On the way home from Diamond Creek, I asked Margeaux, a new Grand Canyon river guide with AzRA, what she had learned on the 8–day motor trip we had just completed. “I certainly learned to read water and how to drive the boat better, but mostly I learned more about what it is to be a complete guide.”
We had a lot of special moments on this trip and I appreciated the thoughtfulness of Margeaux’s response. And I wondered if she might have been thinking about Michael or Lucy?
Michael is a young man who came on the trip with his father and two brothers. Michael has Downs Syndrome and is fairly high functioning. He loved the trip. He loved socializing, he loved the rapids, and he loved trying new things. When we played a name game one night, he said, ”My name is Michael and I love food.”
The third morning Michael came down to the kitchen early and asked whether he could help. I was alone for a moment and had just filled the griddle with eight pancakes. “Would you please spoon a few blueberries into the middle of each pancake before I flip them?” And then I showed him how to do it on the first couple of pancakes. He carefully spooned blueberries onto the next 40 pancakes and quietly beamed.
Three days later he came into the kitchen a few minutes before dinner and asked what he could do to help. All we had left was peeling some carrots for the salad and so I asked him to do that, realizing a little late that he may never have peeled a carrot before in his life. He started fumbling with a carrot, but I was busy doing three other things and couldn’t give him the attention he needed. Just then Lucy, a ten-year old girl on the trip, came up and asked whether she could help. With nothing left to do—but never one to turn away an eager volunteer—I said, “Sure! Would you mind coaching Michael on peeling the carrots?”
Lucy said, “OK!” as though she had coached carrot-peeling twenty times before. I paused long enough between tasks to marvel at her patience, how often she validated Michael, and how non-patronizing she was. In a word, she was very loving. I was moved and I told her Mom what a special kid she is.
The next night was the final night of the trip and I had baked what we call a “giant cookie.” Three boxes of chocolate cookie mix filling the bottom of a single 16” Dutch oven. It was hands down the most popular dessert of the trip. As darkness drew near there were just two squares of giant cookie left on the cutting board. Michael and Jake, Lucy’s older brother, surrounded the remains and were moving in quickly to gobble up the last of the cookie.
“Hold on there, boys!” I interjected, forestalling the inevitable. “Haven’t you each had four or five cookies already?” I asked. Sheepishly, they both agreed, “Well … uh, yes.” “Then I have an idea for these last two squares of cookie,” I began. “Why don’t each of you take one square of cookie, take it to someone on the trip who was particularly nice to you during the trip, and thank them?”
To my surprise, they both liked the idea, and off they went. Jake presented a cookie square to his Mom, and told her, “Thanks, Mom.” I lost track of Michael for a moment, and then I saw him circling around a large group of people looking for someone in particular until he found … Lucy. And he presented her with the last of the giant cookie with a smile on his face as big as the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t hear their words, but the look on Lucy’s face was … was, rather like her best-buddy boyfriend had just pinned a corsage on her dress at the junior prom.
I don’t know whether Lucy teared up, but I sure did. And I thought back to an AzRA training exercise on the San Juan River many springs ago. Twenty guides had just shared stories about interactions with guests over the years and we were looking for the common thread that would answer the question, “What is it to be a guide?” When we started the exercise, we didn’t know what the answer would be. After two hours of sharing stories—just like the story of Michael and Lucy—it took us only a few moments to uncover the answer. The common thread is love.
Photos and posting by Robert Elliott