Near the end of Cari Galbraith’s Grand Canyon trip, the river surged, lending a mauve cast to the water as moody skies presided over the congregation of rafts. (Photo courtesy of Cari Galbraith)

On a brisk, beautiful morning in mid-February, Cari Galbraith and a crew of 15 others finished their final preparations, rigged their rafts and joyfully launched onto the waters of the Colorado River for a 25-day trip through the remote wilderness of the Grand Canyon. Although Galbraith had heard news of a new virus in China, at that point few cases had been reported in the U.S. Like many who embark on the multi-week journey through the canyon, she was looking forward to leaving behind the chatter of the outside world, the endless screen distractions and living in the moment.

“My intention going into the trip,” Galbraith recalled, “was to lose my mind in the best of ways. To stop overthinking.”

One member of their trip had a satellite phone, she said, but from the beginning, she opted out of updates from the outside world. She’d been invited on the trip by Telluride local Ben Kapp, the trip leader, and she was simply happy to be there, spending her days floating the glittering waters of the river, nights spent sleeping on sandy beaches shadowed by towering canyon walls, cooking and laughing and sharing and bonding with her new friends, none of whom, besides Kapp, she had known prior to the trip.

Three weeks passed in a kaleidoscope of ancient rock, churning rapids, star-filled skies, sunrises and sunsets, campfires and desert hikes.

A few days before the end of the trip, Kapp offered to fill the group in on the updates he’d been receiving from the satellite phone. Though Galbraith declined the updates, preferring to wait for the shoe to drop upon their take out from the river in four days, she inevitably began to understand, from the group’s chatter, that things in the outside world had changed dramatically in their absence.

“I heard someone say, ‘The universities are closing,’” she said. “And that phrase was just ping ponging around in my mind. I was just thinking, ‘Has there ever been a time in my life when universities have closed?’”

Four days later, the group pulled up to the shores of Diamond Creek, the traditional finish for a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. A representative from their gear outfitter greeted them with a letter, which began, “Welcome back to a new world! There is a global pandemic going on in the world. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

“The outfitter said, ‘Get your hugs in now. Once you leave here, you can’t touch each other anymore. You can’t touch people.’ That kind of blew my mind,’” Galbraith recalled.  

After the group departed, leaving behind their carefree backcountry bubble of uninterrupted nature time, Galbraith parted ways from the group, and the full magnitude began to land as she began the drive to her family’s home in Texas. In the grocery stores, she donned gloves. Shoppers sported masks. The shelves were bare.

“I had gotten a little sunburned during the final days on the river, but there was not a bottle of aloe vera in sight,” she said. “There was no toilet paper. I had just learned this brand new term, ‘social distancing.’ Everything was closed. It was the most surreal road trip ever.”

However, the more Galbraith thought about her nearly four weeks on the river, blissfully immersed in the unparalleled beauty of the desert and the river, the more she felt gratitude for the experience. In fact, the river had been imparting lessons all along that would serve as anchors in the disorienting currents of the strange new reality.

For one, rafting the Grand Canyon is an exercise in adaptation and flexibility.

“OK, so this campsite is taken. Now what? Oh, the dinner crew went on a hike and isn’t back in time to make dinner, now what?” she said, citing all the moving parts of a river trip that necessitate a flexible mindset. “So now, this pandemic is happening? Now the world is constantly changing to adapt, too. It’s such a river mentality.”

Another lesson learned deep in the canyon was the all-important practice of self-care.

“I basically had a month to figure out what I needed,” she said. “To find which self-care practices were super-beneficial for my well being.”

The time free of distractions, unplugged, without screens, allowed the days to become like a “walking, talking meditation.” After the first week, she removed her watch, shedding along with it illusory notions of control.

Now she’s back in the so-called “real world,” but the once-uncompromising dictates of the clock no longer ruled, as business as usual had ground to a sudden halt.

“The days of the week don’t mean anything, just like on the river,” Galbraith said with a laugh.

Finally, she realized that a theme that kept popping up throughout the river trip was perhaps the most important lesson of all: trust. Trust in friendship, in community, and in taking a leap of faith and knowing she’ll come up swimming.

“I took a leap of faith going on this trip. I’m not an oarsman. I was learning. I didn’t know anyone at first. I had to trust,” she said. “On the river, I fell in love with these people, over and over again. Being in that small community, it’s not about the individual anymore. It causes us to be more aware. Ultimately, I’m just so grateful for all of it.”

Pensively, she added, “You know, you always wonder, ‘Who will I be with at the end of the world?’ And that was it. At the take out, it was like, these 16 people, this is who I’m with.”