Living Alive
Living Alive
six days of magic and transformation in the Grand Canyon
 
 

Living Alive

a synopsis

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It was the first miracle that caught his attention.

The others would change his life.

 

            Despairing and miserable, 25-year-old Stephen Klein stares out at the fog-covered Grand Canyon, cursing his life. His job, girl, the life they’d built together—all gone. And here, at nature’s cathedral, the place where he and she had shared their greatest happiness together—he finds only more misery.

            In March, the south rim of the Grand Canyon is still in the grips of late winter. Loneliness, grief, and spiraling hopeless send him deeper and deeper into a morass of despair.

            Until suddenly, something breaks free within him, and he’s able to see with striking clarity how he’s been choosing his misery.

            With this new awareness, his heart lifts and he witnesses his first miracle as the wall of fog that had been obscuring the massive 18-mile-wide canyon begins to clear and silently dissipate before his eyes. 

            Invigorated, he returns to the Visitor’s Center and as a change finds people responding to him warmly now. He decides to attend a program on Grand Canyon geology. He smiles at the transformation in himself, as if something more powerful than himself has taken over.

            Parking his car ‘Grace’ near the auditorium, Stephen is startled by a Jetta that pulls into the space next to him.   Stephen’s intuition “reaches out, grabs me, shakes me around a few times, puts its hands on my shoulders, points me in this guy’s direction, and shoves.”

            Stephen’s new friend’s name is Michael, and that he’s been to the Canyon twice before but never hiked down to the bottom.

            The two easily drop into rapport. Before long, Stephen comes to understand that Michael is gay.

            After the program, the men agree to meet up at Tovar lounge for a beer where their conversation and appreciation of one another deepens.

            They agree to try for a hiking permit together, as well as share Michael’s campsite for the night. As Stephen slips into his sleeping bag in his car, a warm sense of contentment fills him.

            The next morning, after coffee and breakfast, they head toward the Back Country office to try for a permit. They are not able to get a permit that day.  Over lunch at the campsite, Michael tells Stephen about two girls he met at the Back Country office, Ellen and Jane.

            The day’s drive along the rim trail takes them past overlooks and throngs of tourists.  Stephen senses they both need time alone, so he takes his journal to write.

            At a stop, Stephen looks to see Michael fearlessly hanging his head off the edge of a rock outcrop off the wall of the canyon. Stephen is terrified.

            Recognizing that his fear has receded but is still present, he makes the conscious choice to transcend it through meditation.  He opens to new states of consciousness.  He remains in that great expanse for a long time.

            Later, far below them, they see a raven flying in and out of the sunlight.

            Michael calls out to the raven

            And with that, Stephen is gifted the second miracle of this journey. As the echo of Michael’s words dies, the bird starts to climb.

            Five feet off the ground, it flies between the two of them as the whisper of its wings cuts the air between them.

            Not yet finished, the raven folds its wings, spins twice in a tight axis and plummets three thousand feet toward the canyon floor. At the last instant, his great black wings open, pulling up to greet another raven.

            The men gasp in amazement and awe.

            Stephen’s thoughts turn to what he witnessed and finds wisdom to apply to his present life and the life he sees laid out before him.  He feels both called and scared to be different and take an unconventional path. 

            He realizes Michael would have wisdom to share on an unconventional life. 

            The two spend the evening companionably, enjoying the growing friendship.

            The next morning over shared coffee and oatmeal, they remark on how close they’ve become for people who met two days previously and give way to the feeling that their meeting may have a purpose.

            Sharing the feeling of happy synchronicity, they clean up and head for the Back Country office, in hopes of getting one of the few hiking permits. Once there, Michael again runs into the girls he met, and the girls agree to include them in their group.

            Stephen is not so sure. The girls—Ellen, “on the verge of growing old,” and Jane, her much more naive-seeming counterpart, look a little unprepared for the journey ahead.  Stephen, the only one of the group who’s hiked into the canyon before, is feeling caution-bordering-on-moodiness.

            As he notices his companions bouncing with excitement and he himself filled with gloominess, he makes the choice to change his emotions. “Immediately, I can feel the wind of enthusiasm fill my sails. My thoughts uplift. I let go.” And from that moment on, “everything we do together is fun

            They begin descending the snowy, dangerously steep, Bright Angel trail.

            It quickly becomes apparent that the girls will hike more slowly, and so the group splits. 

            Stephen soon realizes that Michael sets a pace Stephen can’t quite keep. Within a mile, his left ankle turns and he feels it begin to swell.

            Later, finding rhythm and balance with their pace, Stephen allows his mind to focus on the beauty and vitality around him.

            Soon, they arrive at Indian Gardens campground - their home for the night.

            Stephen returns from a walk to find the girls still have not arrived, he adds worry to the mix.

They spot a powerful looking ranger who incredibly offers to run up the trail to look for them.  Almost immediately, they hear Jane’s laugh.

            After settling in, Stephen reflects on his troublesome early life and how it relates to the familiar theme of choices.  And how he believed in his own wrongness.  From the perspective of the trail, he could see that his life in San Diego, his job as a ZEP salesman, was at least in part, a way of living out that belief.

            As the girls settle in.  Michael and Stephen again feel the itch to explore. They take off on the trail to Plateau Point.

            Stephen’s mind and heart settle in as a magical and powerful feeling permeates them. This is what he’d come for.

            Suddenly the view opens up as they are met by the roar of the river thousands of feet below.

            “As if a giant has cloven the land with his hand, an enormous fissure yawns before us. The world falls away into an emptiness of air and space at the sudden end of the plateau.”

            “In the bowels of the earth, thousands of feet straight down flows the river, dark with earth and thunderous turbulence.

            Michael moves to the edge, staring down with a smile of pure joy. He looks back, inviting Stephen to join him but he is gripped with terror. “Fear annihilates the grandeur in my mind. I walk away.”

            Twenty feet from the edge, his thoughts settle.  Again, he makes the conscious choice to transcend his fear.

            He uses a new meditation, created on the fly. “Fearlessness of posture, a still heart and the kinesthetic sense of peace.” With a visualization he can both see and feel, he surrenders the fear. “It builds like an orgasm and departs with a shudder.”

            With his higher consciousness blazing within, he walks to the edge of the cliff he couldn’t approach a few short moments ago, puts his toes across the abyss and looks straight down without a flicker of fear in his heart.

            “I realize then, that all my fears are like this fear of falling. I fear failure, ridicule, loneliness, poverty, and death. At this moment, a torrent of truth comes to me. These fears have no reality save that which I choose to give them.”

            He opens his arms and embraces life, love, and God. He gets down on his haunches next to Michael. They watch below, as a pair of ravens glide on stable wind currents. He tells Michael of his experience, saying, “Michael, it’s all gone. I don’t feel fear anymore. There’s nothing I can’t do.”

            Reluctantly, they turn back to camp as the afternoon sunlight illuminates the canyon walls. Back at camp, the foursome prepare their evening meals, deeply enjoying one another’s company. Michael agrees to sing one of his songs, and the four drift in appreciation of a perfect night under the stars.

            Next morning, Stephen tapes up the ankle he turned yesterday.

            Almost immediately, the tape under his right foot feels too tight, but with only four miles to go today, chooses to leave it.

            They cover the miles quickly, and soon arrive at Black Bridge which appears as a symbol of the passage he’s experiencing. 

             Having reached their destination, he begins dreaming of lunch, and becoming aware of something very wrong with his foot.

            Fretful daydreams of surgeries, and screws implanted into the foot fill him with a moment’s despair. They decide to nap but surprisingly the girls have arrived.

            Later, conversation turns to the dilemmas each carry in their heart. Ellen, a lawyer with the DA’s office, talks of how it weighs heavily on her. Stephen shares that his life as a salesman has to change, but to what? They bond more deeply.

            After a walk back to the bridge, they return to camp and begin preparations for the hike out in the morning. 9 miles of steep, hot, water-less trail.

            Lying on their bags under the stars later that night, Michael says, “The world feels so far away, doesn’t it Steve? It’s like we’re alone down here. None of the things you worry about and have to deal with in day to day life.”

            Stephen replies, “We’re in the womb, Michael. We’re safe and loved. Tomorrow we get reborn.”

            The next morning, Stephen is awakened by the sounds of the girls’ preparations. They’d agreed to split up their party again.  Stephen feels a pang of sadness. “Two days ago, when Michael introduced them to me, I felt like they were an intrusion. Now, I feel like I’ve lost two sisters.”

            Stephen and Michael begin their own preparations.  Stephen feels the call of the trial. 

            Stephen sets a nearly impossible pace, driven by the power thrumming within. The pain in his foot is sharp with each step.

            With each pause to rest or to drink, the ache in his foot intensifies, and with it a gnawing dread of what damage he may be doing to himself.  Each step is a victory against the pain.” He takes two aspirin from the bottle he’d brought with. That leaves two more for the rest of the journey.

            They pass the girls with a laugh and a wave.  Stephen makes a misstep and is forced to land with all of this weight on his painful right foot. He taps reserves — the well of strength and discipline he has always known has been inside him, but has never needed to be drawn upon.

            It’s as if the darkness and rage from early in life has become the fuel to keep his body moving, despite the searing pain in each step “This is life, Michael. A curious combination of grief and anticipation, pain and rapture, agony and bliss — and they are intertwined subtly.” 

            They devour much of their remaining food and rest an hour.  When the girls finally reach them, Jane screams with joy, opening her arms wide for a hug. Ellen’s eyes are bright, with a light sheen on her forehead. Stephen is struck by their beauty and radiance. “As they prepare lunch, we do not speak much. Words are almost vulgar. Together we revel in the silent grandeur, recognizing the joy within each other.”

            Before long, the men start out again. With each step, the pain in Stephen’s foot rises to near agony. He summons the warrior again.

            “Twenty paces pass in ten seconds, then another twenty. I have stepped into the fire and found myself invincible.”

            They encounter four hikers in distress, military on leave.  Exhausted, dehydrated and hungry.  They share compassion, food, water and kindness despite the other hikers’ adversarial stance.

            The completion of this journey signifies so much for Stephen. “If I am capable of climbing out of the Grand Canyon, up Kaibab trail, with pain tearing at my mind, I can do anything. At this moment — right now, I understand the purpose of my life.”

            The path of the writer whose words contribute to the world, touching lives, stretches before him, bringing a quiet joy. Now I am Living Alive and the song of my words comes to me. I open my sails and let the winds of purpose fill me with joy. “

             The trail continues as the ice and snow grow deeper.

            They meet a young family near the end of the trail.  Stephen’s joy dissipates.  He realizes that within ten minutes this trip will be over. Then he hears a voice from within, speaking softly with purest love, saying, ‘No Stephen, this is not the end. This is the beginning. All endings begin something anew.’”

            They stop to catch their breath. “Michael, can you feel it?” Stephen asks with his hands on his knees. “Can you feel your moment of rebirth about to come? We’ve struggled to leave the womb. We’ve endured the pain and hunger and thirst and loss to complete this journey. Up there is the place where we shall step out of the womb of the earth and into the rest of our lives.” Michael has tears in his eyes. “I don’t want it to end,” he says.

            “You and I have climbed out of this place with grace and speed. It is time for us to leave the womb and live.”

            “Michael breathes the words, ‘Live Alive.’”

            They come around the bend to see mother and child. “She is one of the most beautiful, natural human beings I have ever seen. A striking, raven-haired but fair woman, with wondrous brown eyes turned to the pale sky. Present but connected to something more — like a goddess born on earth. In her arms, she cradles and rocks her baby softly, letting her child know she is there and that she loves him. The child’s face is red and a tear streams down each cheek. The preternatural beauty of the instant brings deep gratitude to my heart.”

            They pass the woman and child without drawing attention to themselves, carrying what seems like a holy moment within themselves. “Of all the visions I have been granted on this adventure, the two of them upon the stone, with her loving eyes lost in the grandeur and the radiant child clutched to her breast, is by far the most glorious sight I have seen.”

            At last, they come to the end of the trail.  Stephen is filled with an appreciation for the sacredness of this journey — from his first epiphany at the West Rim, which felt like a lifetime ago, to this very moment. “How far I have traveled: from the despairing agnostic to blissful believer in six days.”

            With four steps to go, he feels a hand gently pushing him from behind. “A hand like I remember my father’s, ushering me out the door on the way to my first day of school.” He looks to his left and sees only Michael. He knows he will see no one behind, as he feels his back bow from the pressure.

            Michael glances toward him. Unable to contain his curiosity any longer, Stephen shyly asks, “Michael, did you feel that?”

            Michael responds, “Yes I did. It felt like a hand lightly pushing me out. I didn’t want to ask because I thought you would think I was weird.”

            “No, I felt it too.”

            Still glowing with the bliss of their journey, they make their way back to the campground, and showers, and finally the lodge for a celebratory beer and re-entry meal. Everyone they meet seems to reflect their transformation back to them: smiles, joy, and wonder fill the faces of the strangers.

            They reunite with Ellen and Jane shortly thereafter, share some fun and dinner in the nearby town of Tuscion.

            The next morning, Stephen is again asked by Michael to join the three others in Santa Fe, NM.  He feels a small desire to go but also has a sense that he’d be going for Michael and that’s what he’d just learned not to do.

            They have breakfast together and make tearful goodbyes with a couple of false starts and need for more farewells.

            Alone now but almost ecstatic, Stephen drives with joy and exhilaration.

            After a long drive, he stops in Yuma, AZ for dinner.  “Unnoticed until now, at the corner of the bar, suspended from the ceiling is a television set.   The sound is off.  But the picture is on.   A series of disturbing images pass on the screen.  The TV is showing cross burnings, Chernobyl, neo-Nazis, beatings, riots, mass graves and Klansmen.  Now, I see solders beating the crowd in Tieniman square.

            My first thought is to be horrified.  Suddenly my perceptions defy the programming.  I wonder, is all this pain like my pain that I carried into the Grand Canyon, pain necessary for growth?  Without it I would have not been able to evolve to who I have become. 

            Perhaps, are the earth's troubles catalyst for all of us to move forward?  Are they signals that we are about to evolve?  Could all this bad be actually a good thing?    Strife, pain and evil are actually necessary creations because they have power to create positive change in the response.

            Without divisions, we cannot know unity.  Without corruption, we cannot know purity.   Without weakness, can we know strength?

             I become aware that the earth and all of us have growing pains, just as I had.  Growth is a process of pain, whether it be physical, mental or spiritual, whether it takes place individually or collectively.”