Entering Aravaipa

“No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible.” – Heart of Darkness

I first read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in college for a Literature course, writing an essay comparing the book to the movie Apocalypse Now. The allegory has been with me ever since as I have continued on my own journey called life. The written words from Conrad appear from time to time in my own stories, like when I was traveling through the tributaries of the Peruvian Amazon or listening to the Ethiopian priests perform religious rituals in the sacred sites of Lalibella. It happened again on the third week of July 2020, as I entered the protected canyon known as Aravaipa.

The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future. – Heart of Darkness

Aravaipa is a protected area in Southeast Arizona that requires one to obtain a permit to enter. Only twenty people are allowed to enter on any given day from either end of the canyon. It has a river that flows year round, extremely unusual for the Sonoran desert. It’s remoteness and lush riparian vegetation from the river provides a safe haven for all kinds of creatures ; black bears, mountain lions, coatis, deer, snakes, lizards and all manner of birds. It is a place where man is truly an outsider.

The air is thick and muggy the morning I arrive at the trailhead, with somewhat foreboding skies above. The temperature is already 90 degrees at 7:30 a.m.

There is no official trail as one gets into the canyon itself, you use the river as your guide.

“Droll thing life is — that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself — that comes too late — a crop of inextinguishable regrets.” – Heart of Darkness

There are a few others getting ready to enter the canyon as well, but soon they disappear. I alone must navigate, my safety is in my own hands. No reception out here for me to signal for help. I close my eyes and mumble a silent prayer for guidance, then enter the cool water, trudging forward into the unknown.

“He struggled with himself, too. I saw it — I heard it. I saw the inconceivable mystery of a soul that knew no restraint, no faith, and no fear, yet struggling blindly with itself.” – Heart of Darkness

My senses are heightened to their limits as I slowly make my way through the overgrowth. The rocks are dangerously slippery in the water, and I didn’t bring my trekking poles. Eyes are constantly darting in all directions, looking for snakes and other creatures that may do me harm if I surprise them or stumble into an area they have marked as their own territory. The adrenaline pumping through my veins keeps my spirits up as I continue up river.

“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself and, by heavens I tell you, it had gone mad.” – Heart of Darkness

I feel a storm coming, although the wind is but a whisper deep in canyon. Clouds pass by quickly overhead, as blue skies appear and then disappear again. Or perhaps it is all in my fragile mind. The force of Nature is what is willing my body to continue, I have lost all control. I carry onward.

“It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream–making a vain attempt, because no relation of a dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, that notion of being captured by the incredible which is of the very essence of dreams…No, it is impossible; it is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any given epoch of one’s existence–that which makes its truth, its meaning–its subtle and penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live, as we dream-alone…” – Heart of Darkness

The beauty of this remote area is starting to betray me. The rattle of the serpent silently appears in the tall grass, then I look directly into the snake’s eyes, and it returns the stare intently for a few moments before disappearing into the wilderness. I feel my anxiety rise to unhealthy levels, my heart beating uncontrollably.

“Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings.” – Heart of Darkness

I’ve lost all concept of time. I stop to rest and gather my senses. The clouds in the distance are becoming darkly ominous, a monsoon storm is forming. Reality snaps me back into focus, and I know I need to get out of this slot canyon. I do not want to become another tragic story of a solo hiker that gets swept away by a flash flood.

I see I am six miles in though, and I can’t rush my way out. Dread starts to take hold…..

Wench, bring my ale, what say you?

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