In early January my fiancé and I were asked to be part of a group of 16 people that would voyage down the Grand Canyon for 21 days in the spring. We accepted with pleasure. After all, it’s the Grand f-ing Canyon.
It was life, condensed and encapsulated in some kayaks and a few inflatables for three weeks. After a day’s worth of voyage, where you ended was where you set up your kitchen, your bathroom and your bedroom, even if it wasn’t your first choice, or even your third. Life simplified, and very much a working vacation. Some might think, “Why would you do that?”
Because it’s Grand Canyon, that’s why. Anyone can click “book it now” and be on a beach. The Grand Canyon is a place that some travel to from the other side of the globe, just to view a small section of it, so they can cross seeing it of their bucket lists.
The natural splendor was abundant and unmatched. I am left feeling changed and better for having done it, though I can’t honestly say it was a pleasure a minute. At times it was difficult and frustrating.
Group dynamics were a challenge. Sand was a challenge. Stomachs were hungry. Psyches were tested and physical ability was stretched.
Due to the bread boat flipping on day one and the entire food order being leaner than normal we were a little short on sustenance. So yes, there were some hunger games going on. I will never forget what I refer to as “five meatball camp.” When someone else gets close to 15 and you’re hungry, you remember.
I had a solidly voracious appetite and didn’t even row our boat. So you can imagine how those rowing and paddling felt.
Of the 280 or so total miles, I rowed about 20. I had a complex about it for a bit, but it was never part of the deal. My fiancé is the captain and rows until he needs help and I am the bow monkey, or bow Betty. Sometimes it’s just easier to be a bow monkey. It doesn’t have quite the same “Mad Men” typecasting.
Hey it’s not like I didn’t do anything. Having a competent bow monkey is key to running things smoothly. The short list of chores for which I was responsible looked like this:
I read aloud. I clung like a spider monkey to the bow’s cargo netting through all major rapids to help disperse weight. I map read. I gave clear arm signals. I blew my whistle during all three boat flips and for various other ejected swimmers. I threw safety ropes to those in need. I assisted a swimmer or two onto our boat. I cooled off all surfaces of the boat that had become aggressively hot from the desert heat with the bucket. I endured trench butt due to sitting in water almost daily. I nearly mastered peeing from the corners of the diamond plate frame and stern. I entertained when necessary. I assisted in manning the umbrella during windy umbrella alerts. I half-heartedly manned the bowline — I’m fine with getting off the boat and on to shore, the rope tying is what stymied me. And I became a solid orange peeler having peeled several in one piece.
These are important skills.
My point in giving you my bow monkey resume is that even I was tired and hungry after a long day in the desert heat. And despite the “work,” I would happily do it again. Who knew having trench butt would be such a badge of honor?
The working part had its moments. I can recall several times when tightening straps made me want to scream. I wanted to throw something. What was that all about? Am I a spoiled, under-burdened American? Or was it because my skin was so dry that when my hands tried to tighten a strap I thought they might crack and sometimes would? Maybe it was both.
I will say that despite going through heaven and hell on the trip I only take away the heaven feeling, yet can’t help but recount and comment on the hellish parts. Despite any interpersonal bullshit, and there was bullshit, all I want to do is go back.
I had the expectation that this would be “life-changing.” Yet, the “life-changing” part was what puzzled me. How would it change my life? Would I never want to shave my armpits again? Would I still want to have a semi-traditional wedding? Was it because I’d be forever bonded with the 15 other people on the trip? What was it?
I still want to shave my armpits. Phew! Nothing too major changed, but I certainly had some good reminders. As simple as it sounds, it was about being present to the fact that I was floating down a river and dealing with each task, interaction and circumstance as it came to me, good, bad or otherwise. Words to live by, especially for those with the tendency to get ahead of themselves.
Beth whittled much of her experience down in order to write one column about the subject. She can’t wait to write a book about it. She can be reached at email@example.com.