July, 2016 Edition

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Bored in the Grand Canyon

Too isolated to receive wi-fi or cell signals, river runners remember the joys and curiosity of interaction

I pause at the last edge of shade and look back to make sure the rest of the hikers are still following me — they are — and with a step bordering on reluctance, pass from the shade of the cliff back into Arizona’s summer sun. Here the steep trail starts to flatten out. It brushes along the edge of a small grove of mesquite trees then slants to the south and parallels the river.
I look to my left, curious to see if anyone is camped at Upper Saddle and through a thin screen of willows, I see AZRA’s white rafts fanned out around the point of Upper Saddle’s angular beach. I walk another 150 feet along the river trail bordered with beavertail cactus, yucca and sagebrush, until I reach a spot where the trail sloughs off the river’s edge and onto a wide, sandy beach: Lower Saddle, our camp for the night.
I walk across the white sand beach to my raft, slaloming through tents and clothes drying on makeshift arrangements of beachwood until I reach my raft. I jump from the beach to the bow of the raft, drop my daypack into my raft’s front drop, and ease my weary self onto my oar seat.
My beautiful, sleek raft is one of seven rafts and I am one of eight guides. We work for Wilderness River Adventures, a commercial river company based out of Page, Ariz.
Three days of rowing has carried our little band of 32 river runners 47 river miles into the glorious depths of the Grand Canyon. Tonight, we’re camped on a beach called Lower Saddle, at the end of our third day of a 12-day oar trip in the Grand Canyon.
My water jug cools in the river, attached to my oarseat by a carabiner. I pull it from the river like a sluggish catfish, unscrew its cap and drink, so thirsty I’m unable to stop myself until I have an ice cream headache. I let the headache subside then take another long, satisfying pull.
And take a look around.
I see the shadow cast by the western cliff wall slowly spreading toward camp like an incoming tide. My gaze, already cast in that direction, next falls upon three ladies with their camp chairs huddled in the shade of a tamarisk tree. Two of them are reading novels, the third has fallen asleep with her novel open across her lap. From them, my view falls upon two of my fellow river guides, Jeffe and Siobhan, in the camp kitchen already preparing the ingredients for tonight’s dinner of Dutch oven green chili stew.
It’s the third week of June. The weather and river conditions are perfect for a Grand Canyon river trip. The day’s last rays of sun fall on the beaches outermost edges, its oblique angle illuminating the dune ripples like a Samurai sword’s Hamon line. The Colorado River flowing is the opaque glossy green of a Monarch Butterfly’s cocoon. And here where it runs past our camp it’s as flat and smooth as a freshly ironed sleeve.
Nets and webs of shonto (a beautiful Navajo word that means sunlight reflecting off water onto a cliff wall) glimmer and waver, contract and contrast on the river’s left cliff wall, a sheer wall of limestone rising 800 feet from river level. The golden lines of shonto shimmering on the orange-red cliff walls gives it the appearance of flickering flames crawling up the wall. A burning curtain.
Only half of the trip’s 24 passengers had accompanied me on the hike to the Saddle Canyon; some of them are still trickling into camp, being trailed by another of our guides so placed to make sure no one gets left behind. The other half of our passengers had remained in camp. The adults seduced by naps and novels, the kids enticed by river-edge beach games of Bocci ball and Frisbee.
At the upper end of camp, a group of five kids, between the ages of 12 and 15, are standing in a shallow band of the river throwing a Frisbee to each other in a star pattern. At the lower end of camp, a father and his daughter are standing in knee deep water, fishing. Their sandals wait for them on the beach like lonely puppies. The dad is showing his daughter how to loop the line over her finger as she casts. Their mom, one of the ladies reading in the shade of the tamarisk tree, looks up from her novel about once a minute to gaze contentedly upon the scene.
It was just four hours ago, while drifting through the calm water below President Harding Rapid, that one of my teenaged passengers pronounced, “I’m really bored.” So it does my heart good to see him standing knee deep in the river shallows playing Frisbee with his new-made friends. It appears that he is no longer bored.
Being bored on a river trip is much different from being bored at home. When we get bored at home, we too often alleviate our boredom by watching TV or Netflix, scrolling through Facebook or texting our friends.
Today’s passengers come from a high-tech, digital world. But the river, the canyon and everything in it, is still low-tech, no-tech and analog. Some passengers — like the teenager who declared his boredom earlier today — are so fully immersed in the modern world’s virtual world that they have trouble comprehending and interacting with the real world, with the analog experience of a river. It can take them a few days to acclimate back to the real world’s realness.
Ah, but that’s one of the best parts about a Grand Canyon river trip: we’re so remote and so deep in the canyon that we can’t get any kind of signal for our wireless devices. There’s no cellphone signal, no wi-fi. There’s no TV.
So people explore trails, they go fishing, they wade in the river. They read novels. They write in their journals and draw in their sketchbooks. They throw Frisbees with their kids, or play Bocci ball with their new friends. They sit on the riverbank and just stare at the beautiful river. They gather their chairs together and talk. They remember what it feels like to be a human being rather than a human texting, or scrolling or clicking. And they love it!
Until recently, humans have had just two options to deal with their boredom: get up and do something or sit there and endure it. Most people chose to get up and do something, and because of that desire our ability to feel bored could be called one of humanities greatest traits, because boredom, when combined with curiosity, led to greater creativity, invention and exploration.
But, as nice as it is to rise and escape one’s boredom there are many times when the demands of daily life force us to do tedious tasks. Such boredom has also borne many fruits, because such periods of boredom and tedium allow the mind time to wander, and the imagination time to imagine, and throughout history those periods led to more creative ways of thinking and problem solving, to introspection and inquiry.
Humans went on to develop our greatest art and technology, and make amazing discoveries about the world, the universe and how it works, because of our curiosity, because of the joy we found in creating, because of our passion to explore and see what lies beyond the known.
And because of our exploring, our creating, our hands-on building and experimenting we had deep, authentic experiences, and rich interactions with nature, our surroundings and each other, and we knew the joys of discovery, one of which was discovering the many amazing things we curious humans were capable of.
The satirist and poet Dorothy Parker famously said, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” But on July 14, 1930, humanity crossed a most singular threshold when humans created a new technology, which gave humanity a new cure to boredom: Television.
It took a while for this new technology to become widespread enough to affect everyday humans and our daily activities, but when it did, humans then had two main ways to engage with the world: The old method of active engagement, where we rose from our boredom and interacted with our world, and passive engagement where we sat before our screens and let the entertainment come to us.
Humanity has been flirting and experimenting with that line for the past 50 years, but now with the advent of light, portable, do-everything screens we’re migrating across the threshold to the passive side of engagement in Serengeti-like droves. Today it’s very common to spend hours each day watching TV, Netflix, browsing Facebook and playing video games. Texting, scrolling, clicking. And we seem to be quite content to do so. I suppose after half a century of mindless TV watching humans have been programmed (what a perfect TV-generation word) to complacently accept this dismal fate.
Some passive engagement, I believe, is fine in small, limited quantities. It allows a tired body and a restless mind to rest. But too much passive engagement and everything starts to stagnate. Then rot.
When future historians look back on this period of human existence with the perspective allowed to them by the distance of time, I think they’ll see a distinct division in human progression marked by today’s screen-age. Call it the screen-age threshold. On one side of the threshold, they’ll find a group of humans from the screen age who were content sating their boredom with their screens.
Nowadays our boredom is so easily alleviated that increasingly fewer people activate their curiosity, the one characteristic that makes humans the amazing beings we are. Which begs this question: Now that there is such an easy, ready remedy to alleviate our boredom, will human achievement decline? For most, I think it will.
But there is a second group of humans whose curiosity and genius, whose creativity and inventiveness were greatly enhanced during the screen age. There has always been that group of humans who prefer to explore and discover, to create and invent. That group, the creative class, will continue building new tools and new methods so they can continue pushing the boundaries of exploration and discovery.
For the creative class, the screen-age, with its easy access to information and fellow inventors, artists and explorers with whom they may collaborate, the screen age may well prove the greatest period of exploration, creation and invention in human history. For the curious human, the outlets for their boredom has increased exponentially in today’s screen age.
But sadly, I believe the outlet the majority of humanity will prefer will be the one they plug their screens into.
At Wilderness River Adventures, we have a tradition that we do at the end of every trip. We call it the Rat Pin Ceremony. The camp chairs are pulled into a circle and the guides pin a gold-plated rat on everyone’s collar, which makes them official river rats. After each person has had a rat pin pinned on them, each person is “given the floor” and they get to address their favorite parts of the river trip.
Almost without fail, the parents and grandparents who are on the trip with their kids and grandkids state that their favorite part about the river trip was the uninterrupted, face-to-face engagement with their family.
In today’s society, which is moving more and more into the virtual realm, we now, more than ever, need remote, wild places where we can take a vacation from our screens. We need signal sanctuary. We need secluded spaces where we can once again engage our best human qualities.
Places where we can engage that same curiosity that brought Powell here in the first place, where he filled in the last blank spot on America’s map.
This can happen anywhere. Whether you’re rafting in a deep canyon, fishing on Lake Powell, backpacking in southern Utah backcountry, or any adventure in any secluded place, pause a moment from your activity and be conscious of just how amazing it feels to once again be a human doing, thinking, moving, being, actively engaging with this beautiful world of ours.