To be honest, I had never heard of Glen Canyon until we were setting up camp on the shores of Wahweap Bay, an offshoot of the iconic Lake Powell.
Ironic, because the lake we had come to see was man-made, actually sitting on top of Glen Canyon and created by the damming of the Colorado River in 1963. Having just crossed the state line from Utah into Arizona, we were stopping here to wash off the high desert dust in one of America’s most famous and scenic water-borne playgrounds.
The campsite was picturesque. A red-rimmed, sandstone shore sandwiched between impossibly azure skies and lake water, cut through with white contrails and boat wakes. The mobile convenience of an RV really is the only way to see all that the American west has to offer.
Although we had already booked a rafting trip on the Colorado River, I was always under the impression that we would be traveling through the upper portion of the Grand Canyon. “Oh, no!” my new friend and campsite neighbor informed me on the first night. “You’re going to be rafting through Glen Canyon. And taking out just as the actual Grand Canyon begins.”
My disappointment must have been obvious, as he was quick to reassure me. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he said. “It’s still an amazing journey.”
On the day of the rafting trip, we loaded up the truck with cameras and sunscreen and unhitched the travel trailer, setting off to Page, Arizona, where we would meet the raft guide and begin our adventure. Along the way, we crossed Glen Canyon Bridge, spanning the Colorado River just downstream of the Glen Canyon Dam, with breathtaking vistas on all sides.
Which makes for a speed trap of the highest calibre. Seriously. The marked speed goes from 65 to 45 to 25 in the span of about 200 yards.
I was stupidly (and understandably) engrossed in the spectacular scenery and anticipation for the river rafting when I saw blue lights behind me on the far side of the bridge. Polite and compliant as always in these situations, I really could have done without the disparaging comments about my home state and the threats about federal marshals tracking down people who don’t pay their $200 speeding tickets.
I pay my bills, sir! And, years later, I warn fellow travelers about the speed limit on Glen Canyon Bridge.
So. Fair warning, everybody. Slow. The. Hell. Down. On Glen Canyon Bridge.
Nonplussed as always, Angela helped me shake off our brush with the Arizona law and reassured me that today was going to be epic. “The CO-LO-RA-DO River,” she extolled as we continued our journey toward Page. “You’ve been waiting your whole life for this. Don’t let this ruin your day.”
I love my wife. She always knows just what to say.
A short fifteen minutes later, and I had completely forgotten our misfortune. The ice-cold water of the Colorado was waiting, and I was out of my head with excitement for this journey-within-a-journey.
We met the river guides at their shop who conducted the safety briefing. All of us had participated in numerous white-water trips down the Ocoee River near Chattanooga, so we quickly realized that this rafting trip would be tame in comparison. No white water. No paddles. Just easy drifting and motoring down the cold, wide canyon river. Again, the disappointment crept into my consciousness. After days of driving, I was eager for a bit of adrenaline and feared I would get none of that on this excursion.
Then we hit the water.
Although flat and easy, the current was swift, and we swept through impossible, plunging ravines and around lazy horseshoe bends with sheer rock walls painted red and orange and brown as only nature and the passing of millennia can do. The feeling of moving through ancient, arid country gave me vertigo. Again, I was a speck in the endless march of patience and time that cut this deep, wandering groove through the high desert.
We stopped for a short break during the trip, beaching the rubber raft on a pebbled shore, and wandered far into a box canyon where indigenous people has marked their own passing on this route. Hieroglyphs of previous travelers adorned the canyon walls. Graffiti now turned to treasure. And the vertigo redoubled. My place in both space and time deliciously insignificant. A passenger on this planet. An ordained observer adrift in this display of wonder and amazement.
We made our way back to the rafts, and the guides invited us to take a dip in the icy water. At an average of 42 degrees Fahrenheit, it was easily the most frigid swim I have ever experienced. Cold enough to take my breath away and make me fear cardiac arrest. Ben braved the water with me, and we staggered ashore within the minute, unable to endure it any longer.
Back in the boat and heading downstream once again, the relentless Arizona sun quickly dried our clothes and made us forget the cold. We rounded the famed Horseshoe Bend as a kind of finale to the trip, the 1000-foot walls climbing from the river’s edge and into the blue Arizona sky. An elevated horizon, ringed with tiny tourists and the occasional flash of the sun glinting off a camera lens. They looked like ants to us. And, in their pictures, we looked like ants to them.
It really is all about perspective. Our place in this world. Walking in the shoes of those we don’t really know. Empathy for those with whom we can’t communicate. The ability to understand despite our differences. The ability to step outside of ourselves and look through the eyes of another.
I imagined myself standing on the edge of that cliff and looking down on our tiny craft, the only blemish on the otherwise unbroken mirror of water. What would I see from that height? Would I discover in that lonesome boat a pair of eyes looking up at me? And would I recognize myself there?
Our rafting trip ended where the Grand Canyon began. We could see the entrance to that definitive American landmark, but we wouldn’t venture further today. Instead, we would take a short bus ride back to our truck in Page, Arizona, and spend the night on the banks of Lake Powell.
Tomorrow, the Grand Canyon would welcome us in all its majesty.