Where do I even being on a trip like this? I’m questioning myself on how anyone can return from such an adventure unchanged, surely not I.
Confined by four walls and a false breeze flowing over me, I awake from dreams of just ten days past. With dirt still fresh under my fingernails, cuts and scrapes remind me of the reality that this indeed was no dream at all. Longing to feel the fresh, hard earth beneath my body tucked into the comfiest of bags one could hope for. Ready to venture back out into the unknown. I pull myself from my slumber, only to find my way back to normalcy. But can one ever really go back?
The race to put all of the thoughts down on paper begins. Wanting to explain every detail before it escapes my mind forever but tempted to revel in the memories but a moment longer. Wanting to reset the meter on daily life after an experience so grand. Here I sit, writing to forever remember the spectacular.
Expectation is the thief of joy. I’ve heard a thousand times. I’ve repeated it as my mantra time and time again. Let. It. Go. Let it be. Feel. Breathe. Approach the unexpected as just that. However, I couldn’t help but imagine what would await us on this trip. Dreams of the red rocks we’d climb, the campsites I’d hastily endure, the adventures that lie ahead. Let. It. Go.
Beyond all expectations. So many sights, sounds, emotions that I could never put into words. Letting go of needs, desires, and most importantly those pesky expectations, allowed me to finally be free. Freedom, what is that? A feeling of self that I’d lost or given away years ago. Who know is could come back in such an intense and fulfilling way.
Giddy with excitement, I left work early with a harness and tent under my arm. Coworkers said “Where are you going; You’re crazy; What an adventure!” Their responsive shock and amazement at my answers left a trickle of doubt in my mind. I began questioning myself, could I really do this, was I being foolish?
Then the feeling of guilty began to subside, a new job, just months in and I was venturing out on a ten-day trip. Not exactly what model employees are made of, especially for someone desperate to make a name for themselves in a new industry. But isn’t this why I left my last job, one that I loved? To live life? To take more adventures. To really appreciate the world before me? Yes. So here I go, letting of the guilt and making space for the experience to sink in.
Vegas. What a fool feels like. A placeholder on a plane bound for a lavish city draped in materialism dripping with corruption. This place couldn’t be further from what I was trying to escape. Drunken women cackled behind me as they eagerly await the City of Sin so close within reach. Oddly enough my seat was sandwiched outside two older women, all of us reading our respective books, occasionally slipping an eye roll or two at the ladies in back.
I always wonder about people’s back-stories when flying. Who are they, where are they from, where are they going, what will they do on their trip? When I was younger I played this game and even created my own alias. Pretending to be far more important, better dressed, and wealthier that I ever really was. To what end? Another thing to let go.
The excitement builds, and the anticipation reaches an all time high. Zeke phones about rental car options, and so our indecision begins. We decide on a Volkswagen Jetta over a Kia Soul for its big trunk and slightly funky smell. Zeke circles two or three different terminals before snagging me and my wide-eyed grin. A quick trip down the Vegas strip momentarily persuades me to stay. Let. It. Go. And we’re off, after all adventure waits.
Like kids in a candy store, we hit the local Vegas Walmart full of splendor. A list in hand helps keep us in check as we compare products by dollars and cents. Odd characters appear in thrones and again I can’t help but wonder what their story is. What causes someone to slip a child’s toy up their jacket and what struggles are they up against to do so. I watch as guilt sets in and the man does his deed by collecting carts around the lot.
We drive and drive through the darkness hoping to make it to Zion before our eyes get too heavy to call it a night. Winding down mountainous roads under a brilliantly shining moon, we turn off the headlights to soak in the view. Happening upon great canyons in the dark, feeling small but so alive and giddy. Zeke tells a joke about mountain lions and I laugh hysterically, coving up underlying fears and letting pure joy and excitement slip though.
The night drags on as Zeke tries to recall a perfect campsite nestled along the side of a dirt road someone near or around Zion. Out of sheer luck, we find it… or maybe something better. We set up camp high on a plateau and settle in for a short slumber. Excitement builds yet again as I prepare for the journey ahead. I toss and turn, fearing cars passing by that might scold us for trespassing or some other silly illegal act. The morning comes quick.
I awake in awe. Wondering how we had happened upon such a magnificent spot in the dark no less. This is right and all feels well in the world, this is adventure at its core. Letting go of expectation I now wonder what the day will bring. We take pictures and stare at each other amazed at what we had stumbled upon. If this is just the beginning where will this trip take us?
We take the curvy road into Zion, Zeke wonders nervously about his crusted achy thumb from a prior accident. Worry begins to knock but I let it go. We’ll be fine.
Full of child like wonder we enter the visitor’s center in hopes of a cancellation for one of the top canyons on our list; The Subway, ‘Top Down’. We’re in luck, but cautiously so. The ranger offers us two spots but they come with warning. She tells us the river is “gushing”, “surging” and a mere 47 degrees from the snow melt. She suggests dry suits and tells us our 3mm wetsuits just won’t do the trick. Another ranger pipes up and says all the rappel anchors are under water. Zeke assures me that they’re just doing their jobs and being overly cautious. I can see the joy and desire in his eyes and know I can’t let the trip start off on a bad note. We weigh the pros and cons. I agree, knowing that Zeke will lead the way and will keep us safe and out of harms way.
We take the permits and scramble out to the car, giddy as ever. We check on dry suits at a local shop and meet a dazed hippie, Jake (we think), who convinces us we don’t need dry suits then shows us a video from his trip down The Subway a week prior. Okay, cool, it can’t be that bad, I can do this. He explains that the video showed the longest swim and it shows his buddy jumping in shirtless with gym shorts on. We’ve totally got this.
We enter Zion National Park and sneak into a campsite to make breakfast and lunch for our hike. Nervous that we’ll get caught sneaking in and bypassing a massive line of vehicles, I’m on guard for any and all authorities who might think we’re sketchy. We slide by until the very last bite when the rightful patrons of that site show up and politely kick us out. We made it.
Enter the Subway. We’re stoked. I’ve let go of the expectation and worry and am fully trusting in my and Zeke’s abilities. At this point this is my first real hike, so I really don’t know what to expect, we’re both hopeful that maybe we’ll come across some others doing the canyon as well. We suit up; pack our bags and I lather on the sunscreen, thinking that could be my worst injury of the day. We wait by the side of the road hopeful for a car to pick some hitchhikers. Three girls from St. Louis say to hell with it and pull over. We’re grateful and share some stories and advice as they drive us the seven miles up hill to the trailhead.
A lush meadow greets us along with a dude in dreads living out of the back of his truck. This is it. We start the trail bright-eyed and bushy tailed. I’m careful with each step on the slick rock as Zeke zooms by, phone in hand taking video after video. After an hour or two, we reach a lovely stopping off point and hear a shrill at the base of the canyon. I look down the canyon and back up at Zeke as he says “I think that’s where we’re going”.
I slither down the cracks and crevasses with gentle care and happen upon a breath-taking little waterfall. I whisper to myself “this must be the place”, for all things and nothing. I can’t imagine something more peaceful and serene. We stop for lunch and pull out the peanut butter and jelly’s we’d made earlier that morning. I’m still too excited and possibly too nervous to stomach down the second PB&J. We continue on our way.
Over the river and through the woods we make it to our first rappel. It’s small, but Zeke scopes it out and it’s the best way to get down and also looks like fun practice. Zeke slides down with ease as I lose all thought and start drawing a blank from the rappels we’d practice a week ago in South Carolina. Finally, with a little instruction it comes back and I successful hit dry land. We pick up the trail alongside a small river, finally submitting to ice cold water in order to follow the trial that darts back and forth down either side. It chills my feet instantly, but I have no choice to suck it up at this point, this is only the beginning. The river crossings become more frequent and we’re finally knee deep in depth and decide it’s time to put the wet suits on. It’s a relief and inkling as to what’s to come. We trek onward, first getting about waist deep, and then giving in to waters and submerging our whole bodies, the water is bitterly cold.
The first part of the canyon was exhilarating, a wild ride through the murky water, I can hardly feel my feet it’s so cold. We work together as a team to shuttle our newly reorganized dry bags through the rushing canyon. Letting the rushing current take our bodies and bags along a twisting ride, through pools of water up to our waist and head. We come to an obstacle where we have to jump in and swim, not knowing the depth and trusting in our abilities. Zeke takes the first leap of faith. He grabs the bags and floats to safe ground. I follow suit. This process repeats down the current, until we believe we’ve hit the end.
I’m frozen but also hyped as adrenaline kicks in. We start doing jumping jacks to warm up and shake off the thrill. We’re pumped and continue on down the river, thinking the worst is behind us.
We’re starting to feel like we’re getting close to “The Subway”. We’ve passed the point in Jake’s video where his shirtless friend took a plunge, and I’m feeling good. I’ve conquered this. We round a corner and come across a group of four. I saw a trace of them earlier in the hike and noticed they weren’t in wetsuits. The two women were shaking and look scared. I watched as one of the men, presumably the leader rig up a rappel situated over a large log a few feet over a medium sized rushing fall. They looked like they were in trouble. Fearless Zeke runs off to help, as if it were his duty.
Zeke assists the two men and two women down the line and asks if we could also rappel down their rope. They agree and I follow Zeke’s lead down through a hole in the rock. Zeke seems to be pulled by the rushing water and momentarily struggles to unhook the carabineer from the harness. Nerves set back in and I start to shake, nearly missing a loop locking in my own harness. I make it down into the waist high rushing water and we’re off again.
We reach “The Subway” at an iconic spot where a massive logs lies against the canyon wall. The foot of two of water we’re standing in appears to be off from what I had seen in pictures, but I don’t think much of it. In my head we had made it. A spectacular sight, we peel off our wet suits, change into dry clothes and soak in the view and the sun; warmth finally. We catch up with the others and return their rope. They finish drying out and quickly head on their way, warning that we’ve still got a few hours of the hike left.
Feelings of accomplishment and gratitude flood over me. I’m overcome and take a moment to reflect and meditate. The warmth of the sun sinks in and I am grateful to be alive and experiencing this moment. I am amazed in my ability and the self -doubt of the past years drift away.
Zeke puts the camera away and we re-pack our bags. Preparing for a dry journey back, we transfer everything out of the dry bags and into better-situated packs ready for a fairly easy hike out of the canyon. We begin the second half of the journey both outfitted in fresh socks and new-found energy.
We round the corner; giving up on the dry socks I’d just put on and sink my feet back into the frigid ice-cold water again. Rushing water greets us and we scale the side of the canyon looking for the rest of the trail, only to come to a dead end. We look down nearly thirty feet into surging waters. I search for clues for an escape route as my stomach tightens and drops. I realize the only way out is down and sheer terror and panic rush over me. I curse over and over again wondering how will we ever make it out of here. The thought crosses my mind that maybe we’ll have to stay overnight and wait for help, or maybe the river/falls will stop rushing so hard if we wait until the morning.
Zeke snaps me out of my terror, instructing me to put the wetsuit back on as he starts to re-pack the dry sacks for the third time. He ensures me that we’ll make it out and to follow his lead. I trust him.
Zeke surveys the options, a rappel anchor shows signs of the typical route, but he knows the danger of rappelling in this situation, and it is not an option and a major risk for drowning. He sees the opportunity and charges full speed ahead. We’re losing daylight and must act quickly while also remaining calm.
We jump over the falls, of which are only a few feet but it feels like miles. I take a giant leap, reminiscent of my years in track and field, and he grabs me and calms my panicking; we made it past the first obstacle. We shimmy along the canyon edge, knowing a misstep could send us plummeting into the rushing depths.
A dead pine tree leans along side the canyon and Zeke identifies this as our escape. Cautiously making his way to test the stability of the tree, I’m left clinging to the canyon wall. The tree is studier than expected and he climbs down into the surge, pointing out each step I need to take as he does so. I pass along the three dry bags as he finds his footing in the waist deep water. Slowly but surly I descend into the water after him.
Before us lies what appears to be infinite rippling falls. In all the pictures and research I had done on this canyon never had I seen so much flowing water. With canyon walls circling up around us to form a tube, there was no other choice but to submit to the rippling falls. We plop on our butts like small children making their way down the stairs and strap in for the ride, hands bracing on either side.
The falls carry us until our feet can grasp the rocks and boulders in the river and we stand in the stream. The canyon walls start to open up and I begin to think we’re in the clear, again. We follow paths on either side of the river, cutting back and forth through the sharp falls. I begin to think they’ll never end.
The careful steps I took in the beginning of the hike begin to fade and survival kicks in as the sunlight begins to diminish before our eyes. I’ve surrendered to the river crossing and am just trying to make it out of this trail before dark. With each step more slime accumulates on every rock and I begin to slip. I take a rough tumble and can’t find the footing in my frozen feet to stand. Zeke tries to help and slips himself, sending him through some small but rocky falls about three feet down dumping into a boulder.
He shouts that he’s fine and to take the falls. I brace myself for the large boulder popping out and prepare to become Jell-O in the falls. I let go and go sliding, ah triumph! But, too much, I’m feeling the push of the rushing current ready to take me down another set of larger falls. I reach for a stray root sticking out from the side of the earth on the bank. Zeke grabs me and helps pull me to my feet. I gather my beaten body and trek onwards.
We meet back up with the two couples Zeke helped with the rappel. They are freezing and struggling with each step to keep up with the raging river. Their leader had lost one of his shoes and was slowly making his way about with a large stick. This serves as another reminder to be extra careful with each step.
Survival mode sinks in. We stop to check the guide book and search over and over for clues, knowing the conditions they’re referring to are very different from what we’re currently experiencing. It says two rivers come together; a small stream to the right will join with the main artery to the left. With each trickle to the right I’m filled with hope for the sign. We follow trails and cairns up either side of the water constantly falling short to dead ends and forcing us to traverse the waters yet again, longing for a way out.
We take a quick break to pull the guide book back out. Zeke suggests that we may have to stay the night down here. Day one and we’re already lost and stuck in the wilderness overnight. I will not let defeat win. We continue on, agreeing to keep looking for fifteen more minutes for the signs. If we can’t find the trailhead by then, we’ll prepare to stay the night.
Suddenly, a significant stream to the right convenes with the rapids on the left. Less than a mile left until the trailhead. My heart beats fast as I know the end is in sight. The exhaustion fades and adrenalin kicks back in. We see the trailhead and I’m overcome with relief. We will make it out. We see a group of hikers whose footprints we had followed out, making their way up the cliff. Free at last.
A quick change back into our dry clothes, another repacking of the bags and we’re off, this time up the side of the mountain. Headlamps and flashlights are our savings grace up the side of the rocky cliffs. Knowing the end is in sight, I struggle with the stamina to continue. Every few steps up require a small break and I feel my heart trying to beat out of its chest. We’re so close, but still so far away.
Less than a mile from the trail’s end we stop to look out for the crew we’d left behind. We shout into the canyon and shine our most powerful lights to lead the way out. We see signs of life and direct the path as best possible and mutually agree the group will make it out because they look close enough. A winding path of dirt and grass lead us back to the car and we sigh with well-earned relief. We made it. Pure exhaustion sinks in as we take off our shoes and packs and hit the road. Ready to reward ourselves with a hearty meal, we find no available options and decide to call it a night. We made it.
Physically, mentally, and emotionally drained we try to decide on where to camp. Last night’s spot was incredible so we head back and set up. Too tired to eat, we skip dinner and decide we’ll settle for a big breakfast in the morning. One thing we were too tired to notice, the wind. I lie there completely spent, unable to even recall the miraculousness of the day’s adventure, only able to answer questions or remarks with a grunt or “mhmm”. Falling asleep for minutes at a time only to be woken by intense high-powered winds. Blowing the tent and bending it’s rods. We toss about the idea to change sites or sleep in the car, as no sleep was possible in those conditions.