I leaned forward onto my trekking poles and hung my head between my knees. It was 4:15 pm. One thousand feet below me, the Colorado River meandered through the Grand Canyon. I had already put 35 miles behind me for the day. Ahead of me lay the final 6 miles and 5,000 feet of elevation gain along with a pile of my own vomit. Shoving a couple fistfuls of spicy Thai cashews in my mouth before beginning this excruciating climb had been a decidedly bad idea. “Damn you, Trader Joe’s for making a delicious product,” I thought. I remained doubled over trying to relieve the cramping in my stomach and soften the clenching in my lower back. I hadn’t peed for 12 hours. Four hours later, I would eventually pee only to find that I was peeing blood—a symptom of severe dehydration. I glanced up only to see my hiking partner effortlessly climbing the unrelenting trail. “I can’t even keep up with someone who is trying to hike with me. He couldn’t walk slower if he tried,” I groaned. Frankly, I was surprised I had kept up with him for as long as I had, though I knew it was only due to my partner’s patience and generosity (not my tenacity or strength) that I hadn’t lost him earlier.
I straightened my back and continued plodding up the steep incline. Soon the nausea subsided only to be replaced by cramping in my ass cheeks. My normally soft and round butt had been reduced to a quivering pile of Jell-O. I looked ahead, hoping for a break on more gradual terrain, but instead I was met with a 500-foot wall with dozens of switchbacks scarring its face. Part way up the climb, I pulled my pack off and sat, legs splayed in the middle of the trail. I rummaged around in my pack for the candy bar I had been saving all day. I pulled out one item after the other until the entire contents of my pack lay in the middle of the trail. I frantically searched the pile, and my stomach sank as I realized that I had left my candy bar in my truck. I settled for a bland energy bar and stood up feeling slightly rejuvenated.
Near the top of the cliff, I rounded a corner and was met by a strong gust of wind that filled my mouth and nostrils, nearly gagging me. I staggered back a half step and leaned into the wind as I caught a glimpse of the canyon far below. I thought of Jack Kerouac’s epiphany in The Dharma Bums; “you can’t fall off a mountain,” he had proclaimed in euphoria. Fuck you, Jack Kerouac. That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course you can fall off a mountain. And if this wind keeps up, I will likely fall to my unceremonious death 3 miles from the end of this godforsaken hike.
Day hikers trickled by me on their way down the trail. Most of them smiled and said hello. I tried to say hi, but my response was swallowed by my heavy breathing and came out as a grunt. “How dare they say hi to me. I’m in misery…MISERY! And they have the nerve to be happy around me?!” I seethed. Surely this was their fault, I wanted to believe. But I knew I was the only one to blame. I hadn’t trained as much as I would have liked. I knew this hike would be a struggle for me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my partner. And yet—and yet—there I was, less than three miles from completing two traverses of the Grand Canyon in one day. I glanced at my watch. I had hoped to finish in exactly 14 hours, which would have meant I had averaged three miles per hour, including breaks, a feat I had not even accomplished on the Pacific Crest Trail last summer in the peak of my hiking performance. At the pace I was going, this goal was just beyond my reach. Had I trained harder, I probably wouldn’t have tanked during the final climb out of the canyon. But I didn’t. And I wouldn’t reach my goal.
As I staggered up the canyon, the wind pushed my sleeve back to reveal the ink on my arm, a line from my favorite song: “All you keep is the getting there.” In my delirium, I rolled line around in my mind again and again. Despite my misery and sense of failure, I felt a surge of happiness as I realized I had been given a gift. I had found my limit. At the root of all the semi-questionable goals I pursue is the desire to redefine my limits—to reach the edge of what I think is possible and go beyond it. And there I was at the edge of what I felt capable of. It felt good to have something to push against. I felt as though I was at the edge of a force field; it pushed me away as I railed against it. By failing to meet my goal, I would know definitively where my limits lay. And this struggle was all mine to keep. I would remember it long after the blisters on my feet had healed and my muscles had recovered. I thought back to my giddy descent into the canyon and journey back in time to the Precambrian. I had walked along the river, running my hand along the schist and quartzite that the river had traced long ago. The towering walls of the canyon were the relics of the river’s passage from Colorado down through Mexico. The water that had carved this canyon had long since dissipated, but the cliffs continued to silently tell the story of its journey.
I glimpsed the South Rim and tried to quicken my pace to no avail. As I rounded the final switchback, I heard a holler and looked up. My hiking partner stood at the edge, smiling down, arms lifted overhead. I grinned as I closed the distance between us and wrapped my sweaty arms around him. Back on the pavement at the lookout, I crumpled on the ground and sat for a moment before toppling over on my side. I lay immobile for a moment before getting to my knees and slowly rising to my feet. I looked back once more across the expanse I had covered that day. I thought again of the water that had poured through the canyon. I thought about how I too had wandered along the same path, and though I would soon leave, the canyon walls would be there to tell of my journey.