First, a rumbling. Then the froth of white water. But that provides no real idea of what lies ahead. When our bow hits the rapids, the peaceful Colorado River snaps into anarchy, and the bottom of our boat drops out. My wife, Diana, screams. Forget your garden-variety roller-coaster scream—this is something primal.
The waves thrash above our heads and threaten to swallow us whole, the dory uncontrollably bucking forward, backward, sideways, then sliding into huge holes. Water fills the cockpit to well above our waists.
When we get through, my dripping wife smiles in exultation. “Wow,” she says.
“Good one, eh?” says our guide, a laconic older cowboy name Bruce Quayle who’s run the Colorado more than 170 times. We begin to bail out our dory. We’ll hit much worse, but Diana won’t scream like that again: It’s like some rite of passage, a threshold crossed.
From then on, the river has us in its thrall: susurrating, whispering, and rustling, then shouting and gagging, ripping and snorting. The water mesmerizes—and owns—us. Even after we dry off at night and climb into our sleeping bags, its warm, earthy smell lingers on our skin.
One hundred and fifty years ago, a daring band of explorers, led by a one-armed Union Army major, embarked on perhaps the most perilous exploration in American history—the first passage in small rowboats on the Colorado River through the unknown chasms of the Grand Canyon. The trip’s leader, John Wesley Powell, a self-taught geologist and the intrepid son of an abolitionist Methodist preacher, is the subject of a biography I’m writing, so I’ve enlisted my wife and two grown children to repeat a section of that difficult trip. My family has endured my book “research trips” for years—stomping through woods and swamps to help me figure out the progression of an 18th-century battle, or screaming at me as I nearly hit a tree driving one of the first automobiles ever built—but this one will surprise and enchant us more than any other.
Our expedition, organized by Arizona Raft Adventures, begins at Lee’s Ferry, a dusty, forgettable stretch of the Colorado where the Paria River comes in, a few miles north of the Navajo Bridge on Highway 89A, and the beginning of the Canyon. Sixteen of us, mostly Washingtonians, with five guides, climb aboard four rafts and a dory, ready to begin our 15-day, 226-mile journey. The guides move in slow motion, so mellow that they seem medicated. But a calm attitude, I soon discover, is exactly what works best in this canyon of soaring rock and raucous white water.
By the time that Powell’s expedition had reached our put-in, they’d already been on the Green and Colorado rivers for two months—and were in rough shape. Weeks earlier, a boat had cracked like an egg upon hitting a rock, its three occupants barely escaping alive. In a heartbeat, they lost a third of their supplies and rations. One of them quit the expedition. Over the following few weeks a pernicious green mold claimed much of the rest of their rations. Starvation haunted them.
No such uncertainty roils us on the river: We eat and drink like royalty. Huge coolers on the rafts contain casket-size blocks of ice that preserve salmon and steaks, cantaloupe and salad. After a few days, most of us have stopped climbing up cliffs to look for a cell signal. We shed our watches. We’re on river time now, waking up at sunrise, setting up camp before dark. My senses are already beginning to tingle, freed from the shackles of my electronic habits.
At our put-in, the creamy 270-million-year-old Kaibab Limestone is at our elbows. Descending into the inner Canyon, we pass through 19 distinct rock layers, each one older than the last. The light catches a rainbow of hues and textures, some rubbed shiny raw, some streaked, others matte and flat. In this vortex of impassive stone walls that pulls us deeper and deeper into the Earth’s ancient past, I can’t help but feel the irresistible passage of time, not the diaphanous moments of our lives—love and loss, joy and pain—but of the passage of eons, ages, entire epochs.
Only 10 percent of the river is rapids, so we have long moments to study the rock walls, search for mountain goats, chat among ourselves, and enjoy the guides’ stories. We learn to study the water the way a schoolyard kid studies a bully from afar. We become adept at recognizing eddy lines, the often-distinct seam that separates water flowing downriver and water pushed upstream by an obstruction. If our bows even slightly touch an eddy line, the water will take control of our boats and violently spin us.
In the evening, we sip cold beers on the beach, then eat New York strip steaks accompanied by mashed cauliflower and a green salad with peppers and avocado. We sing loudly to an out-of-tune guitar. In front of a campfire, Bruce, whose handlebar mustache seems to droop down to his waist, reads from his father Amil’s cowboy poetry. “Tater, the Invincible Dachshund” tells the hilarious but trenchant story of a dog that gets half eaten by coyotes, run over by a Datsun pickup, chewed up by German shepherds, and stolen by Mexican bandits, yet still manages to survive—and does so cheerfully. Like a bad country song, the poem sticks in my head.
Most of us don’t use the outfitter-provided tents, preferring to watch the bats flit over our heads as evening descends, then fall asleep by counting shooting stars.
Six days into our trip we complete the Canyon’s 88-mile upper section and arrive at Phantom Ranch, a precipitous 10-mile hike from the South Rim, where we meet our children, Forrister and Grace, both in their twenties, who will join us for the 9-day lower section. Grace, on the path to becoming a literary fiction agent in New York, has cropped her sandy brown hair short. Forrister, a northern Virginia businessman in big data, carries such a small pack that I fear he barely has a change of clothes. He doesn’t even have a hat.
We’ve now officially entered big-water territory: Just 20 minutes after the newbies first get into the rafts we hit the rough water of Granite Rapid. I’m seated in the front right of the paddle raft, while Forrister mans the left bow position. Our guide tells him to lean out into the water and use his paddle to brace but omits mention that he must twist his shoulder in and bow his head when the waves hit.
The Colorado gets personal with Forrister in the shape of a nasty six-foot wave that towers over all our heads. Out of the corner of my eye I see a flash of orange and blue—Forrister’s lifejacket with him in it—flying toward the stern like a cartoon figure shot out of a cannon. All 210 pounds of 23-year-old male muscle and testosterone disappear in an instant. I yell into the wave, but it throttles me. I dig my shoes into the plastic stirrups in the raft floor and hang on.
I turn back and see no sign of Forrister. Into my mind pops a picture of him at 5, the red welts of chicken pox all over his pudgy face, pulling at a forsythia bush in full bloom. Another wave slaps me silly, but I’m mad now.
Then a disembodied arm shoots up from the water, grabs a line, and a hatless, sunglasses-less, and startled Forrister gets pulled back into the boat. He’s out of breath and can’t talk for a moment. My goofy smile of relief coaxes a wide grin. “Sorry about losing your favorite hat, Paps,” he says.
At mile 137, Deer Creek comes into the Colorado on river left, dropping in a stunning 180-foot falls. We climb around the side of the waterfall, back to the canyon that feeds the fall, a lovely twirling slot dozens of feet deep. We edge out on sandstone ledges, some quite thin; where the slot narrows the most, we find a point where young Native American men had jumped to the other side a thousand years ago, then climbed up precarious walls to paint the silhouette of their hands with white paint. The handprints are small, haunting. A youthful urging still tingles in me, as recognizable as an old friend, and I feel the pull to jump across the canyon as those Native Americans had so long ago, to leave a handprint myself, a record of my feat, my presence, my survival in this alien rock world. But Grace, reading my mind, gives me a disapproving look. I keep climbing.
Two weeks into our trip, we enter the deepest point in the canyon, where we encounter what geologists call basement rock. The Kaibab Limestone now sits barely visible about a mile above our heads. The layers of limestone and sandstone, shales and lavas that we’ve passed through have given way to some of the oldest rocks found on the Earth’s surface, befittingly labeled by geologists with spiritual names. Here is pre-Cambrian Vishnu schist, so dark black that it sucks a hole in the sunshine—dark, dreamless, once laid down by sediments, then hardened by immense heat and pressure. It formed 1.75 billion years ago, before oxygen-breathing organisms developed on Earth. Every so often this Mordor-like nothingness is shot through with veins of Zoroaster Granite the color of raspberry sherbet. For me this is the prize in the Cracker Jack box. It’s wondrous, absurd, and unaccountably beautiful.
I can tell that this river is wearing on the family, particularly when I want us all together for a picture and bickering erupts. The incomprehensible beauty of the place is accompanied by living in an environment hostile to life. We all bear private wounds from banging toes and cutting fingers, the dry air cracking skin, arms sore from paddling. Powell would write: “We are three quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth, and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the wall and cliffs that rise to the world above; the waves are but puny ripples, and we but pigmies, running up and down the sands or lost among the boulders.” Yet there’s also a newfound sense among us that we can get things done. We set up camp like pros and banter with the guides like we’ve been on the water all our lives.
At this point on their trip, the Powell expedition felt anything but Zen—they were in a race to exit the canyon before their dwindling food disappeared entirely. The Vishnu schist created the worst white water they had seen; the hard, ragged rock threatened to tear their boats apart. The V-shaped canyon, now so much deeper than wide, forced water through the rock channel like the blast of a fire hose.
On day 98, the expedition came upon what Powell would dub Separation Rapids. Three expedition members took one look at the frothing water and decided to quit right there, preferring the significant dangers of walking out across 75 miles of desert to a Mormon settlement than to plunge through that hell of water. The ferocity of the river even startled an exhausted Powell. “I almost conclude to leave the river,” he wrote. But he didn’t.
The very next day, what was left of Powell’s desperate team emerged from the bowels of the canyon to float into flat water. Between them they had only a few handfuls of flour. Most were half naked, everyone bore terrible bruises and cuts, sore muscles and wrenched backs. Their eyes were jacked open from adrenaline.
Ironically, the three men who left were never found, lost somewhere in the desert. Had they hung on only for another 24 hours or so, they would have survived.
Powell would return a national hero, even though he considered his expedition a failure—all the maps they’d drawn and all the data they’d collected had been lost to the waves. Two years later, he would go back and do the river again, this time procuring the data necessary to map this severe canyonland. During his career, he would help found the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Geographic Society. But that trip through the Canyon left a mark on him: Not only did he encounter his own mortality, he also gained insight into the Earth’s deep history. These experiences would prompt him to develop revolutionary ideas about developing the American West in a sustainable manner.
My family comes back changed, too. My city-living daughter turns her lifestyle upside down to include more nature and simplicity. My non-camping wife plots our next outdoor adventure. And my son goes on to get his scuba license and joins me on a diving excursion in Thailand. The self-examination afforded by his trip inspires him to make a career change better suited to his budding talents.
As for me, I take a sliver of Zoroaster granite into my local hardware store, where an employee mixes up a gallon of paint to match that crazy pink-red color. I use it to paint the walls of my office. Months later, surrounded by that soothing rock, I find that something deep down inside me has been unlocked. That stark rockscape and its violent water revealed our humanness in more exquisite and brilliant relief than mirror or poem, shaking off all that is extraneous to leave only what is deeply and unalterably human.