Gingerly, I lift my dew-laden sleeping bag and wriggle off my pad without waking my friend Meredith, still wrapped in a cocoon of sleep beside me. The sun illuminates ochre canyon walls high above as I slip on running shoes and leap ashore, crossing a sandy beach to the mouth of a narrow canyon. The darkness beckons – promising a sweet sliver of solitude. It seems that solitude should be everywhere in this canyon, one of the deepest on earth: the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. But rafting 225 miles with 16 people for 16 days means days full of action and activity, leaving little chance for alone time and solo explorations.
For many, it’s the trip of a lifetime. Sixteen days away from society: phones, emails, politicians, obligations. It’s enough time to sink slowly and deliberately into the present while past and future fade, living in the now, submersed in the redrock desert, buoyed along on a silt-laden current cutting through layers of history laid bare by the river’s eons of erosion. Creamy white petrified dunes of Coconino sandstone, deep scarlet caverns of Redwall Limestone, and polished black flutings of Vishnu Schist are stacked upon one another, colorfully striped cliffs jutting skywards.
As darkness creeps down the canyon walls above camp and sunset paints the clouds with an orangey glow, sandstone cliff skirting the beach comes alive with scorpions. First one sighting, on Elliot’s tent, then three more on the rock face, then another on the boulders in the middle of camp. Their small opaque bodies move jerkily, tails and stingers suspended, ready to attack. It’s no longer the barefoot, carefree beach it was when we landed and everyone hurries off to make sure tents are zipped and dry bags are strapped closed. A few of the boys catch the poisonous crawlers in Pringles cans – and the snakebite statistic the ranger told us at put-in resurfaces – young men are most likely to get bit by snakes and scorpions because they mess with them. And here we are, day 1, with a scorpion boxing ring made out of firewood. Unfortunately, the scorpions don’t want to fight each other and instead slowly wander off – in the middle of the kitchen – when no one’s looking. The result is four missing scorpions right where we’re all eating dinner. No one gets stung, but I dream of them climbing into my sleeping bag and narrowly miss grabbing one by the tail as I reach into my dry bag the next morning.