Office Ours: Grand Canyon photo reminds professor of soulful, challenging journey

“Office Ours”

The stories behind those trinkets, artworks and mementos in faculty offices won’t show up on their CVs. But the things faculty choose to collect help us see another side of their academic lives. This month in our continuing Office Ours series we feature Nancy Martin, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Please send more Office Ours suggestions to


Nancy Martin, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, displays a treasured photograph she shot at the Grand Canyon during one of her grueling hikes there.

If you find yourself on the second floor of Wilkinson Hall, walk down to Room 228. There are saints and goddesses there.

The goddess figurines and portraits of the striking Hindu saint Mirabai are all part of the collection of artifacts and mementoes belonging to Nancy Martin, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the Department of Religious Studies, an expert on world religions with a focus on Hinduism.

They catch the eye first and reflect Martin’s scholarly research, which has led to numerous publications, a guest lecture at the Library of Congress and a documentary examining religious harmony and violence in India.

But look again.

High on a wall is a large framed photograph of the Grand Canyon imprinted with an Apache blessing that reminds the professor of her annual August hikes into the canyon’s depths. At first glance it looks like an enlarged postcard, maybe a gift shop poster. But it’s a photo she took along the canyon’s North Rim and holds a prime spot overlooking her desk.

“To me it’s a place to go to just get back in touch with what’s real, with what matters, with beauty, with feeling alive,” she says.

But it’s not a trip for meditative stillness. Martin and her partner Javier “Hawk” Davila challenge themselves to a one-day trek from the trailhead of the North Kaibab Trail down eight or so miles to a shady rest area, then a return to the canyon rim before darkness falls. The balancing act between finishing the task and enjoying the journey is a key part of the test.

“You have to maintain a certain pace, but the idea is to also see things on the way. If you’re not looking, you’re missing out on all the treasures that are there in the canyon,” she says.

And there are many treasures.  The trail drops rapidly, exposing hikers to a variety of ecosystems at different elevations, from forest to desert, as well as geologic history, Martin says.

“There are fossil layers so it’s like walking back in time as you go down the canyon,” she says.

They train for four months prior to the trip, but the hike also requires honing a special brand of inner strength.

“It’s a question of having your mind in the right place so that you can accept what happens. If you just focus on how hard it is, you aren’t going to make it. It has that quality of a focused, attentive ordeal a pilgrim makes,” she says. “You have to go in the right frame of mind.”

Some moments on the trail she doesn’t discount as just luck. One year they were trudging along and a nearby owl called and called but they marched on. Finally, they stopped and turned toward the owl. Just behind it was a triple rainbow. When they looked back toward the owl, the bird was gone.

Martin smiles and admits that it was years before she shared that story or the spiritual meaning she perceived in it.

“I see it as the canyon showing us something, the creatures there saying, ‘Pay attention.’”

It’s a lesson she says she sometimes summons for herself throughout the busy school year when the Grand Canyon seems a world away.

“I’ve been down that trail so many times I can almost see it sometimes in my mind,” she says. “It’s a little respite just knowing that such places exist in the world.”

Dawn Bonker

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