The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey, Edward Abbey and John Blaustein

Over the Christmas holiday, I had the supreme pleasure to read not one but THREE books, all of them gifts I bought for other people that I then stole back while family members were cuddling the baby. The most luxurious of these was The Hidden Canyon because it’s such a large, unwieldy book. It would have been nearly impossible to get through without the help of many hands. It’s not even available for Kindle, with good reason – a huge part of the reading experience comes from Blaustein’s photographs, taken over many years on trips down the Grand Canyon. The book simply couldn’t exist without those images.

Reading it immediately transported me back to my own trip down the Colorado in 2008. In my life, there has been nothing that compares to the experience I had rafting down the Grand Canyon for three weeks. Having a child changed my life by magnitudes, but I was expecting that. People have babies. It’s a thing that’s done, and it is unquestionably one of the best things I’ve ever experienced, but being a parent connects to me to, well, just about everything. I’m part of a web of humanity, past, present, and future, and I feel that connection to other people in ways I had only dreamed of. Rafting through the Canyon, on the other hand, exposed me the natural order, and to a primal version of myself that I never even imagined existed.

An experience like that (and I have been on other rafting trips that were a lark, a bit of good fun, an easy way to spend a week) strips away the pretense of character. That illusion I presented to the world? Gone. The very real isolation and danger of such a journey took so much effort that it didn’t leave me any energy to mess around. I was who I was, for better or worse – at times better, and others, worse.

A part of me never wanted it to end. I didn’t want to leave behind the deepest part of the canyon. I had a little tribe of people, including my future husband, father-in-law and sister-in-law, who were good company. Everywhere we went, beauty badgered us. Mysteries waited to be uncovered. My body even eventually  hardened to the elements (our trip took place during the last week of March and the first two weeks of April, so bitter cold, and eventually unseasonable heat were a factor), and my fear got real comfortable living right on the surface.

Looking back, I was deeply ignorant of just how dangerous the experience was, which is probably as it should be. When I opened up this book and dove in to Abbey’s experiences on the same river, it was as though no time had passed. Names I thought I had forgotten surged to the surface. Campsites reemerged from foggy memory banks. Rapids that had terrified me were scarcely mentioned, and rapids that demolished him, I remember with fondness.

The book was recommended to me by a good friend who had been on the trip with me, and I purchased it for my father-in-law, or the man with the golden ticket. He was one of the last people to “win” a trip on this river from the waiting list he had been on for twenty years (the system changed to a lottery the very next year). I still remember exactly where I was when he called my (not yet) husband to invite him on the trip. When the phone was handed over, and I heard him ask me if I wanted to join a crew of sixteen (all of whom were much more experienced than me), I didn’t hesitate. I didn’t research. I didn’t ask if it was safe. I just said yes.

After reading about Abbey’s trip, I was reminded of that exuberant yes. Of jumping headlong into an experience that would change me forever without a moment’s regret. I was terrified  for so much of that three weeks, and yet I know I would say yes again in a heartbeat. I suppose it’s not so different from having a child after all – filthy clothes, questionable hygiene, unmitigated laughter and gibbering terror – although without a doubt, down in the canyon, there is a much deeper quiet to be found.

4 thoughts on “The Hidden Canyon: A River Journey, Edward Abbey and John Blaustein

  1. I think I’d rather read about it than experience it. I’m adding this to my “to read” list. Thanks for this post. The Hidden Canyon is not something I would read otherwise.

    1. I understand that! It was a pretty terrifying experience, but one I wanted. There are plenty of other experiences that are terrifying to me and I would never do, even though others are willing to try. It’s definitely worth reading about those things though – it’s truly a window to another world. I hope you enjoy it!

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