"Mom, this is boring. This is SO boring."
Only a 13-year-old could call the greatest wonder of the natural world boring.
We had arrived at the Grand Canyon the day before, and I had imagined us settling into our rooms at the Bright Angel Lodge right at the South Rim, then exploring the rim trail as a family and seeing the varied, magnificent, marvelous Canyon from that perspective. But all Cory wanted to do was hike down to the bottom.
"No way," I said. His ten-year-old sister, Rosie, would never make it to the three-mile mark, let alone to the bottom of the canyon and back. Neither would I, for that matter, and I even wondered about my husband.
But of course there's no arguing with an adolescent in that mode. Luckily, my husband, John, volunteered to do a more ambitious hike with Cory while Rosie and I took the bus out to Hermit's Rest, the furthest point a vehicle can go, and continue our own "boring" hike. That was great, I thought: They'll get to have a "guy" adventure, and Rosie and I will get to see the Canyon. And so we split up. Rosie and I enjoyed the lovely bus ride along the rim, which was more awesome at every turn. By the time we got back to Grand Canyon Village, it was almost two p.m. We returned to our room and found John reading a book.
"Where's Cory?" I asked.
"I don't know," John frowned, "I got back to where I'd left him, but he was nowhere to be found. I haven't seen him since."
I stared at him. "But I thought you were going to do something together," I said, a hard edge of accusation in my voice.
"I thought so too," John said, "and we would have, if . . ." his voice trailed off into helpless silence.
And I knew. As plainly as if I could see him heading down the trail, I knew Cory was hiking into the depths of a chasm almost 300 miles long and over a mile straight down to the Colorado River.
My heart began pounding with fear as I envisioned the worst-case scenario -- my baby, my first-born, alone in the Grand Canyon. What if he tripped on the trail and fell off a cliff before he could stop himself? Horrified, I could see him falling, hands reaching out to grasp at nothing, his poor young body turning over and over in the air and smashing onto a ledge, totally hidden from view. Other hikers would never see him; the vultures would tear at his body until only the bones were left, days or weeks later. Or he might fall off a cliff and break his neck, but hikers would find him and determine who he was by the sole piece of identification in his pocket, the room key. But what if the room key fell out during his fall? How long should we wait to notify the authorities that our son was missing somewhere between Grand Canyon Village and the Colorado River?
I tried to calm myself down, reminding myself of my son's sure-footedness, his ingenuity and smarts, which he did possess even if common sense was lacking. But what worried me more than my spectacularly horrifying fears of him hurtling to his death was that he had set off without food or water. The warning signs that were posted everywhere along the trail suddenly gained new meaning as I contemplated my missing son: DON'T start to hike the trail without water, DON'T attempt to descend to the river and return in one day; remember it takes twice as long to climb up as it does to go down and you have to allow 12 hours for the complete trip. And yet there he was, a 13-year-old boy alone on the trail, no food and no water, as far as I knew. I imagined the worst.
We made an attempt to get through the rest of the afternoon normally, or as normally as possible when a fourth of your family is missing in action in the Grand Canyon. I tried to hide my growing panic behind an outward appearance of calm for Rosie's sake, but Rosie was caught up in the melodrama. "Is he lost? Is he hurt? Is he going to die?" Her anxious questions spilled out and I gulped hard before trying to assure her that everything would be all right. John was quiet, his face signaling to me that he was equally upset -- and feeling guilty that he hadn't been more vigilant.
We decided we'd give him until dinnertime to return before we reported his absence. But we couldn't wait much past six p.m., because the sun would be setting and it would get dark. And then what? I wondered. Would they call out the Rangers? Would they call Phantom Ranch, the campsite in the depths of the Grand Canyon, to find out whether he ended up there? I could just see it, Cory deciding to spend the night at the bottom, totally oblivious to the fact that you had to make reservations months in advance.
By 4:45 I couldn't wait any longer. Rosie and John and I set off with some water and some Gatorade in a backpack and started down the Bright Angel Trail. At one point I saw a lone figure coming up the trail about two hundred feet below us, and my heart leapt. "John," I said, "Look there." He peered through the binoculars, but it wasn't our son. After a while, Rosie announced she was tired, so we turned around and went back up. We returned to our hotel, hoping to find Cory sprawled on the bed, waiting for us. The room was empty.
At that moment the enormity of my own helplessness was overwhelming. This young boy, our son, the baby of whom I felt so fiercely protective, the schoolboy I prodded to excel, the budding artist whose creativity and sense of humor we had continually nurtured - how could he have grown up to the point that he could go off on his own, without me, and risk his life? I felt swamped by grief and loss, and nauseous from the juxtaposition of the creeping cold fear I felt for Cory and the need to be reassuring for John and Rosie's sake.
We moved as if by rote through the routine of eating dinner, returning to the family restaurant we'd eaten at the night before to provide a familiar atmosphere for Rosie's benefit and to be in a location Cory would know, if and when he reappeared. I had no appetite. Our food came and I mechanically chewed and swallowed past the lump in my throat, while we scanned the faces of people entering the dining room and scrutinizing everyone walking by the window where we sat, hungry for a glimpse of our son.
Suddenly I heard John say, "And there he is." Looking up, I saw that indeed, it was Cory, ambling nonchalantly toward us. The intensity of my relief was enormous. I could feel laughter, tears, and anger threatening to overtake me, but I also saw the weariness in Cory's face. So I swallowed my mouthful of salad, along with all the accusations and recriminations I was tempted to spew at him, and kept my face utterly blank as he slid into the booth next to his sister.
"Hungry?" I asked.
He was ravenous, of course. He ate his sister's beef chimichanga, drank a full glass of water in a single gulp. And then the story came out.
He hadn't meant to go all the way to the bottom of the Canyon, he said, he was just heading for the Plateau Point, where you can look out and down to the river below. But he took a wrong turn, and found himself in the Indian Gardens, at the river's edge. He emptied his water bottle and filled it up with the Colorado River water as a souvenir, snapped a couple of photos with his digital camera, including one of himself -- for proof -- and headed back up the trail. He said it wasn't true about taking twice as long to climb as to descend, because he'd left at about noon and he got down to the bottom at 2:30. And he had walked in to the dining room at 5:58 -- just two minutes short of our deadline to notify the park rangers about his disappearance.
I struggled with the sheer complexity of my feelings as I listened to his story, but all I said when it was over was, "Well, I don't condone what you did, but we sure are glad to see you."
Later that night, after he had taken a bath and was fast asleep, I started thinking about the rites of initiation practically every culture has devised for boys on the brink of manhood. Whether it's memorizing a passage from the Torah for his Bar Mitzvah, or spending the night alone in the wilderness, these universal rituals serve to mark that unique moment in a boy's life in which he becomes a man. Hiking the canyon alone was Cory's rite of passage, the solo journey that made it official: he was no longer my little boy.
The day we left the Canyon, we browsed some photographs on display outdoors at the South Rim. Cory struck up a conversation with the photographer, who, it was evident from his work, had spent the better part of a lifetime capturing the entire Grand Canyon in its many colors and moods. When Cory told him of his experience hiking the Canyon alone, the man asked, "How long did it take you to go down and back up?"
"About six hours," Cory said, looking both modest and pleased.
"That's pretty good time," the photographer said. Then he began recounting the time when he was 17 and hiked down and back up again -- barefoot. He paused and gave a knowing smile. "It's just something you have to do," he told us.
Cory nodded and smiled, too.