Taking Risks and Discovering Rewards in the Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon National ParkI hiked deeper into the canyon and found gold.

“We’re gonna die, Mrs. Ojeda!” one of my students exclaimed as he pointed at the sign warning hikers to NOT attempt to hike from the south rim of the Grand Canyon down to the Colorado River and back in one day.

“We’ll be fine,” I assured him while another boy jostled up close to the sign and had his buddy snap a photo. “I did this last year. The sign is for people who didn’t plan ahead and aren’t prepared.”

“Is it?” he replied.

“The Grand Canyon is no joke,” I explained. “You remember those sirens we heard yesterday morning?” I had their attention now and nine boys nodded their heads. “Someone got too close to the edge and fell off and died.” (I was unable to verify this fact this morning—another camper told me this on Saturday afternoon). “So please, stay on the trail, stay away from the edge and keep hydrated.”

Again, they nodded. We set off down the trail, the students chattering and laughing. After three-quarters of a mile, the choruses of, “I’m gonna be the first one to the bottom,” and “You ain’t gonna beat me!” changed to exclamations of wonder.

“Look at that!” one young man exclaimed as he dumped his pack on the ground and dug around for his camera. The others stopped and pulled out their cameras as well to record the beauty of a doe and her offspring grazing on cliff rose on a steep incline just a few feet away from the trail. The deer ignored us, and everyone had a chance to take photos before we moved on. Their attitude of wonder surprised me.

When one thinks of teenage boys—ones who act tough and come from crazy circumstances—one doesn’t automatically think of tender hearts and eyes that soak up beauty and voices that exclaim in wonder.

As we hiked deeper into the canyon, I started chatting with the young man behind me. “What do you want to study when you graduate and go to college?”

“I ain’t gonna go to college.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I ain’t smart enough,” he replied. “I done a lot of stupid stuff, like drugs and alcohol. I don’t get good grades.”

“We all do stupid stuff,” I assured him, “but that doesn’t mean we should give up. What’s your favorite class right now?”

“Auto mechanics.”

“The community college has an excellent program. You can graduate from there and you’ll have a lot more opportunities than someone who doesn’t go to college.”

“I don’t know if I can change,” he muttered.

“Have you ever washed a red shirt with your white clothes?” I asked.

“I have!” someone further back in the line of hikers exclaimed.

“It turns everything pink and it’s impossible to get them white again.” I paused, not sure about this conversation or whether or not I should be hiking down this verbal trail.

The Holy Spirit nudged me, so I kept on talking. “God promises us in the Bible that even though our sins seem to stain us and change us to an impossible shade of red, he can make us white again. All we have to do is ask.”

The trail opened up to the first rest house and bathroom along the way, and the boys stampeded downhill. After making sure that they all ate a salty snack (of course, making sure teenage boys eat is NEVER a problem) and had plenty of water, we continued our journey. Different boys walked in front of me and behind me now, so the conversation turned to other things.

By the time we reached Indian Garden—a beautiful oasis 4.6 miles down from the south rim—everyone settled into the shade, refilled their water bottles and kicked back to wait for the stragglers. A canyon wren called nearby, joining the music of the year-round spring that gurgled and danced over rocks and the voices of my proud students—after all, they’d made it more than half way to the river. After a short break, we headed off again.

As we entered a narrow gorge, one of the boys let loose with a blood-curdling yell—just to test the echo. A chorus of other voices joined in and I cringed inwardly, hoping other hikers weren’t thinking badly about my boys as they expressed their wonder in manly ways.

Just at that moment, a hiker came around the bend and said, “You boys need to study opera! I’ve never heard such a loud strong voices before!”

Bless you, sir,” I thought as I grinned at the stranger—a fellow traveler who understood that exuberance and reverence sound the same when coming from the lips of a teenage boy.

The boys grinned and shrugged and blushed a bit, then hurried on down the trail. “That’s sooo cool!” someone shouted. Everyone crowded around to see a perfect little waterfall down in a narrow gorge with red cliffs pushing up and hanging over on the trail side of the path.

“I need to take a picture of this!” I exclaimed as I slid the shoulder straps of my camera bag backpack off and twisted the pack around to the front to grab my camera. I spotted a beautiful cactus blooming about two feet down the embankment, and saw a safe place to stand and take a photo.Finding gold in the Grand Canyon

After stepping down to my chosen spot, I hunched over so I could get the cactus and the waterfall in the photo. I heard my conversation partner from earlier mutter quietly, “Imma gonna hang on to your backpack sos you don’t fall.” I flashed him a big grin and thanked him.

As I continued my trek down the canyon, I couldn’t help but reflect on the kindness of the young man who had my back (or pack). I knew a little of his background—enough to know that he has bounced around the system for most of his life; that he’s struggled with drugs and alcohol; that academically, he’s about six years behind his peers and been held back more than once. From a distance, his case looks hopeless.

GRCA rim2river2rim-5When standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, one can only see the colored rocks and barren land far below, but as we approached the river, we gained a new perspective. The beauty of the cacti in bloom, the bright yellow flowers on the rabbitbrush and agave and the subtle greens tucked between the overwhelming landscape of rock formed a different picture—a picture of rugged endurance and survival amidst overwhelming odds.

Despite all that he has going against him in life, my gentle student is always kind, courteous and ready to help out. His potential overwhelms me. A heart of pure gold beats within his slender frame, waiting for caring adults to polish the treasure within and reveal it’s true value to the owner.

And I wondered how many other boys are out there—ones who seem rude, crude, ungovernable, wild or without hope. As Christians, do we tend to want to mine them and form their good qualities to serve our own purposes—or do we seek out relationships and let the Holy Spirit guide our conversations and experiences?

Bright Angel Trail near River's RestTwo days after our grand adventure, I feel like an old lady. Despite training and being in above-average physical condition, my legs scream at me each time I stand up or sit down. But you know what? I wouldn’t trade my aching legs for anything. Those aches and pains remind me of the beauty one only discovers through going deeper.Those aches and pains remind me of the beauty one only discovers through going deeper. Click To Tweet

Anita currently teaches English to 7th-12th graders. She describes herself as a ‘recovering cancer caregiver’ who gives thanks daily that her husband has been cancer-free for ten years.

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  • What an amazing story and an incredible journey. Your choice to take the risk going down that verbal trail was inspiring, thank you.

    • I’m getting better at hiking down verbal trails–I’m not the kind of person who feels comfortable ‘witnessesing’ verbally. I’d much rather write. But sometimes, when God calls you deeper…well…I know my words won’t go out empty!

  • Suzanne Card

    Anita, I love your heart for Christ. As always I enjoy what you share.

    • Aw, thank you for your kind words, Suzanne! Your big heart and big family inspire me :).

  • What a fun story Anita! You’re right, the Grand Canyon is no joke. I remember when we went and our highly active, often disappearing son was with us. Oh boy. So glad you were there for those boys with the chance to speak life giving words and share life giving moments.
    Jolene Underwood (@Faith_Eyes) recently posted…The day they came – Fostering StoriesMy Profile

    • That would have been terrifying! I love the canyon and I love taking kids out in nature :).

  • Your leadership is so inspirational. I love that you inspired these young men to dream big.
    Mary Hill recently posted…H is for HopeMy Profile

    • Oh, I hope with a constant diet of encouragement and you CAN do it, they will go places!

  • Ah, Anita … yet once again you’ve taken me to a place I have not ventured to. In more ways than one. Thank you for the call to go deeper still …
    Linda@Creekside recently posted…Dear Linda : : My Daughter Has Left UsMy Profile

    • I love the journey God leads us on when we say we’ll follow him–it takes us to crazy places and opens unimaginable opportunities.

  • Anita, those boys (especially the one who had your back) are blessed to have you in their lives. I love the laundry analogy … and the beautiful cactus pictures!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Lois :). I love my ‘kids’!

  • This is such a wonderful post, for so many reasons–the pictures, the lovely imagery of your words, and the story of the boys. I can see their wonder in your words. I’ll be praying for that one young man!
    Laura recently posted…Five Tips On Getting Things DoneMy Profile

    • Thank you for promising to pray for them!

  • Love this post. What a great reminder to look for the potential in everyone but let go of our own agenda and let the Spirit guide us. And it was so easy to imagine myself right there beside you in the Grand Canyon, especially with those beautiful pictures! Love.
    Jenni DeWitt recently posted…I’m Sorry I Spilled My Pepsi in Your Mouth at Henry Doorly ZooMy Profile

    • It’s taken a long time for me to let go of my own agenda–but I’m so much happier when I do!

  • I loved everything about this post. What an awesome adventure, friend.
    Susan Shipe recently posted…turning heartsMy Profile

  • Anita,
    I loved your photo and how you were able to speak truth and encouragement to those young men (teens)…hope I can hike there one day…I don’t know if I could do it in one day though…many blessings to you 🙂
    Dolly@Soulstops recently posted…Are you putting on your “socks” properly?My Profile

  • Yay!! I finally have the chance to read the story behind all of those Fitbit steps! AND what a story there my friend! NINE boys and a hike through the Grand Canyon? SERIOUSLY??!! You now have my highest respect! I look at these pictures and just connect to God through your journey. Amazing how He does that!

    So…what’s next? Everest?? 🙂
    Bethany Boring recently posted…Worth Getting WetMy Profile

    • Bahaha! I don’t think I’m ready for Everest–but I’ll probably do a rim to rim hike (that’s 21 miles long and starts on one rim and follows the trail down to the river, along the river and then up the other rim). The steps were accurate–but the milage was not–my steps were a lot shorter going up! They are all really good boys. I am blessed to work with them.

  • Oh my! You are so much braver than I am. I could hardly even stand at the top and look down into the Grand Canyon. ha. Wouldn’t consider hiking down into it. But what joy you brought to do so! I look up to you!
    Lisa notes recently posted…How to think better thoughts – Memorize scripture with mental mapsMy Profile

  • What a special day to take these boys hiking in the Grand Canyon. How beautiful that God has given you eyes to see and a heart to treasure their unique potential. It is so easy to write people off when they don’t look or act like our picture of success and value.
    Ginger Harrington recently posted…It’s Simply Not About the Fish or the WorkMy Profile

  • I love your pictures and your heart! I am so glad you went deeper and encouraged that sweet boy! Only God knows the impact that day will have!
    Sarah Donegan recently posted…Sometimes You Gotta Take a LeapMy Profile

  • Tara

    Absolutely! Nothing is every impossible with God, is it? God takes broken things and makes them beautiful. I love how you wrote this piece. That young man may look hopeless from the outside but he isn’t. There is so much potential. I have a feeling your conversation will bless him and you for years to come!

  • Love this story and how the Holy Spirit gently guided your conversation to encourage a young man who is doubting his worth. May God bless your aching legs and your beautiful feet!

  • Beautiful story, Anita! Thank you for sharing with your readers…love that last sentence about aches and pains and going deeper…so relevant!!

    And the photos are BEAUTIFUL!
    Barbara recently posted…WISHMy Profile

  • I loved everything about this story-the beauty of the landscape, the journey in getting to the bottom, the boys who were learning more about themselves through the hike and how you taught us all about how we handle those unexpected, teachable moments. I imagine there are many more stories that will evolve out of this outing to the Grand Canyon. Thank you for teaching me with your words today.
    Mary Geisen recently posted…God’s Beauty DefinedMy Profile

  • Beautifully written and beautiful photos. As a mom to 3 boys, 2 of which are teens, I appreciate your heart for those boys. I can so relate when the man complimented their voices instead of criticized. It is refreshing to find people who ‘get’ boys who don’t fit in a box or a perfect mold. Thanks for sharing this Anita. Very inspiring!

  • I always love your story telling posts. Thank you for sharing your journey with us.
    Wendy recently posted…Learning to fast – Learning to feast – a guest postMy Profile

  • You captured this beauty for sure. I loved journeying with you. Thank you for bringing me deeper. It was fun and beneficial, which is often hard to convey! Cheering you on from the #RaRalinkup on Purposeful Faith.
    Kelly Balarie recently posted…The Incredible Bravery Found in HidingMy Profile

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