On a Colorado map, the route to the Western Slope looks like a series of flat green areas surrounding a thin blue line. That little blue line is the Gunnison, a large tributary of the Colorado River stretching 160 miles and the source of three large reservoirs. Once you pass Crystal Dam, the river descends sharply into what is known as the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.
As we traveled westward, the river fell and its banks rose at an unbelievable rate. The Gunnison River falls at an average of 43 feet per mile, in some parts at 240 feet per mile. That’s an impressive plunge seeing as the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon only drops at an average of 8 feet per mile. Eyeing the rushing waters beside and below soon became impossible as we progressed westward.
Black Canyon of the Gunnison is a small national park compared to most. It has two entrances — a north and a south with a massive breach separating the two. There's no bridge across the River Gunnison for miles.
With no one at the ranger station, we read the maps ourselves and decided on our hike for the day. Most wilderness areas categorize their hikes by distances and difficulty. BC of the G groups theirs into Stay-at-the-Top hikes and Descend-into-the-Depths. We chose to hike the north rim. Though we couldn’t descend, the hike was far from disappointing and it certainly didn’t suffer from a lack of risk.
After hiking for about an hour, first through feathery sage then into thick tree and rock patches, the trail led us to the edge. There was no railing, not even a No Hiking Beyond This Point sign. It was a sheer drop off.
From where we stood, we could see the other side, well, about the top quarter. Painted lines streaked diagonally across the dark canyon cliff standing so straight it hid its face from the light above. To get a better look, we'd have to go beyond where it seemed safe. We all took a few breaths, got on all fours, lowered to our bellies, and inched our way to the edge.
The Gunnison that had so eluded us for miles and miles we could now see, not just hear. We had to hang our heads over the edge to put it in our sights. It was waaayyy down at the bottom — the only piece in the crevasse bathing in light. In a dreadful way, it looked exactly like the little blue line on the map. My stomach turned and I could feel the nerves in my neck and jaw shudder with warning. I glanced to either side to see my kids' faces and curled fingers in that unguarded place. I reached out and gently touched their backs, at times holding their shirts, as they looked over that which was so unsafe, that which was so awesome and beautiful.
Every trail on this side of the rim led us to what was considered an "overlook." The danger was real, but we were not there to hike the top. We wanted to absorb the realities of what was below — the breathtaking effects of moving waters that had cut through seemingly immovable rock.
In working through the realities of our circumstances, now nine months later, I was drawn to create this piece of that particular moment on the edge. Despite all our management plans and trail mapping, our path has continued to open us up to the edge. No rails. No warning signs. Just a nudge that whispers, "Look over." My gut tells me to respond out of fear. I want to either backpedal or work to create my own kind of bridge across a dark canyon of unknown.
With all the stomach turning at these overlooks, I'm learning (slowly it seems) to just get down to my knees and make my way to the edge and breathe. There is a river flowing that has been cutting and making a way since the beginning. The realization that One has never changed in His moving is so powerful when compared to the haphazard paths I convince myself are immovable. I'm drawn to look over and rest assured that the unknown has something fixed about it. All is dark and painted except the river far, far below my reach. It's terrifying and beautiful. This piece speaks to that reality.
"Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it." Genesis 28:16