How The Grand Canyon Changed One Young Student

Jul 2, 2012

He entered the meeting room with a loud crash. We were launching an outreach program for middle school students, involving a series of wilderness adventures. They were watching an orientation film when I heard the commotion out front. I found Gilbert on the floor tangled in a stack of folding chairs. He was late, but at least he had managed to find his way here.

The school counselor had warned us about his lack of social skills and his cerebral palsy, which left him weak and uncoordinated. At school he was taking classes designed for those with emotional and learning disabilities. After helping him up, I noticed he walked hunched over like an old man, and he wore a winter cap with long ear flaps as a substitute for a crash helmet. Once in the main room he flopped down on the floor facing the wrong direction. One of the students pointed behind him and said, "The movie's on the other wall."

Our first trip was going to be a four-day trek across rugged terrain with heavy packs. At a staff meeting one of the instructors said, "We can't take Gilbert, he'll kill himself. How's he going to climb around the waterfall? We'll have to have someone with him constantly. The whole idea is crazy."

After a pause I said, "Then I guess we'll do it."

The trip was a constant struggle, but by the third day Gilbert had gained some confidence and wanted to walk on his own. The instructors were waiting for him to catch up when we heard a faint, pleading cry from upstream. "Help me, help me!" Running back we found him on his back, in the middle of the creek with his pack still strapped on, flailing about like a rolled turtle. But, by the end of the trip he was carrying himself erect, and his teachers and counselors were amazed by his progress. He showed up at the next meeting with his chest puffed out, shouting in his thin voice, "I'm the greatest!"

For three months the students worked toward the culminating event: a nine-day Colorado River trip. We carried boat frames down the Whitmore Trail, and had the Bundys pack the heavier gear by horse. Next morning, we put on the river. Often homesick, Gilbert missed his mom. The whitewater scared him, and whenever we ran a big rapid, he'd lose control of his bowels. The instructors took turns cleaning him up after pulling into camp. One evening I was in a downstream cove helping Gilbert when he suddenly mentioned having seen God. I asked him to go on.

"You won't think I'm crazy if I tell you?"


"I was born dead," he said. "My heart had stopped. My mother said, 'Please save my baby.' My first real memory was my first cry."

"You saw God," I reminded him.

"I saw a future version of my father."

"What did he look like?"

"You won't believe me."

"Give me a try."

"He had a halo all over."

Gilbert had no more to say, and the two of us walked back to camp.

Within a few days he had learned to paddle, and could walk the length of the wobbly raft without falling in the river. That trip was the last I saw of him, but I heard he was doing well. In the fall Gilbert enrolled in all regular classes. Fundamental changes don't need to be earth-shaking. For some, simply being able to grab a paddle and float down river is enough.