of these gestures, yet holy still. These ripples journey; seeping through unimaginable mountains of earth and rock. Through thousands of feet of limestone, mudstone, sandstone and shale, three dimensional continents pressing in, forming cracks. I’ve been seeking the rumored river in the cave–Tapeats– finding only mirages. I munch on my last granola bar, sitting on my pack. Cold creeps into my bones. Gotta move. I turn my face left, then right, vacant holes where eyes should be. Knock the headlamp against my palm. To the right. Good as any.
Stupid to not have taken a spare flashlight. I’m always doing shit like that. Trying to be precise, checking for my rain jacket, first aid kit, knife, water, food. Always missing the one thing I will need most. Story of my life.
Harder and harder to get the merest glow, better time it right, last chance. Gulp down the claustrophobia. I crab-walk around a stalagmite. Did I just do a complete circle? Am I backtracking yet again, back into the tomblike depths? If there were any loose stones, I could leave a trail, but all is washed clean. I consider all of this late in the contest, break a knob off the wall, leave it where my knee will scrape it, carry on.
Getting hard to put down the panic. It rises to the surface like a ponderous old bull elephant seal, breathes deep, descends with difficulty. I coax the last blip of light, trapped in a billion tons of earth. Go with it, forget your fears. I imagine the faintest glow, tantalizing, luring, beguiling…
No. It is not my imagination. It lingers, grows. Giggling echoes evolve into torrents of laughter. In childlike relief I imagine myself a child, emerging from the birth canal into the bright sunshine…
Not sunshine. A glorious full moon, hanging high, illuminates the secret soul of this great gouge in the desert. Draping the surrounding ramparts with silver and mercury, revealing itself as my savior. Such is my amazement at its splendor, at my salvation, that I run. Can do nothing but. Deliriously, down-creek, a lunatic leaping from rock to rock, never slipping once, tread sure as a leopard hunting it’s prey, moonlight and shadow making the landscape vibrate like a kaleidoscope.
“Awwwoooooooooo” I exult. “Awwwoooooooooooooooooo…” as I lope. The light begins to turn, Thunder river dances in and adds to the general din. A tree trunk, large but broken and dead, looms. I skid to a halt.
The tree says “Jesus! What on earth are you doing? You scared the hell out of us!”
Cathy says “Oh my God. We thought there was a pack of coyotes tearing right into us. What the hell are you doing?”
They stand back to back in their sleeping bags, like circled buffalo, looking solid but for glazed, round eyes.
Apparently they like sleeping on trails.
“We were about to send out a search party. Where have you been? What have you been doing? Are you nuts?”
“Well, it’s kind of a long story.”
Jeffe Aronson won the Adventure Bronze Award for “Beyond Thunder” in the Fifth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.