“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?”
“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.
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.
When 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?
Two 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
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