Canyon de Chelly, New Mexico
It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.
--- Joseph Campbell
Prologue: The morning of the day I planned on leaving, I dreamt that I was having sex with a powerful black woman, with brilliant tongues of fire on her head in place of hair. I sensed the heat yet never got burnt. The experience felt nearly like an initiation, and it was both ecstatic and terrifying. I awakened with a jolt, and the lingering feelings were so strong I sat on the edge of my bed for several minutes wondering what it meant, and whether it portended anything about the weeks ahead.
April 1st The Sun was setting low on the horizon as I drove out onto the interstate, heading out from the Chicago suburbs towards the American Southwest. Late winter flurries swirled across the road as I pulled away from the city and out onto the open plains. As night fell, the sky cleared and through my windshield I could see Jupiter sparkling next to the Moon. I drove straight on through the night.
I had been feeling deeply unsettled for months by this point. My father suffered from a heart attack several months earlier, and while he survived the experience, it triggered a realization of my own mortality like nothing else had before. But I realized I didn't fear death nearly as much as fearing not having lived. I'd be turning 30 in just a few months, and nothing in my life up to this point had gone according to plan, either professionally or personally. I planned this trip partly out of desperation, hoping that being in new environments might open me to new insights about the choices I was wrestling with or, if nothing else, allow me to pack a bit more life-experience under my belt.
"It almost sounds like you're trying to make up for lost time," a friend said. He was probably right.
Relics of Bygone Cultures
On reaching Colorado, I turned left at the Rockies and headed south towards New Mexico. The scenery changed dramatically as the lush greens up north made way for the dusty ochres of the desert. This looked like a different world to me, with its own distinctive plant life, wildlife, and coloring, and its vast horizons stretching in every direction. After the relatively bland Midwest, this landscape truly does have an enchanted quality all its own, just as the license plates declare.
At one point I happened to notice the ruins of an old school house several hundred yards off the side of the road. The scene was eerie, with the abandoned structure situated out in the middle of nowhere set against a crystal blue sky, and white clouds high in the distance. I parked my car and walked over with my camera to take a closer look.
Making my way towards it, I snapped a few pictures—when I was jolted by the sound of a vast boom roaring out of the sky so loud it caused the ground to rumble. It felt like twenty thunderclaps firing all at once, and echoed across the landscape for at least 15 seconds. I fully expected to look up and see a mushroom cloud rising up over the horizon, perhaps the result of an atomic experiment gone awry—this was New Mexico, after all. But the sky remained clear, without any sign of an explosion on the horizon. I’d heard sonic booms before, and even knew what dynamiting at construction sites sounded like, but this was different from either of those. I had no idea what the source could have been, and it left me with an uneasy feeling as I drove away from the spot.
I continued on my journey and over the next few days spent time exploring some of the Native American ruins around this region--Puye, Bandelier, Betatakin, Chaco Canyon, the "sky city" Acoma, and Canyon de Chelly (a photo of which opens this story). I’d always been fascinated by these locations when I read about them, but never had the opportunity to investigate them in person before. Almost all had been abandoned for nearly a millennium before being restored by archeologists. It was exciting to visit them, since they’re not only beautiful in their own stark way but possess the ambience of lingering human dramas.
I discovered that the best way to experience these sites was to arrive at opening time, before any other tourists showed up, since there are fewer distractions that way and more silence. I spent hours climbing in and around the ancient dwelling areas, looking out over the surrounding landscape, usually accompanied only by the sounds of wind blowing or circling hawks.
Puye Ruins, New Mexico
With its clear skies and dry climate, the elemental feel of this region is unique, and one almost senses a subtle electricity alive in the atmosphere. It’s not hard to imagine spirits still inhabiting these lands, and in my mind’s eye it seemed as though everything around was outlined by a subtle glow.
There are times when we crave certain geographies or historical spots in much the same way that our
body craves certain foods or minerals—perhaps that's the soul’s way of restoring psychic equilibrium. After the manicured perfections of the big city and its suburbs, I felt drawn to the vast antiquity and wide open spaces of this region. But I also gravitated to the deep places of this landscape, like the subterranean temples called kivas, where the ancient peoples of this area conducted their religious ceremonies. I find it curious how the sacred spaces of Christianity like the great cathedrals of Europe generally ascend high into the sky while those of the Native Americans generally extend down into the Earth. I've even wondered whether that might be related somehow to the fact that this geographical region harbors that mother of all deep places—the Grand Canyon. I was excited about spending time in that remarkable spot as well, but that was still a week or two away.
The Sufi House
Before leaving on my trip I'd read several books on Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Although it has its more devotional aspect, Sufism doesn’t ignore the rational mind the way some traditions do, which is appealing to me. While doing a little research, I learned that a community of young Sufis lived out in the desert just south of Sante Fe, so I made arrangements by phone and mail several weeks earlier to stay with them for a few days.
Turning off the main two-lane blacktop south of the city onto a dirt road, I came upon a sprawling ranch home occupied by four young women with exotic names like Nanda, Kismet, Shimat, and Habiba, though it turned out their maiden names were Nancy, Rebecca, Janet, and Michelle. They seemed happy to have a man on the premises. Outside their house I noticed a few small huts and tents spread out in the adjoining desert. Habiba explained they were occupied by men and women on extended private retreats, and every day it was part of her devotional work here to bring them food or supplies.
As for me, I’d be staying in the big house with the women, they said, and Habiba showed me the small room I’d be using for the next few days. Stepping into the room, I was immediately taken aback by the distinct spiritual energy there, as if a tangible force field hit me square and center. The only other time I’d experienced anything quite like that before was just one year earlier, walking into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. This was more surprising, though, since it happened in such a modest space, barely larger than a closet. When I mentioned my experience to Habiba, she said, “Hmm…The last guy who stayed in that room used to meditate there for up to six hours a day.”
Over the next few days I tried meditating in that room myself, but my mind was so restless it only made me frustrated. Instead, I wound up spending more time listening to cassette recordings of talks from their in-house library by a prominent Sufi teacher, Pir Vilayat Khan. I'd met him several years earlier back in Chicago, following a lecture he delivered there, and I liked him a great deal. The recordings I listened to focussed primarily on working with inner energies, using a combination of mantras and visualizations. One of those techniques was similar to one I'd learned in the Kriya Yoga tradition, involving drawing energy up and down the spine. A few days later I tried this technique in a large ceremonial kiva at Chaco Canyon, and felt a noticeable surge of energy throughout my body, almost as if I was absorbing energy from the Earth itself. I normally don't feel anything quite that tangible with such techniques, but in that kiva I did. What made the difference, I had to wonder—the location or the technique?
The night before I was set to leave the house, the young women told me about two Hopi elders from Arizona who were scheduled to speak in Santa Fe that coming weekend, to discuss the so-called “Hopi Prophecy.” I wanted to stay and hear them, hopefully even speak with them, since part of the reason I set out on this trip involved research I'd just begun into the subjects of symbolism and synchronicity; I fantasized about meeting with figures in the Native American and Tibetan communities in hope of learning more about their perspectives towards omens, oracles, and divination. But my hunch said to move on, so the next day I left the Sufi house and headed out west from Sante Fe, stopping off for a couple of days to visit the town of Taos, high up in the hills.
Mission Church, Taos Pueblo
The Hopi Reservation
After frequenting several other sites along the way, I eventually found my way to the Hopi reservation in central Arizona. I was unsure where to start when exploring this region, due to its large size, so I drove around the three primary mesas which dominate this reservation to familiarize myself with the area.
The poverty looked dramatic. The entire landscape was spare, with a few abandoned vehicles near the roads. Yet despite such things there's an undeniable mystique to this region. Some of that may be due to the sheer austerity of the desert itself, which has always moved me. But I sensed there was more to it than that, and even wondered if it could be the result of ancestral memories and stored vibrations from all the rituals, visions, and beliefs that suffused this landscape for millennia. At least I'd like to believe that.
I stopped off at the local Native American cultural center hoping they might point me in the right direction. I mentioned to the fellow behind the counter that I was a writer doing research and hoped to speak with some of the locals (which was only partially true—the writer part, that is, since it would be another 10 years before any of my work actually got published). That's when I discovered just how wary some tribal members can be towards outsiders—but especially writers. Many of these residents have been exploited by journalists through the years, and that seemed to be his attitude, too. He strongly discouraged me from looking any further, and abruptly cut our conversation short, leaving the counter and walking into the back room with no further explanation. That startled me, and I decided not to identify myself as a writer around these parts again.
I also came to see that as far as their religious views go, the Hopis aren’t the monolithic entity some New Age writers would have you believe. When non-Native commentators casually toss off comments like, “the Hopi believe this,” or, “the Hopi people believe that,” it's somewhat ludicrous, akin to saying that “white people believe this,” or “Europeans believe that…”
For starters, I learned that the Hopi community is divided between progressives and traditionals, and these factions hold very different views on a number of matters. The latter group, the traditionals, is comprised of tribal members similar to the Amish in some ways, in their reluctance towards technology and its conveniences, and refusing to rely on electricity at all. By contrast, the progressives were more open to modernization and have adapted to non-Native ways, and have no qualms about electricity whatsoever, not that I could see.
I had the distinct feeling that the information I was looking for would be found amongst the traditionalists, so that's where I set my sights.
The most traditional of all the tribal members live on the Third Mesa, I was told, in villages like Old Oraibi and Hotevilla. On entering both places I was greeted by signs saying “No Cameras Allowed," which was a tip-off right away. To my surprise, the first person I crossed paths with was a white anthropologist named Joanne Fisher who lived in a trailer on the outskirts of the village and had been studying the tribe for several years. When I asked her what she thought of writers like Frank Waters and Peter Matthiessen, she wasn't complimentary, claiming they both “missed the boat,” yet didn't elaborate how exactly. She told me I should walk over and talk with Thomas Banyaca, one of the self-appointed spokesmen for the tribe. I’d heard his name before, and after leaving Joanne I tracked him down at his small house a short distance away.
He answered the door, and seemed happy to speak. When I asked him about the Native American “world view,” he gently suggested they don’t think of it quite that way, since it’s not something that's formally codified. That made me realize just how naive my query was. He was preparing to leave town at that moment for a presentation he was to deliver at a gathering out of state, so he couldn’t talk long. He suggested that I seek out James Koots or Caroline Tawangyawma, two other residents in the area who were generally open to speaking with visitors from the outside.
I wasn't sure how to find either of them, so I enlisted the help of a local teen-ager I crossed paths with near the entrance to the village. He played loud Reggae music on the tape recorder he carried under his arm, and wasn’t shy about smoking pot in front of me. But he was friendly and offered to help me find Caroline. He climbed into my car and guided me through the area, and lit up a large joint causing a cloud of marijuana smoke to billow out from my car windows. Eventually, we pulled up to a modest desert home on the fringes of the village, and I saw a woman hunched over working in a garden next to the house.
Caroline was a rotund, gentle-looking woman in her seventies who spoke to me while tilling the soil alongside her house, a small adobe structure at desert's edge. After a while, she asked me where I was staying. When I told her I'd camped out a fair distance away, she invited me to stay at her place instead. There’s an extra bed inside, she said, and I’m welcome to use it. I felt overwhelmed by her offer, considering she didn’t know me at all, and I was thrilled beyond words to accept. I wound up staying there five days altogether.
Simply to break the ice, we spoke those first few hours about a variety of subjects, and as dinnertime approached we headed inside where she lit some candles. Her home was comfortably disheveled, without a single electrical appliance anywhere. We continued talking as she began preparing a simple meal of potatoes, bread, turnips, chicken, and watermelon.
I asked her birthday, and she told me she was born on September 28th, 1906. Like many others in the tribe, she spent a considerable amount of time away from the reservation early on in life, living in “the white man’s cities.” That was another parallel with the Amish, I thought, since they also have a tradition of young people going away from the group with the option of returning.
She exuded warmth, and I was deeply moved by her gentle manner. Over dinner, we talked about the traditional beliefs that guided her and her neighbors. Like the others nearby, she believed that modernization had a negative effect on the spiritual life of the tribe, so they avoided it as much as possible.
“The electrical wires and telephone lines are like cobwebs that interfere with the balance of nature, with the paths of birds, and the energy here,” she said. “The other villages here have appliances, housing developments, and electricity. But Hotevilla is sacred. We don’t have these things.”
Ironically, while uttering those words I happened to see a small pile of National Enquirers stacked on a table near the door. At first that seemed incongruous, but while speaking further with her I had the sense the residents here weren't against all forms of modernity—mainly electrical ones.
That night I slept on a small bed in a side room, and while lying there in the dark I heard the sounds of men in a nearby kiva singing their tribal chants, which echoed through the night.
After breakfast the next morning, I offered to drive her to the nearby tribal store and pay for her groceries. After leaving the store, I asked about her background—her family and ancestry—and she proceeded to tell me the tragic tale of how the U.S. government dealt with many of those in the village decades earlier. When we arrived back home, she pulled out a textbook on Hopi history published by the University of Arizona featuring photographs of prisoners at Alcatraz. At first I was unsure why she was showing me this, when she pointed to one odd-looking fellow in the photo.
“That’s him. He’s my father.”
She explained how her dad was forcibly extricated from the tribe when she was just a child, and then incarcerated at the infamous prison alongside murderers, thieves, and rapists. Why? Because he refused to allow his children to be taken away and schooled in the white man’s ways, shorn of native customs, hair, and clothing. She was surprisingly casual while describing all of this, yet I could only imagine the trauma this must have caused her family at the time.
Later that day, I happened to mention how back in Sante Fe I heard that two Hopi elders were scheduled to speak at a peace rally there that previous weekend. Did she happen to know who those two elders were, I wondered? “Well, yes. That was me and David, David Monongya. We came to town to speak about the Hopi Prophecy.” Apparently my hunch about leaving Santa Fe turned out to be good. I was eager to learn more about this so-called “Hopi Prophecy,” which centers around a set of etchings carved on stone over at the Second Mesa. She asked me if I’d like to see it, and I told her yes.
The next morning we climbed into my car and she guided me to the spot where a large boulder rested, not far from Shungopavi. The imagery on this rock has become something of a Rorshach test over the years, with assorted tribal elders (and outsiders) offering their opinions about its significance and meaning.
All I could make out were some stick figures and a few broken lines, but for her and fellow tribe members it was pregnant with meaning. She then told me the long story of an immense schism that developed amongst her neighbors on the reservation, catalyzed in part by this prophecy and its alleged connection to UFOs.
UFO’s? I didn’t see that one coming. As she explained it, a number of years earlier a few tribal members had dramatic sightings of objects in the sky, and some claimed that the prophetic markings on this large rock pointed to impending contact between UFOs and the Hopi community.
At one point during the late 1960s, a white man and his band of hippie followers entered the village, claiming to be connected somehow with the fulfillment of that prophecy. To the utter horror of the locals, the outsiders practiced their own brand of free love right out in the open. That was too much for the Hopis, both progressives and traditionals alike, and not only led to the speedy ejection of the visitors but triggered more infighting amongst the tribal members. While some remained vocal in their belief about extraterrestrials and their role in Hopi history, others were skeptical and viewed all this talk of UFOs as damaging the tribe's integrity. Whatever the truth of the matter, I found it ironic that the most arch-traditionalist of all the villages would be one championing the role of hi-tech spacecraft in the Hopi destiny.
I grew increasingly curious about the man she mentioned earlier, David Monongya. As she described him, he sounded like an especially respected elder in the village. He's currently in his 90's and not in good health, she explained, but he’s still lucid. He was living with his sister over on the other side of the village. When I asked her if it would be possible to speak with him, she said it was okay but I should be sure to tell him that she sent me.
Following her directions, I tracked down his house the next day, and spoke with his sister at the front door. When I asked if I could see David, she initially hesitated but then agreed and escorted me into the room where David was seated. The lighting in the room reminded me of a Vermeer painting, with its diffused light and soft gray walls, and David seated there winding string off of a spool. He was nearly blind, and I knew not to stay longer than necessary. Rather than delve into any abstract questions about symbolism or divination, I decided to ask him a couple of basic questions about spirituality and everyday life.
How do you deal with disappointments, and with suffering, I asked?
“Things happen that you don’t like or that make you feel bad,” he replied, "but you try to offset it with a little humor, you cap it off with humor, and then you don’t feel so bad. But also, you must always follow the Great Spirit, and nothing else. If you do this, things don’t upset you so much, you aren’t bothered by what people say, or the things that come up.”
What about the deaths of loved ones? How do you view those?
“Well, when people die, they go to spiritual realm where we came from, and you don’t stop loving them. When they die, you still love them, you still share your love together. That doesn’t stop at death, or at least it shouldn’t. And then when you die, you will go and be with them. But you’re never really separated.”
Like other Native Americans I’ve met, he spoke in simple terms, though not simplistic ones. What was slightly unsettling to me, though, was the way his sister sat there looking vaguely agitated throughout this back-and-forth, and after about ten minutes I sensed it was time for me to take my leave. I shook his hand and thanked both of them for their time.
As I was walking out of the room, I heard her say something in their native tongue which I couldn’t understand, but the tone sounded distinctly critical to me. After leaving, I wondered whether I should have offered money or some gift for their time?—and of course, I should have. That’s the custom in most traditions, but I was too caught up in my own needs to remember that.
The Medicine Man
As enamored as I was of life in the village, I'd seen enough by this point not to idealize it, or regard it as some kind of Eden. In addition to its poverty, this community is probably as susceptible to interpersonal politics and backbiting as any other. That hit home for me while driving Caroline through the village one afternoon, when we passed by a certain neighbor’s house. She quickly ducked down in her car seat as though trying to avoid being seen by its resident. When I asked who lived there, she spoke in guarded terms about a medicine man named Percy. He was viewed by the others in the village as a renegade, since he had—horror of horrors—an electric generator on his premises. He was even suspected of being involved with magic, possibly even black magic. It’s best that I just leave him alone, she cautioned.
Of course, that only made me want to see him more, so the next day I headed right over and knocked on his door. An unassuming, soft-spoken man I guessed to be in his forties opened up, dressed in well-worn slacks and shirt. I was careful not to identify myself as a writer, and instead pulled out a small photo of a painting I did back in college,“Reunion of Elements,” and handed it to him as a calling card of sorts. I explained that I was an artist, and would like to have a few minutes of his time, if at all possible.
He seemed to like the artwork, stared at it a while, then walked over and placed the reproduction on his mantle. Inviting me in, I walked through the door and sat across from him over a table in his small living room. I looked around and noticed bags of medicinal herbs around the room, as well as a television set—a true oddity in this village. I began by asking about his healing work. It was fascinating to me that the first thing he said didn't involve magic or spells but rather the importance of psychology:
“It’s important to determine if a patient’s problem is emotional or physical in nature. If the problem is more attitudinal, then one has to work with that. Maybe the person needs to forgive others, or even themselves.”
Some of his diagnostic methods seemed vaguely oriental to me, such as when he spoke about taking his fingers and trying to see which parts of a patient’s body were hottest. Most striking to me, he seemed genuinely concerned with helping others; he didn't charge money for his services although he did accept bartered goods in return.
“We are only channels for the healing,” he emphasized, “We’re not the true healers.” Those certainly didn't sound like the words of a black magician to me.
At one point, he said he had to take care of some errands outside, and asked if I’d like to walk with him over by the edge of the village. I agreed, and along the way I asked him about his view of symbolism, specifically about omens or “signs.” He said, yes, they believe in those things, they come from the Divine. But there are no simple formulas for interpreting such things, he explained, one has to take them on a case-by-case basis.
Shortly after, I happened to mention a project I’d just become involved with back home and how it looked as though it could unfold very differently than I had planned. At that moment a large black bird darted past us, and suddenly changed directions in mid-air while letting out a cry. “There you go,” he said, in a lively tone. “That bird changing directions just as you were talking about your project, that's telling you something. Maybe your project really will take a very different direction than you thought. That’s one way of looking at it.”
The next day I decided it was time for me to be on my way out of this area. Just minutes before I was set to leave, an old car pulled up in front of Caroline's home and out stepped two other tribal members—James Koots and Titus Qömayumptewa. James was thin and wiry, Titus was large and lumbered in like some big arthritic bear. The deep lines in both of their leathery faces suggested they had lived long, hard lives. Over the next hour I was deeply moved by the genuine warmth they both extended towards me. I had a wonderful conversation with them, as James spoke with pride about his years working in that “big gangster town, Chicago” before returning to the reservation. I felt sad saying goodbye to Caroline, and as I held her hands, she shyly avoided looking me in the eyes.
The Grand Canyon
With each passing day, I'd grown more excited about the prospect of visiting the Grand Canyon. My plan was to hike down and spend several nights camped out at the bottom. Over the years this spot had taken on near-mythic importance for me, and with my 30th birthday approaching, I saw the chance to spend time inside of it as a kind of personal vision quest.
I drove in from the far eastern end of the Canyon just as the Sun was starting to set, and the further I proceeded along the Canyon rim the more expansive and colorful the views became. By the time I reached the visitor’s center, the entire Canyon was bathed in an otherworldly glow, and cloaked in a sublime silence.
That night I slept in the campground near the visitor’s center, and had a series of intense dreams—all involving fire in some way. I awoke in the morning and packed my gear, then said a small prayer as I made my first steps onto the Kaibab trail that meanders down to the Canyon’s bottom. As the crow flies, the distance from rim to Canyon base is a full mile, the equivalent of four Empire State Buildings stacked atop one another. The trail itself is considerably longer than that, though, since it weaves in and out much like the crow doesn’t fly. Along the way I'd pass through three distinctly different weather systems: on top, it was snowing, midway down there was rain, and at Canyon’s bottom, it was dry as a bone.
I had a growing sense over the previous weeks that something meaningful was in store for me on this leg of the trip, and that feeling only grew stronger as I drew closer towards the bottom. I decided soon after beginning my hike not to take any photographs during my stay here, since I didn't want my memories of the experience boxed in by 3 X 5 snapshots.
Making my way down step by step, I was awed by the vast spans of time reflected in the sedimentary layers visible alongside the trail. The Canyon was formed over the course of a billion years, the books claim, as layers of sediment were deposited by ancient oceans and the Colorado River later sliced through and exposed these rocky tissues to the open air. In a sense, this area is a geological time machine, with each step downward taking the hiker further back at the rate of thousands of years per foot. There’s something paradoxical about the effect a place like this can have, since one's ego is increasingly dwarfed just as one's soul feels enlarged by all the vastness.
Descending further, I began focusing my awareness on each step. It almost felt as though I was peeling away layers in my own psyche, with the descent symbolically plunging me deeper into myself. Shedding non-essentials and going deeper—those are things I'd felt blocked about doing in my own life over the previous year, and having a ritual like this seemed to help focus my mind. Picking up a rock along the trail, I imagined that I was pouring all my negative thoughts and unpleasant memories into it, and resolved that when I crossed the footbridge at Canyon’s bottom I’d drop that rock into the river while visualizing those negative energies transformed by the river’s waters.
On reaching the Canyon floor several hours later, I walked through the womb-like cave that leads to the suspension bridge spanning the two shores, and stepped out over the river. Arriving in the middle of the bridge, I paused for a moment, focused my thoughts, and gently dropped the rock into the water. Looking up, I saw a flock of seven white birds flying downstream towards me, which then flew under the bridge directly over the spot where I’d dropped the stone. They continued flying downriver and disappeared around the next bend.
I continued onto the nearby campground and found a place to pitch my tent. I struck up a conversation with a fellow in the campsite next to mine, a twenty-something with waist-length hair who'd just come off the road after following the Grateful Dead for two full years. When I finally opened up to him about my experience with the Canyon, he described a realization nearly identical to mine. He’d been going through a major life-change in the previous months, and sensed that this hike into the Canyon was somehow bringing it all to a conclusion. I was startled when he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small rock he found while touring with the Dead, and went on to explain how he decided that upon arriving here, he would drop it into the river as a way to ritualistically signal the end of that chapter in his life.
A few minutes later we walked down to the river and he reached into his pocket then handed me a joint, saying, “Here—you might try this at some point when you're down here. It’s good stuff.” Being a Deadhead, I suspected he was good for his word on that. I put it in my pocket, and we headed back to the campsite.
I pitched my tent and noticed he was planning to sleep out in the open, without any tent at all. When I asked him whether he was concerned about the possibility of rain, he replied, “Nah. The rangers assured me it almost never rains down here at the bottom, it evaporates before it gets this far, so I figured I’d save myself the extra load.”
Shortly after midnight I heard the booming sounds of thunder, followed by a heavy downpour, along with the sound of my campsite friend scrambling to erect a makeshift shelter, muttering Fuck...!" beneath his breath. I shouted out that he was welcome to share mine, but he declined, saying he'd manage.
Trial by Fire
After breakfast I packed up my gear and began the slow ascent back up the Canyon, this time using the Bright Angel trail. It made for a difficult climb in the growing heat, and I had to stop frequently. After a number of hours, I eventually arrived at the campground located roughly midway between the bottom and top of the Canyon, and found a spot to pitch my tent.
Shortly before sunset I took a walk out to the promontory that extends out beyond the campground proper. I climbed up carefully onto a large boulder where I could sit and observe that part of the Canyon while the Sun set. The view before me was staggering, and in all that vastness I couldn't see a single other person anywhere. The enormous rock walls arched up around me like a cathedral, and the majestic natural forms gracing those walls seemed like the work of a cosmic Michaelangelo. It’s little wonder the early explorers to the region chose to identify these formations and outcrops using names like Vishnu, Brahma, and Osiris, since these forms really do evoke the qualities of gods, not mere mortals.
The late afternoon light cut down on a slant across this horseshoe-shaped part of the Canyon. Far above, I could barely make out the specter of birds gliding silently along the upper rim of the Canyon, which was still cloaked in snow. I’d visited many beautiful natural sites in my life, but without a doubt, this was the most spectacular of them all.
I took out the joint my campsite neighbor gave me earlier that morning, and lit it up. It was far more powerful than I expected, in ways both marvelous and terrifying.
The late afternoon light caused the Canyon walls around me to glow as if incandescent, revealing subtle hues I hadn’t noticed before. It's hard not to feel a sense of eternity in this environment, I thought.
But a wave of paranoia began flooding through me, building in momentum as the minutes passed. I'd heard of anxiety attacks before—was this one of those? The tangle of worries and neurotic concerns I’d been grappling with during the prevous year were all coming to a head, as if a cellar door had sprung open and unleashed a host of subterranean forces into the light of day. I started feeling overwhelmed, and began shivering uncontrollably, my heart beating faster. Looking around, I even found myself wondering how I’d climb down off of the boulder I was on without injuring myself, since I could no longer see the footholds I used to climb onto it.
As the fears grew more intense, I decided to try and cope with them by slowing down my breath, thinking it might calm my mind. That helped slightly, and over the next few minutes the shivering lessened. But the turbulent emotions continued to well up every few moments, causing me to slide back into confusion. In a last-ditch effort, I decided to simply surrender to the feelings rather than fight them, since resistance only made them worse. At that point they began losing their grip.
It was then I remembered comments I'd heard on the car radio while driving towards the Canyon several days before during an interview with a WWII survivor about the transforming power of love. That held a key for me now, I thought, and I began focusing my attention on love, and compassion—not just for others but myself, too. I noticed my center of gravity slowly shifting down from my head to my heart, and after 20 minutes or so I felt calm, my breath dramatically slower, my anxieties gone.
With night starting to fall, I climbed down off the boulder, carefully, and headed back to the campground. I felt relieved getting back to my tent, but I also felt like something had changed for me out there on the promontory, as though I'd been cleansed somehow.
That night I stayed up talking with some of the other campers in the site, one of them an acupuncturist named Joseph. Like me, he regarded his trip through the Southwest as a personal vision quest of sorts, with the Canyon descent as the cornerstone of that experience.
That sort of thing happens here a lot, apparently.
Roughly around eleven o’clock, I headed over to an outdoor water spigot provided for campers when out of the corner of my eye I saw a bright flash of light. I thought nothing of it at first, but then I heard a voice crying out, “Help me!!! HELP ME!!!”
I looked over and saw the silhouette of a person flailing madly inside of a tent, its walls lit up by a flickering mass of flames consuming it from inside.
I rushed over in that direction, exactly as a horde of other campers clamored out of the darkness towards the fire. I watched in horror as a young man emerged through a hole that burnt through the side of the tent, as the man then tripped over the fabric of the tent wall and fell hard onto the ground, his clothes smoking. I heard someone near me shouting, “He must have been using his stove in there. I smell fuel.”
The frantic young man picked himself up off the ground as sheets of melted flesh drooped down from his outstretched arms, creating a horrid stench that seared into my nostrils. Amazingly, he was perfectly ready to leap right back into the flames, since all he was concerned about was his camera and backpack, which were still inside. From out of nowhere, a fellow camper appeared on the scene with a miniature fire extinguisher, and in a few moments put out the flames.
The situation jolted everyone into a state of adrenalinized wakefulness, the atmosphere having now become hyper-charged. The poor fellow looked seriously dazed, and the only thing he seemed able to say was, “How do I look? How do I look?” Just to calm him down, I said, “You look fine, you look fine.” Just then, another camper walked up and looked at him, gasping loudly, “Jesus, you look terrible…” Which of course threw the hapless fellow back into a state of full-blown anxiety.
A young female ranger in charge of the campground hurried onto the scene, and carefully escorted him back to the small cabin at the far end of grounds. None of us standing around could really think much about sleeping after all that commotion. After about 15 minutes, the ranger came back out to talk with us, saying she had no real medical supplies on hand and was concerned about how the young man would fare once the shock wore off and the pain truly kicked in. It was too dark to helicopter him out, she explained, so she asked if any of us had medical experience. When no one else stepped forward, the acupuncturist, Joseph, offered to see what he could do. He headed back to the cabin with her, but came back out a half hour later, saying the acupressure treatment didn’t seem to make much difference.
I’d dabbled previously with hypnosis, so I walked over and asked the ranger if she’d like me to give it a try, to see if I could help ease the man's pain. She was a little skeptical at first, but obviously had nothing to lose at this point, so she said, okay.
I stepped inside the cabin and saw the man seated in a chair, visibly shaking from discomfort. There was another camper standing alongside him, a bearded fellow named Ken who had some nursing experience. He was in the process of placing the young man’s hands into a large bowl of ice water. The sight of his burnt arms under the bright light was sickening, even more than the odor. Ken took me aside and said they needed to apply medicinal gel to his arms before bandaging them up, but they were anxious about applying any pressure since it could make his pain worse. They had no painkillers anywhere on site, so if I could help bring the pain down even a little bit, that would help enormously.
I walked over to the fellow, and struck up a conversation, focusing on everything except the injuries to take his mind off of those. At first all he wanted to do was apologize over having done such a stupid thing. “I just wanted to cook some food, but I shouldn’t have tried doing that in the tent, I know. I’m so sorry for causing everyone so much inconvenience, I’m just so stupid…” I tried to make light of the situation, and that’s when I learned his name was Rob and he was from a part of Illinois not far from my own home.
I had no set protocol for dealing with this sort of situation, so I was running on pure intuition at this point. I kneeled down onto the floor and placed my left hand on the back of his head and began stroking his forehead with the fingers of my right hand, just to relax him. I told him to close his eyes and slow down his breathing, which had been jerky and uneven up till then. I then gave him permission to let his body shake as much as it wanted, not to repress those feelings. That seemed to help a bit, since he'd been fighting those urges up to that point. After some initial violent shaking, he settled down considerably.
I felt a wave of compassion come over me, and it almost seemed as though I was pouring love through my hands into his body, like a tangible transmission of energy. If there is anything to spiritual healing, I have to believe it must have something to do with this—opening one’s heart and allowing a flow of energy towards another. As I stroked his forehead, I realized what he needed more than anything else was basic caring and human touch, especially since he’d been so judgmental towards himself.
I started feeding him suggestions about how his hands and arms would grow numb, and that the healing powers of his own unconscious mind were now beginning to mend the wounds. I then took the risky step of telling him I was drawing the pain out of his body and into my own. Whether or not that was actually occurring, the important thing was he seemed to believe it, and his shaking completely stopped.
I counted backwards from 10, telling him that when I reached zero, his hands would be completely numb, but that he’d remain fully alert. When I reached zero, his face looked completely relaxed and peaceful. I then nodded to both the ranger and Ken, at which point the two of them now pulled his hands from the water and began applying gel across his arms. He initially felt a twinge of pain, but I gave him some more suggestions and the pain disappeared.
By the time it was over, twenty minutes later, his arms looked like two oversized Q-tips, the wrappings bunched up in thick wads around his hands. Both the ranger and Ken were worried over how he’d sleep that night, but after they walked him gently over to the side room and set him down on the cot, I kneeled down and once again gave him soothing suggestions, talking softer and softer, suggesting that he'd sleep soundly throughout the night, and wake up the next morning feeling completely refreshed. Before I’d finished, he was snoring loudly.
I walked quietly out of that room and back into the main office, and saw both the ranger and Ken standing there staring at me. “That’s the weirdest thing I've ever seen,” Ken said. That made me feel self-conscious, and I said goodnight to both of them before returning to my tent.
It was one o'clock in the morning as I laid in my sleeping bag, reflecting on how unusual the day had been. Then it dawned on me that, in an odd way, Rob’s struggle echoed what I went through myself just a few hours earlier, with the anxiety attack I experienced out on the promontory. The suggestions I gave him for dealing with his own situation were essentially the same as those I gave myself only hours before—slowing down my breath, cultivating love and self-acceptance, and not fighting the dark feelings. I didn’t know what to make of it all just yet, but something definitely synchronistic seemed to be happening.
The next morning, I stepped out from my tent to see Rob heading out to the promontory to be helicoptered out of the Canyon. He was glad to see me, and when I asked how he slept, he replied, “Like a baby! I didn’t feel a lick of pain after the hypnosis. I still don’t. It’s amazing.” I walked him out to where the helicopter landed, and waved goodbye as it whisked him up and away over the rim of the Canyon, like some hi-tech guardian angel. That’s the last I ever saw of him.
After assembling my gear, I began my trek back up to the top of the Canyon rim. I was joined along the way by the acupuncturist from the night before, Joseph. On reaching the trailhead up top, we walked over to his car where he offered me some food and drink from the cooler in his trunk. I was ravenously thirsty. When I took a few swallows from the cold beer he handed me, it hit my system so hard I nearly fainted, as the ground around me suddenly appeared white hot.
Shortly afterwards, I climbed into my car and headed north to Colorado.