By: NYX athlete, Rami Wilder
Flowing Through The Canyon
Exactly 1 year and 1 day prior to my adventure in the Grand Canyon I was at the Willamette river in Oregon. I was ready to start the Salem 70.3. I knew my mother was still in the hospital back in Denver but I left thinking she would be continuing her treatment and returning home that week. I didn’t know how bad things had gotten overnight and she hadn’t wanted my Dad to bother me before my race. 24 hours later she died and I was lucky to have made it back in time to be with her.
I struggled with how I wanted to spend the 1 year anniversary of my Mom’s death but ultimately decided on the Grand Canyon. There is magic for me in the Canyon and so my wife and I planned our trip. Throughout this year I was discovering all the new ways I could connect with my Mom and, as strange as it sounds, I have felt even closer to her since her death. Much of that closeness I have experienced during my time running and hiking in nature. That realization is both comforting and painful. When planning this trip I made sure my Dad was okay with me being away on this day. He assured me it was and that my Mom would want me to be out on an adventure.
The Grand Canyon was a place I visited only once with my Mom. I was a kid and we looked down into the canyon together but never ventured below the rim. My mother was not an extremely active person and running and hiking was never something we shared together despite how much she encouraged it for me.
On this trip, our initial plan was to complete the 50 mile Rim2Rim2Rim but there were multiple water line breaks in the canyon leaving no drinking water available on the trail to the North Rim. Combined with daytime temperatures expected to be above 100 degrees, we took this as a sign and at the last minute changed our plans to a 22 mile route. The new course went from our lodge to the South Kaibab trail, down to the river and Phantom Ranch before climbing back out on Bright Angel Trail.
I spoke with my coach and spirit guide Laura the day before and we talked about my intentions for the day. She asked me to write them down, think about them and then throw them away and let the day happen. We talked a lot about “flow” and I was eager to see if I could find my flow in the canyon. I called my Dad the day before and was surprised when he talked to me about flow as well. It was not a word I had heard him use before and it gave me some comfort and clarity seeing the consensus of thinking around me.
We packed our bags, set our alarm for 1am and went to bed around 9pm. My last thoughts as I was lying in bed were about my Mom. I was remembering what it was like trying to fall asleep that night a year earlier knowing I would wake up to say my final goodbyes. I knew I could bring back all that emotion right then but spoke to my Mom and asked if it was ok to wait and feel that pain tomorrow in the canyon, and to let me rest now. She of course wanted her little boy to get his rest and I slept calmly for the four hours until we woke.
We knew time was not a concern so drank our coffee and ate snacks as we slowly dressed and prepared to head out. We made sure we had plenty of food and water since there was nothing to eat in the canyon except what we carried and the next water station was at the base of the Canyon at Phantom Ranch. We also carried clothes to keep us dry. It was summer and warm but also monsoon season and we needed to be prepared for potential storms that had been coming through the area daily with lightning and flooding.
We headed out in the dark with heavy packs and headlamps to guide us. It was 4+ miles to the trailhead and we were already warm at the coolest part of the day. We stopped for a few minutes at the top of the trailhead to get a snack and prepare for the descent into the canyon. I pulled the piece of paper from my pocket where I had written down my intentions and threw it in the last trashcan I would be seeing for a while.
I had 4 intentions written down but can only remember 3
- Experience time in a non-linear manner
- Find my flow in the Canyon and be open to where the adventure takes me
- Connect with my Mom
Standing at the top of the south rim of the Grand Canyon you can’t see the river below even during the daytime. You either know the river exists because you have seen it before or you just trust the maps and pictures. I was thinking back to before I had been to the river the first time, and what it was like trying to imagine the experience and how it might look. Now that I had already been, I was remembering how I felt the last time I crossed over and wondered how it would feel this time.
We didn’t wait long and then Beck and I started down. The energy changes immediately once you drop below the rim and it was exciting and fun. There was no moon and the cloud cover hid the stars. We stopped at one point and turned our headlamps off and couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. Knowing there was a huge drop in front of us, I felt uneasy but excited to keep running down. With lamps on we ran deeper and deeper into the canyon until the crescent moon rose above the horizon of the north rim just enough to light the sky. We stopped again to turn off our lights. You could now see the two rims of the canyon and a few bright stars in the gaps of the clouds. I spread my arms as wide as I could and felt small and overwhelmed by the emptiness everywhere around. The two of us stood quietly for a while taking in the beauty and the absolute quiet of the night. There wasn’t a sound and we had made it this far without seeing a single other person. I spoke to my Mom, while Beck took some pictures. I told her how beautiful it was and how much I wanted to see her again. I wasn’t sad just then and actually felt joyful in the moment. Since I was a young child, my Mom would want me to play and feel carefree. My Mom never wanted me burdened by the pain and sadness she experienced as a child sent away to boarding school in Africa at a very young age. She was so happy when I met my wife Beck and felt like I had found my youth again and I knew she was smiling watching us run down the trail like two little kids.
We continued on and soon the sky was light enough to turn off our headlamps completely. Sunrise was coming soon but not before a quick scare that almost ended our adventure.
Beck stopped at one of the 2 restrooms found on this trail and I waited back taking pictures. I heard her scream and run towards me almost immediately. It had been too dark to see it… but she had heard that familiar whip and rattle of a rattlesnake and took off. Her watch saw her heart rate spike so high it was trying to call 911 and her emergency contact, but there was no reception and nobody to be called if she had been bit. I went back to see the snake and it took almost 10 seconds of staring exactly where she told me before I could see the snake. It was hidden by the low light and brown wood flooring to match his color. He was coiled and ready to strike and sitting about 12 inches next to the door Beck had been about to open.
The bathroom stop had to wait and we kept going. I was relieved nothing more had come of that and then quickly remembered one of my Dad’s favorite stories about my Mom. They had been out hiking a long time ago (something she did not do a lot) and came across a snake. By the time my Dad could turn around he said my Mom was already 30 yards away running faster than he had ever seen her move over and around rocks and nimble like a mountain goat. Her time in Africa had given her a healthy fear of snakes and it is perhaps the only thing that could ever got her to really move. Once again, I smiled and felt the joy that story brought thinking of my healthy Mom moving so fast. It is how I picture her now. Free to move faster than I can imagine.
The canyon was suddenly bright and you could see everything clearly. The light blue sky and dark walls were now replaced with bright skies and layers of rock in shades of red. We started to move faster, energized by the morning, running quickly,laughing, smiling and jumping logs in the trail until we finally saw the river and the bridge. We literally danced and celebrated as we went across the bridge. Then, on the other side, we walked past the remains of the native dwellings that still exist there and went back for a thousand years. I tried to imagine their experience in the canyon watching the same river and cliff walls we were staring at.
We finally saw more people as we came into Phantom Ranch. It was not busy and the campsites were mostly empty but a few people were moving about. There were some men preparing packs for the mules and as we approached the main buildings I could hear workers in the canteen that supplied food to the campers and rangers. We stopped at a bench to fill our water bottles. This would be the last water again for some time.
As we sat enjoying the morning, a woman came out from the canteen holding two brown boxes. She said, “someone ordered two hot breakfasts but didn’t pick them up. Do you want them?”
We were thrilled! Instead of a breakfast of smushed, warm snacks in my running pack, we had pancakes with butter and syrup, eggs, bacon, sausage and hot coffee. It was perfect! Beck was the first to suggest that perhaps my Mom had ordered breakfast for us. It sounded like something she would do. So we thanked her out loud and ate until we were full.
We spent 2 hours at Phantom Ranch feeling no real rush to leave. We sat by the small stream and neither of us talked for a while. The joyful run down the canyon felt a long ways away and the sadness of the day was starting to take hold. It was morning and I love mornings but, I knew I was there because exactly 1 year earlier I had the most painful morning of my life with sadness I was still trying to deal with. Finally, it started to be too much to sit still so we started moving again.
We slowly left the camp and found the second bridge that crossed back over the river and to Bright Angel trail. I hiked behind Beck and started to cry thinking of that hospital room as the life support was removed and we watched my mom slip slowly away. I had been amazed at the peace and confidence my Mom showed. She had told my Dad she needed him to make the final decisions for her once she lost her ability to think on her own. She had done all she could to prepare and I cried hard thinking about it and hoping she was not as scared as I was at that moment.
As I looked back at the river and the two bridges that cross over, I couldn’t stop from seeing the symbolism of what this day meant to me. Crossing one bridge into this world and eventually crossing another when our time is done. The river flowed from one bridge to the other but started long before the first bridge and continued long after the second. I thanked my Mom for all she had done for me and for the chance to experience life with her. I cried hard thinking about the pain of watching her cross that second bridge but I know that wasn’t the end of our time. I know she is around me and I can feel her and be with her anytime I want to see the river. One day I hoped to join her and it gave me a little peace thinking about what might exist that I couldn’t see. But that wasn’t my path just yet. My path was up and out of the canyon with Beck.
We hiked easily and mosty quietly for a while and stopped whenever Beck saw my tears were making it hard to keep moving. Eventually we turned from the river and started the long climb up. Soon I couldn’t hear the river anymore and the intensity wasn’t around me. I left some of my pain behind at the river. I don’t know if it is gone for good or just waiting for me again but it was noticeable immediately.
Time passed strangely and my mind wandered thinking about my childhood, my Mom’s childhood, her death, this morning, right now, the future, my death, my family. We stopped again when Beck saw a beautiful waterfall on the side of the trail. Time was important and on my mind, so I checked my watch. It was roughly the time of late morning when my Mom ultimately died. It had been a year. Part of me felt like the year had gone so fast and part of me felt like it was a lifetime ago. I had wondered how I would survive the sadness and how anyone survived that but, here I was a year later. I was watching a waterfall with Beck and on an adventure my Mom would love to hear about. So I started to tell her about it as we climbed on.
The rest of that hike was hot and steep but we moved almost as quickly as we had coming down. The joyful morning had turned into an overwhelming time at the river and, while the heaviness of the morning was gone, I felt a strong urge to leave the canyon.
During her time in Africa, my mom lived for a while near the Sahara desert. The heat was intense and sleeping at night was difficult. She would lie still in bed waiting for the smallest breeze to cool her body and ever since then would talk about how much she loved the breeze and how special they were.
We finished our hike and the steepest part of the Bright Angel trail during the midday heat. Several times a cool breeze would flow past cooling and reenergizing us both. Beck reminded me then of my mothers love of breezes. We both thanked her out loud.
“Thank you Mom!”