Shaped by millions of years of geological forces, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado has some of the steepest cliffs and oldest rocks in North America.
If I get to heaven, I hope St. Peter will give me two things once I enter the Pearly Gates: a cup of coffee and a lawn chair. I’m going to tell him that while I tried my best with more standard spiritual practices, some of my most transcendent moments have come while sitting in a beautiful spot while camping, a steaming cup of java in my hand.
I had this epiphany about the spiritual power of coffee while on a trip to Colorado, where my husband Bob and I camped and hiked our way across the state for three weeks. One morning we were sitting overlooking the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a 48-mile formation of steep, jagged cliffs cut by the rushing waters of the Gunnison River over millions of years.
It was six o’clock in the morning and the sun was just beginning to peek over the horizon. Below us was a thousand-foot drop; around us on the rim was an expanse of short-grass prairie. As we gazed downwards from our perch on the rim, we could see far below a hawk gliding on the updrafts created by the canyon walls, gracefully spiraling around and around in a pirouette with the wind.
As I sipped my coffee, I thought of what a holy communion it was.
Communion—that’s an interesting word, isn’t it? In Christianity it refers to the Eucharist, the bread and wine that represent the body and blood of Christ. But Christians have no monopoly on communion, for many traditions seek a blending of divine and human realms. On that canyon edge, we experienced a holy communion with the sky and earth, accompanied by a choir of warblers. At one point a raven flew so close that I could hear the whoosh of his wings—though I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if it had turned out to be an angel in feathered disguise.
It was, quite simply, The Best Morning Coffee of All Time.
You may think that’s an exaggeration, but I’m somewhat of an expert when it comes to morning coffee. While I savor this caffeinated ritual each day, my favorite morning coffees have taken place while camping. Bob and I have enjoyed coffee on the North Shore of Lake Superior, on the banks of rivers in Iowa, on beaches in New Zealand, and on more mountainsides than I can remember.
I’m telling you this not to make you envious (for you too can have morning coffee wherever you happen to be). But it relates to something I’ve been thinking about for some time, and that’s that we often make spirituality too complicated. We think it’s all about doctrine, practice, and effort, about reading the right things, doing the right things, and thinking the right things. But the older I get, the simpler it seems to be. It’s about noticing the small things. The warmth of a coffee cup in your hands. The first shafts of light breaking on the horizon. The sound of a meadowlark greeting the dawn. I think God wants us to slow down and notice the things that He put so much effort into making (“You want to see some pretty rocks? I can show you some pretty rocks!”).
So why is coffee an essential part of the experience? For one thing, you can’t work very hard when you’re sipping coffee. It forces you to stop, to savor, and to sit quietly. I suppose other beverages would work as well, but for me coffee is the magic elixir. And as you sit, you can watch the light slowly shift (this works perfectly well out a kitchen or bedroom window at home, let me assure you).
But if you’re lucky, at least occasionally you’ll get the chance to enjoy that morning coffee in a place as spectacular as the Black Canyon.
The Black Canyon takes its name from the fact that it is so narrow and steep that little light can penetrate it. Shrouded in shadows for much of the day, each morning and evening the slanting light illuminates one facet of the canyon after another, almost as if a spotlight is being shone into it (as indeed I guess it is).
Part of what I loved about the Black Canyon is that not very many people visit it. I’ve been to the Grand Canyon and loved that too, but my, there are an awful lot of people there. The constant chatter of one’s fellow tourists takes some of the grandeur out of the experience. But relatively few people come to the Black Canyon, tucked away in a remote corner of western Colorado. The Gunnison River that surges through the base of the canyon is too dangerous for boat travel, and so when you look downwards, you’re gazing on true wilderness.
Here’s my advice. Visit Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. Get up early, make yourself a cup of coffee, and go sit on the rim. Do absolutely nothing except sip the coffee and look around you. Repeat as necessary until you reach Enlightenment.
Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.