Confessions of a Tour Guide

by Melanie Webb

“Be grateful for whoever comes, because each guest has been sent as a guide from beyond.” - Rumi 

Eiji and I ascended higher into the silence of a still autumn afternoon on the Colorado Plateau. The Wave, iconic redrock remnant of petrified sand dunes, disappeared below us. Twice already we’d cliffed-out, reached dead-ends where our path fell away into the abyss below and forced us to backtrack and work another angle.

“Are you sure you can get back down?” I spoke slowly to my Japanese guest and gestured to the steep slope we had just hiked.

The wave. Photo by Michael-Wilson/Flickr CCL

I remained still until I had his buy-in on the route I’d chosen. This had to be a team effort or we wouldn’t succeed. We were several hours into the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, a 280,000 acre geologic treasure on the Utah/Arizona border. There was no room for error and there would be no alternate escape route should Eiji suddenly trigger a forgotten fear of heights.

Eiji took a deliberate look behind him and nodded his head. “Yes. We go on,” he said in his quiet broken English, breathing hard.

Eiji had worked hard to be with me on the rock, and he wouldn’t give up that easily. He made the trip to Colorado last year, only to be rained out by summer monsoons and flashfloods. Back home in Japan, he diligently entered his name in the online government lottery every week for 10 months, each time paying a non-refundable fee to take his chance at being one of the lucky 20 people per day issued a permit to visit this fragile spectacle of rock. His prized permit in hand at last, Eiji traveled nearly 24 hours to spend two days with me photographing hidden rock formations few travelers have seen: Melody Arch, The Alcove, and Top Rock Arch.

It wasn’t only Eiji I was worried about – it was myself. Though I’d guided The Vermilion Cliffs many times, I’d never been to the specific arches Eiji was determined to reach. Land use restrictions applied even to us local guides, and I wasn’t allowed in The Wave without a client. My pre-game ritual of scouting the route to feel connected to the land, know current conditions, and anticipate the challenges of my clients was prohibited. There wasn’t even a topo map of the area, for goodness sake! I felt uncharacteristically dubious about my success.

Whether what troubled me was mere athletic superstition or my modus operandi as a professional guide didn’t matter. The idea of leading a foreign client into a remote landscape where three people died and a dozen others were rescued several months ago had me on edge. Eiji seemed sure footed enough, but what if I couldn’t find Top Rock? After all he’d invested to realize his dream - what if I led Eiji up the steep pitch only to cliff out? Would he consider his trip an epic failure?

I wasn’t following a trail. There was no trail. Armed with decades of experience of desert exploration and the only verbal accounts I could find (“Find the hamburger-looking rock and start climbing to the right…”), I was left to trust my abilities, find my flow, and allow the mountain to guide me to her secret places. Map-less, I felt my way up by the contours of the slope; cracks and fissures inviting me to take another step here, another there.

“All right,” I said. “You wait here while I check out this route. Don’t move. Understand?” 

“Yes,” came Eiji’s obedient reply. 

Stone gave way to endless sky on my left; a vertical wall of sandstone rose to my right. I frictioned with my shoes and scrambled on all fours up a 15-foot long fallen slab in front of me, reached flat ground and looked up - only to be met by the impasse in front of me like a slap in the face. I quickly calculated the hours of daylight remaining, wondering if I had time to descend and try another approach. Not enough time. I had failed! 

Hands on my hips in defeat, I turned to my right -- and looked straight through the awe-inspiring eye of Top Rock Arch.

Travelers experience this sort of situation all the time. But what I learned that day was a metaphor for life as well: there are times when we can visualize where we want to go, but we don’t know the way. Our path may be strewn with obstacles and setbacks or we simply don’t possess the skills to navigate the course on our own. Too often it is when we are closest to our goal that we are most tempted to turn back in defeat. These are the moments when the Creator - the Universe, whatever power you wish to call it - invites us to ask for help, to receive the guides who can assist us in our journey.

A great deal of trust and surrender are involved when a person steps into unknown territory to explore the beautiful, hidden places that only a wise guide can show them. With the client's offering of trust comes the reciprocity of a guide’s utmost care, a responsibility to protect the life of this stranger as well as her own. Together we are capable of reaching secret places that touch us to the depths of our soul;  open our eyes to wonders previously unseen; and realize strengths we did not know we possessed. I picked the lines that delivered my client to his goal that day; but it was Eiji’s undeterred faith in me that sealed our fate.

“Thank you.” Eiji extended his arm to shake my hand as his Asian dignity and reserve gave way to an enormous smile. “I could not have done this without you.” 

“No. Thank you Eiji, for I would not have done this without you.” I said. 

I watched as Eiji sat under the arch in reverence and silently contemplated his journey. Touched by his humility, I followed the sun to a flat warm rock and sat down, head bowed upon my knees.

“Thank you,” I whispered to Mother Earth who showed me the way; and to the Creator for the grace to share Eiji’s journey, “Thank you.”



Melanie Webb shares her passion for the outdoors leading trips with Sol Fitness Adventures. Melanie is a highly sought after fitness specialist and guide featured in major media outlets including Good Morning America, Outside, and New Beauty, as an Editor of Fitness at and a Featured Athlete of ATHLETA.



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