Two years ago today, I started on the most epic adventure of my lifetime.
It was the fulfillment of a 50-year life-long dream, an epiphany for my outlook on life, and was the catalyst for my personal salvation and reinvigoration of my willingness to live.
June 20, 2017 was the day I was going to begin a seven-day whitewater rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon with my buddy Bruce Carter from Athens, Texas. It literally changed my life.
The idea to whitewater the Grand Canyon first popped into my head when I was 11 years old. I read a Life Magazine article on Robert Frances Kennedy, and it showed pictures of him rafting through some of the most treacherous rapids in the most beautiful scenic wonder on our planet. I knew from that moment I wanted to do that someday.
As I got older, my thoughts and dreams returned to the Canyon and the Colorado River many times. I was born in Arizona, and my parents took me there often as a child. After law school, I returned in the wintertime and marveled at the Canyon’s beauty and vivid and changing colors depending on the time of day and the position of the sun. As my kids got older, I took them to the Grand Canyon and we stayed in the historic lodges on the south and north rims.
But every single time I went to see and commune with the great chasm, my heart ached to hit the river. I felt it in every fiber of my being that someday I had to test my mettle against the great white water of the Grand Canyon.
Then in 2014 I got sick. Really sick. In a routine physical that included a colonoscopy, the doctors discovered a tumor. They operated and thought they had caught the cancer in time. A year later, it returned, and that time it was very aggressive. I was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastasized colon cancer and was given 90 days to get my affairs in order if the massive doses of radiation and chemo didn’t make it possible to operate for the third time. In November, they opened me up, and the cancer was gone. The chief surgeon at Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit said it was a miracle, that in 37 years he had not seen anything like it. He told me to go live a good life and that I was destined to do something different.
I heeded his words. As I lay in bed recuperating from two major cancer surgeries in six months, I pondered the meaning of life. Why had I survived? What did it all mean?
The one thing I resolved to do was work to make that raft trip a reality. As my strength started to return, I investigated different tours and options to do the Grand Canyon. For some reason, something inside of me said I had to confront the river, the rapids and my own personal demons. I chose the seven-day tour because it had almost all of the most treacherous rapids in the Grand Canyon, and it also required me to hike up a nine-mile, 9,000-foot trail with 35 pounds of gear on my back in 110-degree heat.
If I could do that, I knew I could do anything and was meant to do something beyond myself. So I started searching for a whitewater buddy, and on a trip to visit my many wonderful friends in New Mexico, Bruce jumped up and said he wanted to go.
So we booked the trip. June 20-27, 2017. I can’t tell you how awesome it was to take this trip. Personally, I was thrilled because I was checking off a lifelong bucket list. In addition, the thrill of challenging the river electrified me. Plus, I knew I was going to see the finger of God’s handiwork as he carved the magnificent Grand Canyon into beautiful layers of various colored rocks. The sunrises and sunsets were something you can’t imagine or begin to describe.
The adventure started slowly, but by the end of the second day we had hit some decent white water and got to know our guides and craft. We communed with people from New York, Indiana, Texas, California and even a gentleman from Germany. We slept on cots in shorts next to the river and watched the stars unfold at night.
By the time we hit the Class 8 and 9 rapids, we were pros and the exhilaration and thrill of crashing into white water waves over 15 feet high was amazing. We also experienced the good fortune of climbing into a box canyon and suddenly hearing the string section of the Seattle Symphony orchestra practicing for their fall season. The acoustics are so good in that canyon the string section returns there every summer to practice. We were serenaded by some of the sweetest sounds the Canyon has ever heard. We even heard a Jimmy Hendrix solo on a violin. Words cannot describe that experience. God was indeed sharing his grace with all of us.
By the end of the journey, we were all fast friends. On the last night in the Canyon, our chief guide told us where we would be dropped off and a little bit about the trail we would have to climb. He informed us that because of National Park Regulations, someone would be at the Halfway House on the trail going up to the top of the south rim to make sure the last person in our group made it out safely.
I raised my hand and told everyone it would be me. They wanted to know why, so I related the cancer story to them and how it important it was for me to prove to myself that I could actually hike out of the canyon on my own power after going through what I had gone through. I told them I would literally crawl out if I had to, but I was going to make it out so I could prove to myself that I had beat cancer. They wished me luck, shook my hand, and a few even shed a tear.
The hike up the Canyon almost killed me. I was worn out, and the 114-degree temperature only added to the misery. After the guide met us at the Halfway House, she kept telling us we had to hurry to get out of the Canyon. When asked why, she said she had to get home to cook supper for her husband. I felt like throwing her off the trail when I heard that because I was really struggling and had to do that climb at my own pace. Bruce eventually set her straight, and she became much empathetic to my plight and offered encouragement.
Finally, after nine hours of a tortuous yet spectacular climb, we finally made it to the top. Bruce and I had our picture taken above the trail head on the south rim, and both of us teared up at our accomplishment. Bruce was 67 years old when he made the climb.
We were hot, dusty, sweaty and completely worn out. We vowed to go grab a beer, then go shower and find a place to eat. As we walked over a little swale on the way back to the hotel on the south rim, I came upon an even more spectacular set. Sitting at the top of the hill were all the members of our rafting paper waiting to see if I was going to make it out of the Canyon. When they saw Bruce and I, they all started cheering and clapping and ran over to us and embraced us even though we were completely filthy. I was completely caught off guard by this affectionate display and was basically speechless.
Then one of guys from the San Francisco area looked at me and said: “We’re so proud and happy for you Terry. You have been an inspiration to all of us. If you can do what you just did, it gives us all hope.”
Now folks, I don’t think at any time anyone has used my name in the same breath as the word inspirational, but his kind words set off the waterworks I let the tears flow. It was a great moment for me, but it eventually changed my way of thinking, my motivations and goals, and how I would spend the rest of my life.
Those changes led me here to Gonzales. I am still not sure what my mission is, but I resolve that with God’s blessing I will continue to do good work for the people who live here and for our community in general.