I wasn’t surprised to find the small ranger station at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s North Rim closed on the longest day of the year. My friend Paul, who works as a ranger at the South Rim, told me only two rangers man the station—and their function was mostly to oversee hikers venturing into the canyon via one of the “routes.” A two-hour drive from the more accessible and visited South Rim, the North Rim’s remoteness was exactly what I was seeking.
About half mile from the ranger station I found the campground. With temperatures in the high 80s at 8,500 feet (not unusual for the arid Colorado Plateau), I was happy to see the tall junipers and pinyon pines casting long shadows over picnic tables and tent pads. The campground was about half full when I arrived, but far more private than the larger South Rim campground which is tight on space. A vacant site with a peek of the South Rim’s canyon wall had my name on it. After setting up camp, I discovered a well-trod switchback trail starting right at my campsite. I followed along, slipping a few places since I was in my camp slippers, and about ten minutes later came to an amazing view right at the rim’s edge.
Nearly 2,000 feet below, the Gunnison River sounded like distant expressway traffic during rush hour. Easily class V and above if possible, rapid after rapid raced down from the snow melt atop the expansive West Elk range, the tallest peak 13,042 feet. I stood and stared at the frothy turmoil, grabbing onto a kindly pinyon tree to keep my balance, and dared myself to dip my head lower. The sheer drop made the earth seem to roll under my feet. I was well aware of my poor choice in foot attire for such treacherous terrain. Eventually I acclimated to the strange sensation. The beauty and solitude overwhelmed me. My fear of falling dissipated to such a point I again feared I had become too fearless. A man had fallen to his death in the park a few years prior to my visit. Had he felt the sudden sense of invincibility too?
The peace and solitude I had been craving fell on me like cottonwood snow. Even as I noticed little dots of people at the Chasm View on the other side less than a quarter mile away (at its narrowest point the canyon is 40 feet), I continued to feel complete seclusion. Their smallness—and mine—accentuated how time and space in the canyon meant very little.
The ledge became “my spot.” I sensed it welcomed me. The falcons that soared above the canyon swooped in closer and closer to the point I could reach out and touch their wings. A butterfly landed on my shoulder. It was probably attracted to my unnaturally bright blue polyethylene shirt.
I sat for over an hour, my mind working like the smash of a rock climber’s pick into the cliff side. My thoughts carried me up and soon I had the answers. Everything seemed easy up there. It all made sense. But I had to make sure. I returned several times throughout that afternoon (in more appropriate hiking boots), retracing my special trail from my camp. There was no doubt. The canyon’s winds were whispering to me profound secrets.
Later that night, while watching the latest sunset of the year paint the cobalt sky with orange, pink and purple streaks, I knew what my next plan of action was, for tomorrow and all the days that followed. And I had figured out the Mideast crisis at the same time. Not bad for sitting above a river that roared below farther down than two Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other.
The next morning before leaving for my hike at the North Vista Trail, I sat as still as a snake on my spot one last time. Serenity again swept over me. The South Rim was quiet for that hour. Yet the mighty Gunnison, which knows nothing of time or rest, raced along as it has for 2 billions years and that created Black Canyon. My thoughts from the day before reaffirmed my commitment. The canyon’s persistence left no uncertainty. Reluctantly I edged away from my perch and hiked back to my car, sad to leave but feeling clearheaded and ready for the next adventure.