Canyons & Communities.

Ben likes to wake up early and get after the day. That’s like, 5 am early. He understands - likely better than me - that we’ve allocated a considerably short amount of time to complete this 800-mile trip, and he’s eager to make the most of daylight. So we rise, the sun shines, and we start heading south from Cottonwood campground towards Phantom Ranch and the South Kaibab trail, eating breakfast PB&Js on the move.

We start seeing people, interacting with people, and it feels so good. These interactions are just small things: a wave in passing, a quick conversation, a curious look at the wheels jutting up above our heads, but they start to build and by the time we hit Phantom Ranch both of us are brimming with excitement.

We refuel on jerky, various energy bars, and cup after cup of camp coffee, then sneak in an interview, sign the Phantom Ranch guestbook, and get to kicking dust further south along the trail. The good vibes and hi-fives only amplify as we hike up the South Kaibab side of things and our spirits climb in tandem. Along the way we are gifted a Snickers, smiles, small conversations about adventure, and these things keeps us moving forward, hauling our 60+ pound packs laden with bikes up and out of the canyon, seeking community.

Community, the textbook definitions:

  • a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.
  • a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

Simple definitions, when put into the context of real-world applications, are often anything but. Just shy of 6 million people visited the Grand Canyon in 2017. On our hike out alone we encountered Aussies, Kiwis, Brooklynites, Iowans, Brits, an REI store retreat from Paradise Valley, Arizona, and that’s just a tiny sampling on a low traffic day. The Grand Canyon is grand for its size and majesty, sure, but it’s grand in another way as well: while dividing a state in two, it pulls in and connects people from all over the world, often upwards of 300,000 individuals a month.

“My blood is from there, but I don’t know much about that. So I’m from there, but I don’t feel connected there. I live here, but I’m not from here. So I’m not from here and I’m not from there, and that’s why I’m a nomad.”

\\ — @Bicycle_Nomad

Does that mean that the Grand Canyon provides the landscape for an ever-expanding global community? People from all over the world, carrying disparate politics, speaking a bubbling babel of languages, rich and poor, they each visit the canyon and share a sense of awe or a desire to hike parts of it or adventure across it. These visitors, they share particular characteristics, interests, and goals. This vast crevice in the ground, it draws all of these people together, but does that equal community?

Community, the Caravan definitions:

  • part a. a group of people invested in a common characteristic, idea or belief.
  • part b. a feeling of fellowship and openness with others, as a result of exploring intersecting attitudes, interests, and goals.
  • part c. an active belief in or action of self-governance.

While the Arizona Trail crosses through the Grand Canyon, it’s actually only a very, very small portion of the trail. And while it is a remarkably difficult traverse - it’s forbidden to ever have your tires touch the ground, and that means hiking your bike through on your back - there are still hundreds of miles to the south, and more to the north. Along these portions of trail, the landscape is a diverse, multi-use ecosystem of varied community ecologies. The people who use this Arizona Trail, they don’t all just come to gander at the greatness and beauty of a canyon. These people come to hike, camp, bike, hunt with guns, hunt with bows, escape, vacation, paint, photograph, ride horses, and explore - really, the list is limitless - throughout biomes ranging from desert thick with cactus to boreal forest wilderness. These individuals come to actively engage with their interests and passions.

“Working on the trail means that I’m truly a path maker for future travelers, and in the scheme of life, that is all we can expect to be.”

\\ — Quentin Lewton, Trail Steward, Patagonia/Sonoita

Actively engaging… this doesn’t happen at your home computer while logging into a social media network. Actively engaging is not sharing your political ideologies in a 1-way communication to your immediate digital bubble, a group of friends that look and sound, in bits of 1’s & 0’s, just like you. Active engagement means breaking these barriers and pushing beyond these boundaries. It means exploring all the way to the corners of your interests. It means developing adventures in life and participating in discovery; discovery in yourself, in what you can achieve. Discovery in others and how they relate to you and your interests. Discovery in the world around us and how we fit into it.

Adventure: it’s not big and it’s not small - no, rather, adventure is whatever you want it to be, as long as you are exploring and testing your boundaries. Never tried Durian? Let me tell you, that is an adventure. Never tried surfing? Automatic adventure. Who knows, with a little exploration into both you might discover that you can’t get enough Durian and that you want to embark on a surf-dedicated vacation next year. Adventures mean milestones and milestones mean growth. Adventure also means exploring what you like and what you don’t. In this way, adventure is - quite simply - an active way to explore and make discoveries about your place in the world.

Discovery, borne out of adventure, this is the new cultural currency; it is the next step in the evolution of experience over ownership. The world we live in is simultaneously the smallest and the biggest it’s ever been. You can now travel the globe quickly and comfortably (for the most part), and because of this, you now have access to the most far-reaching corners of the world, allowing for experiences that our grandparents never even knew existed. With this ability, we are striving for more than a snapshot memory from Disneyland. We are looking for meaningful connections built on the backs of our adventures and discoveries. These connections, they are the impetus that grows communities.

“A shared interest in outdoors, that sort of thing, draws a lot of people together. And you meet a lot of people with a shared interest, when you go out and do something like this [hiking the grand canyon].”

\\ — Scott Flake

Working in the ad agency world, since about 2009 or 2010 I’ve heard repetitive noise about the concept of Tribe; what a tribe is, how to create one, how to market to one. You can search the interwebs and fill your Kool-Aid cup full of tribal catchphrases and euphemisms, ideologies and buzzwords. From Seth Godin to this article from Wired about Apple (circa 2002), the Tribal well runs deep. Here’s the thing though: the Tribe, as a definition, is wrong. The very basis for Tribal construction is in-group vs. out-group psychology, exclusion and privilege based on a predetermined set of inherent values or economic status. Sure, sometimes you can earn these values or find a workaround, but just as often, you can’t. That, Seth, I’m sorry to say, is not the jam. Rather than some glitchy exclusionary buzzword, the idea here can be simplified and called what it should be - a community.

Investment in the cause or common interest, open and exploring, self-governing, these are the simple yet powerful components that build and provide for the Community experience. We are stronger together when all members are able to offer up and share individual skill sets for the greater good. In the context of community, the experiences of adventure and discovery become exceedingly potent and meaningful. Want to take on a bikepacking adventure but don’t know where to start? Awesome, go find yourself some bikepackers, learn what they know, test the waters. In return, you can teach them about your new favorite fruit, Durian. Later, maybe a handful of you can travel to Vietnam where you’ll eat copious amounts of stank-ass Durian while bike-packing through rice fields and lush jungles, each day bringing new cultural discoveries, discoveries that allow you to actively engage in with your newly-selected community. I bet you didn’t know that the Ouroboros can ride a bike.