The World That Was Born

Tuesday was a rough day. Libbie was towed up, over, and then down the steep, curving highway along Monarch Pass. Later we wound our white-knuckled way up the steeper, narrower, and more twisted road to the entrance of Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Then we rattled our nerves as we clattered and swerved our way through the too-few and too-tight spaces of the “cramped-ground” seeking a spot to call our own for the next four nights.

After three failed attempts to fit into as many sites, and enduring painful scratches on poor Libbie’s side from a scrub oak’s spiteful fingers, Glenn and I finally squeaked into a narrow slot and staked our claim. Sweaty, we exhaled a sigh of relief despite the heat of the late summer afternoon.

But the day wasn’t done.

No, no, no.

We still needed to chock and level the trailer, unpack our screen pavilion, set up the table and chairs, roll out and stake the outdoor rug, set up the chaise lounges, place the wood next to the fire ring, sweep the day’s gravel from the entryway, plan our dinner, stop by the visitor center, obtain trail maps, sign up for the ranger tours, drive to the overlook, take a walk, and … 

Wait. What was going on?

Seemed my nervous energy had created an endless list of things that needed doing now.

It did not escape my notice that this corresponded with our first stay outside our old, familiar Colorado camping and hiking haunts. Blessedly, sitting with Glenn later that evening gazing at the countless stars in the black sky helped to quell my restlessness so I could wrest some sleep.

As if fueled by daylight, my trepidation rose again with the sun on Wednesday morning.

Lying in bed that chill morning in this unfamiliar place, I truly, deeply, and sincerely realized we don’t have a place to go back to.

We spent our lives striving for stability. Now we’ve tossed that aside to embrace the freefall of the unknown? So many things could go terribly, terribly wrong. While I can’t count all those theoretical misfortunes, if left alone, I can imagine many of them in ferocious, freakish detail.

Also, where’s all my stuff?

And where are all the people and places and streets I’m used to? Why did we take such drastic steps away from the familiar trappings of our lives? We’ve thrown ourselves onto a path without a clue of where it leads!

And all that was before coffee.

Once turbo-charged with caffeine, my worry carousel spun itself into a nauseating, whirring blur.


Such was my preoccupied mental state as I, nonetheless, pulled on my hiking gear and headed out to the ranger-led tour of the canyon’s rock formations we’d signed up for the day before (whose bright idea was that, anyway?).

Where the Sidewalk Ends

At the Visitors Center we met Ranger Paul, a trim, middle-aged white man with polished black hiking boots, rimless glasses, and peppered hair peeking out from under his flat-brimmed ranger hat. Fringe from his short beard escaped the confines of a facemask printed with songbirds through which he cheerfully introduced himself as our guide. Once he confirmed everyone on the sign-up list was present, he led our group of nine adults toward the sheer 2,000-foot crevasse that is the Black Canyon.

As we turned and first glimpsed that gaping chasm, I paused to fling the threat of imminent and catastrophic physical harm onto the whirling platform of my then very cluttered worry wheel.

Before continuing onto the gravel trail, Ranger Paul paused and asked us to stop and see what we noticed about where the sidewalk ended, saying he would ask about it later. Knowing this was a geology tour, I dutifully examined the ordinary-looking, rosy-hued concrete edge and made vain, halfhearted efforts to classify the larger square-edged stones on the adjacent dirt trail knowing it would do no good since geology is lost on me.

Plus, that looming abyss!

Our first up-close encounter with the Black Canyon starts where the sidewalk ends.

Winding out and then further out, the path took us close (but not too close) to the edge of what we had come to see.

Both our jaws quite literally fell open and we stood, staring at that impossible rocky cliff that seemed to appear instantly. Its depths were a stark and sudden contrast to the nearby sleepy, dusty hills that gave no hints of the geological surprise tucked away here.

The scale and urgency of this astonishing sight shoved my worries aside. Ranger Paul now had my attention; I wanted to know how this grand, colossal fissure came to be hidden in such an unassuming place.

His delivery began on target for me: factual but accessible to my geology-resistant mind. Employing cooking metaphors, he explained how the granite (a piquant mélange of feldspar, hornblende, mica, and quartz), schist (pressure-cooked sandstone), and gneiss (rolled and kneaded granite) formations arose. But things really didn’t get interesting until this massive mass was carved by the Gunnison River, then sliced and chopped by ice melting and refreezing to ultimately be served up as this, the third-deepest canyon in the United States.

So far so good.

… Until he pulled out a worn copy of the book Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

He was spared the condescending eye roll hidden behind my sunglasses as he opened the dogeared pages to the title entry and made some cursory introduction about how this poem had inspired him. A product of U.S. public education in the 70’s and 80’s, I was force-fed Shel Silverstein. My teachers were so enamored of his work, the perennial exposure dulled its effect on me. I later came to dismiss it as a trite reflection of childhood – just one step above Dr. Seuss’ sing-songy ABCs. Fine for children, but we all grow up and move on.

I understood that Ranger Paul needed to make his presentation accessible to all ages, but he was speaking to a group of adults. Could he not have had a more lofty piece in reserve to accommodate his mature audiences and this grand setting?

Peppermint Wind

The profound is often found in the simple.

Inhaling a deep breath of the crisp morning air, I checked my cynicism and tried to remain open as I listened to him read the first of the poem’s three stanzas aloud.

There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To cool in the peppermint wind.

He asked us to consider what Silverstein meant by “peppermint wind.” Of course, at that moment my lungs and body were infused with the sharp, nearly-autumn air permeating this timeless place.

He shared that, to him, this poem served as a reminder to step away from the world that was made to explore the world that was born.

Contempt melted into contemplation.

This kind man’s earnest perspective reminded me that this, of course, was our reason for leaving all the familiar trappings of our lives behind.

Heeding the lure of wanderlust, we too want to explore the world that was born, not made.

A Walk Measured and Slow

Ranger Paul led us further down the path whose gravel gave way to solid stone outcroppings. Grappling with our shared fear of heights, Glenn and I carefully ventured closer to the unguarded rim, daring ourselves toward the precipice to look down. That new vantage point revealed sharp, dramatic spires and dark crevices that were concealed until we had pushed ourselves into that (very) uncomfortable territory.

Only near the edge, could we see spires and other dramatic structures deeper in the canyon.

Out came the book again, as our guide read the second stanza:

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Leave the place where the smoke blows black, indeed.

My smoggy daily commutes are now a faded memory, as are my confining work clothes along with my conscripted, conflicted, constricted behavior. We’ve bid farewell to the congestion and crowds of so, so many people to the edge of that proverbial sidewalk … and then stepped off.

Continuing the cliffside hike, slowing our steps with wide respect of the sheer edge, we reached our final stop. The awesome striations marking each type of stone granted us a small peek into the mysterious geologic processes that gave birth to this remarkable place and a little about ourselves.

The marbled schist of the Painted Wall at Black Canyon of the Gunnison

Ranger Paul concluded the recitation.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes. I will walk measured and slow.

At the end of the hike, both my trepidation and cynicism were overshadowed, rendered mute by the wonder and curiosity remembered from childhood.

When I dared to go beyond where the sidewalk ends.

The water of the Gunnison river is icy cold, but not too cold for toe-dipping!!

The past three days here have been both humbling and energizing. What an amazing contrast of geometry and geology!

Hardy flora and fauna have woven their inexorable way into the landscape, which we tried to capture in some of the pictures here.

Also, we took a bike ride along the South Rim Road that must have been designed by M.C. Escher. We swear the ride was UP both ways!!

One comment

  1. You are both AWESOME.
    Looking forward to more of your exploits and explorations.
    And, just a gentle reminder, you can go home again.

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