There I stood on a precipice. It was no metaphor. I gazed at the canyon floor some thousand feet below, my internal monologue of the moment transforming into internal dialogue, a debate with the self. I wondered what it would be like, those terrifying seconds of falling. Would that split second of pain, of bones breaking and organs rupturing, linger beyond the moment of death, or would it all quickly vanish into nothingness? You often hear that suicide is the easy way out. I wasn’t so sure. Nevertheless, I was on a mission of sorts, and after I cleared my head of morbid thoughts I decided I was going to the bottom of that canyon rather than not.
I’d spent the previous winter dragging through chemo and radiation, and the spring trying to recover from it. Here in late June was the first time since then that I’d challenged myself physically in any meaningful way. This particular trek into Canyon De Chelly follows a steep switchback down a sheer cliff. The hard part would be the return trip. The sun would be higher in the sky by then and more potent than it already was. But I had to prove to my weakened self I could do it.
Not far from the top, only a few yards into the descent, the trail led into a tunnel through the rock. It was heaven in there, to be honest. Freakin’ paradise on such a day in the Arizona desert. A natural breeze swept through continuously, making it feel for all the world like air conditioning. I rested there for a minute or so, and then begrudgingly left those comforts behind in the darkness. Somewhere in that canyon was a millennium-old Anasazi cliff dwelling and I wanted to see it. That was my reason for the trip if anyone asked.
The one-way distance from the trail head to the cliff dwelling was a mile and a half—most of it vertical. I made it down the wall and across the canyon okay. I didn’t figure that would be much of a problem and it wasn’t. But after I got my fill of the ruins and the accompanying hieroglyphs, with my head tilted back I contemplated the bluff that stood between me and a real success. The sun was now straight overhead in a cloudless sky, the temperature in the middle nineties. As it turned out, I could only take the ascent in segments, three-minute cycles of walking and resting. Then two-minutes walking, four resting. I wasn’t yet ready for something like this. Most of the walking was done with my hands on my knees and my tongue visible. The water from my bottle did its best to put out the fire in my throat, but after several agonizing stretches of climbing ever higher, it was no match for nature. I’d been thinking I’d made a mistake for some time now. I creased my eyes in the harshness of the unfiltered light. Everywhere tiny rocks sparkled and reflected the pelting rays of the noonday sun. The RV-size boulders that squeezed me into various sideways aspects from time to time exhaled heat. Every step was more grueling than its predecessor. I had moments of doubt—many of them, in fact. I kept pushing, though. I kept pushing up that interminable bluff and through those torturous sunbeams because I was propelled by a certain bit of knowledge: I never forgot that there’d be a tunnel at the end of the light.