Hidden Gems

I suppose, by their nature, gems have to be hidden. If they were as common as rocks no one would pay much attention. Too much of our lives are spent being content with the rocks in front of us. Few of us take the time to dig for the gems.

I certainly put myself into this category. I want what I want and I’ll take what I can get, as long as I don’t have to put much effort into it. I’ve convinced myself that I’m old enough now to deserve some things, you know, just for having lived for 48 years. Like fine wine. Or gourmet coffee. Or hot fries that turn my fingers red without anybody casting aspersions.

Deserve is a strange word. Without looking it up in the dictionary, my guess is that it means I’ve done enough work already so just give me what I want. I deserve it. Unfortunately, what we’re deserving of remains out of our control. It’s a dish served up by others. We don’t get to choose. Life, fate, people—they give us what we deserve. Or what they think we deserve. Too often, what they think and what we think are two different things.

It’s also a state of mind that causes us to give up too soon. If we don’t get what we think we deserve, we quit.
“It just didn’t work out”.
“They had different ideas about things than I did.”
“I didn’t deserve that!”

I’m reminded of a hike I took with my children down the Bright Angel trail at Grand Canyon National Park. With our reservations at Phantom Ranch in hand, we left my father, waving from the rim, around 6:00 a.m. Before us lay 9.5 miles of rock hard switchbacks that descended slowly, sometimes steeply, yet ever onward. In the heat of July.

After several hours of hiking, we made the Indian Gardens Oasis about half way down. Tired and hot, we slung off our backpacks, took off our shoes, and recuperated by the watering hole. A thermometer, hung on the tree, read 120 degrees. It taunted us. It dared us to go on. After about an hour of rest and having coaxed our body temperatures down to normal levels, we filled up our water bottles one last time and forged on.

At this point, I really had no idea how far we’d gone or how much farther we had to go. My feet throbbed and the heat clung to me like a thin layer of hot tar. But there was reason for optimism. The trail started to level out. Shrubs and foliage lined our path. A creek followed us for a bit. The canyon walls and trees gave us much needed shade. Surely, the Colorado was close at hand.

Soon, however, we left the trees and the creek and the shade behind us. That’s when we saw it—a huge canyon, a gorge if you will, opening up again before our eyes. It took us by surprise. Another steep descent lay ominously before us and not a bit of shade the whole way down. We tracked its winding path, zig zagging back and forth as it snaked its way down, down, down to some unseen point. Several hikers, slowly plodding along near the bottom, seemed like mere specks from our perspective.

We sat down to contemplate our options. We had two thoughts in our heads—the noun and the verb of what we were facing. The verb—the action of hiking the rest of the way, filled us with concern. Could we finish what we had started? Could we go back? My daughter made reference to the park’s policy of getting out on your own except in life threatening situations. In other words, no helicopters were going to swoop down and save us if we couldn’t make it. We had but one choice–to finish what we started.

The noun of what lay before us—the unspoiled beauty of the deep interior of the Grand Canyon, filled us with wonder. As tired, hot and discouraged as we felt, the view engulfed our minds with awe. The sheer magnitude of the canyon and the knowledge we had of the patience necessary for its slow formation, gave us a new appreciation for the Earth and the relationship we share with it. We felt humble yet connected.

Drawing inspiration from that beauty, we pressed on. With every switchback, we marked our progress. All reminders of civilization were gone. No one crossed our path for hours. The rim was but a distant memory. All of the people who had started out with us had dropped off the journey long ago. That alone filled us with determination.

Out of the throngs of people milling about the rim—grabbing ice cream or sitting on the porch or even walking down to the first watering hole—none could know what we know. They would never see what we were seeing. They would never experience what we were experiencing. The solitude. The beauty. The peace.

Nature has a way of making you feel small as you ponder your insignificance in the larger scheme of things. And while those thoughts raced through our minds, we also felt larger than life that day–as if mother nature had reserved for us a splendor few others would ever know.

At the bottom of the gorge, we reunited with the stream we’d left some hours before. In a desperate attempt to cool down our water, we dipped our bottles into it, to no avail. So, we did the next best thing, we stuck our feet in the water and splashed our faces and drank of its life. A faint noise caught our attention as we rested. The muffled roar of the mighty Colorado, just a few turns away, told us we were close.

The sight of the raging river filled us with joy. It was confirmation that the journey was near its end. But it was more than that. There’s something about standing at the banks of the Colorado River and looking up at the Grand Canyon.

It’s at that moment that you realize that just like the river, you are here for a brief moment and then you are gone. Both of you nothing more than wary travelers, having followed a path forged by those before you. Your contribution, a faint pressing of footprints, a mere scattering of dust, will help keep the path open for those who take up the hike ages and ages hence.

We crossed the bridge over the River and began to see signs of humanity again. Tents and campsites from those who journeyed before us. From them, a silent nod as we passed. No words necessary. They could see the struggle in our gait. We could sense the appreciation in their smiles. We felt like victors in a glorious march into Phantom Ranch.

What began at 5:00 in the morning as we crawled out of our tents, a journey that would become the hike of a lifetime, ended at 2:00 in the afternoon as we sat down for a tall glass of lemonade. We’d made it. We’d triumphed over our own fears.

The workers there told us that only 1% of the people who ever come to Grand Canyon make it to the bottom. A proud dad, his 12-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son had just accomplished what few others ever will.

Some things in life are worth doing precisely because they are difficult. They are worth doing because few others will even make the attempt. They are worth doing because the reward you get is greater than the sum of the effort you put into it.

Even today, we still talk about our hike—the things that we saw and the difficulties we overcame. We didn’t give up when our feet hurt and our water became too hot to drink. We didn’t give up when the sun, beating down on us mercilessly, caused others to drop off and quit.

Not content with the rocks on the surface, we dug deeper, hoping for those hidden gems few others would find. We slept well that night, in our cabin, content with the knowledge that on this day any way, we truly got what we deserved.