I look down from the south rim of the Grand Canyon feeling completely displaced. I am with a group of students from my college who are taking a weeklong field course. The professors include two geologists, two biologists, and one astrophysicist. All of the students are science majors—biology, geology, geophysics. Except me. I’m studying to be an elementary school teacher. What am I doing here?
Even though I’m not a scientist, I can’t pass up the opportunity to hike to the bottom of the Canyon and learn what I can along the way. The others in the group treat me as an equal, and soon I am throwing out layer names, like Supai and Vishnu Schist, as casually as the rest of them.
I spend a lot of time with David, an unconventional geology professor. Before the trip, he sent out a list of items everyone should pack. Just for fun, he included a crow bar on the list, and one poor student thought it was required. David had to apologetically encourage the student to leave the crow bar behind at the top. I had worked hard to gather together what I considered to be sensible gear, knowing that thirty-five pounds will feel much heavier later on.
The April air is cool at the rim. We hike down the Bright Angel Trail leisurely, often stopping to hear the observations of the professors. Several of the layers, like the Kaibab Limestone and Hermit Shale, enclose fossils of all kinds—reptiles, plants, amphibians, and marine animals—each layer recording history. We discuss the idea that an ocean was once here. When we reach the Redwall Limestone, which is known for its rusty color, we learn that the real ruddiness comes from the strata above, where iron oxide leaches out, staining the limestone below.
Just before dark, we set up camp on the Canyon floor and then eat dinner by lantern light. Gary, a professor of biology, feels strongly about protecting me and the only other young woman on the trip, so he chaperones us in his tent. A strong wind rises, and every time I wake up, I see Gary struggling to hold on to the center pole so that the tent won’t fly away.
The next day is not leisurely. Even in April, the Canyon floor is hot, and we have to trek the nine miles up to the rim by nightfall. When I summit a mountain, I know that the hardest part is over, and I can let myself relax both physically and mentally on the way back down. But this morning, when I look up at the steep canyon walls, I am unprepared psychologically for mountain climbing backward.
Steve is the head geologist and leader of the team. He hikes quickly, lets us pantingly catch up, delivers several scientific annotations, and then takes off again. I find discouragement in switchbacks. At one point, I count over thirty. After that, I decide to focus on the beauty of the multicolored strata—the butter yellow of the Coconino Sandstone and the way that the Redwall turns to orange fire in the sun. Some layers are not as thick as others, and some rough-hewn walls give way to smooth. But each tier, with its own unique color and texture, adds to the next—layer upon layer—all building into the grandeur of the Canyon as a whole.
I picture my own life in layers—the hard foundation of the formative years, the fragile sandstone of adolescence, and the metamorphic rock shaped by the pressures of my young adulthood. Memories, like thousands of fossils, are preserved within. I have experienced enough now to have gained perspective. I see that the bottom levels support who I have grown to be, while the upper tiers patina what is below, using wisdom to soften the look of the past. As I begin to climb again, I envision, through faith, the solid, colorful layers of my life to come.
On our hike, we meet many park rangers who patrol the Canyon at all hours. My group notes, with a mixture of admiration and envy, that the rangers trek up and down the trail without even breathing heavily. Their jobs are twofold: to guard the Canyon from human damage and to aid hikers in need.
At a rest break, Professor David takes out a little bottle and asks those closest to him to see what happens when he pours acid on a rock. A ranger suddenly appears (where did he come from?) and tells David in stern terms that he is close to being permanently expelled from the Canyon. The other professors are grim, and from then on David quietly concentrates on the ascent.
Several times each summer, rangers must rescue exuberant hikers who have overestimated their abilities. I worry that Ken, the other biology professor, will become one of them. He is in his late fifties and has suffered a previous heart attack. Some of the students divvy up his gear, and I end up strapping on his large foam pad. Even though it is lightweight, it acts like a sail on the mast of my pack. As I top one ridge, the wind hits the mattress, lifts me off my feet, and then pins me to the ground. In that moment I sympathize with every capsized turtle I have ever seen. I simply cannot get up under my own volition. I can’t even turn sideways. All I can do is wiggle my limbs in the air.
Another sturdier student takes me by the arms, pulls me to my feet, and generously stows the mattress with his own equipment. We begin to get to know one another as we walk along the trail. He is a graduate geology student, and his enthusiasm for the canyon is infectious. Our pleasant conversation eases the difficulty of the upward climb.
It’s ironic that just when I’m congratulating myself for helping someone else, I find that I am the one in need of rescue. I normally dislike that feeling of indebtedness and work toward being as independent as possible. But it’s when I admit my limitations and, with vulnerability, open myself to the service of others that I find not only the aid I seek but friendship, as well—and more memories to embed in the strata of my life.
In the cold evening air, I take my last step out of the canyon and back onto the rim, thinking about layers, each building onto the next and adding to the grandeur of the whole.