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Climbing Out of a Huge Metaphor

A nostalgia-filled trip into the Grand Canyon

Backpacking is one of the least eventful outdoor pursuits, but one of the best for conversation—especially if you’re not in a hurry. (Brendan Leonard)
backpacking

A nostalgia-filled trip into the Grand Canyon

Ten years ago last weekend, my old friend Jarrett didn’t have cancer anymore, so I thought it would be a good idea to take him to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back. One Saturday in 2008, we hiked down, and by that Sunday afternoon, I was pretty sure it was a terrible idea—the shoulder strap on Jarrett’s backpack was painfully chafing the chemotherapy port he still had in his chest, it was hot, we were all tired, and, of course, climbing 4,500 vertical feet on the second day of basically your first backpacking trip ever is fairly exhausting.

We survived, and I added “sandbag your friend who has very recently finished cancer treatment” to my list of things to never do again.

Jarrett and I became friends in high school, back in New Hampton, Iowa, and on the surface maybe didn’t really have much in common: he was a wrestler, I wasn’t. He was well-behaved, I wasn’t. At age 17, he was mature enough to be the lawyer he’d eventually become, and I was … well, getting kicked out of my creative writing class. We went to different colleges and visited each other, and then stayed in touch as we both moved around and eventually out west, he and his wife landing in Phoenix.

In May 2007, Jarrett found out he had Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and then two weeks later, he found out he had non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as well, an extremely rare diagnosis that challenged even his Mayo Clinic doctor. During his chemo, Jarrett lost all of his hair, so I shaved my head in a gesture of solidarity. His treatment worked, and shortly after he was able to say he was cancer-free, we started planning that first Grand Canyon trip: Jarrett, his older brother, Jeremy, his younger brother, Nolan, and me. I think we were all a little surprised at how physically demanding it was, afterward stiffly limping into the pizza place in Tusayan on Sunday evening to replace the calories we’d burned before driving back to Phoenix.

And then, 10 years went by like it was nothing.

In 2017, Jarrett mentioned to me that he was thinking we should do another backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon in April 2018 to sort of commemorate 10 years of him being cancer-free, and would I like to join? I, of course, said yes, thinking: 1) what kind of jerk would I have to be to say no to that, and 2) if it turned out to be the worst experience ever this time, it would not be my fault at all.

We met at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center parking lot last Saturday, joined this time by the guys’ dad, Joe, and our friend Josh, who had become an oncologist and a father of four kids since the last time I saw him at Jarrett’s wedding. Joe, now 64, said the Grand Canyon was on his bucket list. I joked that we would do our best to get him back out of the canyon so it wouldn’t be his final bucket list item.

We started down the South Kaibab Trail, dust and sand blowing up into our faces, and talked about careers, mortgages, families, travel, and who had the heaviest backpack. Since the last time, Jeremy and I had both gotten divorced, Nolan had gotten married, Jeremy had gotten re-married, and Jarrett and his wife Angie had become parents to four kids. Our 2008 trip was my first time below the rim of the Grand Canyon, and since then, I’d spent more than 40 days down there.

Backpacking is one of the least eventful outdoor pursuits, but one of the best for conversation—especially if you’re not in a hurry. There’s plenty of time—and oxygen—to catch up, to fall into old patterns of jokes, and to remember what it was like when you all first met. I’m going to be 40 next year, and I’ve already forgotten a lot of things, and other things have faded. On our hike down, Jarrett said something about conversations that could jog your memory, and in talking with three guys I had grown up with, scenes suddenly popped back into my head: splitting late-night frozen pizzas, standing at the pencil sharpener in math class and discussing last night’s Welcome Back Kotter rerun with Jarrett, sitting at Joe and Sharon’s kitchen table and cracking jokes and laughing with whoever was in the house at the time. We sat around a picnic table at the Bright Angel Campground eating dehydrated meals, and I missed cheap frozen pizzas and being young.

backpacking
(Brendan Leonard)

The Grand Canyon is a wonderful place for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorite things about it is that after a certain amount of descending into it, you lose any hope for a cell phone signal. People you were friends with in 1995, when no one could be distracted by the text messages, email, and social media in their pocket, can now, in 2018, spend a few hours or days without those distractions. And those memories can come back, and you can act the way you did when you were young and didn’t know shit about anything. But you can also simultaneously be the people who have put their heartbreak, successes, mistakes, and red-letter days on their resume of life and hope it’s all going somewhere. It’s a hard truth of getting a little older when one day, or over the course of a few years, you realize that you’re not in the physical shape you were in when you were a football player or wrestler in high school—but it’s a wonderful thing if you can get together with old friends and have your cheeks hurt because you’re laughing the same way you did back when you had way fewer responsibilities.

We plodded up the Bright Angel Trail on Sunday, slowly climbing up to the South Rim—back to cell phone service after only a little more than 24 hours away—so everyone could get back to their jobs and families. It wasn’t long enough, but no matter how long you’re down in the canyon, it never seems like enough, and you just hope you can get back soon.

In 2008, I thought the story of Jarrett’s cancer survival and the Grand Canyon might make a good story for a magazine. I only pitched it to one publication, and the editor said thanks, but we have a lot of Grand Canyon stories. So I never wrote anything about it. Ten years later, I don’t care. I have a lot of Grand Canyon stories too now, and this is one of my favorite ones. 

Filed To: Grand Canyon / Hiking and Backpacking / Culture / Travel
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