Sunday, March 27, 2011

What The Grand Canyon Taught Me About Recovery

I’ve just completed my last planned hike in the Grand Canyon: my third in the past year.

Each hike was different. I've hiked from the North Rim and the South. I’ve hiked in and out on the same day, camped overnight and stayed in a dormitory at Phantom Ranch.

I’ve hiked in summer when it was over 100 degrees at the bottom, and in spring after snow had fallen the night before on the Rim. I’ve hiked in various levels of fitness. And I've talked to a lot of people about their experiences.

On this trip, it took me eight hours to hike out from Phantom Ranch. That’s a long time to think. And what I thought about was the lessons I had learned and how they apply to my journey in recovery. I call it “12 Steps on the Trail to Serentiy” or “What the Canyon Taught Me About Recovery.”

1. "The Canyon is in charge," a 20-year volunteer told me. "First and foremost, you have to respect that. But it also gives you things to survive. It gives you the river. It gives you shade.”

That reminds me that I’m powerless. There is a power greater than myself who is in charge. But that Higher Power gives me things. It’s up to me to recognize and use those gifts.

2. The journey has been more or less difficult, and more or less enjoyable depending on my level of fitness.

I enjoyed hiking the Grand Canyon much more when I was physically fit. The hike felt less arduous and I was better able to focus on the beauty that surrounded me. When I wasn’t in good shape, all my energy had to go toward getting out with as little damage to myself as I could manage.

In recovery, the same is true of my level of spiritual fitness. The going is easier and more enjoyable when I’m prayed up, meeting’d up, sponsored up.

3. It’s helpful to have a guide. Consult with people who have gone before you.

In recovery, my guide is my sponsor and other longtimers in the program. As my sponsor is fond of saying: “If you want to have what I have, you have to do what I do.”

4. It’s easier if you take the right tools. But remember to use them.

The same volunteer recounted a story about a couple in the advanced stages of heat exhaustion. They had plenty of water, but they hadn’t been drinking it. They were afraid if they used it, they wouldn’t have it when they needed it.

In recovery, my tools include the steps, slogans and Just for Todays. But they don’t do me any good in my backpack. I need to apply them.

5. If you don't want to get trampled, yield the trail to the mules. Try not to step in the piss they deposit in their wake. There will be puddles. Just accept it.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You can make the journey alone, but it’s easier and more pleasant when you have company.

7. Don't feed the squirrels. When you do, they become aggressive and dependent.

This is also true of doing things for alcoholics and addicts that they should do for themselves.

8. Focus on what’s in front of you. And don't worry about all the things that might go wrong. When things do go wrong, it’s never what you expect.

On this hike, I worried about a foot I had injured recently. My foot was fine. It was my knee that gave me trouble. I could almost hear God laughing. I can't possibly know what's ahead and most of the things I have worried about in my life have never happened. It's better to enjoy what's happening in this moment.

9. When you get discouraged, it’s helpful to glance over your shoulder to see how far you’ve come. Just don’t linger too long. If you’re looking back, you’re not moving forward.

10. The journey is easier and a lot more fun when you stop to rest.

I learned this on my first Canyon hike from a laminated tip sheet at a ranger station. Most hikers are afraid that stopping to rest will slow them down. The opposite is true. Resting for 10 minutes every hour allows your body to clear itself of the waste products that build up in your legs and make them feel tired.

When I read this, the slogan “Easy Does It” came to mind. I realized my habit in hiking, as in all things, was to simply plod through, no matter how tired I felt. I started practicing “Easy Does It” in my daily life. And I found it to be true. Easy got it done. And I enjoyed myself much more.

11. Be courteous to others on the trail and don’t judge others for their path. We’re all doing the best we know how. Insisting on the right of way never made anyone happy.

I learned this lesson on a training hike. I was headed uphill and two young girls were headed down. Being the one headed uphill I kept my head down and stuck to the path I was on, presuming they would yield the right of way. One didn't, but stopped directly in my way. "Excuse me," she said, annoyed. "Uphill has the right of way," I said equally annoyed, and went on my way.

"Sheesh," I heard her say as I passed. "If I'm already on the right side of the trail, where am I supposed to go?"

For a non-hiker, thinking that traffic should stay on the right was a reasonable conclusion. Yet I was annoyed. It bugged me all day. Because I was right, damn it. Wasn't I?

The next day I read an article in the paper about aggressive walkers. The expert quoted talked about those who stuck their heads down and ignored all the other people around them. He talked about others, who held to some belief that there were rules that were supposed to be followed. "Who knows where they get these ideas," he said. It stung. I was wrong and I knew it.

I had spoiled a nice hike and much of the rest of my day thinking about this girl and how right I was. Maybe I ruined hers, too. I could almost hear my sponsor say: "Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?"

12. The undertaking is hard, but it's worth the effort. Be generous in sharing what you’ve learned, especially when you encounter those who are just starting out.


  1. i like # 11. it lets me know you'll won't judge me as you step around me on the trail cuz i'm in a crumpled heap blubbering, praying for a golf cart. eight hours?! kathy, you're amazing!

  2. Thanks for this - beautiful post. And great picture!

  3. This is a great post thank you. I used to go to alanon too [I grew up with alcoholism] and it has helped me so much.
    Have you ever heard of ACoA? It is especially for people who alcoholic parents. This also helped me hugely.
    Sending you supportive holding on your hike towards healing

  4. Kathy, thank you for your words of wisdom on my other blog. Appreciate what you have to share dear one. Blessings to you.

  5. I really enjoyed this post for multiple reasons. I am an aspiring hiker...I live in the mountains and decided I was tired of being too busy to make use of the beautiful area I live in. So I liked all of the practical hiker knowledge you shared. I LOVED all of the life co-relations you applied them to. Thank you so much....and thank you for the kind comments you leave on my blog. I always LOVE hearing from YOU. :o)

  6. Great post! Utah is indeed therapeutic. Enjoyed your insights. Keep hiking.

  7. I love the way that you have written this post! It really makes me stop and think!

  8. very inspiring - excellent!!!

  9. This is a keeper for sure, as many of your posts are. You have a gift with words Kathy, thanks for sharing it with us.

  10. Thanks Kathy. I learned a lot about hiking etiquette and how to practice the principles in every event. There have been many opportunities lately to do just that.

  11. It has been my dream to hike the canyon. I was there once but only for a few hours looking over the edge and imagining what it would be like. It was symbolic of what was going on in my life at the time. So close but yet so far. I needed this post today to think of the possibilities. Thanks.

  12. Thanks for sharing Kathy... very insightful. I loved the one about being right. Yep. Being right is highly over rated.

    I also love the one about not judging others path. I am learning that I don't know everything so how can I judge. :)


  13. Kathy, this is so insightful. Every word felt so very honest and clear you know when someone lives what they are writing. Thank you for sharing it.
    I am so impressed with you that you would hike the canyon. I want to be that brave. I am going to have to put this on my list.

  14. I really enjoyed this post as a long time Al-Anon member and having been to the Canyon twice in the last two years. My most recent excursion was a month ago. I did not hike into it though one day I hope to.

    Standing there looking at it from one view on the South Rim I was left almost stupefied. There it was so much bigger than I am and fully out of my control. Magical. I appreciate your thought provoking post on this.

  15. Loved this! I am going to share it with my sister. I wish you were still blogging, but totally understand why you aren't :)