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Sara Schaefer Camping in the Grand Canyon with my sister sounded like a great idea — until the fear set in

Would this be a trip where we bickered constantly, like we did as children? Or would this be a strengthening of our sisterly bonds?
Author Sara Schaefer in front of her tent in the Grand Canyon.
Author Sara Schaefer in front of her tent in the Grand Canyon.Courtesy Sara Schaefer

On the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, the campsites are mostly patches of sandy beach between the water and the cliff face. Some are tiny sand dunes, others are large thickets of seep-willow shrubs, desert broom and wait-a-bit trees.

After arriving at Sticky Beach, our first camp, our guide, Tyler, gave a quick lesson on how to set up our tents and cots. I was overwhelmed by the number of poles and strings and flaps.

“See? Pretty easy,” Tyler said, with the tone of a 10-year-old who just solved a Rubik’s Cube in 30 seconds.

I knew it would not be easy at all, and I also knew that setting up a tent would be the first test of Ross’ and my relationship. Would this be a trip where we bickered constantly, like we did as children? Or would this be a strengthening of our sisterly bonds? Everyone knows that assembling a tent with another human being is the single biggest threat to a relationship.

We calmly tackled the pile of silver poles and slippery waterproof fabric.

“No, wait. You hold the thingy,” I said.

“What thingy? I can’t see.” Ross said, irritation in her voice.

"Grand" by Sara Schaefer will be published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc on August 11, 2020.Gallery Books

We were working with items that could not have weighed more than eight ounces each, but we were sweating profusely trying to get them to all come together in the shape of a tent.

“Hang on, dammit.” A pole almost poked my eye out.

“Just tell me what to do,” Ross said.

We both knew we were one wrong move or testy comment away from becoming entangled in both the tent parts and a shouting match, but eventually we had a tent.

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Now all that was left was a search for “almost too heavy to lift” rocks to put inside the corners of the tent. Tyler had explained that winds whipped through the canyon without notice — not only could your tent blow away, but it could blow away with you inside it.

Boulders in place, Ross and I stood sweaty and breathless observing our house for the night. It looked cozy. She went to grab some water to cool down. It had been a lot of work for something that we had been told we would barely even use.

Boulders in place, Ross and I stood sweaty and breathless observing our house for the night. It looked cozy.

The guides said that sleeping inside the tents was most likely not a good idea, because they are essentially saunas in this heat. The only reason for a tent, they said, was if it started raining in the middle of the night. The only reason? I thought. I can think of plenty of other reasons. Like, say, keeping bats out of your hair, or preventing a rattlesnake from giving you a nonconsensual neck massage while you sleep.

Even though we were scared, Ross and I decided we wanted to follow the advice and attempt to sleep outside.

“I want to at least try everything on this trip,” Ross declared as we tackled setting up our cots. “Even if I’m scared. I want to say yes to it all.”

“Yes, I love that,” I said. What if I actively said yes to every moment? Maybe we would fail. But at least we could say we tried.

In the dark, our campsite did not seem cozy at all. It felt totally exposed. I had never slept outside-outside before. Not having walls as a barrier — even thin fabric walls — terrified me. It was Ross who had expressed fear about this from the start, but I was now really feeling the vastness of everything myself.

“Ross, I’m so scared. What if I can’t sleep?” I said.

“You can be next to the tent.” She offered to create a cushion between the wilderness and me, so that I might feel the tent wall and her own cot on the other side of me as a type of fortressing.

We lay down on our cots. I got inside my sleeping bag, hoping it would create an additional feeling of security, but it was way too hot. I didn’t want to sleep on top of it, because I wanted to be able to quickly get inside of it in case of a lizard attack. But I also didn’t want the top half of it flopped over the side of the cot and touching the sand, creating a tarantula on-ramp, so I just lay there, totally out in the open.

“Oh, my God, Sara, we are sleeping in the Grand Canyon! This is crazy,” Ross whispered.

I closed my eyes, thanked the universe for this moment, made peace with my demons, and finally became one with nature. I fell into a deep, soul-restoring sleep. Just kidding.

The stars in the sky twinkled, more than I thought possible. There was a blue glow coming from behind the canyon rim, making it easy to see that we were indeed inside the Grand Canyon. Somehow, this comforted me, and I started to feel protected by the canyon itself — something stronger than any structure made by a human.

I closed my eyes, thanked the universe for this moment, made peace with my demons, and finally became one with nature. I fell into a deep, soul-restoring sleep.

Just kidding — I tossed and turned and cussed for six hours straight. Our campsite, which we had originally thought was perfect, was actually a nightmare because it was set on a slight slope. Because the outside of my sleeping bag was silky, the entire thing kept sliding down the cot with me on top of it, and every 30 minutes or so, half my legs would be hanging off the bottom. Once I was readjusted, I would gradually start to drift off to sleep again, until the sound of a wave startled me awake or water would slap the bank. And the moon — my God, the moon! It was like a spotlight, so bright you didn’t need a flashlight.

I lay there, picking at every little thing in my head.

Finally, the heat gave way to cooler temperatures and sheer exhaustion put me under. About 90 minutes later, I awoke to clanking and banging noises floating up from the kitchen. I opened my eyes to discover that yes, I was actually still there, in this wild place, and it was even more beautiful than the day before.

I sat up on my cot and looked around. The tops of the cliffs were burning ember red in the dawn, and the air smelled like a combination of that distinct river scent and desert sage and morning dew. Even though I had barely slept, how could this scene make me feel anything other than like the refreshment of a thousand day spas?

People started stirring in the camp, and Ross sat up. She looked around and saw it, too. She smiled at me.

"We need to get a flat campsite next time,” I said.

“Yes. Yes, we do.” She laughed.

Back on the river, I felt as if I were finally ready for some clarity. Now that the initial shock of the first day had worn off, I was ready to be reborn. I waited for the life-changing revelations to come.

I feel nothing, I thought, staring at the most beautiful congruence of marble and limestone — Bright Angel Shale, a layer just now breaching the surface, a half-billion years old, a sure sign we are going deeper, farther, getting older. Surely this is symbolic of something.

After setting up another camp, we hiked to a place where four tiny square windows were carved into the rock face. These were the Nankoweap Granaries, where the Anasazi people stored food around 1100 A.D. As we climbed toward them, a late afternoon thunderstorm approached. Even though Matt had assured us that lightning rarely strikes inside the canyon, it turns out that it’s really hard to shake a lifetime of being told that you are definitely going to die if you are standing out in the open during a lightning storm.

"BOOM!" Thunder echoed through the canyon.

“Okay, that’s terrifying,” I panted as we climbed. The storm was getting closer, the hike steeper, and the raindrops fatter. I imagined the descent in a downpour and decided to turn back. As I faced down, I was startled by how high I’d climbed and had to lean against a boulder to steady myself.

The view was the most spectacular thing I’d ever seen in my life. Here, the Grand Canyon stayed relatively straight, and I could see the river snaking miles into the distance, the thunderstorm moving in, and the curtains of rain filtering the light.

As I took it all in, I realized this was my first time by myself on the trip. I suddenly spotted a distinct white dot on the hill much farther below me. I knew immediately that it was Ross, and I could just barely make out that she was trying to take a picture. I chuckled at how small she appeared, just a speck for scale.

There is something about seeing a tiny dot of a person I love from far away. I know the shape of you, even from a great distance. You are almost nothing in the landscape, but you are everything to me. I started to laugh, but the giggle jammed in my throat and started to convert to weeping. It was all just too much, and I thought, Here it comes, here comes the breakthrough.

But then, "CRACK!" Another lightning bolt spidered across the sky and set me scrambling down the hillside.

Whatever epiphany this place was going to bring me would have to wait.

Copyright © 2020 by Sara Schaefer. From "GRAND" by Sara Schaefer, published by Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. on August 11, 2020. Printed by permission.

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