Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches at Western Wyoming College. Rick is editor of the anthology ON FOOT: Grand Canyon Backpacking Stories, published in 2014 by Vishnu Temple Press in Flagstaff, and co-editor, with Peter Anderson, of Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon, published in 2015 by Lithic Press in Fruita, Colorado. His latest poetry collection is Ten Thousand Voices (Oakland: Littoral Press, 2014). “On Static Peak,” a short essay about a misadventure in Grand Teton National Park, can be found in the Watershed Review. For more info, see www.rickkempa.com.
Honing the Edge
I have fractured the ice where trail meets creek and plunged in shin-, knee-, and even thigh-deep. I have known the squish of water in the bottom of the boot, the sodden sock, the tortured toe.
I have bashed my head, bruised my elbow, scoured the skin from every limb, punctured my palm a hundred times.
Let us speak of the perils of the hearth: the singed eyebrows and charred flesh and scorched wool and broiled leather and even the jacket (on my back) in flames.
I have muddied the water I meant to drink. I have spilled the bottle I left uncorked. I have woefully misjudged the amount I need. I’ve drunk red water, yellow water, radioactive water, water suspiciously devoid of life, water thick with too much life. I have, through my drinking, shortened my life.
I have walked away from my walking stick. I have dropped my pack to find the trail and in so doing lost my pack. And oh how I have abused the map! I have taken the small and writ it large. I have seen the universe in a square-inch grid. I have been powerfully lost.
Yet never in a lifetime of putting one foot in front of the other have I been in danger not of my own making. Never was my distress not self-induced. In this world that bears no malice—if I am alert to it, if I am my own best self—I have never been anything less than safe.
When I share this anthem of self-sufficiency with my daughter Claire, who has come home from college for a visit, she says, “Well, that’s rather presumptuous of you.”
I protest. To me it seems an obvious truth that the world is friendly ground, or at least a neutral one, a place of no harm, if I am what I should be.
“What about lightning?” she counters.
“Stay off the ridge.”
“What about blizzards?”
“Sure, the world tests you. But be prepared. Seal the seams of the tent. Wait it out and walk on out.”
“Injury? You’re going to take it upon yourself that injuries don’t happen, that they have to be your fault? What about your back?” She stares down at me scornfully, triumphantly.
Ah yes. I have been lying on this living room floor for the past two days, periodically easing to my left where the pills and water bottle are perched, ever since “doing something to my back” while hiking on Comb Ridge in Southern Utah with my old high school buddy Jim. Nothing happened in the usual sense. I just took off up a steep slope at full speed, wanting to prove something to myself, I guess, or maybe to Jim, who was bragging that his usual pace is five or six miles an hour no problem, which is bullshit, even though he has the longest legs of anyone I know. It must’ve been the impact of boot on rock that did me in—we were climbing an immense, amazing sandstone slab. When I came back down the other side and sat on a boulder by a creek, there it was, uh oh, a sharp pain in the lower right, and it’s been naproxen and ibuprofen ever since, a nice little rotation to keep the machine in motion during the second half of that day’s hike, on the 500-mile drive home to Rock Springs, and in my delicate little movements around the house ever since.
“Okay, so I should have stretched,” I say to Claire. “I shouldn’t have headed up that dome like a maniac. I should have…acted my age. I will put this on myself.”
“You are not in control. Face it. How about that time you drove off the road and nearly killed us?”
“Well, I wasn’t in control then, but I should’ve been.”
“You had a fever of 104. You weren’t yourself.”
“That’s no excuse…”
She is genuinely angry. Suddenly I realize this is not just an exercise in rhetoric for her. There’s something at stake here. If she lets my thesis stand—that one must always “be oneself,” and “in control,” then she too is culpable for those worst days of her life, when her world went wrong for her, and I, her dad, am saying so.
I backpedal. “You know, I don’t mean to generalize about this. I’m just trying out a thought…”
But I am talking to her back. And of course I do mean to generalize. Otherwise, what’s the point? Hardly any of us are sufficiently in control and attentive, and who can say otherwise?
Another hike, a year later, in Grand Gulch Primitive Area, solo this time. I begin my walk with a mantra: Be deliberate. The words steady me as the trail steepens, and I adjust my center of balance to the weight on my back. My mantra focuses my awareness on the prickly pear that shimmers beside me when I rest in the shade of a juniper. “Aha, you little sucker. You won’t get a piece of me!” A low branch tangles with the top of my pack and yanks me backward awkwardly. “Enough of that,” I chide myself. “Be deliberate.”
Late in the day, I take my filter and empty bottles to a waterhole on the canyon bottom. Clad only in shorts and boots, I move in a crouch through the brambles along the water’s foamy edge, angling for the best access to the deepest part of the pool. There it is, a spit of sand about three feet beyond a mudflat. Still looking down, I plant my feet, summon strength to my legs, launch myself forward—and am stopped mid-flight by the jagged edge of a time-hardened cottonwood snag driven against my chest. It is as if I have thrown myself upon a sword. The deadwood strikes my ribcage on the right side and does not give. I am flung back into the mud and sit there, stunned. Weirdly, I shout out, “Wounded!”—a baleful cry that countermands my precious mantra. The sound is quickly muffled by the cliffs.
This may qualify as an emergency. Abandoning my pump and bottles in the sand, I wobble back to camp and assess the damage. The surface wound is not so bad, an abrasion an inch or so in width. More frightening is the quick swelling and purpling of the surrounding skin. I lie on my back and concentrate on breathing. Pain flares with the smallest intake. I struggle to a sitting position and think I hear a frothing sound within. This of course does wonders for my imagination, and I fast-forward a week or so to when my bloated, buzzard-torn body will finally be found. Turning away from that drama, I breathe and listen and breathe and conclude finally that the frothing has subsided, if indeed it was ever there. After a while, I set about the time-honored task of masking symptoms, burrowing in my pack for my vial of pills. At night, seeking comfort, I apply a sticky hot patch to the wound, but that burns like hell and I tear it off. Finally I take a muscle relaxant—one of those little gold pills I hoard—not because it will help the healing, just so I can sleep.
Morning brings an evil mix of stiffness and pain, but nothing worse. That’s good news. So I will be slowed, but not stopped. I add a couple of pills to the breakfast fare. I find new ways to don and shed my pack. After each stop, I walk with my hand pressed to my swollen side, which provides a measure of comfort until the pain is subsumed by motion’s full-tilt.
The what ifs?—that swarm of biting flies—assail me as I walk. What if the snag had caught me in my left side, right above the heart? Or in the unprotected gut? Or in the eye, for that matter? I shudder, live the thought so thoroughly that I cry out. I hold to my mantra ever more zealously, as if it were some kind of shield.
A little less hubris is always in order. I begin to work out the truth of what my daughter tried to make me see: no matter how cautiously we proceed, we are not ultimately in control. Shit happens, and will continue to happen. Through due diligence, I can minimize it, but I can never eliminate the chance of it. A storm might set in, requiring from the machine of the body an extreme endurance. Or, like a rubber band gone brittle in a desk drawer, the old body might just give out, as happened to my best hiking buddy Bruce, who discovered in the last waking moment of his life that he had a bum heart.
As youths, there are no limits to the risks we take. And there are no limits, we believe, to the exertions we are capable of—or at least we have never found them. Walk twelve parched miles of the Tonto Trail in blazing heat, and then climb out of the Grand Canyon? No prob. Hike all night if daylight fails? Sure thing. At the end of the day—or the night—we are still standing.
The problem for youth is the invincibility complex—no risk is too great to warrant turning around. Yes, I will step off the cliff. The finger- and toe-holds will appear as needed, and the rock will not give way. Or: Yes, I will step into this river in flood; I am stronger than any old current. Years ago I knew a guy whose thirst for thrills was legendary. Gordon was the one who, if we took the kids to the park on Sundays, could not stand around with the rest of us, pushing the swings and shooting the breeze. No, he would shimmy up the metal framework of the swing set and walk back and forth along the top like a tightrope artist, while we rolled our eyes and while the children, peering up from within their moving boxes, shrieked. Not much extreme risk here; if he fell, Gordon would at least land on his feet like a cat. His passion for kayaking was another matter. He liked to haul his boat on his back up mountainsides in search of the steepest and wildest chute of all. He found it all right, or rather it found him and kept him. I, and others, have never forgiven him.
The problem for older voyagers, on the other hand—as I am becoming progressively more aware as I navigate the decade of my fifties—is resistance to the fact of waning vitality. Many a middle-aged man’s brave bones have been picked clean in places where, in retrospect, they ought not have been.
And so the catalog of dangers is complete: extreme weather and system failure and foolhardiness of youth and frailty of age and dumb old human error. The fact remains that in any worthwhile enterprise, there must always be risk: trails unforgiving of missteps, the chance of a snake coiled on the ledge or of a cloudburst that will wash out the return route. Risk is wholesome, and it is freeing; to be fully alive requires it.
We try too hard to keep each other safe, and in so doing scare each other away from the front lines of life. The standard response if I divulge a plan for a solo hike is, What? You’re going alone? But aren’t you afraid? It gets so that I don’t even tell most people I am going. Sometimes even the Park Service traffics in fear. My permit for a canyon hike on the Tonto Trail from the South Kaibab to the Grandview one recent spring contained the note, “EXCESSIVELY DANGEROUS HIKE! Hiker insisted on itinerary!”—the official government stamp of disapproval. When I saw this, I looked again at the map, thought back to my last hike there years before. To be sure, the region would be relatively unpeopled and perhaps a bit on the dry side, although in early March that wouldn’t be a problem the way it was in high summer. Nor would there be any danger of getting lost; like all canyon trails, the Tonto has only grown more distinct over the decades.
The danger, I could only conclude that the rangers concluded, was that I was not sharing the risk, dividing it by two the way one carves a loaf of pumpkin bread and puts half in each pack. Say there are two of us. It is true that one can keep the other in check if a burst of foolhardiness overcomes him. But this is what inner voices are for. Besides, one headstrong fool can just as easily lead another into trouble. If injury occurs, one can indeed leave the other in a shady spot with half the loaf and embark on a super-charged rescue mission. But is this any less risky? The rescuer will move too fast and too long in the high heat; fatigue will cloud perspective, and the danger will be multiplied.
If mountain man Hugh Glass could drag his grizzly-mauled carcass two hundred miles to a settlement, if Aron Ralston could grit his teeth and remove the trapped hand from his torso, I could outwait an ankle sprain and in the meantime, more than ever, get what I came for—time for perception, time for reflection, time to step out of time and simply be. And if—worst case—it were my time to embark on a journey to that other place, would it really be better to have someone hovering above me, squeezing my hand, putting his ear up to my mouth? What he would interpret to be my death throes would likely be a final agitation: Get out of my way! I can’t see the sky!
On the Nankoweap Trail in the easternmost part of the Grand Canyon, there is a fifteen-foot stretch known as “The Scary Spot.” Bloggers cite it as the most exposed bit of trail in the canyon, “trouble waiting to happen.” Some hikers have been said to turn back rather than risk it. You Tube videos depict others gingerly crossing it; heavy breathing is in the air. Even Harvey Butchart, the dean of canyoneers whose fearlessness was the stuff of lore, wrote, “a man feels like creeping on all fours” across it. In the several years that I dreamed of and then planned for a Nankoweap hike, this massive mythology weighed upon me mightily. Twice, I cancelled scheduled hikes because I “did not feel up to it,” “it” being the image seared in my mind of a slanted, six-inch-wide gash of pebbles and loose earth, with cliffs above and cliffs below.
The entire Nankoweap Trail, I finally found out, was loose, steep, narrow and cliffy—in short, something that required one’s attention. I moved slowly, taking care to firmly plant my boots and hiking stick with each step. I didn’t look up unless I stopped. And all the while, as I threaded my way across the cliff-face, in and out the big bays, I was expecting something of a different magnitude to open out underfoot, something infamously treacherous. Eventually, I dropped my pack at a promontory to check the map. To my astonishment, I found that I had traversed “The Scary Spot” without even knowing! Here is another, truer way to put it: I had indeed passed a particular place on the trail upon which a great deal of energy has been lavished, but the “The Scary Spot,” in all its shimmering intensity, resided mainly in my head. Other hikers of the Nankoweap have been startled by the same discovery, and by the conclusion that results: Fear is something one can choose to own or disown.
The matter of risk is something different. It seems to exist both as a subjective event—something one weighs, accepts a measure of, aims to manage—and as an attribute of the real world. Who will deny that certain places at certain times hold inherent risk? To do so is to disown one’s life. On the Nankoweap hike, swayed perhaps by the warning on my permit—“Hiker advised of aggressiveness of itinerary & associated risks”—I took with me for the first time a satellite Spot device. Its logistics are simple: at any given moment you point it at the sky, press a button, and your designated watchperson—for me it was my wife, at whose request I rented it—receives an email that says, “I’m okay,” and that gives your exact location on a map. If you run into trouble, you simply press the SOS button, kick back, and await the rescuers. The arrangement was a comfort for her, and for that I liked it. But on the whole I valued it a good deal less than she. When I go into the backcountry, I like the thought that no one knows where I am except me. I like knowing that I am, and must be, self-sufficient. It hones the edge. I doubt that having this device made me any less deliberate in my actions, but I do know it made me feel less free. Each time I pointed it skyward and told the world that “I’m okay,” my cocoon of presentness was disrupted, my solitude compromised.
I am fairly sure I know what my daughter, direct as ever, would say about this stance: “Get over your stupid head trip. It smacks of foolhardiness.” And I am fairly sure that, with just a little more grumbling, this is the least I can do.
At what point does caution become constriction? Where does hardiness end and foolhardiness begin? It is our duty to ourselves to discover what our limits are and work to expand them—or at least push gently against them. It is our moral duty to encourage the same in others. This is the antidote to being hemmed in by the narrow limits others will set for us by default, if we allow them to. When wide-wandering Odysseus was threading the straits between Scylla and Charybdis—the one a monster poised to ambush those who strayed too close, the other a whirlpool that might swallow the would-be wayfarer—he steered his craft closer to the former, judging that action, whatever its risk, was better than the threat of being held in one place forever. So too must we steer our crafts.