My dear friend David--another composer who had left his native New Jersey for Vermont as well, but couldn't settle comfortably in either place--invited me to hike with him in the Grand Canyon. Absurd, I thought. I will tell you the story. As a child, I had been fat, myopic, homely and sickly. I never went to camp. I was kicked out of the Boy Scouts. In sixth grade, I ran the interscholastic hurdles ... crashing underneath each one. After two years of swimming lessons at the local YMCA, I had to be rescued on parents day. Two decades later in Vermont, I had barely learned to ski. I was certainly no candidate to hike miles in the desert, the relentless, hot and unrewarding desert--particularly after having read David's own accounts of his desert hikes.
But I was very wrong. The Grand Canyon humbles. Where the narrow New England hills emphasize one's lumpy out-of-placeness, the great deserts reduce each human to individual insignificance, while at the same time, in this reduction, revealing the integration of the individual with life's wholeness.
Surely that sounds like so much ex-post-hippie, whole-earth, save-the-whales, touchy-feely drabble, and it is embarrassing to write it, to attempt the translation of inexpressible sensation, of an underpinning of feeling into calculated words. Yet the desert, and the Canyon especially, is ready to surprise, whispering its gentle laughs as we attempt to overcome our inarticulate dumbness.
Stevie is a New England girl, raised among Connecticut gardens, truck farms and commuter trains. She anticipated a dry, unyielding desert--correctly--but could not sense that the desert is ever alive, that plants grow, animals skitter, and even, through millennia, the rocks themselves struggle to transform from mountain range to canyon, ocean bottom to promontory, silt and sand to glittering schists. The green slime that covers the Northeast hills, hiding its geological truth and cloaking it in the same evasive modesty that often inflicts its inhabitants, is stripped away in the stark, sunlit honesty of polychromatic beauty and strength--tanned, earthy Nature uncoiffed, with her eyebrows raised and arms crossed. Stevie was awed, overwhelmed, confounded and silenced.
Personal silence is part of hiking, and is the quintessence of the desert. The songs to be heard within that silence are restorative, and the dreams that come in the Canyon night plumb the phylogenic depths of our separate lives. As Stevie slept one moonless night on an outcropping in Monument Canyon, dreams of a council of ancient women came alive and stayed with her through waking, lucid and deep sleep, while at the same time I was overcome with an unidentifiable, choking fear; her dream was so powerful that when first writing these words, I had recalled it as my own. We search for explanation; each of us attempts to point out the logical, daily influences that insinuate themselves into our night minds, our sleeping minds. Yet Canyon dreams and feelings --these and others--have no quantifiable antecedents, and instead offer a body of fresh visions for our inspiration, creativity and growth.
After a grueling hike out of this mile-deep wonder, the marvels of the dreams withdraw from the physical struggle; I ask again, "Why did I do that? Why bother?" And as my car pulls east, the sunset again at my back, I (wistfully) begin plans for next time, having taken with me the tools and the ineluctible shifts of spirit that can make my life well and whole in the future meanwhile.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.
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