my short, nonfiction, Eclipse appeared in the small-college anthology,
The Freshman Writer as Artist: A Reader, Rhetoric, and Stylebook
edited by James Prothero, PhD, 2010
“I wish I’d caught you earlier,” Jim’s wife, Gretchen said, looking up from her newspaper. “There’s a total lunar eclipse tonight. Jim started down from the North Rim this afternoon to watch it from Roaring Springs. You could’ve met him there.”
The eclipse wouldn’t start until five after nine. Roaring Springs was too far, but if I caught a ride along the South Rim, I could get to the Kaibab trailhead before eight and make the seven-mile jog to the river before it began.
I moved in a crouch so muscles absorbed the impact on knees and hips. Even at a runner’s pace the canyon unfolded slowly, passing like time on a clock —the second-hand sweep beneath my feet, minutes and hours in the passage of ever more distant terrain.
When I emerged from the riverside tunnel and onto the suspension bridge at the bottom, my footsteps pounded into the space over the water and made the bridge sway. I ran downriver then, and turned up creek to Phantom Ranch.
I asked for Debbie, a shuttle bus driver on the South Rim before she took a cut in pay to transfer to Phantom and live at the Grand Canyon’s heart.
She’d left an hour earlier to view the eclipse with a group of tourists on the Bright Angel. I might have caught up, but the thought of a crowd on that longer, gentler trail held little appeal. I wanted the quick, steep ascent, the isolation, the sheer gravity of stark Kaibab’s moonlit abyss under the magnitude of a night sky.
Still early, I wandered toward the North Rim to enjoy the woodsy streamside.
The quiet canyon twilight was shattered by a horrendous thuppa-thuppa-thuppa and jet whine. A Park Service helicopter dropped into the narrow drainage, its rotors just clearing treetops. I closed my eyes and held my breath against a stinging cloud of sand and pebbles. I opened them long enough to see a ranger’s angry face, his thumb jerking back toward Phantom. I understood. He thought I was an illegal camper looking for a place to bed down.
I turned back as he flew off in what seemed smug satisfaction. I fought an urge to throw a stone, but was content to think that he was the kind of guy even the other rangers shunned.
I returned to the river to wait on the bridge in the din of boiling slicks and turbulence, to enjoy the effects of the changing light on the Colorado below me. The butterscotch rush turned pale milk chocolate and then silver, then gray.
Clifftops glowed, but no moon. Only then did I realize that the moonrise wouldn’t be visible within the narrow river gorge until well past nine. I broke into a run over the bridge and through the tunnel to the steep switchbacks.
I tumbled up from the inner gorge, knees lifted high with each driven step. Lungs and muscles burned. A bat zipped around my rushing feet. White noise boiled up from the churning river mud. The effort of the climb sharpened my senses. I saw the bat’s pale fur and black wings as if by daylight, heard its chips and chatters. The river’s roar faded away as if by the closing of doors on a long hallway.
I topped the gorge just after nine, as the moon rose into full view over the clifftops of the outer rim.
A roughening edge of the moon’s outer curve marked the start of the eclipse. A smudge took shape and ate slowly into the margins of its face. With the subtle change in ambient light, the desert plateau cooled as if through photographic filters. The Tonto, extending to the canyon’s outer walls from both sides of the black trench from which I’d emerged, seemed broader, stretched formless as a peculiar gloom masked the rocks and vegetation that usually broke the visual flow.
I always loved the Tonto by moonlight, the way the trail dust exuded a buff glow in a ribbony tendril across its desert contours. But as the shadow of Earth’s curve took shape on the cool-lit face of the moon, I felt diminished. I struggled in a scratch on earth’s stone face and saw that stone’s shadow cast across two hundred forty thousand miles of space. I took a brief deep plunge into melancholy, like the night I was a boy alone with my first sense of mortality.
Two men smoked dope in the dark near the trail. ‘Is this awesome, or what?” one called out.
“Shit, man. How you walking alone in this?” the other said. “I’m getting all weirded out just sitting here with Cory.”
Funny how we might say, Oh, you scared me, to a stranger’s voice in the dark and lose our fear, as if the humanity in a voice should be sufficient to ward fear off. We are no less to be feared for the complexity of our thought, the subtlety of our motives.
Any desire for the comfort of a human voice evaporated into the night air. This night demanded solitude.
“Yeah,” I said and picked up my pace to put the intrusion behind.
I entered more switchbacks in the face of a cliff and slowed, to time the climb to the pace of the eclipse.
Above the switchbacks, I passed through a swarm of gnats to a long amphitheater-curve of cliff top. I recalled the day I looked down on Spider’s tarp-covered pack mule on the slopes beneath those cliffs after it died in the rain. Spider and his mules, out repairing trail damage as it occurred, were the only domestic life I ever saw in the canyon during a rain. He was well named. He climbed out of the saddle and skittered with a nimbleness sprung from fear across the ill-fated mule’s back as its outside legs lost purchase. He landed safely on the trail as the mule went over the edge.
“Gonna miss Mindy,” he said.
I lost what little moonlight remained to rock shadows in the next set of switchbacks. I pushed blindly up through oppressively dark, rock-walled turns. My chest grew heavy, my legs wooden. I stumbled and skinned my hands. I envisioned my body found slumped on the trail by the first of the morning hikers.
I stepped into the open on Cedar Ridge as the last of the moonlight was snuffed out. I sprawled against a boulder —heart thudding— to stare up at a dark ember of moon, rusty in shadow. Morbid thoughts settled as respirations slowed.
After twenty minutes, a flash like the glint off the facet of a diamond told that the moon was moving out of Earth’s shadow. A thin, curved line of light began to grow. Cold wind howled across the ridge where the air was deathly still moments before. I left the open ridge for the shelter of the switchbacks to climb to the top. No hurry. Only a mile and a half of trail. Forty minutes remained before full moonlight.
I sat in the last switchback, just below the lip of the canyon rim, to wait until the moon came out of shadow.
I stepped onto the rim as the eclipse ended. The moon, now full and bright, lit the woods for a long, peaceful moment.
A new wind then moaned in the trees. A putrid gust wafted out of the canyon like a cold sigh from a corpse. Something big, like a deer long dead, nearby. Nothing more.
But when clouds materialized in clear sky to blot out the moon, I fought an urge to turn and run blindly through the dark and trees along the rim, where deep black fissures reached back from the abyss into a runner’s path.