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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO Colorado

When it was over, our shared trip expenses were $400. With five people, that came to eighty dollars a person for a weeklong sojourn in the grand temple of the Canyon King.

Putting a price tag on a deeply transcendent walkabout in the remotest reaches of the Grand Canyon proves the absurdity of equating money with experience. There is no monetary par for the adventure of a lifetime, an adventure that consumes every part of you.

It began two weeks ago with a 10-mile march across a vast mesa overlooking the great gulf of the Canyon, the void into which we performed a controlled slip and slide on a plunging, muddy trail pounded out by the wild horses of the Supai. There were no human footprints but ours.



Looking up that evening to the cliffs of our descent showed no visible possibility of a route, and yet, here we were, within the Canyon, as if by magic. If magic brought us here, it continued to cast a spell over us the next morning as we saw two magnificent wild horses rear up at each other and gallop away up a draw.

As we bushwhacked through briars and brambles that tore at our flesh with hooked barbs, it seemed as if nature were trying to hold us back, trying to thwart our meager human desires with lacerating claws.




A side canyon slaked our thirst and cooled our bodies with pools of emerald water under a warming sun as we descended layer upon layer of geologic ages. When a deep crevice in the rock, a dark, sunless fissure, brought us to a 100-foot cliff, we rappelled into the very depths of the earth.

I watched my 18-year-old son, Tait, back off the edge, rope taut, his smile turning to a look of focused intent. From that moment, my parental role shifted from protection to acceptance. As Tait backed off the cliff, he left the aura of my guardianship and stepped into his own fate.

There were more rappels, the final one through a waterfall over a ledge only a stone’s throw from the Colorado River, that seething green serpent snaking its way through eons of time. Friends waited for us there with a flotilla of rafts that carried us downriver. For one night, our tribe of five merged with a larger tribe in an ephemeral homecoming.

We left the river up a rock-choked gorge penetrated only occasionally by the arc of the sun. Like ants, we climbed through bus-sized boulders and crept through this deep gash in the earth.

A rainy day drove us into an eye socket cave in the Redwall from which we watched the storm ebb and flow, rain drifting from lowering clouds. That night, the canyon thundered with the rush of flood waters. At midnight, the storm passed and a big moon shone down with silvery light. The rocks glowed and lunar rays lit bands of snow along the canyon rim. In the morning, we ate pancakes off platters of flaked limestone. We were Paleolithic time travelers hunkered deep within layers of antiquity.

That afternoon, our packs no longer weighing on our shoulders, we crawled across narrow ledges, clambered over pour-overs, and topped out on the Esplanade where ravens tracked our progress. Our final desperate scramble to the canyon rim ended in darkness. Our camp in the pinons provided earthly dreams that colored our sleep through a bitter cold night. My son dreamed of home, where our bodies wanted to be.

Eighty dollars for transcendence? If we spent a penny for our thoughts during our journey, eight-thousand mental images percolated through our brains in a week-long quest that generated a multitude more than that.

We tend to calculate our lives by income, earnings, investments, profits, losses – the material concerns. Rare is the calculation that weighs sensory experience, psychic revelation, emotional power and the wonder of existence. Money fails to equate to these finer, esoteric things, so we undervalue them.

Thoreau understood this latter calculation as the only one that matters. “I went to the woods to live deliberately,” he wrote at Walden Pond, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

For a week we lived – deliberately – and we lived deeply. Thoreau would have appreciated our experiential richness in proportion to our economic frugality. This is the most important economy we can learn.


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