United Through Darkness, Shining Together

Author: Rachel Hunsell

As I lay on my sleeping bag surrounded by my new family scattered across the beach, I looked up at stars. This was my nightly routine on my sandy bed, keeping my eyes open as long as they could to gaze upon the magic of these stars. These weren't like the stars back home in the rural Midwest; no, these stars made you truly feel your place in the universe. You could see the Milky Way Galaxy stretch across the sky and continue to move as our Earth turned. 

Night Sky

As the hours, even minutes, passed layers upon layers of stars would appear. "Stop, take a second and look up," Gabe would say in between shared thoughts in our final chair circle of the week. Those moments of stillness as we all took in the magnificence of the night sky brought an overwhelming awareness of the bond our group had formed over the last week journeying down the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. These moments we took together to breathe in the night sky reminded me of how important TAPS truly is to each of us, how life-changing the selflessness of others can be.

There are no words to truly describe the Grand Canyon. From the moment I laid eyes on the Canyon and the river during our flight to Bar 10 Ranch I knew everything I would experience for the next few days would be like nothing I'd ever experienced, from the sunsets to the rapids to the billions of years passed in rocks to the sand in my toes. But what I didn't expect was the magnitude of each emotion and adventure or how I would walk away from this retreat a changed soul with a heart overflowing with more love than it could hold. This is what an experience with your TAPS family can do.

I was submerged in one of the Seven Wonders of the World with people who, without speaking, knew my heart and its pain. This unspoken understanding gives a freedom that allows your mind to ease. The freedom to share my brother, Kyle, without fear; to share his humanitarian spirit, his ever-present positive attitude, his quirky sense of humor, and to share my pain, my missing piece, my longing for his big brother advice. The magnitude of the Canyon walls; the power of the river's rapids; the kinetic energy could be felt everywhere. We were a family down in that Canyon. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, widows; all the pieces were there and allowed us to connect in a way only an all populations retreat can.

One of our guides, Mariah, gave us the greatest piece of advice during our first dinner. "There's a give and take on this journey. Let the river wash away what it must, and take from this beautiful place, from these walls, what you need. The Canyon has a way of changing you."

My heart and my spirit are not the same as they were when I arrived that Monday morning. Friday I returned a changed woman, with an even larger family; a woman with a spirit of gratitude. We'd all give anything to have our hero home again, to have them back in our lives. But, their deaths give us a voice unlike most to share their love and passions, and an opportunity to truly live a life fuller and more grateful than before. The Grand Canyon Retreat impacted my heart and soul through connections with each other and the nature around us. I'll be experiencing that impact for many years to come. I couldn't be more grateful to TAPS for giving me the opportunity to experience overwhelming love, take my brother on all of my adventures, and for giving me the tools to create a positive impact on the world.