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Cathedral Wash, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

I pulled up to the fee-box at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and saw they were no longer collecting fees due to COVID-19, so I picked the "Moderate" hike on their information board and followed the road to the trailhead, which was lined with a few cars. I threw on my Camelbak and walked through the culvert to Cathedral Wash, an incredible high-walled slot canyon carved from centuries of Colorado River tributary water--for perspective, many scientists estimate the Grand Canyon is around six million years old.

The scorching sun streaked that Westward gold and split the rocks into a mile of shadows, so that I rested flat against cooler walls to relieve the oppressive heat. A family of five passed me a few minutes into the hike, but then there was no one, just the violent buzz of a hummingbird and single birdsong floating to the reassuring blue sky--storm clouds would be welcome anywhere but here, where parts of the hike are so tight and steep you're balancing on seams and trying not to slip while you scramble. And of course, rainwater in the enclosed space poses the particularly horrifying threat of swallowing you whole.

I ran my hands along the pockmarked limestone and gazed at pools of mud, the cracks on top like the skin of fresh-baked brownies. Hikers placed little cairns along the trail to help others navigate the sides and avoid the mud traps, and these felt so ancient, like the petroglyphs scattered throughout the Glen Canyon region and my dad's backyard, South Mountain Park & Preserve, which has stone drawings from the Hohokam (pre-historic peoples said to be the only culture in North America that relied on irrigation, from the nearby Salt River, to supply water to their crops).

The cairns felt oddly comforting--not because I was too worried about getting lost (I could only get stuck, not lost, vertically, not horizontally), but because my desire for solitude exists as a function of being a visible, active part of society the rest of the time. The little piles of rock were an unobtrusive reminder that the noiseless echo chamber through which I walked was one of the park's most popular hikes, well-traveled by fellow humans but today, incredibly, mostly mine. I was alone in this still space, between walls and canyon floors that arched and sloped like water itself.

I heard the rushing sound of the Colorado River about an hour into the hike, and then navigated some large rock scrambles to get to the edge where I could gasp at the perfect white-capped emerald, this 40-degree gem that pooled crystal-clear in my hands and snaked around the canyon along pockets of piping hot sand. I stood at the river's edge for nearly an hour, wading calf-deep and running away, my feet so cold they burned hot, like dry ice. Two teenagers waved at me and crawled along big rocks toward the middle of the river, and then a couple on their honeymoon shared my spot with me as I splashed my flushed skin, over and over. The man walked knee-deep into the water and executed a submerged pushup, and his whole body tightened like a fist as he yelled and ran back to the shore.

We were joined a few minutes later by a 70-year-old couple, married 35 years, with a dog that obeyed heel! and could jump up steep cliffs. The woman sat down on a rock and rinsed the deep mud from her ankle and said things like, "Well, [age] is a discovery, but you're only as old as you think you are!"

I said goodbye after a while and got a headstart back, but I took the wrong vertical way and backtracked behind the older couple, whom I finally caught up with despite my comfortably slow pace. The man walked ahead as I chatted with the woman, who was a teacher for so many years, who grew up in Hollywood back before it got crazy and moved to Saudi Arabia with her first husband.

We exited that millions-year-old canyon side by side, separated in age by 40 comparatively minuscule years. At our cars, before she wished me well on my journey, she told me the story of her mom, who died at age 103. "Am I dying?" her mom had asked, and she had replied, "Yeah, you are." And her mom said, "Well, that's weird. We're all a little too young."

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