by Kaleb Smith, HE Travel Storyteller
Pre-Canyon Day 1: Leaving Home
I woke up late, but then maybe I should have actually set my alarm. Fail. I also should have gone to bed at a decent hour, but when my hot fiancé was ready for some intimate time before I left home for ten days…well, use your imagination.
Cursing myself while getting ready, I was sure I was going to miss my 7:40 am flight. The time was 6:45 am when I called the cab company and it was 6:52 am when they showed up. (In Key West 7 minutes is an eternity). I was sure they wouldn’t let me check in at the counter and I would miss my flight. If I couldn’t get on the plane, I would let everyone down including myself. I have traveled countless times in my life, but this time I was going to a place with no connection to the outside world: no cell phones, showers, toilets, chargers, I-pods, Apple TV, or Netflix. A place where once you are in, there are only three ways out: a very long hike from one spot in the middle, a VERY expensive helicopter ride, or (far preferred) rafting a 278-mile stretch of the Colorado River.
My flight worries were my own fault, but with minutes to spare, I checked in, I breezed through security, and arrived at the gate with just enough time to grab a coffee and a nosh. Vegas here I come!
I’ve been to Las Vegas on more than one occasion. Since I had no idea what was in store for me this evening, I took a nap. Just before dozing off I put my feelers out on Facebook. “Ok. So I have one night to go out on the town in Vegas. I have no idea what to do or where to go. If anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.” A short nap later I have not only received a million suggestions of amazing shows to see that night, but find out that my friend Ben is celebrating his birthday in town as well.
I decided that Le Reve at the Wynn was the show for the night, and Ben and his mother decided to join me for a buffet dinner and drinks. I’m not sure how many of you out there have done a Vegas Buffet, but I’ve now done two. I should have quit at one. We waited in a cafeteria-style line and paid an exorbitant amount of money, only to discover that it actually is a glorified cafeteria. Definitely shouldn’t have bothered with the all-you-can-drink add-on either, since we were lucky to get served one drink. The only saving grace was the pizza and pasta station….I love carbs.
After my dinner dates left, I entered the Wynn’s Aqua theater-in-the-round. I purchased a healthy-sized plastic cup of wine before the show started and then took my seat.
The theater was stunning. Above the round stage, lights swam across a purple and gold canopy; while below a cool blue fog masked a soon-to-be-revealed stage. The lights suddenly changed, an announcement was made, and the show began. All seemed happy and light as our two main characters arrived for a short prelude. A woman’s voice sang a soft melody and asked a question just before the heroine was launched into a dream state. The music shifted and the acrobatic feats began.
To say that I enjoyed fit, half-naked men, glistening with sweat, performing spectacular stunts would be an understatement. The colors, the lights, the music and the costumes kept me entertained throughout the show. To me, this was the quintessential Las Vegas show. I would recommend this show to everybody.
Franco Dragone is a genius! He’s also the mind behind O, Mystère and La Nouba — Tickets were reasonably priced and there didn’t seem to be a bad seat in the house.
Pre-Canyon Day 2:
Orientation day; time to make a good impression.
Throughout the day the group trickled in. The hotel staff was well versed in the Splash! Grand Canyon river-rafting trips, and they had already made sure that everyone had a welcome letter with my contact information plus the time and place for the orientation. At 6 pm I was standing in front of an engaged group of 13 men, all anticipating the adventure ahead.
We introduced ourselves. The guys seemed very excited and asked lots of questions. As part of our orientation, I told them about tipping the boatmen, and useful advice, such as that it’s best not to wear cotton, especially wet cotton underwear…unless they like to itch. Our meeting with our rafting outfitter came next. Our guys purchased several last minute items they might need for the canyon. I myself bought a rain suit. “Spend the money on a rain suit”, I’d been told. “You will get wet.”
Canyon Day 1:
In the morning, I wanted to be the first one downstairs, so I set my alarm for 3:40 am. Right before heading downstairs, I looked at my bags and realized, “this is my last day of modern comfort for SEVEN days.” So instead of going down right away, I took an extra-long HOT shower. I silently thanked the water as it passed over my body and imagined how hard it would be to live without it. I toweled off with a fresh white towel and enjoyed its bleach scent, realizing that with each passing day there would be fewer familiar scents – but hopefully replaced by the fresh smells of untouched nature!
Five hours. That’s how long the bus ride to Lee’s Ferry took. The bus was quiet in the early morning darkness. I could have slept, but I didn’t want to miss out on anything, and my early morning dose of coffee helped me stay awake. I looked out the windows at the surrounding desert and mountains. As the sun rose in the distance I said a little prayer. Life is a truly amazing adventure; don’t forget to breathe and relax and slow down the most meaningful moments!
The coffee’s power began to fade as I gazed out at the passing landscape. Sleep crept up through my eyes like the cool mist of the ocean air of my home town. I began to slip further toward dream land. A small voice whispered to me, “When you wake up in the morning, Pooh, what’s the first thing you say to yourself?” “What’s for breakfast?” “What do you say Piglet?” “I say, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today.’”
I woke up when we stopped at a trading post. Our local guide told us that the cookies here are amazing. I enjoyed looking at the handmade jewelry and other Native American-made items around the store. Being there reminded me of my childhood. The things I saw, mixed with the cool, crisp mountain air brought me back to a time where things were simpler. I could feel myself relax.
Our next stop was to pick up our guide, Adam. At first glance Adam looked like a long haired, gruff, 6’7”, 250-pound mountain man. A giant you wouldn’t want to mess with. All the stereotypes that can rush into your mind when meeting someone new flooded through. “Focus on getting to know this man” is all I could think of to get past the intimidating exterior. Little did I know what a marvelous role this giant would play in the next week of my life.
We soon arrived at Lee’s Ferry, where we brought all our bags out and found our boat. Adam prepped us on loading the boat, and introduced us to Vaden, our swamper (or captain’s assistant). Imagine Adam 20 years younger, with short hair, 5’5”, and 150 pounds. … A mountain man in his infancy!
Once the boat was packed, we boarded and started down the Colorado River. In the distance a storm front moved in and just before we made our first stop for lunch by the river, it started to rain. I prayed that this wouldn’t happen for the whole trip, but I rolled with it. No one controls the weather and I wasn’t about to let a little fall of rain hurt me now. (Yes, that was a Les Mis reference. I’m gay. Musicals come up regularly).
We soon arrived at our first camp. We quickly set up, and paired off for tent mates. Most everyone was capable of putting up the tents and getting their campsites set up on their own. I met up with Adam to discuss our plan going forward. He offered me a shot of Jameson whiskey. I’m not a huge whiskey drinker, and I almost choked on the shot he gave me. I thought to myself, “is this how straight men bond and gauge how much of a man each person is?” Thankfully, I think I managed to pass this archaic manliness test. Adam and Vaden then prepped dinner, while I got the bar sorted out for our group. The guys already seemed so comfortable with each other that it was hard to believe they had only met 24 hours earlier. After dinner most of the group headed to bed. It had been a long day and once the night crept up on us, sleep seemed unavoidable. I relaxed into my sleeping bag and dreamed of adventures to come the next day.
Canyon Day 2:
Today was amazing! Rock formations towered above us and all around. I felt like I was in an episode of Game of Thrones. Every formation seemed to take the shape of a palace made of rock. It was a patchy day of rain and sun. The rapids were very cold, and I was thankful to have my rain suit. We stopped for lunch at the Red Wall today. At first glance it just looked like another giant canyon wall, but once we arrived at the mouth of the cave, I could see it was so much more.
We docked the boat, piled onto the beach and began to explore the enormous cavern. It seemed to swallow the group whole, with each person making sure to get his picture taken. It was amazing to be under the weight of this massive rock wall and not be crushed. This was a great spot for lunch, not just for the site, but for the shelter from the rain. This was a highlight of the day.
On the raft I took a vote and it was decided that tonight would be margarita night. Around the bar, a lot of the guys really came out a bit more. Even Adam joined in with the group and shared a really personal moment. It turns out that his father was gay and died from AIDS a few years after coming out. Adam expressed that he had a closer understanding of who his father was by being able to share this time with us. Adam became family that night. To celebrate we made a camp fire. Fires aren’t allowed in the summer unless you bring your own wood, but luckily we had plenty.
Soon Vaden brought out his guitar and harmonica. I don’t know where that kid had been hiding these things, but the level of our experience went up tenfold. It was a big highlight of the night, as was the cake we made to celebrate a few of the guys who had anniversaries on the trip, including a 20-year anniversary. 20 years is a long time and I couldn’t help but think about spending more time with my fiancé when I got back home, and how excited I would be to bring him to the canyon someday.