Grand Canyon Sunrise
Right before my four daughters and I crawled into our motel room beds, exhausted from a day of adventuring and exploring, I remembered I still needed to research sunrise times for August 24, 2016. Crap. A quick check of the Google informed me that is was going to be a very early and cold wakeup—there might be a mutiny of tiny humans when they find out, I thought. I set the alarm on my iPhone to wake us up at 5:45 am, 10 minutes before “official sunrise” at the Grand Canyon and turned reluctantly to face the girls, already anticipating some major pushback.
“Alllllright, ladies,” I said, already dropping into my best sing-song voice which was the first step of “negotiations.” Emma groaned. “It looks like the sun will great us with its presence at 5:55 am. Woo hoo!”
“That’s the same time as the six-mile Hawaii beach hike. That’s freaking early, Mom,” Emma said. My little night owl grimaced her face and pleaded for mercy with her giant, ocean-colored eyes. She was right, thought--that had also been a 5:55 am sunrise hike, albeit a world away in Waikiki Beach, Hawaii. The coincidence was definitely the good kind of weird—good sign, I thought. I vividly remembered that morning on the beach a little over three years ago. It was a time when I grasped at literally anything to make Neal’s death make sense.
I carried a tiny pocket numerology book written by “angel oracle reader” Doreen Virtue to look up any number sequence that caught my eye. It had seemed a little less creepy and more legit to me because Doreen talked to angels instead, say, Xenu, but I knew it was weird. I’d slyly pull the book out of my purse and glance around to make sure no one was watching—nothing to see here folks…just a totally sane and rational mom that hopes “The Universe” and possibly her dead husband is speaking to her in license tags and clocks.
The number 555 supposedly means “profound and inevitable change, and it was one I saw often. A “555” sunrise hike was symbolic to me on so many levels. The girls and I had been going through an intense period of change during the almost-five years since Neal’s death. We had come on this second cross-country road trip in two years, in part, to figure out what our lives were going to look like now.
During the long drive out West, we spent hours talking and dreaming about what our next chapter. If we could live anywhere, do anything, shape our lives to be whatever we wanted—what would that be? Half of me thought we were going to stumble on the perfect house, the perfect city, something, and we’d all just know we were supposed to leave Charlotte and replant our roots. Crazy, I know.
Abigail dubbed this road trip our “Brave Sisters Finding Home Epic Adventure.”
The first day at The Grand Canyon exceeded all of our expectations. We took a bus tour around the edge of the canyon, getting off at each stop and battling wind and rain to soak in the different views. At one point we stopped and had an impromptu yoga session, popping into wheel pose and dancer pose just steps away from the edge.
At another stop, Emma crawled all the way to the edge of the canyon because she wanted to get as close as possible to the brink (my heart almost stopped). We timed our final stop of the day so we could watch sunset at the furthest point the busses take us, Hermit’s Rest. As we watched the sun go down and sipped hot coco we realized it had been a perfect and perfectly exhausting day.
We were all so wiped out that I knew it would take a miracle to actually get us all before dawn for the hike. My oldest two daughters, Emma and Abigail, reluctantly agreed to go on the hike, and Bella and Olivia, the younger two, pinky-promised that they would at least try to wake up. All five of us were fast asleep seconds after I hit the lights.
I jolted awake while it was still dark, afraid that I had slept through the alarm due to utter tiredness. The windows were still pitch black with not a hint of pink filtering through the blinds. I checked the clock on my phone—it was only 4:15 am. Ugh. For some reason I was instantly wide awake, like I had downed six Parisian espressos. I stared at the dark ceiling for a few moments and considered my options—try to go back to sleep, write, or mindlessly scroll Facebook?
Then I remembered hearing that the stars were supposed to look way bigger and brighter at The Grand Canyon, almost like you could reach out and touch them. Decision made. I jumped out of bed to take a quick look, throwing on Neal’s old Air Force sweat shirt and grabbing the kitschy “Grand Canyon” blanket we had purchased the day before and draping it around my shoulders to stave off the cold.
I opened the door slowly, trying hard not to wake up the girls. A blast of frigid mountain air—far colder than August nights in Carolina—blew into the room. Abigail sat straight up in bed and blinked her eyes at me in alarm. I should have known; she was always on alert.
“Mom, it’s freezing! What are you doing?” I grinned at her and motioned for her to come, then quickly stepped out into the magical Arizona night. The night sky twinkled with thousands of stars that looked about ten sizes too big. I drank in the beauty of the sparkling lights, letting their energy soak into my bones.
I heard the motel room creak open slowly. A few moments later, I felt Abigail’s solid presence standing next to me.
“What are we looking at?” Abigail said, stifling back a yawn. My oldest daughter, who had just turned 14 the month before, was already scanning the night sky. Constellation hunting was a family hobby. “Is that Orion?” Her long finger pointed in the direction of the Hunter, tracing the hourglass shape. “Holy crap, why does it look so huge?” she mused.
Her eyes continued to dance across the horizon looking for the brightest points in the sky. I felt her breath catch and pause as her gaze landed on something she couldn’t identify. My eyes glanced in the direction she had been studying.
“Wait—Is that a shooting star? Like, the slowest shooting star I’ve ever seen?” I asked. The UFO was moving unhurriedly across the sky, directly above us. It was oddly familiar, but I couldn’t place it right away. I knew we had seen it before on one of our nighttime constellation hunts, but I couldn’t remember where or when.
“OMG, it’s the International Space Station, Mom,” Abigail exclaimed. My mouth fell open in sheer amazement that she was Abigail to connect the dots and figure out the mystery.
What were the odds that we would walk outside at the exact moment the space station was orbiting and visible in our location? We had stayed up late tracking its orbit before, but we had always had to be intentional about it. How weird that we had just stumbled into such a serendipitous encounter.
We sat with our arms wrapped around each other for a few more moments and watched the bright light move across the sky then silently went back into the room and crawled back under the covers with the hope of getting another hour’s worth of sleep.
When the alarm finally did go off, I could have sworn I had just closed my eyes. The weird, faux espresso buzz had worn off, and the thought of going back into that cold morning was rapidly losing its appeal. Not even the rosy glow coming from the window, a promise of a beautiful sunrise soon to come, was enough to entice me to move. However, my personal preferences were soon overruled by a tiny ball of exuberance and perpetual motion—my nine-year-old, Bella.
“Mom, GET UP! You hit the snooze button TWICE—we are going to miss the sunrise” she said. Bella was already in motion, pulling on sweat pants and fuzzy socks over her pajamas. “Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go,” she ordered, clapping her hands loudly for emphasis.
“Wait, wait—lets’ talk about this, Bella. How about we just sleep late?” I asked, peering up from the covers, but realizing I had already lost this battle. Bella sat down with a flourish on the edge of the bed next to me and looked at me disapprovingly.
“Mother. When’s the next time we’re going to be able to see the sunrise at The Grand Canyon? Remember what you always say…you can sleep when you’re dead. You are not dead yet, woman. Now, get up.” Holy shit, you are so much like your father,I thought. She ripped the sheet off of me in one confident motion, and I knew the day had officially begun.
There is nothing like having your own words thrown back at you by your precocious child to get your ass up and moving. I stumbled out of bed and grabbed the nearest jacket—I’m pretty sure it was one of the children’s—and zipped it over my adult-sized unicorn pajamas. I could barely make out my own hand in front of my face in the eerie pre-dawn darkness, much less distinguish which mound of clothing on the floor belonged to me.
I went over to the bed where Emma and Abigail lay sleeping and began to shake them awake. “Come on guys, up and at em’,” I said.
Abigail peered up at men from the slit of one bleary eye, and said, “I’ve already seen you once tonight—I’m out.” I knew from experience there was no way I would be able to budge her so soon after our impromptu, starry-night adventure. I moved on to the next tiny human in the bed.
“Come on, Emma…you know you want to go on this hike,” I said. Emma moaned sleepily and mumbled something about catching me on the flipside. I was pretty sure I could convince her to move, eventually, but it would take at least ten minutes of prodding, turning on all the lights in the room, and possibly dumping a glass of water on her. The minutes were ticking by—there was no more time to waste if we were actually going to have a shot at seeing the sun blaze forth over the canyon.
“I’ll go!” Olivia’s tiny body popped up from the bed I had just vacated. She was still so small and had just turned seven, but she had more tenacity and persuasive powers in her tiny little girl body than seemed humanly possible.
“Are you sure? It’s going to be a few miles, and it’s really cold. We don’t have time to eat breakfast, we’ve just got to bolt,” I said.
“I’m sure, mom.” She jumped out of bed and made a grand “ta dah” gesture with hands, then began throwing clothes over her own pair of unicorn pajamas (we had been twinsies the night before). Moments later the three of us were out the door and heading into the chilly Arizona night, this time in search of the sun.
I had a general idea of where we were going—the front desk receptionist had informed us that the best place to catch the sunrise was along the south rim of the canyon. Per usual, I had not mapped out the exact route—we were going with a mix of “general idea” and a whole lot of intuition in figuring out our next steps.
Bella, Olivia, and I walked through the entrance of the South Rim Trail and emerged onto a well-worn dirt path weaving its way through a fairy forest of spindly juniper trees. We had heard a legend that the juniper trees were especially sensitive to “vortexes” of Earth energy, and whenever you encountered and peculiar looking tree with especially spiraled branches, you were standing near sacred ground where the veil between the spiritual and material world had grown thin.
I didn’t know if that was true, but it did feel different here. The land and the air felt strange—ancient. Watching my two youngest daughters navigate their way around giant cactuses and over white flowers sprouting from seemingly dead pieces of wood, I could believe this place was set apart. I could almost believe in magic.
“Come on, guys, we are going to miss it,” Bella said. She had gotten ten yards ahead of us. Her gangly, long legs had begun working double-time once she realized how close it was to sunrise. Competitive by nature, in her mind she was in a race with the sun. Anyone who meets Bella comments on her boundless energy and insatiable drive. She is different from my other daughters, the only one to have inherited her father’s dark, thick hair and green eyes. But her twig-like body and strong, fast-twitch muscles come from mysterious genes.
Her sisters and I call her “Muscles Taylor,” and she is my first choice to unload groceries or perfectly load the car when we are traveling. The end results of her efforts look like she was working from a schematic diagram, and by the way, she weighs only 76 pounds. The way her mind works is an enigma to the rest of us—she is so logical and passionate about math and numbers, but is also arguably the most creative problem solver in the family. The rest of us right-brain dominant Taylor girls could not do without her. We all “high five” her a lot and are really glad she is on our side.
“Slow down, Muscles,” Olivia called out to her big sister. We quickened our pace to keep up with our new de facto leader. Olivia’s legs pumped furiously to match my own long strides. Olivia, our “baby,” who had myself and all three of her older sisters completely under her command.
Olivia was so tiny and tough, yet oh-so-charming. I’ve never seen anyone asks for what she wants and needs as directly and with no apologies like she does. From finagling a waiter to give her a quarter so she could get a gumball at a restaurant, to begging her big sister Bella to carry her piggy-back for the rest of the hike (I was sure it was coming), my youngest daughter was simply audacious. Olivia lived by the motto, “If you don’t ask, the answer will always be no.” But, she also loved the people she cared about with all of her being—too much, really. My grandmother said Olivia was a “compulsive nurturer.” She came by it honest.
We had not quite made it to the edge of the canyon, but little tentacles of sunlight had begun to trace the ground in front of us and bounce light off of the trees. The wind began picking up, and, and the smell of ponderosa pine and juniper trees intoxicated us. The breeze smelled like the most delicious incense ever created.
“We’re missing it, Mom,” Bella grumbled from the front of our little band of gypsies. I could read the annoyance in the slouch of her shoulders and the focused way she kept scanning the woods, looking for the sun.
“Keep looking that way, Bella,” I suggested, gesturing in general direction of east.
It was a clear morning, and even through the trees, we were sure to come to a break in the leaves soon and get our first glimpse of sunshine.
Moments later, the forest exploded in a sea of light. Sunbeams lit up the dark underbrush and illuminated our path. We began scanning the branches, looking for a peek of the glowing orb.
“There.” Bella’s finger pointed to a break in the trees, and her smile seemed to spread across her face in tandem with our first glimpse of the sun emerging in between the braches of a tiny, twisted juniper tree.
“We need a picture,” I exclaimed. The desire to document this moment, the same way I did so many thousands of other ones, was almost a compulsion. I quickly positioned the girls underneath the tree. Without prompting, and with perfect timing, Bella reached up and cradled the sunshine in between both of her hands, a look of delight and smugness shining from her eyes—victory. She had literally caught the sun.
We rejoined the trail and began walking towards the rim of the canyon as fast as we could, hoping to still catch the sunrays exploding over the rocks in the same way we had just seen them emerge from behind the trees.
The forest began thinning out, and I could tell we were almost there. Olivia and Bella stopped and grabbed an informational pamphlet that explained the portion of the trail we were on in great detail and also contained a mini geology lesson. We had somehow landed on the section of the South Rim Trail entitled “Journey Through Time,” which transported you back in time with the aid of a “fossil rock experience” that explained what each layer of the canyon walls were made of and how it was formed. You know, because the Grand Canyon couldn’t possibly get any cooler.
Each time I have seen the canyon, it’s beauty and ferocity has shocked me. It seems impossible that one could just stumble upon something so massive. There is no fencing along the edge—just a precipitous drop of thousands of feet if you get too close or lose your footing. I have had to physically resist the urge to tie all four girls to my belt when we walked within 30 feet of its edge. The urge was even stronger now that I was alone with just my two smallest daughters.
“Come on Mom, let’s sit down,” Bella said, directing Olivia and I to a cozy looking rock ledge. She looked at me expectantly, and I scooted out on the little ledge first then and tucked Olivia safely beside of me underneath my right arm. Bella positioned herself across from me and slightly towards the right. I placed my legs to her left and kind of sealed us all up in our little rock pocket.
We were too late to see the sun emerge onto the rocks. The light was already dancing over the many layers of rock that made up the wall of the canyon. It seemed impossible for so many colors and so many perfect layers to be sandwiched together, one on top of the other like a perfect, Universe-sized sand art project.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, which was exceedingly rare for the three of us. I wondered what must be going through Olivia’s 7-year-old mind as she took in the view—wondered what all the experiences she had already encountered in her so few years on the planet—both the sad, grief-filled ones that included so much loss, and the amazing joy-filled ones that included traveling all over the world and being the beloved youngest sister of our family. I knew one thing for certain, our “gypsy Little Women” band was one of the most love-filled and happy families I had ever countered, even if it wasn’t very traditional.
Olivia pulled the geology pamphlet from her sweatshirt pocket and began to “teach” her older sister and I about the rocks of the canyon. Soon, Bella and Olivia began to switch back and forth, alternating reading about each distinct layer. I have retained more information from that little mountainside geology lesson than from every science class I have ever taken. My daughters are most excellent teachers.
I could tell Olivia was reading ahead a little in her pamphlet while her big sister was still talking. I noted the slight smirk at something she encountered, then she said, “Go ahead and read the next one too, Bella,” smiling innocently. Bella shrugged and began reading about the eighth layer, the “wall of limestone.” This layer was 505 meters wide and looked darker than the picture because it remained in the shadows of the still very early morning light.
“I think that one is my favorite,” I said, after Bella finished her narrative.
Olivia grinned mischievously at me and said, “Oh, I think you are about to have a new favorite.” Olivia got very still for a moment, gathering herself dramatically to make sure she had our full attention. Then with an impish gleam in her eyes, she said, “Number nine, Bright AngelShale.” Her sister and I began laughing like hyenas at how she had maneuvered the reading so that she could be the one to deliver the information about the rock with the most adorable-sounding name. It was typical Olivia behavior and endearing as hell.
She really did look like an angel in that moment. Sitting there on the edge of the canyon with her giant ice-blue eyes wide with excitement. Her oversized black hoody was pulled up around her head, and tufts of her wavy, auburn hair spilled out in all directions.
We finished our geology lesson and began walking back up the trail, this time looping around a small section entitled the “Trail of Time.” We had no idea this part of the hike existed, but it was a perfect way to end the walk after the geology lesson we had finished. A few feet down the path, we came to our first giant, fossilized piece of rock—the same rocks the girls had just spent 30 minutes reading. about Each meter on the trail represents roughly one million years, and you are able to touch a large section of the fossilized rock representing each strata of the canyon as you move forward in metaphorical time. It was surreal getting to run our hands over the different rocks and engaged all of our senses. We can still name all of the layers of the canyon, months later.
As we came to the last rock sample and turned the corner back into the juniper trees, we noticed a clump of five trees with wildly spiraled, twisted limbs directly in front of us. The little clump of trees seemed set apart inside their own little island, in-between the road we had just traveled and the new path we were about to step onto.
Olivia’s eyes were glowing with wonder. “Mom, twisty trees mean this spot is magic.” I smiled and grabbed my youngest daughter’s hand, “Oh, this spot is completely magic, Livie-Lou.”
I looked over and caught Bella’s gaze staring at the trees in the same manner she does when she is working out a complex word problem. The way that lets me know she is looking for a new angle or seeking a different explanation. She stood quietly for a few moments, taking the trees in and regarding them carefully. Tracing the trees from their highest branches all the way down to the roots with her finger.
“There are five trees here, just like there are five of us, mom. Maybe all the fives aren’t just a reminder of change—maybe all the fives are a reminder that as long as we have the five of us, it doesn’t matter what happens or what change is coming. It’s always going to be okay, because we can handle whatever it is as long as we are together.”
I felt her insight land squarely in my belly with a thump. In the same way she saw math differently, and solved problems differently, she had seen her own truth in the “sign” and had assigned it so much more meaning than I would have.
“Bella, what you just said made my heart feel like it could seriously explode. Can we pray really quickly?” Even though we were worlds away from our old Baptist church in every way possible, I grabbed both of their hands and wrenched out a slightly awkward prayer of gratitude in front of those wonky, spiral-limbed juniper trees. I asked for guidance, protection, and hearts that were brave enough to keep walking into an uncertain future.
Peace unfurled in my chest for the first time in months. We left from our little grove of trees and began walking down our new path. I didn’t know exactly where it would lead, I knew the journey would be magic as long as we were together.
By: Amanda Fleming Taylor