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The Hottest Week Of My Life
In 2007 a group of nine students and two mentors from George Wythe College spent five days backpacking through Dark Canyon, in southeastern Utah.
by Nels Jensen
thunder cracks. something in my soul resounds
Dark Canyon is a giant crevice carved out by eons of river flow and seasonal erosion. It is a channel for water flowing through southeastern Utah from the Abajo mountains to Lake Powell.
We stood at the canyon rim gazing out into a vast maze of jagged sandstone walls plummeting thousands of feet below the plateau. This is one of the most remote places in the Southwest. Nobody comes here by accident. But why would anyone come on purpose? If you come to Dark, you are seeking something—something the canyon offers to all, but gives only to the few who are willing to pay the price to become acquainted. I didn’t know what that price was, but I was about to find out.
Canyon walls plunged 3,000 feet below. It was majestic, and intimidating. I faced the canyon and took into my mind’s eye its entire expanse, then said softly, “I’m here to find out what mysteries you hold.” And it seemed to reply, indifferently, “only if I let you.”
Have you ever realized what a tyrant the sun can be? It beat down upon us from above, then reflected up from the bedrock like heat escaping from an oven, trapping us in its web. Ahead lay a grueling descent on a steep switchback trail riddled with loose rocks and dirt. We began the plunge. I hiked with Mercedes, one of the students. Struck with terror by the gaping jaws of the canyon beneath her, she inched along the trail, often crouching to move on all fours. Halfway down she confessed, “this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
Five hours later we lay sprawled in the shade of a few scraggly cottonwoods at the canyon floor. The sun went down, but the heat never went away. It left us with a too-long-in-the-sauna feeling. Never quite allowing us to cool off before rising again in its fury.
The muddy creek gurgled nearby. Its waters, rife with sediment, bore the same ruddy brown color as the soil. This was our life-source. We had to clean our filters after every quart of water pumped. I felt a sense of reverence for the water. Over the next few days it would be our only source of coolness and hydration. I’ve never been so happy to swim and bathe in muddy water. It was like balm.
Dark Canyon taught us several lessons—let me share a few of them.
a sense of the sacred
Through the five days we journeyed in this wilderness not a drop of water fell from the sky. We slept on top of our sleeping bags in the open desert air. The new moon rose early, casting shadows on the rock—telling a story the sun will never know. Sleep came in a matter of seconds. During the night I opened my eyes for a moment and was stunned by the sea of stars overhead. It took my breath away. I knew then that we were in a sacred place.
Sadly, in our modern world we often lose our sense of the sacred. Nature teaches us the discreet truth. All life is sacred, for it bears the fingerprint of the Creator. There in the desert, we were surrounded by life—by the sacred. Plants and trees, insects and animals, stoically content with their lot, were living a life of peace. Everything that supports life is sacred, for it is the raw material of creation. Water is sacred—it is the purifying and life-giving agent of the planet. Cold is sacred—it teaches us to build a hearth and kneel around it. Heat is sacred—it sears away our inner pollutants. Light is sacred—it teaches us that we see only by grace. Wind is sacred—it carries us home, it cools us, it chastens us.
Every person is sacred. Do we remember this? If we’re not careful, the humdrum of life and the noise of civilization will drown out the voices that teach us about sacred things. (By nature, all these voices are quiet.) We learn it from the stars, from the soil, from the water. When I’m in nature, I have an innate sense of reverence for all life. When I’m in civilization, I often get so busy that I fail to notice the sacredness that surrounds me.
life is fleeting, soul is deathless
We hiked in the shadow of a timeless rock fortress, and began to understand the fleeting nature of our own lives. We live out life’s day and pass on, but the rock remains, holding the silent tales of the past. To be confronted with our own smallness—our mortality—is a very good thing. Nature teaches that flesh is tender and life a gift to be nurtured. It demands that we learn that soul is undying, older than granite and purer than a glacial lake. It makes us face these things about ourselves, and we secretly need this cold hard truth: That we possess bodies of weakness, and souls of power. Furthermore, Nature does not recognize the artificial or time-driven. It pays no attention to it because it knows that there really is no such thing as artificial. There are only good or bad copies of Nature’s perfect design. Nature embraces life and death, struggle and grace, peace and war, calm and fury, heat and cold, pain and joy. It sees all these things in their true light, as passing moments in an everlasting cyclical revolution. Do we thank the Universe that there are truths and laws that exist above the myopic perspective of modern times? Time is fleeting, and is therefore to be applied with purpose and vigor.
we are not created for a staid life
Our society is sick, and we don’t know it. Our disease is fear of pain. Think about these words. What are they describing? What kind of feelings do they evoke? Antiseptic. Sterile. Plastic. Enclosed. Climate-controlled. Insulated. Comfort zone. Gated community. Security. Risk free. Cubicle.
It’s fine if these words describe our communities or workplaces, but what if they also describe our selves?
In contrast, consider these words. What does nature have to teach us? Silence. Vulnerability. Beauty. Resilience. Peace. Harmony. Honesty. Courage. Purity. Order. Freedom. Wildness. Truth.
These are the words that ought to describe us. Society is full of plastic surgery and the daytime drivel of the TV world, sue-happy attorneys with endless willing clients, sterile communities where neighbors never meet. In some ways it seems that we’ve blanketed ourselves in a pain-phobic culture of comfort. We insulate ourselves from cold, heat, sweat, fear, danger, pain, work—all the things that God told nature to give us for our strengthening and refinement.
Our days in Dark Canyon were painful, and joyous. Every day we faced the heat. Every day it overwhelmed us. Yet we grew stronger. We loved the water, and shade and the night more. We admired the trees for standing up to that sun every day. There were times when I contemplated an early exit from Dark—the thought of an icy Gatorade was pretty tempting. Then Melissa, another student, taught me a lesson I’ll always remember, “The desert can be quite a hospitable place, if you let it.” It was me not the desert that had the problem. I wanted a painless road instead of learning to find meaning and joy with the pain. As I began to submit to my surroundings, a new vision opened up and I saw how the desert was nurturing me.
A knee-jerk aversion to pain is standard human behavior. But deep inside we know we were not created for a staid life. To seek to place oneself in a risk-free state is an attempted denial of the very nature of our existence. Life is one giant contingency plan, punctuated by moments of chaos and seasons of bliss. Why not embrace the fundamental nature of our sojourn here? So many do not do, because they will not try, and will not try for fear of failure. When God sent Adam and Eve into the lone and dreary world, was there any mitigation of risk? Providence was their insurance. Have we forgotten that a part of us is supposed to be wild?
that which is harsh can also nurture
At the end of our second day in the canyon, we sat together and talked in the restfulness of the evening. The question was asked “what did you learn from the desert today.” Brian spoke of his ordeal. The heat. The exertion. The blisters making him wince at every step. I could see a mixture of pain and relief on his face. “There are things in my life that I’ve needed to face for a long time, but haven’t. Today I had to face them.” I watched Brian throughout the course of the trip, and I could sense and inward process of change. The heat of the canyon was literally searing out impurities, leaving a purified vessel. Simultaneously a harsh and needful lesson was being taught and nurturing being given to bind up the wounds. Nature never apologizes—although we sometimes wish she would. Her law is unbending. Thank God for that. As I watched this process I asked myself “where else could he be learning this?” Nature is God’s classroom.
Nature simultaneously softens and hardens us. Through raw contact with the elements we become inured to cold, heat, hunger, thirst, uncertainty and—our egos. Nature quiets the minor complaints of the body, and dulls the ego, whereas civilization too often is designed to feed them. We create our own little customized safety pod where we live out a lonely, thing-oriented, image-conscious life. Where we look to the latest trends to find out what we need. When we get outside our own little world and get immersed in nature, we become keenly aware of our surroundings and our inner and outer condition. This awareness kills vanity. It makes us real. It teaches us that time is a gift to be savored.
education in the wilderness
Wild places teach us lessons that we learn nowhere else. Our journey through Dark Canyon ended all too quickly. I can still remember the breathlessness of the night sky and the glorious rising of the sun on the last day. We’d been humbled, purified, strengthened and renewed by the desert. This is something that everyone should experience.
George Wythe College offers one-week outdoor courses during the fall and winter semesters, and a four-week summer course, the Mountain Seminar.
During the Mountain Seminar students and faculty engage in reading and discussion of world classics on leadership, relationships, spirituality, courage, and so on. We also engage in outdoor learning activities such as hiking, backpacking, astronomy, rock climbing and rappelling. During the last two weeks of the Mountain Seminar we embark on a backcountry expedition. This year we’ll be backpacking through Wyoming’s Wind River range. We’ll catch trout, summit peaks, cross the continental divide, swim in mountain lakes, experience a solo day, meditate and talk around the campfire. Experience in the outdoors is a vital aspect of building statesmen who are in touch with nature and ready to lead.
Nels Jensen is a full-time faculty member of George Wythe College. He holds a Masters degree in Political Economy from George Wythe. He and his wife, Suzanne, have three children.