Michael G. Smith
BEYOND RIVER, BEYOND CANYON
Once a year I backpack my ischemic-stroked brain and body into the Grand Canyon. To test. Observe. See what lost physical move I can do again. Metamorphosize. Twelfth trip: like the Earth, I have the partial wisdom of ongoing trial and error. Experience. First morning. Booted, poised at the rim’s crumbling edge. Plant hiking poles. Step down forward. Start reverse.
Vertical fault line: twelve years ago I twisted my neck, dissected the right vertebral artery running through my brainstem. My neurologist: Another millimeter or two and we would not be having this discussion. The artery clotted. Three days later two clots released. Lodged in my cerebellum: center of balance, muscle control, proprioception. Vision stroked into nystagmus. Movement stroked into stillness. Isostasy. Ahead: layers, conglomerate rubble. Layers. Rubble. Primordial Earth. Mighty Colorado River flowing all away.
Re-learn to see. Balance. Walk. My path did not follow that order.
Order went like this: stand, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand, wobble, fall. Stand. Wobble. Catch. Step. Stop. Rest. Step. Step a minute. Rest. Step, stepped, steeped. Sediments: layers laid down. Layers. More oceans. More sediments. Layered. Then faulted: skewed strata, offset layers. Step down through millennia of tectonics. Rest. Always rest. I began to see the terrain. The work of compression. The work of sudden release. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an earthquake? How do we navigate fracture and rubble?
Plant hiking pole. Step. Plant. Step over, around rocks of the dry tawny Toroweap. Right eye continually beats. Switchback. Vertigo through the layers, rockslides, leaning spires. Cliffed out. Oh yes, the world makes its paces. Switchback. Toroweap thick in the western Canyon: deep seas. Fatiguing. Last switchback. Grateful feet on the Esplanade. Vertigo on the wavey flats. Such is the way I see.
Such is the way I move: joyful stride, glide, sashay through what Spanish and other taking men called wasteland. Good-for-nothing land. Good-for-many-things land. Good: the Hualapai and Havasupai knew better: here rock pictographs look out: mirrors of the vast space. Good: Clarence Dutton saw better: his thoughts akin to I will re-imagine how man sees the Earth. Now I know this Earth through his eyes. Good: Now I re-imagine myself. Here, too, are told tales of hiking guides falling off cliffs.
Rain moves in. Weeping, I traverse eroded, scarped, cliffed, rolling wet Esplanade. Tinaja: rain pooled in the sepia rock. Sandstone overhangs. Salty sea bones. Here will be first night camp. Memory falls. Recalls. ICU days. Blood pressure spike. Spike. Spike. Spike. Sweet taste of nasal oxygen. Sweet, sweet Canyon air.
Rain moves out. Beam of sunlight pours through a split in the clouds. Torches a distant mesa down Canyon. After sunset, wind moves in. Roars across the Esplanade. Rocks trees. Tents. Moves one. Consuelo in it. Rain moves in: more tinaja for return hike out: up to this morning’s rim. Six inches of snow on this morning’s rim (we hear five days later). By definition: creeks and River will be silt laden.
Second morning. Rehab: how do I explain twisted neck-dissected artery-ischemic stroke to knee replacement? How do I explain Inner Canyon? I point a finger. Say I know something about layers. Form warping form. Scarping: the River undermines soft layers. Trickling power of springs. Powerfully, dried blood trickles, too. Years later we hike changed landscapes.
Re-definition: in rehab I felt my way into what I could do. Stiff. Unbalanced. Wobbly. Uncertain: never lost. Felt. Feeling. Worked stone legs into tools. At camp, Will finds a piece of worked stone. Working tool. Rock wheat among rock chaff. Working tools: hips, legs, feet.
Hit the trail ahead. Clattered clatter wobbly walls splitting. Rockslide. We who hike through a fault in the ocean-silted Redwall limestone see different. We who hike past faulted-tumbled blocks of Redwall know the underlying rock is gray. Know the aircraft carrier-sized blocks in Surprise Valley avalanched down. Down. Avalanche: re-routed the Colorado River. How do we calculate the cost-benefit ratio of an avalanche? How do calculate blood’s clot and cascade melt? Blood: eighty-three percent water. Strolling, we easily move southeast across the valley. Hottest place in the Canyon. The trail a faint scar across an immensity. Surprise: King Rattlesnake rattles his warning. Slithers and slips through a pass between limestone boulders: No-man’s land.
Vista (one of the infinite): Thunder Springs pours from fracture joints in Muav limestone. Falls, falls, falls. Oasis lined falls and tumbling river: watercress, cottonwoods. Away, away, away from oasis margins: Mormon tea, sage, prickly pear, barrel cacti. Limestone ledge. Below: thundered Thunder River flows into brown Tapeats Creek. Strange confluence: river into creek. Strange the names given things. Beautiful the strange ways we test ourselves.
Down river to creek: cottonwood canyon. Old, old roots. Knarled roots absorbing river waters. Overhead: crumbing rock: boulder-slabbed creek: cold, cold pools to wade: refresh in. Here will be two-night camp: let me offer alms: sprig of grass, drops of sweat, blue heron feather. At night: scorpion. UV blue in headlamp light. Scorpion-eating pallid bat. Cottonwood rustle; this an autumn wind. Rehab continues: summer, autumn, winter, spring, summer.
I do not do foot races. Forced marches. You go with me, we do down days. Third day: rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Let the working muscles and veins remove lactic acid. Let bloody pricks of desert bricklebrush and proffered prickly pear heal. Let memory heal: IV scars in my wrists continue the long, slow fade. : Rest, read, stretch, meditate. Observe, write. Observe, write. Observe, write.
Night: shadowed side canyon walls open to black sky. Milky Way stretched through Sagittarius. Jupiter bright in the east. Silent satellite in circumpolar orbit blinking. Blinking. In a blink it disappears. Lost among the stars. Absent moon: pack rat scurry through leaf litter. Scurry. Rustle. Scurry. Rustle. Lift my head for no known reason: headlamp beam grazes silent flying great-horned owl.
Fourth morning: hit the trail ahead. Behind: camp robber raven flap flap flap. Swift Tapeats Creek cleared during the night. We cross. Guide rope for safety. Cold water. Pack’s perched high on the shoulders. Noor last—carries the rope with him. Go deep. Deep into the Inner Canyon. Tapeats drops. Drops. Deeper. Down we move through, over slick Hakatai shale. Through the Great Unconformity: a quarter of Earth’s history missing. Missing. Five days in ICU: what did I miss? What memories have I concocted? I know this: ahead, confluence of creek and River. Debris fan rapid.
We follow a contour line. Cliff edge. Every step, focused. Step. Stepped. Steep: a kicked pebble freefalls. Focus: two hundred feet below, cottonwood bole wedged between rock walls twenty feet above creek bottom. Flash flood. Freefall: pay attention to the rubble-covered trail below boots. Freefall: pay attention to what is now. Freefall: pay attention to what comes next:
Angostura: two-definition word: aromatic bitter bark used as flavoring, as a tonic and to reduce fever; a narrow way, tight squeeze, narrowest of ravines, tight stretch of water. My neurologist: your artery has this kink, this constriction. Constriction-finding-a-path: Tapeats Creek digs itself deeper into Earth. Down through the sedimentary layers. Down we flow towards the Colorado River. The River! The River! The River! By definition: flowing things find a path to the vastness.
Switchback. The path is switchbacked. Rock-strewn, gravel-crunch slippery switchback. We descend into primordial Earth. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole. What once was. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Remnants of the clash of continents: oceanic Wyomingland subducting, crashing into and under volcanic Yavapai Arc. Switchback. Step, wobbly step. Plant pole: forty pounds on the back. Step. Stepped. Steep. Last switchback. Lean, lean, lean on the hiking poles. Rock rising, rock descending. Old, old Earth. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Heated. Squeezed. Folded. Fractured. Long before Rodina, Pangea.. They rest far above a splitting forever lodged in thought: River-severed buried two-billion-year old schist and granite grace our handholds. River level: Primordial Earth released. Released. To movement. To flow. To another becoming.
Michael G. Smith is an early-retired chemist. His poetry has been published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Cider Press Review, the Kerf, Nimrod, the New Mexico Poetry Review, the Santa Fe Literary Review, Sulphur River Literary Review, and Superstition Review. He has had writing residencies at Jentel (Banner, WY) and with the Spring Creek Project (Oregon State University) at Shotpouch Cabin and the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest. His website is michaelgsmithpoetry.com.
Image credit: Grand Canyon National Park on Flickr
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #5.