I travel frequently for work, and six years ago, at age 52, I landed an assignment that took me to Grand Canyon National Park. On a bit of a whim, I called my friend Marcy, then 48, and invited her to come along. We’d been close, tell-each-other-our-every-thought companions, but our friendship had faltered, then finally shattered, over some long-brewing issues. As awkward as I knew calling her would be, I missed our relationship and wondered if we could rebuild it.
She hardly paused before saying yes, but the moment I hung up the phone, I regretted what I’d done. Did I really want to hike from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and back with someone I’d had a falling out with a few years earlier? What the heck had I been thinking?
But something inside of me told me that a physical challenge might help us sort things out. We’d once trained for a marathon together, and both knew from that experience that a little dose of shared misery can draw two people together. I also knew my friendship with Marcy was worth repairing.
On the surface, we might seem like an odd pair of friends. I’m an extrovert; she’s an introvert. I love to be around people; she’d rather be alone. I like to putter around town on my bicycle; these days she drives a big red pickup truck and knows how to load hay bales onto a tractor. I’m forever scampering around the globe, chasing adventure. She loves to plant herself at home.
Still, we share a love of the outdoors, and it’s safe to say that both of us would rather sit on a bench looking out at a grove of trees than go party in Las Vegas, get a manicure or shop in boutiques. We met through our husbands more than 25 years ago. From the moment we went for a run early one spring, then flopped onto the grass in my front yard afterward for a shared belly laugh, I knew I’d found the perfect buddy.
Back then, we both lived in Austin, Texas. Over the course of the next 15 years or so, I dragged her along on occasional adventures. We nearly got blown off our bicycles while pedaling a two-lane highway in west Texas. Once, we wandered into the blissfully named tiny town of Happy, Texas, on a fluke, then spent a day meeting locals. We explored museums and discussed books. We skinny-dipped in a west Texas river. She got me back on a horse and encouraged me to start running. But mostly we just trusted each other enough to share our deepest truths.
In 2009, we signed up to run a marathon together, and the preparation involved lots of long, early morning training runs. While we chugged up hills and down trails in all kinds of weather, we discussed everything from our hopes and dreams to our digestive ailments. Running with Marcy did more than just keep me moving; it helped me process everything that happened in my life.
A turn for the worse
Our friendship, you could say, covered a lot of miles. Then, somewhere along the way, it ran off the road. It's hard to explain why. I’m not even sure I know.
No single event led to the fracture, which felt like a steam train grinding to a slow and noisy stop, with flying sparks and metal scraping on metal. One awful afternoon, we wound up standing on my front porch, hollering at each other.
I’m opinionated and strong-willed, and she was upset that I often criticized her choices: She watered her lawn too much. She shouldn’t have bought a horse. She spent too much time away from home, hiding from her problems. She served it right back at me: I was buried in my work. I didn’t have time for friends. I had a holier-than-thou attitude about a lot of things, from my job to the environment.
Those were the surface issues, but the resentments ran deeper, like currents in a river. We disapproved of each other’s lifestyles.
After Marcy drove away that day, my whole body shook. Honestly, I didn’t think we could repair our friendship. We’d doused it with gasoline and tossed a match on it. Because we ran in the same circles, though, we saw each other occasionally over the next two or three years. We were polite, nothing more. But I missed my friend. I needed someone I could talk to about life.
“I had never been to the Grand Canyon before,” she said a few weeks ago, when I asked her why she agreed to come along. “I didn’t even think about the answer. I just answered yes.”
And so, a few weeks after I called, we flew a little anxiously to Phoenix, tossed our trekking poles into a rental car, and hoped for the best as we made the four-hour drive to the park.
Early the next day, just as the sun was rising, we tightened our shoelaces, topped off our water bottles and stood at the trailhead of the South Kaibab Trail. I’d made the hike before and knew it would challenge us, but we were fit. As the first hint of pink appeared on the horizon, we dove in.
As we walked, we talked.
Hiking into the chasm of the Grand Canyon is like descending a spiral staircase into geologic history. Its layers of red and brown and yellow and gray represent millions of years of weathering. It makes you feel small and insignificant.
Hashing out the past
As we dropped lower into the gorge, Marcy and I talked about everything: Our aching feet and tired legs. Loves. Disappointments. Hopes. Embarrassing moments. Good memories, and bad. At first, we focused on the easy stuff, but the farther we hiked, the deeper we delved into the issues that had driven us apart.
What I realized, as we inched along, was that we had both been yelling in frustration that day. The stress of working at a daily newspaper had turned me cranky, and I took it out on the people I cared about. My job was consuming me, along with the things that mattered the most. Our friendship was one of them.
Marcy explained how she felt too. She wasn’t happy with her life in the city. She hated the traffic, the crowds and the complexities that come with living in a buzzing hive like Austin, where just driving to work gnaws hours out of every week. More importantly, she was unhappy in her marriage.
“And when you’re unhappy with your own life, how can you have a good relationship with another person?” she said.
We trotted downhill for 6.3 miles. We soaked up the prickly landscape surrounding us and paused to admire a mule train that had pulled over on the side of the trail. We sipped from our water bottles and complained about the heat.
In the four hours it took to reach the bottom, we put our friendship in a sling and began nurturing it. Then, as we walked for 2 mostly flat miles along the river, I stared into the muddy water and realized that our friendship meant way more than the argument that had washed us apart.
The 8-mile trek back up to the top took us past a shady campground, over a creek and onto exposed, sunbaked ridgelines. Our calves ached, but by the time we reached the rim, we knew our friendship was strong.
The canyon had shown us that even when things erode, they can survive. Our friendship felt like that rocky gorge. Something had eaten away at it, but it could withstand the beating.
Marcy says she realized then that she wanted to change her life. She also realized she could change it. She didn’t have to stay in an unhappy relationship. Two years after our hike into the Grand Canyon, Marcy started anew. Her marriage ended and she bought her own place in the country, about an hour from Austin.
I learned a lot on that trip too. I realized that the time I spend with my friends and family is the most important part of my life.
Today, we make it a point to see each other as often as we can. Our lives are different, but our friendship hasn’t faltered. I don’t believe in fate. I think you make decisions in life, and it unfolds based on those choices. Marcy says there are other factors at work, and sometimes things just happen for a reason.
Sitting on the porch of her house out in the country, sipping tea and watching her horses nibble on a big round bale of hay, I can’t say that hike was meant to happen, but I’m glad it did.
Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based adventure writer and former newspaper journalist who loves to get dirty, scrape her shins and sleep in a tent.
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