My father and I are at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, stuffing energy bars and water bottles into our daypacks. I’m sitting on a rock while he squats beside his ballooning blue tent. Today’s hike, to the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado rivers, is just six and a half miles. We’ll easily make it back to camp in time for dinner.
This day hike is for my father. He’s an amateur history buff, and he wants to see the salt quarry where the Hopi Indians built a stone cabin, which was used later by gold prospectors. This hike is also for me. My three brothers get to work with our father every day in the family plumbing business. Together, they lift half-ton hot water heaters through doorways, run thin copper pipe behind walls, drink coffee every morning in the shop, and eat hamburgers at noon in joints near whatever job they’re on. Since I don’t live close, I miss out. For once, it’s just us, father and daughter, on the trail.
* * *
Four days earlier, just before my father, my mother, and I made our descent into the canyon, we stopped at the general store on the South Rim. If I wouldn’t have been standing around while my mother tried to decide on postcards to send to my brothers, I may never have come across the book Death in the Grand Canyon, which chronicled all the ways the place could kill you. As I leaned against a shelf and skimmed the tales of people dying from dehydration, hypothermia, air crashes, freak mishaps, suicide, starvation, and flash floods, one story took my attention. In the 1960s, a man was found dead at the bottom of a steep ledge. Authorities concluded that he probably didn’t have enough food and water, and no map, and because of that, he had lost his sense of judgment and thrown himself off one of the interior walls. That’s what bothered me about the story: if you were going on a hike in the Grand Canyon, why wouldn’t you plan? For me, a backpack starts in my parents’ kitchen, where my father gathers a sprawl of maps, hiking guides, history books, and to-do lists. Another thing that bothered me was the idea of falling from the edge. It seemed the worst possible way to die. Would your soul detach from your body as it went soaring through space? Or would it crash and crumble like your bones? But what really bothered me was the story’s sensationalism. There had to be smaller, quieter experiences that were more meaningful because of their lack of drama. That was the kind of trip I wanted with my father.
I found him at the cash register, where he and my mother were buying T-shirts. He pulled out his credit card and laid it on the counter. “Can I see your ID?” said the cashier.
“Hey, if I were dealing in stolen credit cards, I wouldn’t be making purchases like these.” My father laughed. His laugh is of the loud and vigorous kind; it goes on longer than a normal person’s laugh, and it often comes across as a challenge.
“Don’t mind him,” my mother said to the cashier. “We just got him out of the home.” She pulled him aside and said, “Denny.”
We call him Denny — short for Dennis. The nickname must have started when my brothers joined the plumbing business twenty years earlier. They snap, “Denny,” when he stomps around the shop after a dispatch worker takes down the wrong address or a customer doesn’t pay. Our mother calls him Denny when he acts out in public, like the time we were at the Arlington National Cemetery watching the ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Hundreds of people were gathered on the lawn — a bunch of them were crying about things like nationalism, patriotism, and sacrifice — when a little boy slipped under the guard rope and approached a soldier, and Denny yelled, “Careful, kid, or he’ll shoot you!” I knew what he was doing. He was trying to disrupt the sanctimoniousness of the occasion, because pomp and circumstance make him nervous. I also get uncomfortable when I feel forced into emotional responses. But Denny’s joke didn’t go over well, which was why my mother grabbed his arm and said, “Denny” in a stern voice. I was torn, as I often am, between feeling embarrassed by my father’s extroversion and blessed that I come from such an exuberant forebearer. Because you can’t have the enthusiastic Denny without the over-the-top version.
* * *
We’re camped on a flat beach called Lava Rapids, along the Beamer Trail, named for the prospector Ben Beamer, where a prickly, black substance pokes up through the sand, making the area look like a piecrust with whiskers. After I’m finished filling my daypack, I go to step across the beach, and Denny bolts up and yanks me back. “Watch out!” he says, pointing to the prickly substance. “That’s cryptobiotic. It’s the layer of soil that holds the desert together. It takes a thousand years to grow and one second to destroy.”
“Okay,” I say. By now, I shouldn’t be surprised by Denny’s knowledge of the natural world, but oftentimes I am because his pro-Republican Party sympathies make him seem anti-environment. But that’s Denny: He is a walking contradiction, and he doesn’t care. We shrug on our packs, and my mother snaps our photo. Later, that’s how I’ll remember what we were wearing: Denny in khaki hiking clothes and a baseball cap covering his white hair, me in a peasant shirt embroidered with bright flowers and a bandana over my brown hair. We head off, the desert sun not yet peeping over the North Rim.
* * *
My parents raised us in a tiny house north of Seattle, where my bedroom window looked onto our front door. The window meant that I occupied the fork of my parents’ marital problems. A couple of times a week, Denny stayed out drinking, and I was the first to hear him stumble up the walkway and slap his shoes off in the linoleum entry. When he went into their bedroom, he’d say, I’m sorry, to which my mother would cry, Why do you do this to me?
One night, it was she who stood at my window, while my brothers and I hung out in the doorjamb. After fidgeting for a while, she walked to the kitchen, where she called one tavern after another, a tactic she often used. When a bartender picked up, she would ask for Denny, and if he came to the phone, she would put one of us on. “Mommy wants you to come home,” we’d say. I liked telling my dad what to do, but I didn’t mind acquiescing to my brothers. They sounded more innocent and were more effective.
That night, when we couldn’t find Denny at the bars, my mom flew around the house locking everything. The only thing she didn’t deadbolt was the kitchen window, an opening the size of the bathroom mirror. It would have been impossible to climb through, anyway, because it was so far off the ground. She put us all to bed with extra care, reading stories until we fell asleep. I woke after a few hours to a clawing sound and came out to see Denny wedged in the window, his head, arms, and shoulders inside and the rest of his body presumably dangling outside.
My mother was leaning against a wall, her long black hair falling down her back, a hand cupping her mouth. I thought she was crying, but when I moved alongside her, I saw she was laughing, maybe at how ridiculous he looked, with his toothy, guilty grin; or maybe at the predicament, not just of the moment, but of their lives, two people not yet twenty-five with a bunch of kids and no money. She struggled with depression, he with alcoholism, but together they created a fresh, forward motion, and I think they often surprised themselves.
My mother slipped on one of Denny’s jackets and took a chair outside for him to step on as he shimmied out the window. They came through the front door, poking each other in a teasing way.
* * *
Denny asks if I want to lead. When I say no, he takes off so fast that I have to run to keep up. The three previous days, on our hike into the Grand Canyon, we walked slowly because my mother was having trouble with her knees. I know Denny likes a fast pace, and now that it’s just the two of us, I want him to stretch his legs. He’s so much easier to be with when traveling a remote landscape than when surrounded by people in a restaurant, a shopping mall, or the family living room. There, he spews extremist dogma like All A.T.V. users should be thrown in prison, or These days the U.S. is no different from Nazi Germany. But the vast open space of the canyon seems to absorb his intensity. Here, we don’t talk politics. We don’t even discuss the trail conditions or look at the map.
In fact, as we climb, neither of us speaks. We can afford the luxury of being lost in our thoughts because even though we’re several hundred feet above the Colorado River now, the trail is wide, gradual, and easy. The air smells of citrus and sage as the cliff walls change from yellow to orange to purple green with each ray of morning light. On our way into the Grand Canyon on the Tanner Trail, because we could see so much at once, the immensity made me feel insignificant. But this day trip with Denny is intimate. If, as my daughter likes to say, the Grand Canyon is America’s old vagina, then this trail is the smile on a young girl’s lips.
* * *
When I was sixteen, Denny sat me down at the dining table, tapping his square fingers on the surface. “I want you to leave,” he said. “You’re not the only person in the family. You’re causing everyone a lot of unhappiness.” I had skipped so much school to drink and do drugs that I had failing grades. I was promiscuous, sometimes sneaking out my bedroom window at night to meet up with guys and then slipping back in just before dawn. I’d been arrested for shoplifting and breaking and entering, and — worst of all in Denny’s eyes — I was having epic battles with my mother almost daily. “Every time one of your brothers has a birthday,” he said, “you have a crisis.”
“Fine!” I pushed away from the table and marched to my bedroom, but minutes later, standing at my closet, I regretted that I had been so cavalier. Part of me was thinking, They’ll be sorry! But the other part knew that if I left, I would not be welcomed back. I had run away from home the previous year, and Denny had let me know that if I pulled that stunt again, he wouldn’t come begging. Now he was telling me to leave.
As I was packing, I heard my mother say, “Dennis, she’s our child. We can’t put her out. That’s not right.” She worked on him for a few hours, long enough, anyway, so that he didn’t make me go, but I knew that my place in the family was on shaky ground and that I had better turn things around.
Maybe Denny sensed the same thing. As I see it now, at least, he and I were on a similar trajectory. We were the family rebels, as selfish as we were driven, while my mother and brothers paid the price. Soon after his talk with me, Denny checked himself into an addiction treatment center. I was already away at college, and I remember the teary phone calls with my mother while I sat cross-legged against the wall of my dorm room. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she would say, as if he might not come home, or if he did, she might not take him back. “I couldn’t go through this without your brothers,” she’d say. At the time, I thought she was making me feel guilty for not being there, but now I see what she really meant. Because I was so demanding, and so much like Denny, she needed my brothers there as much as she needed me gone.
Denny came home all dried out, and after a few months of AA, he vowed never to drink again, a promise he kept for the simple reason, he will say, that he hated AA more than he liked drinking. Although, I know it’s more than that. He quit to save himself. And us.
* * *
I often feel like this on a morning hike. A tiny voice inside is saying, How did I make it from the frenzy of airports, office cubicles, and cellphones, of fighting with my daughter, cursing bad drivers, and complaining about my job, to this: quiet, and nature, and all my senses stimulated at once. Up ahead, the trail climbs high above the river. I’m not worried. I’ve been all over the West with Denny and his hiking buddies: Cedar Mesa in Utah, the Sangre de Christos in Colorado, the Sawtooths of Idaho, the Pacific Crest Trail in Washington, the Chilkoot in Alaska, the Earl Grey in Canada, and California’s Death Valley. We’ve covered some tough terrain. No, I’m not worried.
Until we find ourselves on a precipice that we didn’t foresee. In a matter of minutes, the trail has gone from an easy path winding around corners of a hillside to something unstable and alien. On one side is a rounded hill covered in loose rocks, totally unclimbable, butting up against the red, orange, and copper wall called the Palisades of the Desert. On the other side, a sheer cliff falls straight down hundreds of feet. “We must be on the wrong trail,” Denny calls from his spot ahead, but he keeps walking forward. Wrong or right, I’m already registering that I’m on the scariest piece of real estate I’ve ever walked. That voice, it’s now saying, Focus on your footing. Don’t look at the edge. Just plant your pole and step.
And I do, like never before, every bit of my attention on bending one leg, swinging it forward, and placing it down. I’m telling myself that obviously somebody has worn a path along this cliff, and I’m surely just as capable.
But here is where everything changes.
I step on a piece of sandstone, and my foot slips. I stop, frozen, staring at the ground falling away under the tip of my boot. Down there — who knows how far — six-hundred, eight-hundred, a thousand feet? — sits a raft, its bright yellow and red blazing against the brown of the riverbank. It looks like a child’s bath toy, and the people on the beach are like twitching fleas. I wonder if they see me up here with no ropes or carabiners. Are they worried? Or are they thinking I look perfectly safe? Wait, I think. Why am I fixating on those rafters at a time like this? I need to focus on the here and now. But I can’t. The story of the guy who fell from the edge to his death because he was unprepared skids across my mind, and then a memory intrudes from a time five years earlier, when I lived in London on an academic research grant for my job teaching at a university and got so lonely that I flirted with thoughts of suicide. How careless I was then, to take life for granted, because here, I’m doing everything in my power to keep from dying.
I glance up. Denny has pitched himself against the bluff, right where the trail turns toward a draw. When I make it to that spot, I sit next to him, my boots planted solidly on the trail. Strange that I can hear the air moving right through my body and feel Denny breathing.
“Whoa,” I say. “What should we do?”
“You stay here,” he says. “I’ll go around the corner and see what the trail’s like ahead.”
“I’ll go,” I say. “You stay.”
“No, I’m older. I’ve raised my family. If something happens to me, well. You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.”
“Daaaaad.” I remind him that he’s a father, and a grandfather, and a great-grandfather; of how much time he spends with my brothers’ kids, and my daughter; of how he tutored one grandkid through high school and kept another from turning to drugs.
“Well,” he says, “I’m going.” He seems to glow as he rounds the corner. The light has made everything blend and soften: pink rocks, red earth, milk chocolate river, and ochre sand.
“Oh, yeah, the trail widens out here,” Denny calls. “It isn’t so steep.”
Hoisting myself up, I take one step, and another, and another until I’m around the corner. The path does widen, so I stop and look at Denny. He has already encountered another narrow patch on the edge, but he’s going forward, and so I follow. We inch along until we’re in the draw on a sturdy rock shelf, where we sit. Now, I’m hyper-aware of the slow, steady waves of normal consciousness replacing the oh shit thoughts of the previous thirty minutes.
“I think we should rest awhile,” Denny says. “I just don’t know about this trail. Some of it, mountain goats wouldn’t even attempt.” He squats and unzips his pack, breathing heavily through his nostrils, as he does when he’s puzzling through a problem. “I forgot to count the draws,” he says, unscrewing the cap on his water bottle and passing it to me. “Can you remember?”
“Let’s see. Four, five? I don’t remember.” I hand Denny the map. We locate Carbon Creek Canyon, Peshiakai Point, and Temple Butte, features on both sides of the river, trying to figure out where we are. The map shows that we are on the right trail, and that it is exposed on two sections, but we can’t decide if we’ve passed the two sections, or if we still have one to go.
“Damn the map,” Denny says. “We have to solve this thing without it.” Ahead, we see a giant slab jutting right out on a point. The slab will require us to make a hairpin turn and our entire bodies — everything but our feet and our hands — will be hanging over the edge. “Some guys, they pitch their tents on sides of cliffs and think it’s fun. We’re not like that.”
“No, we’re not,” I say.
We sit on the shelf for a long time — maybe an hour, or more. I write in my journal, and Denny lays his head back on a rock, closing his eyes. The canyon seems quieter now than it has since the day we descended. Even the wrens, which I have been tuned into all week, are silent. In this stillness, I gaze at the broad river glinting in the morning sun. Denny pops up, with a steady look in his eyes. “Let’s turn back,” he says.
I nod. I’ve already reached the same conclusion.
* * *
Back at camp, when we tell my mom what happened — “This was the closest I’ve ever been to dying,” and “It’s hard to explain how close” — I already feel the experience slipping into the realm of narrative. A week later when I call my husband; six months later, when I talk about my “scariest hike” to a group of women I’m leading into the Eagle Cap Wilderness in Oregon; several years later, when I write up a version of the story and someone says, “Why did you put in that part about being suicidal in London,” and I say, “Because, that’s what I thought when I was up there”; and even as I write this, I understand that narrative will never be enough to contain that experience. But it can point toward its meaning.
The hike didn’t crystallize some long-missing father-daughter bond between Denny and me. That was already happening in the twenty years after we both straightened out our lives. The important thing was what happened after, when I realized that Denny and I had been on the precipice of the Grand Canyon, and of life, and we turned around.
Except, it is the moment before we turned around that comes back most clearly whenever I summon the experience. “Dad?” I say as we leave the shelf. “Don’t worry about me, and I won’t worry about you. If we both just pay attention to our own footing and balance, we’ll be okay.”
He starts walking, but I hang back. I don’t want to arrive at camp or return to the rim in a few days, or to my regular life. I want to stay here on the edge with Denny.