Aurora Borealis and the Big Boom – Grand Canyon, Arizona

Aurora Borealis and the Big Boom
Grand Canyon, Arizona

Sipping Jack Daniels and water, tracing the trajectory of Orion’s Belt as it wends its measured way across the deepening Kaibab sky, it’s the end of a nine-day service trip to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The six other campers have gone to bed, leaving Steve the chef, Theresa from Boston, and me as the designated wrapper-uppers. Our conversation runs the gamut of Bing vs. Sinatra to “Now the string theory is what again?”

The way I see it, there are two sure-fire paths to lively conversation on a backpacking trip. One way is small. Don’t be afraid to dig deep and offer some of your dumbest observations. Discuss constitutionals. Imitate your cat yarking up a fur ball. Demonstrate your encyclopedic knowledge of Bugs Bunny or Monty Python routines. Try and uncover what, exactly, makes Adam Sandler a star.

The other way is big. Ask theoretical questions that have plagued mankind over the ages. Do we really only perceive things through metaphors? Is the natural order of the universe chaos? Bring up your own arguments about going home again. Chew the philosophical fat as you drink your nightcaps until the rationale deteriorates. When the discussion has reached the “can so” “can’t neither” stage, know enough to go to bed.

We’re getting big right now, discussing travel and how our journeys have broadened and deepened our perspectives. Or at least we’re trying. It’s getting late.

Then, during Theresa’s discourse on her Alaska experience, we hear it – a curious noise, like medium-sized rocks tumbling over a steep cliff. We look at each other and it happens again – sharp, piff-like sounds coming from the little plateau above the escarpment where trip leader, Tim, had bunkered down.

“What was that?” asks Theresa, a bit spooked.

“Rocks or something,” Steve replies. “So go on.”

“Ok. Anyway, the aurora borealis just blew my mind…”

Zzzzping! Theresa cocks an ear towards these more distinct reports just as a couple of small rounds erupt from the direction of trip leader Tim’s sleeping silhouette. It takes a Grand Canyon minute but one by one, the lights go on. Tim has gas.

Oh. Well then.

Theresa continues as if she always hears farts that sound like sniper fire. “So the Eskimos had all these beliefs about the aurora, see. Some thought they were spirits with lanterns, looking for dead hunters, or spirits playing football with walrus skulls.”

“You don’t say.”

“Yup. Victorians thought the light was caused by icebergs crashing together in the sea.”


We lie back, silently contemplating walrus skulls, iceberg sparks and what the hell is in Tim’s diet. After what seems like a long time, Theresa finally breaks the silence, exposing the elephant in the living room. “Should we debrief about the fart?”

I giggle, but Steve, being one of those exacting chef types, needs a little more clarification. “Should we wha. . .?”

“The fart. We all heard it.” She says matter-of-factly. “We heard it, we took note of it, and we kept on with our conversation as if nothing had happened. I think we need to debrief.”

It doesn’t appear that Theresa is giving us a choice at this point. Not only that, I want to hear what these guys have to say. “God yes,” I enthuse. “Talk to me.”

“Well I’m just saying, that was some fart.” Theresa marvels.

“I can’t believe he didn’t wake himself up,” Steve muses, truly impressed.

“I wonder if that happens at home. His poor wife,” I offer sympathetically.

“Yeah, that can get old in a hurry,” Theresa agrees, then adds, “It sounded like a machine gun.”

“You’re just being silly,” Steve replies.

“Yeah,” I add. “It was more like a BB gun.” After a short debate a consensus is reached – it was in the neighborhood of a BB gun.

Canyon silence returns.

“A very BIG BB gun though,” Theresa concludes.

When small matters have been pondered and all big things have been made clear, when stars dance their slow waltz right on your head and whiskey shared tastes a little like the arc of falling leaves, when you can agree on the magnitude of someone else’s flatulence – you know you’re friends, and between big thoughts and the big boom, it’s time to go to bed.