Kristin Keane / Harris Fogel
I am not sure who made the Grand Canyon so wild—it is hot, petrified, ready to bake you alive. In summer, the air strangulates, suffocates, smothers. The way it takes you by the neck, you must dip your entire face—your whole body, even—into the Colorado River for relief, the residue evaporating from your skin as quickly as air releases from a punctured balloon. Dehydration comes regularly and the canyon takes lives that way. Sixty-five to be exact, lifeless and seized on the switchbacks off the rim. Some come for the beauty, but usually it is for the risk.
Once a man waited out the heat by resting, foregoing the hike down towards the river because of fatigue. When his friends returned, they found him dead. I would like to ask that man: Were his last moments with the canyon as intimate as two hands pressing together? Did he see inside himself? Was there a choice?
Lately I’ve been thinking about the Grand Canyon because deep in the gorge I fell into a rapid and the river and I had a moment with one another. I traveled with an outfitter one hundred twenty-six miles in, two billion years of geological history and layer upon layer of eroded rock, a deep gash inside the Earth’s crust. A silty river, colored like chocolate milk rests below the rim, one hundred twelve rapids dotting the surface, shifting and changing every moment; it does not die. The crests of them are entirely whitewater, turbulent and frothy. Formed by holes, formed by heavy, collapsed things; formed by blockages; formed by waves themselves—breaking white-capped haystacks. They are not all the same of course, and a guideline indicates their power by numbers one through ten. We went there to ride across them, hang on for dear life and fly through them, the river guides cowboys armed with wooden-oared reins. The danger was the draw: it made us feel more alive.
The water, remarkably, is not the only peril inside the canyon. Dust storms take you by the throat and during monsoon season, the way the river sweeps into the craggy channels between the rocks, you can get pinned against a boulder and drown. That’s not to mention others: sunburns so intense the layers of your flesh become as powdered as a cigarette sleeve’s ash. The winter temperatures drop so far below zero, the frigid water can freeze your extremities so they snap off the way you break a candy bar in half. Sheer cliff edge’s hairpin turns and rattlesnake bites, the thorny ends of catclaw acacia brushing against your bare legs, poisonous scorpions, the bulls’-eye shaped targets of mayfly bites, left for other animals to sink their stingers inside. It goes on.
When we arrived at Lava Falls, one of the most technically difficult American rapids, the guide turned and said right before the drop, “You really don’t want to go over, so grasp the raft tightly,” after I asked what we should do in case of emergencies, in case the whole plan fell apart down there. In fact I asked this just moments before we got slammed, before the raft lifted up and licked the sky one last time and we hit the wave train in a way that we might as well have been striking the stony surface of the canyon wall. She had also said, “Just make sure you have thirty seconds of air in your lungs,” and something else about not getting caught on anything.
But thirty seconds is a big stretch, after all. It is enough time to forget why you’re there, to make a terrible choice, yield to something. When I saw the guide fumble the oar as the rapid approached, bending down towards us high and glossy in the arch of a snakes’ tongue, I thought: that’s really beautiful; and then: it’s over.
The rapid. Days of getting beaten down by swells of water, pummeled at the edges of the rafts’ frames, made it hard to tell we had flipped, but then I felt my feet looking for a place to anchor themselves where the foot straps should have been. I opened my eyes under water and saw the detritus the canyon spit out floating around inside, brown as a nut. It was quiet under there. I was quiet under there, twisting around the places where the water’s velocity shifted me. I realized I couldn’t really hear the rapid because it is thing you feel, even after breath has been knocked clean out of you, even when your ears are wide open. My heart met the rapid’s heart, they fastened, and we slid down a drain together.
It was a bludgeoning like a baton to the right cheekbone with the rush and force of two magnets’ poles: a tethering that could not be undone. Days could have passed under there, who knows? We compared notes. Bodies: my extremities to its jagged, pencil-thin twigs; the mosaic of its bedrock to the freckled constellations of my shoulders. We have both dreamt of butterflies. In mine their crab-shaped bodies fluttered inside my grandmother’s antique jewelry box; in the rapid’s, their wings were made from weighty arrowweed, sinking them in the river just as soon as they pitched themselves into the sky. The rapid lined my regrets and secrets up like smooth river rocks and held my face up to each buried one: I’ve toiled too long in places I should have left sooner, spent too much time in worry. I hide from myself. It is hard to weep in water, but right then I found a way. You might not believe me, but the rapid shifted shape and showed me myself.
I paused trying to recall what Betsy had said right before the drop. (Be careful not to get caught up, or be careful not to get caught on, anything?) The rapid and I agreed this was a moment when time appeared to fold in on itself.
I don’t know how I came up, or where. I remember immediately trying to commit to memory the things felt inside: arousal, pulling my heart from inside of its heart. I turned back from the rescue raft and suddenly it was gone. The waves barked up from the other side, and considering the mess of the current, there was no going back. You might tell me that a wave never dies, but it also never doesn’t.
The last night on the river, a guide is struck by lightening. Chasing pineapple upside-down cake with thimbles of bourbon, we sang “Happy Birthday” while fingers of electrostatic zipped across the canyon’s edge.
“Lightening rarely comes off the rim, so we’re fine,” someone actually said right before a bolt hit the umbrella we stood under to keep dry. The passenger we were singing to still held a plate of cake in his hand, seven candles stuck into the slice, one for each decade. At first I thought the struck guide was gazing at the lightening from his back like he was watching clouds form—unicorn, bear, ice-cream-cone-riding-turtle. I was reminded of the rapid, how it could reshape itself into anything. But then someone said, Is Jim dead?, just like that. A few of us stepped towards him. He was blue as a starling egg, but breathing.
I went there to bake under the sun, contort myself up rope ladders, travel into something famously perilous. I went there not to be remembered of death but to push against it, to ride the river’s wild edge and feel more alive. The awakening was supposed to be in the risk of the rapid, not in falling for it: it lives unapologetically, moves the way the stars and shifts of the moon’s gravity go, careens and turns and bends for itself because what makes it up is everything else—it is the rapid, but it is the river, the dirt, the rocks—living by its own accord, unafraid and unapologetic of what’s next. We see danger in the way that light flashes against a rapid’s foamy ridges, and the rapid just sees the light.
I could have done things differently down there. I could have reached harder for a handhold, pinched the tips of my fingers between a slot in the rock bed’s surface, wedged my feet inside a gap, bowed my head to exhale. I could have punished myself, ended things. I could have caught razorback suckers with my bare hands, ripped their heads clean off with my teeth. Under is where fear finally stops. Under is an uncomplicated surrender. Under is a good place to hide. The guide got struck by lightening that night, and he went back the very next summer. I wanted to ask him what he experienced inside that streak of electricity, how he felt underneath the pulse. I didn’t get the chance to, but I’m guessing I probably already know. If the opposite of cheating death is dying, then what do you call the place in between?
Somewhere along the way we learn fear, we worry for what’s coming next, relinquish ourselves to control, to loss of pure unrestraint. Then we hide from ourselves. I’m no good at learning from the past, but I know now there is a place under that rapid more powerful than the roar of the water ricocheting between the canyon walls, a place where you can go get caught. A rapid doesn’t drown anyone: it lives primal and intrepid, unafraid of broken bridges.
Here’s a trick I’ve found to feel more alive that is not in dodging rattlesnakes, their forked, smelling tongues: I imagine heading for the edge of the vertical drop, but do not ask what will happen next. I see the rapid ahead, prettily misshapen and speeding towards me. I do not sink my feet into the footholds of the raft; I do not grip the straps so tightly my knuckles go white. Instead I let go, press my hands together. I think about time, butterflies, drain holes. I pull my fingers apart and set the palm of my hand against the place on my chest where my heart is under. I listen. I wait for time to fold.
Kristin Keane lives in the Bay Area.
Harris Fogel. These photographs were made using an 8×10-inch Deardorff view camera; for most of the images the camera was fitted with a Fuji 250mm F6.8 lens. The original book maquette of a Few American Cultures was created in 1993 at the request of the late Reinhold Misselbeck, then curator of the Museum Ludwig in Köln. Housed in a black plastic negative binder, it was filled with one-of-a-kind Cibachrome 8×10-inch contact prints printed on the glossy print material when I lived in Palm Springs, California. The advent of digital imaging allowed me to revisit the work and reconsider it in a larger framework.
The project began in the 1980s, with several themes; water politics in the West centered in California, the western landscape, portraiture, the South, etc., all cultures unique to themselves, but overlapping at the same time. I have continued to work on the project, creating new images, evolving and expanding. The shift to the 8×10-inch view camera not only slowed me down, but it allowed an exploration and description of texture instead the rough jottings of texture that smaller formats provided.