By Bruce Aiken
In the late fall of 1974 my wife, Mary, and I had just completed our second season at Roaring Springs. The National Park Service had laid me off from my job at the pump house in late November. Job prospects were grim, unemployment loomed and winter set in. Our second child was born in December. We were living in a borrowed mobile home in Trailer Village on the south rim, Grand Canyon National Park. The wind howled through the cracks of the trailer and the snow piled up outside. As our meager savings diminished, we were determined to hang on until March when we would go back to Roaring Springs to begin the new season. Sometime in early January we both became aware of each other awake in the middle of the night. Mary rolled over in bed and whispered to me “what are you thinking about?” In a flash I said “Roaring Springs.” She answered quickly “me too.”
That was probably the very first moment that I - and we - both became cognizant of the absolute sway the canyon had taken over us. As the days went on that winter, it became clear to me that there was a shining light burning in my mind and my spirit, the draw of the canyon. I thought about being back down there all the time. I came to hate having to drive my old truck anywhere; I missed the sound of Bright Angel Creek terribly. The beautiful ambiance of canyon life crept into my thoughts and kept me from embracing the task at hand.
Over those early years this feeling became part of life. We would stay in our beautiful canyon home for week’s - even months - at a time without hiking out. We would call in to the store on the south rim with our grocery list and they would bring it to the helibase for us. We never had to go out much and nor did we really want to. There was always this dread that would build when it did become time we had to leave and go out. The hike would be difficult. How would the kids react to the outside world? Would the old truck break down somewhere? Would we have enough money for everything we needed to do?
One thing we did know was that when it came time to go back home, the trailhead was the most welcoming site. The kids would literally skip down the trail with joy, running ahead to get there first just to be back in the Bright Angel Creek and lying on the rock soaking up the heat and the scent the canyon’s sweet musk. Back then we knew that the canyon meant freedom. Just what that freedom was worth and what it really would mean to us over the years became larger and larger.
By the late 80’s we had been living nearly fifteen years in the canyon. My art career was blossoming large. Much of this was due to my greater access to the canyon and the deep rhythms of life below the rim that had become second nature to me. As the kids grew, we faced and fought the challenges of continuing home schooling. We did this on and off through the late 70’s and into the 80’s. Our system for teaching was loosely structured. One winter we rented an old trailer on the south rim from the NPS and let the kids go to public school there. Of course, that only lasted a few months and we headed right back down to Roaring Springs in March. It was a novelty for them to be in school, knowing that we would be there only for a short period of time. Several winters in a row we went to Mexico for three months before heading back down in the canyon. Eventually the children all got big and home schooling became more and more difficult. A decision was made by us to acquire a full time residence on the south rim and Mary would move there with the family to enroll them in the public school. Within the first month of school Mercy, now 16, and Shirley, 14, both found re-entry into the structured life outside the canyon very difficult. During their lunch break one day in September they quietly “borrowed” our truck, loaded it with camping stuff and food. They drove straight to Toroweap, a place we had been to before and loved by us all, to hide and basically ditch their new lives at public school and resume canyon life, as they knew it. This situation was resolved with gentle understanding and counseling. Re-entry into full time existence outside the canyon was a strain on Mary as well including the separation we faced, which were often weeks at a time. This eventually took a big toll on us.
I spent the next eight years at Roaring Springs by myself for the most part. I hiked out every 10 days or so to head over to the south rim. The family was finally finding ways to integrate themselves to school and non-canyon life. For me, I felt like an intruder into the new life they were building there. Structured, organized, run by a clock and a completely new set of rules. Summers were different when they would all return again to live at Roaring Springs.
During this time I bonded with the Canyon in a newer, deeper way. I became aware of things concerning my relationship with the canyon that previously I could not articulate. Alone, day after day, evening after evening, with the flow of the months and seasons at Roaring Springs I began to anticipate events. Pools of light and pockets of shadow at certain times of the year became friends to me. The natural markers of my world stood out everywhere. Being out of the canyon meant stress, an out of the box existence that created anxiety. Being in the canyon meant peace, tranquility and connection to nature. One of the most interesting aspects of this was always on my return hikes back into the canyon. Leaving the trailhead I felt a sense of satisfaction building. The deeper I dropped in to the canyon the better I felt. The absolute feeling of security was undeniable. Coming into the Roaring Springs area the friendly feeling of being in one’s own “backyard” was present. I knew the trees and shrubs along the way as I had watched them grow and bloom through the years. I would rather be there than anywhere.
I was literally spending so much time in the canyon that I began to see more in terms of artistic expression. I was finally able to slow down enough to see the colors and textures at my feet. This provided me with a late burst of creativity with a subject that I was sure I was so comfortable with that there was not much else left to explore except location. The resulting work and energy from that discovery is still affecting me today in my painting. There is nothing like familiarity with a subject!
Mary returned to Roaring Springs to live again after our youngest went off to college. By the year 2000 we had made our minds up that we would leave the canyon and move out by 2005. This decision was based on a lot of things but that is another story! However, an aspect of this decision developed that we did not plan on: anxiety, anxiety over the very thought of leaving. Not living in the canyon any more. This strange feeling built every year until 2005 arrived. The last few months were as if we were living in a vacuum. Denial set in. We avoided packing. When the final days came, an even larger fear crept into mind and that was the fact that I would have to turn my keys in. Access was about to be taken away. Access denied, not longer available to me at any time. This produced a type of separation fear I had never felt before. We moved to Flagstaff in a daze in May of 2006. 33 years of life in the canyon were now over. We felt like we were on vacation and that we would be leaving any day now and head back “home”. The city looked strangely different even though we had been there hundreds of times over the years.
Separation and re-entry, that’s what I call it. Learning to adjust to life without the womb of the canyon surrounding me. TV’s blaring everywhere, cars, trucks and the train, all creating noise; all reminded me that Bright Angel Creek was no longer there. The smell of exhaust in the air as you walk down the street had replaced the scent of canyon musk. Structure, meetings, clocks and timetables all now entered into my everyday life. The loss of nature, no longer being connected to nature was (and still is) very difficult for me. I am thankful that I was able to make the transition without self-destructing. A profound experience such as living and working in the Grand Canyon can not be taken lightly.