The Grand Canyon is one of the natural wonders of the world on most people’s lists, not least for the reason that it’s been daring people to do strange things for hundreds of years.

In 1540 a reconnaissance under the command of Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, a subordinate of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (they had better names in those days), tried for three days to climb down into the canyon. They came to appreciate that rocks which appeared from the rim to be no more than a few feet high were taller than the 185-foot tower of Seville. They gave up. Never had they encountered natural features of this size.

James White, in 1867, may have been the first Caucasian to navigate the Grand Canyon, but his story (he was rescued by Mormon settlers in Callville, Nevada, “nearly starved, naked, semi-delirious and emaciated almost beyond human resemblance from the raft upon which for fourteen days he had been swept along the perilous channel,”  according to the New York Times Oct. 14, 1917) remains in dispute. But the Grand Canyon always inspires challenge and on May 24, 1869, a one-armed college professor named John Wesley Powell, who had virtually no whitewater experience, led a nine-man, four-boat expedition from Green River City, Wyoming, 6,100 feet above sea level. Their destination was at  1,300 feet. They might have guessed. Ninety days later, the six survivors returned to an astonished world.

With those precedents, we staged our trip in Las Vegas. Sin city and home to every craven indulgence known to man. Our tour company picked us up early, bussed us to a small commercial airport, and flew us to Marble Canyon airport (really a small landing strip with a gas bar nearby).

By 9 a.m. we were repackaged into watertight gear and floating. The plan was for 14 guests and two guides to spend the next six days floating 188 miles down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Our home was a large  raft consisting of five strong rubber pontoons supporting a steel/aluminum frame and storage boxes housing all our gear, food, water and camping supplies.

Our guide steered this Colorado River Winnebago with a powerful outboard motor. While others on the river used only oars, we had the relative safety of our trusty motor, giving us a somewhat false sense of control and security. Every rapid, whatever the size, was a wild ride.

First we were briefed about what happens when you fall into 42°F water. Nothing like the prospect of drowning to focus the mind. We learned that when the guides yelled ‘suck rubber!” – meaning get your head low on the pontoons – they meant it – a wave with the power of a buffalo would knock you off your pontoon and toss you into the water in a nanosecond. They also warned us that yelling suck rubber would not be appropriate anywhere else in the universe. We were off.

To describe floating down the Colorado as a trip back through time understates. It was a voyage through eons of geology, cutting deeper and deeper into the earth’s skin until we were at base level.

The top of the Canyon – flat land to those on top, presenting miles of barren flat prairie, became an imposing summit to us. At the start, it was 500 feet above us; at the end, it was 5,000 feet out of the gorge to the top – a full mile of cut into the earth’s skin, carved by millions of years of erosion – the strength of water winning over granite, shale, silt and soil. We covered about 100 million years of geological engineering in our trip down the river and into the lower strata of geological formations.

How to describe a trip through the rapids? They were much like most of life; periods of normalcy tilting toward boredom, punctuated by seconds of exhilarating terror. Of course I had to watch while we went down the rapids – refusing to suck rubber was an invitation to a drenching but much more fun. See… the Canyon does make you a little crazy. Everyone soon wanted to sit behind me on the pontoons because I made such a great shield.

In the heat of the day, you warm quickly and we soon found that the rain suits were traps for cold water – they sure didn’t keep us dry. And in the big rapids, no one noticed. However there were these pesky little waves that had an innate ability to splash us, especially in the early morning –  the all-chills-and-no-thrills waves.

Was it fun? You bet. Was it risky? Only a little. The youngest on our trip was Kevin – a furlough from school for a week was compensation enough for having to travel with his parents and the rest of us old fogies. The oldest was Larry; along on the trip with his four sons and several buddies and neighbors. I didn’t ask his age; but he was married within spitting distance of the year I was born. You do the math.

But it wasn’t all about riding the river. We stopped for three side trips – mini-adventures up side canyons to see delightful waterfall oases hidden from the casual traveler, and we saw none of the snakes, scorpions, mountain lions or flash floods that everyone watches for.

We stopped for swims in tributary rivers, one being the Little Colorado, an azure color reminiscent of the Mediterranean. We beached for lunches and overnight camps. Dining on steaks, fresh baked rolls, eggs Benedict – each meal a surprise and a satisfaction.

Our four guides deserve special mention. They rose at 4 a.m. to make early coffee and they did not stop until 10 or 11 in the evening. They cooked, cleaned, carried, stored, packed, unpacked, steered, and gently herded us to our destination. They were indefatigable.

But the biggest hit for me was nighttime. We were issued cots and thin sleeping bags. We slept under the stars. The last night of the trip I spent most of the evening trying to keep myself awake to enjoy the view. It was the best of light shows.

The river, the valley and the trip were defined by isolation from civilization. We saw a few other rafters along the way. We crossed under two bridges in the whole 188 miles. We stopped for water at the Phantom Ranch (aptly described since I never saw it) and met a few very hardy backpackers. We saw more Rocky Mountain sheep than people.

It was spring, with cacti in full bloom. Vibrant yellows, pinks and reds that would last for a few days – a digital moment that sent me back to the raft for my camera.

For the six days we did not see one scrap of garbage. No stringy bits of plastic attached to trees by the shores, no coke bottles floating merrily merrily down the stream, no cigarette butts cushioning the campground pathways. And in America, you say?

We were pushed to revise our standards of personal hygiene and modesty a bit. Without rain, unfettered human occupancy can create problems for the dry earth; nothing rots and nothing is diluted. Suffice it to say that things worked out but we did have to relax our conventional standards a bit and be very flexible.

Teddy Roosevelt called it, “the one great sight every American should see.” And Rosemary Winters Tracey put it this way in her poem Grand Canyon:

Iridescent beams of copper gleam 
across this golden chasm, 
I stand in reverence, 
awed, by this magnificent landscape. 

Variegated light, sparked by clouds, 
mix up the tints 
eyes looking front ~ hope floats 
through my consciousness ~ like the emerald ribbon below.