Twenty-one days below the rim: Photographer Matt Sloan plugs into a deeper meaning by unplugging from everything else.
Story and photos by Matt Sloan
Barely opening my eyes, I wiped the grit from my face as I finally gave in to the morning light. It was a restless night. Strong winds had been whipping up sand, blasting our riverside camp. It’s day 10, and I’m on a beach one vertical mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon. My tent looked like a dusty attic – everything covered in ultrafine sand, filtered by mesh walls. Normally, finding all my belongings covered in sand would be a bad start to the day, but I can only laugh. If there’s anything I learned on this journey, it’s that sand will always win. Just accept it, laugh and move on.
Two months prior to the trip I got a call from Mickey Wilson, a new friend I met after moving to Colorado last fall. He’s a professional slackliner and overall adventure badass. He explained that his wife, Purple, had won a late lottery permit for a private river trip down the Colorado River. When he asked if I wanted to go, I knew I didn’t have an option. As a long time whitewater kayaker, the Grand was a big- ticket item on my bucket list, and you don’t pass up on big-ticket items, especially when the universe brings them to you.
Fast forward through two months of planning and prepping, and we were in the most magnificent landscape I had ever seen. I was with seven new friends, three rafts and my Dagger Green Boat that’s packed to the brim with camera gear. I didn’t have a phone. I didn’t have an agenda. I thought, I’m here, floating down an emerald river surrounded by towering red cliffs. One of the most exciting aspects of the trip was from Lee’s Ferry, there would be no cell service for 226 miles – 21 days disconnected from the world.
The feeling wasn’t immediate; the onset was smooth and slow. Like a fog lifting, all of the distractions of normal life seemed to disappear and the rest of the world came into view. I wasn’t constantly checking my notifications. I wasn’t worrying about work. I wasn’t multitasking or trying to be as efficient as possible. I was focused: Sight, sound and smell.
A photographer by trade, a childlike curiosity drove me to explore and photograph in new ways. I wanted to feel the texture of the rocks, smell the fragrance of the vegetation and feel the cool blue water of Havasu running across my skin. I was there, in the moment, and it had been a long time since I felt that way.
Our trip was a more than a rafting trip; this was an adventure by way of raft. With a handful of climbers in the group, and a thick book of canyoneering routes, any downtime from rowing was spent hiking to descend some of the many side canyons. Sometimes they were big, 500 to 1,000 feet across, and bursting with life; they were hidden oases confined by massive desert walls. Sometimes they were no wider than your body, where twisting water carved beautiful architecture into the surrounding stone. Each side canyon had character, and each one was as fascinating as the last. You could spend a lifetime hiking in the Grand and still not see all that it has to offer. It is in the nooks and crannies that this place reveals its beauty.
When we pushed off the shore at Lee’s Ferry, some of us had just met. By the time we passed Phantom Ranch at Mile 89, we were great friends. We had spent weeks together with nothing but conversation and exploration to pass the time. We learned about one another’s lives and challenged each other to step out of our comfort zones. Exactly zero moments were spent scrolling through Instagram or checking our Strava.
While technology has undoubtedly bettered the world, it is hard to recognize what we have lost. The normal after-work mountain bike ride or weekend trip to Moab isn’t what it used to be. Our adventure was not only about the challenge but also about sharing the experience with friends. It was about the connections you make while suffering through the tough climbs together, the stories you share while sitting around the fire, the chance to find commonalities and differences in your lives. It was about the people.
Weeks after we de-rigged the rafts and the last remnants of henna faded from my arm, I am still in awe of that beautiful place and the experiences we had there. I constantly remind myself to put down the phone and appreciate everything the present has to offer. I can’t say I don’t Strava my rides or scroll through Instagram, but I strive for more balance and find value in connecting with my friends out on the trail.
You might not be doing the Grand, but even for a weekend camping trip or an afternoon hike, try turning off the phone. Disconnect and fully focus on the experience. Share the moment with the people you value most, and you might just find something you’re missing.
For more from Matt Sloan, visit GorogueTV