And now, I was headed stateside for the first time in five months with a long way yet to go to reach my goal of seeing all 7 Natural Wonders in 12 months time.
Mark had touched down earlier that day, and greeted me in the warm California sunshine with open arms, a huge grin, and his mind made up that at least two of the Natural Wonders were going to happen during his three month visa stay in the US. After a few days working off jet lag in Southern Cali, we landed in Phoenix. My trusty Hyundai Santa Fe had been parked in my dad's driveway during my time abroad, so we spent a few days catching up with my paternal family, getting my vehicle ready for a road trip, and came up with a game plan: Mark and I were driving down to central Mexico to trek Paricutin Volcano before hitting the Grand Canyon and heading home to Colorado.
A few days later, we found ourselves in Tucson, Arizona. As we were putting together our planned Mexican tour, both of our families did their best to withhold their reservations about the trip. And once we got close to the border, we quickly realized the how dead on their concerns regarding the seriousness of cartel conflict in central Mexico were. I had always known that driving in Mexico would be a toss-up in terms of safety; a big part of me believes that much of the travel fear generated by media is blown out of proportion, if not completely unwarranted. After spending some time near the border and speaking with both travelers to Mexico and Mexican nationals, all, every single one of them, advised us to avoid Michoacan, the Mexican state housing my next Natural Wonder, Paricutin Volcano.
Normally, I'm the type to brush off rather than heed such advice. I was ready to soak up more sun and warmth and schedule in some beach time in Mexico after hiking Paricutin. Call it instincts, or wising up, or whatever, but after hearing so many warnings from so many people, we decided to put off Paricutin. For the time being at least.
We found ourselves sipping beers in a musty, dive, pirate-themed Irish Pub wondering what to do next. So what about north? Way, way north? To the frozen tundra of Fairbanks, Alaska by way of the icy Alaskan Highway to try our luck at catching the Northern Lights? A quick web search and a couple Department of Transportation phone calls confirmed a clear path up to the northern reaches of our nation.
We figured it would take us at least five days to drive the 3,500+ miles from Tucson to the Aurora Borealis capital of the world, but we were bound and determined to make it happen before the midnight sun started to creep north. We'd catch the very tail end of the Northern Lights viewing season if we hustled, and would need to schedule in stops in both Colorado (I had shipped my winter gear home from Nepal) and Montana (being an ocean loving Aussie, Mark came to the States with little outside of boardies and flip-flops. Lucky for us, my sister's husband has an abundance of winter wear and is about the same size as Mark).
But first things first, the Grand Canyon.
Those factors had me grossly underestimating the degree to which I would be blown away by the Grand Canyon. I was enchanted from the very first moment we drove up; the Grand Canyon is a lesson in contrasts, a study of details and layers, a cause for pause regarding the order in which we do things. The nearly 300 mile long, one mile deep scar of a canyon created by the Colorado River is visible from space, and stretches 17 miles across from North Rim to South at its widest point. The Grand Canyon is a gargantuan rip in the Earth that allows us to study rocks 1.7 billion years old. To walk through the Grand Canyon is, quite literally, to walk through history.
Mark and I hiked down 3,000 feet over six miles into the gorge to Plateau Point on the Bright Angel Trail, and followed it up the next day by heading to Skeleton Point, 2.5 miles in on the South Kabib Trail, 2,500 feet below the South Rim.
As we trekked deeper and deeper into gorge, I couldn't help but feel as raw and exposed as the rock around me, both emotionally and physically. On the quiet miles I shared with Mark in the Grand Canyon, I was struck at the metaphorical significance of it all. I was sharing my journey, my most important, biggest-deal dream ever with him. More importantly, he was putting his own life and career on hold for a couple months, prioritizing my goals and helping make it all happen.
I learned early on with the girls in Nepal that when traveling with others for an extended period of time, any sort of facade very quickly melts away. As Mark and I trekked into the Canyon, I realized the same would have to happen in my relationship with him. Life leaves its scars and shapes who we are; for a long, long time I'd always tried to hide my weaknesses, to cover up or minimize my flaws to dudes I date. As we walked, I recognized the striking beauty of exposed layers. How much I appreciated the depth and dimension of the Grand Canyon not in spite of, but because of my ability to see what this piece of Earth has gone through. Water and erosion continue to shape the Grand Canyon, and Mother Nature does not try to cover up her work. I was awestruck at the variety of colors and textures we saw as we hiked down along the trails, and realized what a rarity it is to be able to see such geological depth.
As we trekked along, I realized this man had traveled halfway around the world to get to know me better. I was not doing him, or me, any favors by only showing him the parts of me that I deemed worthy. The Grand Canyon was a timely reminder of beauty there is to be found in each and every layer of who we are. A lesson about how much we can learn about ourselves and from each other just by being and staying open, exposed. What we can gain by going through the motion of descending, going deeper, taking the time to appreciate not only the contrasts to be found by doing so, but also to truly consider the forces at play that shaped what we see. The Grand Canyon was a striking example of allowing the river of life cut away all the bullshit and to enjoy the view that unveils itself during the process.
You get where I'm going with this, right? The whole idea of being-proud-of-who-I-am-and-what-got-me-here thing. I can't even begin to count the times I've been struck, in the middle of what I'm doing, and thought "Wait, what the fuck am I doing with my life again?" or agonized over saying something incorrect, unintelligent, silly, or just downright wrong. Or the fun ways we see and focus on our physical "imperfections", like the endless losing battle of hair removal, finding just the right miracle product to achieve a certain effect, or searching for the exercise that will remove a bulge on this, that or the other spot on our bodies.
When I landed in LA, Mark had yet to see me with a stitch of makeup on, even once. I'm not sure why, but once I landed in the land of the free and home of the brave, I became very aware of that fact. And super self-conscious about it. Vacation mode was over, and my old insecurities came creeping back. I questioned choices I've made, what to share. Mark was here, on my turf, meeting my friends and family, seeing the places that shaped me, the layers of who I was and am.
Like anyone else, I can and have questioned myself, my decisions, even my passions and instincts. So I haven't always been the most secure with opening up, really and truly and fully, with people. But I climbed out of the trenches of the Grand Canyon with a profound appreciation for just letting it all be. For fuck's sake.
There's something to be said for being not just comfortable, but downright happy in my own skin, with my life and story and path and the little intricacies that have built me into who I am today. All of it. And for being aware of aspects of my past or personality that might not be palatable, but being proud of them just the same. To stop projecting some sort of image, and instead simply improve myself in positive, meaningful ways, little by little, but mostly just let myself be. And enjoy.
So whoa, Grand Canyon. Whoa. *dazed blink* Thank you. I'll continue to try to be the best possible version of me. I'll continue to try and put my best foot forward and be a more thoughtful, mindful, stronger, positive person than I was the day before. But now, thanks to you, I'll also stand a little taller, smile a little more proudly, and live each moment with the knowledge that I am who I am, and God, the Universe, whatever being is out and around and up there, that entity doesn't make mistakes. Even scars are beautiful. And showing people each layer, living and breathing our histories, our stories, well, that's when we'll shine the brightest.
So shine on friends. Be brave; be boldly, ecstatically, 100% your authentic self. The world will be better for it, I promise.
Those trails in the Grand Canyon were so happy for me, and I hope your trails these days are just as great!