Thursday, January 13, 2011


Several years ago, I was backpacking off the North Rim of the Grand Canyon when my party came across another group. It was one of the hottest among many hot days I have spent in that canyon, and the heat radiated off the ancient, black Vishnu Schist with what seemed to be a special ferocity. Sweat dripped like water as we made our way along the beach, bodies hunched beneath our backpacks, next to the booming Colorado.

We met the other party shortly after we had left the river and started up a side canyon. They told us they had separated from the rest of their group, that one of the others was struggling and moving very slowly. This first party was heading to the river for water. We wished them luck, said we'd keep an eye out for their friends, and moved on.

We never did come across the struggling hikers that day. We made our camp up the side canyon, next to the creek, beneath the cottonwood trees. The North Rim is famously remote - far fewer people visit or hike there than the more populated South Rim. We had driven an hour on a dirt road off a basically deserted highway to get to the trailhead. And so we speculated: perhaps they'd turned around to attempt to hike out? Maybe they were camped somewhere above us? But there was nothing, really, for us to do about it.

We sat in the shade and played cards into the afternoon, the encounter largely forgotten. But toward sunset, suddenly, we heard it: the unmistakable rhythm of a helicopter, the sound reverberating off the canyon walls. We stopped what we were doing, looked at each other. This part of the Grand Canyon is one of those treasured places our constant human ruckus has not reached, and for days we had heard nothing but birdsong, rushing water, and our own voices. But now this, all too familiar: the sound of trouble. It was distant and low and distinctly human. And to us, with no way of communicating with the outside world and the acute knowledge of our own isolation, it was foreboding. To the man being rescued (we found out later he was evacuated from the canyon, severely dehydrated, but fine), that sound was no doubt a symbol of safety and rescue. But to us it had the tenor of human affairs gone deeply awry - of rescue, yes, but also of combat, of emergency, of something being ushered away.

For five days now, helicopters have gathered over my hometown. They are amassing at the site of a great rift - a lurch, it seems, in the quiet way of things. They hover above the hospital where the victims of Saturday's shooting lie recovering, where the rows of news trucks, satellites aimed at some distant orbit, broadcast Tucson's tragedy across the world, and where the shrine to the victims every day grows larger, the entire scene more surreal. They wasp above the University of Arizona, where, as I write this, people are gathering by the thousands, twisting in lines across the campus, to hear the President of the United States speak some comfort to a shocked community.

The world has cleaved open a bit, and the helicopters are here, not so much to tend, as to record, the wound. Perhaps we long for them to carry us away, to bear rescue and hope rather than sorrow. But really, though it will take time, I think what we long for is silence, for a clear, blue Arizona sky, punctuated every so often with something both mundane and magical, something to remind us that the world is, once again, as it should be. Something clear and ordinary, like birdsong.

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