Friday, 6pm: I had just finished up my afternoon yoga class when I went downtown to meet up with my buddies on the patio of our favorite brewery. It was there that Eddie, who I had talked to in the past about my ultramarathon training endeavors, asked me to join him in running the Grand Canyon the next day. At first, I was doubtful and did not commit. I was not that far into my training and only logged up to 20 miles at a time on my long days, and I had no idea how my body would react to such steep terrain. However, I could not stop thinking about it...I had hiked the canyon several times, and had been dying to run it for a while. I couldn't just turn this opportunity down! I often try things way outside of my ability and-- well-- it doesn't always turn out successful, but at least I am used to it, right? After a beer and some pizza, I said yes. I knew that I was strong, and this would just be a test… what am I getting myself into?
“See you at 5am, Eddie.”
Saturday, 5am: Following a 4am wakeup call, I parked my car outside Eddie’s house, holding my pack, filled with 70 oz of water, a soggy panini, salt tablets and clif bars. We jumped into his truck and were canyon-bound on the highway, scenery slowly coming into view as the first morning light illuminated the passing trees.
We pulled into the Grand Canyon National Park two hours later, where we boarded a shuttle bus to the last stop: The Hermit Trailhead. We were expecting the run to be a fully difficult and tasking experience, especially considering this late in the spring temperatures were expected to be high. The morning was just starting to warm up when we began running down the trail. Chatting and making our way down the rocky switchbacks, we took in the exposed views from the Hermit trail, ending our downhill section where the hermit intersected with the Tonto trail. My feet were already hurting from the high-impact downhill, but there was no turning back, we were stoked! We stopped shortly to refuel and prepare for the long stretch ahead, which ended at Indian Gardens where our next water refill stop would be. Thus began the unexpected crux of the run: cranking up and down steep rolling hills in 100+ degree shadeless heat-- for 25 miles.
We were expecting the Tonto to be the “easy” section of the run; since it hugged the tonto plateau, it seemed that it would be relatively flat at sustained, so we did not worry about it at all. What we did not expect, however, was the nonexistent water sources combined with the blazing, relentless heat. In fact, no part of the Tonto trail was easy. It was a primitive, unmaintained trail that recieved little traffic. The only people we passed were backpackers, who undoubtedly thought we were crazy for traveling with nothing more than our running packs and minimalist shoes. The trail was technical, and the sun was inescapable. It felt like the heat was boiling my brain, and I was slowing up with every mile. We sought refuge under a large boulder, where there was a patch of shade about 2 feet wide and 4 feet long. As we nibbled on squashed paninis and sipped water, little did we know that this would be the last shade encountered for the rest of the Tonto stretch.
The trail travels up and down creek drainages, zigzagging around what Eddie and I deemed “alligators:” the protruding formations that we dreaded due to their sneaky nature. Every time we approached one, we could not see beyond it-- we only hoped that it would be the last one. So we would turn south and push uphill until we came to the creek crossing, where we would once again switch directions and head north toward the next precipice. Hopefully approaching the bend, expecting to see flat terrain, we would turn the corner and instead look upon the next alligator. At this point we would repeat the process, over and over…
After a few hours, I noticed the lightness of my pack-- not good, when that weight came from water, and the only other water in our vicinity was running down questionable creeks. Not good. My fears came into reality when it finally happened: Trying to take a sip from the camelbak hose, and getting nothing. We ran out of water. We did not know how far we had gone, or how many more miles until we would reach Indian Garden. The sun was hot, and our thirst was yet to be quenched. We continued to run, until Eddie became dizzy and was forced to stop and rest. Things were serious: we had no water, and my running partner was fading fast. I considered leaving him there to run to the gardens myself to bring water back, but quickly realized the dangers with that plan. I wasn't doing too hot either, and who knows how far that would be! We needed to stay together, and we needed to get to water. So, after the break, we kept running. The next hour or two went like so: run run run, stop, rest, hope, run run run, stop, hope, run, hope, run, hope, run run run...
Finally, we came around the the final alligator. Turning the corner, we saw the lush greenery of Indian Gardens in the distance. We could see it! We were in reach! The two of us nearly cried as we used this excitement to propel ourselves down the last mile to the oasis. We passed more and more people who had day packs and still smelled alright-- a sure sign that we were close, being that few take the Tonto more than a couple hundred yards unless they are backpackers. I ran ahead of Eddie and reached the stream before the water refill station, where I immediately submerged my entire head in the shallow cool water, giggling in relief. I looked up and saw my partner approaching, laughing as well. Together, we threw ourselves at the refill station, where we inhaled the water out of our camelbacks just as fast as they were being filled. After drinking at least three litres of water each, we promptly passed out on the benches of the crowded area. I must have napped for an hour, after which we ate the majority of our food and filled up on water one last time.
We still had to run up the last four miles of the Bright Angel Trail to reach the rim. We thought we would run it, at least. I soon realized the bad combination of running over a marathon in distance, while severely dehydrated, and napping immediately afterward: my legs had stopped working. It was such a strange sensation… running did not hurt necessarily, but it was as if my legs had forgotten how to do the motion. I have had dreams where I try to run but can only move in sinking slow-motion, where I almost cannot control my own body. The strange thing was that this was reality now. Fortunately, we had daylight left, and Eddie was happy to hike with me. There was no way I was running the last push.
As we hiked the Bright Angel, we talked and laughed and wondered. We were thankful for our bodies, for water, and for our lives. The Grand Canyon is a magical, beautiful place-- it is also a demanding place, just like any wild area. Yes, thousands of people walk her trails every year. However, there will never be a time that the canyon will be easy for me-- or anybody. There is always something special about going farther than you thought possible, and finding the necessary respect for these places. As Eddie and I reached the rim, we had undoubtedly gained a refreshed sense of respect for the canyon. We finished, drove back to Flagstaff, and pulled straight into our favorite indian food restaurant to stuff our faces with tiki masala and naan bread.
There is a beauty in this sort of suffering. Looking back, I would have done it all over again (maybe with a water purification system…). Our Grand Canyon run was hard, but it was perfect (it also ended with perfect Indian food, which is my favorite thing ever) because I bonded with a friend, and we pushed our limits. These are the sorts of adventures to be remembered, because people can always grow from these experiences. Also, let's face it: A little type II fun is good for the soul.
This blog series is about the root causes of environmental degradation. Here in part 2, I will discuss human disconnection from nature.
Disconnection from nature is something that almost everyone can either relate to, or observe in others. How many people do you know that have never gone camping? Who, in your life, values their connection to technology or money over their connection to nature? How many people do you know that grow their own food? When was the last time you went to a place far away from other humans and their structures, just to listen and be? Fewer people immerse themselves in a natural environment of one form or another than in the past. Moreover, we are seeing people city or suburb-bound who are missing a piece in their life puzzle: time or space dedicated to immersing themselves in the natural world. This is so significant simply because this allows us to remember our human place in nature, and how we are all very closely connected to it.
Understanding the significance of our connection to the environment is critical. Humans are inextricably linked to the environment, since we as living beings are derived from it. We thus necessarily affect each other. Nature impacts us in every way, just as our actions impact all other beings, both living and inanimate. We, as members of the world’s ecosystems in which we live, are constantly dependent on the environment from weather to natural resources. Likewise, we affect nature through our actions and how we interact with and use it. Apart from our material needs, nature also impacts our spiritual well-being. Nature is sacred and priceless; it cannot be bought out or commodified, because it is valuable in its essence. Still, humans do just that, and thus create a system in which the land is abstracted and separated from ourselves.
There are many examples throughout history where western culture has become gradually disconnected from the land. One of the more recent developments is how we produce our food. Richard Louv’s “The Last Child in the Woods” explores the historical point when humans grew closer to machines and further away from nature with the severance of food origins and dwindling farm life. He describes this exodus as the start of a chain reaction leading to what we see today-- and he is not alone in his observations.
Aldo Leopold writes in “A Sand County Almanac” about how the human population started leaving farms, forests, and small rural areas, and thus lost direct connection to the land. He found that in order for humans to treat the natural world with the love and respect that it needs, they must stay connected to it. That is, they must know and understand it. This is essential because, as stated by Erazim Kohák in “The Embers in the Stars,” humans “live their lives in and as their bodies whose rhythm is integrated with the rhythm of nature.” Since our severance from the land, humans have forgotten this rhythm. When we began using machinery to farm the land, that strong human connection to the earth in the form of growing food was lost.
Of course, feeding an overpopulated and hungry world is complicated, and it is simply preposterous to suggest that we cut out machinery (although we can change it…) and regress to the subsistence strategies used thousands of years ago-- but this is not the point I am trying to make. The real issue at hand is that this is just one of the many disconnections we have experienced since the industrial revolution. Losing the land connection prohibits a necessary understanding, knowledge and respect for nature.
The topic of this discourse is the human disconnection from nature, causing anthropogenically initiated environmental issues. However, an understanding of the impacts that such a disunion has on us is essential to addressing this problem. Understanding this is imperative because by negatively affecting the individual, disconnection is creating a positive feedback loop-- a downward spiral of sorts in which humans will only further disconnect themselves from the environment. Our alienation from nature is detrimental to every aspect of being: spiritually, mentally and physically; it impacts human individuals on every level.
One of the most observable impacts that disconnection has on us is Nature Deficit Disorder (NDD). Nature Deficit Disorder is a phenomenon coined and articulated by Richard Louv, described as the result of his “three frontiers.” This “disorder” is not a medical diagnosis, but rather a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. These costs or “symptoms” include diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, depression, and physical and mental illness. This disorder stems from rapidly growing technology (encouraging indoor activities), disconnection from food and where it comes from (also a result of improved technology), and many other instances resulting in the overall theme of disunion with nature.
Nature Deficit Disorder is more than just a “disorder;” it is one symptom of a much broader disease that has plagued the human psyche for years (those pesky roots again-- changes in how we grow food was just one of them!). Although the “disorder” is the result of an overall societal disease, NDD as described by Louv impacts children. This alone is a sign that this phenomena is the product of changing societal tendencies, which directly influence children in their developmental stages: a time when they are most influenced by the actions and values of their mentors and guardians. Therefore, there is no easy fix; no medication, no pill. The solution, just like the problem, is deeply embedded in our culture.
NDD can easily be blamed on technology, yet there are subtle aspects to consider when playing the blame game. Technology has the capability to foster wonderful advancements that improve the world and human life. Using this post’s example, farming technology has undoubtedly improved our ability to feed ourselves. However, these very technologies have pulled us away from the environment from which we came from. There are legitimate problems that people are experiencing (like NDD), and it is evident that it can be traced back to our reactions to these technologies, not the advancements themselves. By becoming dependent and using them in place of real experiences, we are no longer using them as the tools they were intended to be. Technology can so easily be abused, and it is essential that we use it, engineer it, and grow with it-- but always be conscious of it.
Moreover, be conscious of your connection to the environment. All problems have roots, and the first root to the environmental dilemma is man’s disconnection from nature. It has only caused more suffering for us in the form of NDD, among many other impacts to ourselves and the environment. What is the remedy? Well, there are deeper roots yet to explore, and much to be done to address them. In attempt to make change without overwhelming any single person, focusing on one’s individual’s improved connection may be a collective cure. Every person has the power to make lifestyle choices, and even the simplest of actions can make a difference. Invest your time, energy and focus on connecting to the land. Do research, ask questions, and decide for yourself where true value lies.
If you feel anxious, depressed, uneasy, stressed, or unhappy, go outside. Even if you feel fine, go anyways. Go play in the woods, go walk down a trail. Go find a place where you are inclined to hold your breath out of fear of disturbing the silence. Reflect on this-- see for yourself the impact of rediscovering that connection.
Leopold, Aldo, Charles Walsh Schwartz, and Aldo Leopold. A Sand County Almanac. London, Etc.: Oxford UP, 1968.
Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin of Chapel Hill, 2005.
Kohák, Erazim V. The Embers and the Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1984