Happy Campers - May 22 - 24, 1996 - Maria and party
I invited my parents, husband and his best friend to go to the Grand Canyon. I thought we would share an incredible experience. I thought together we would capture important moments of togetherness bestowed upon us by fabulous sights and sounds found simultaneously. For a few days, I thought we would become part of this canyon and take a bit of it home forever.
From the moment we stepped from the shuttle to the North Rim, I knew it wasn't to be. The Canyon was too grand, too impersonal. The towering walls of the North rim mask any chance of becoming a part of the canyon. Pictures cannot reproduce their distant, untouchable grandeur. The sights and smells do not belong to the rest of the world. Even the deer we saw as we began our trek were uncaring of our presence. They ate as if they knew we were mere visitors and could not really touch them. Just as we could not move the deer, I could not touch the canyon. The soaring walls loomed in front of us, behind us; on every side. I stopped to take pictures, to point out a certain rock, but my parents were already far ahead, my husband and his friend too far behind. I waited for them, but they had their own excitement, their own discoveries.
The first miles are not difficult, and I remember thinking that some of the dire instructions I had read were laughable. For example, for hiking off the main trail, I read that I should carry a compass, a mirror and tablets for purifying water. Off trail? Where? There was nothing but steep cliffs on every side and it got steeper as we walked. There wasn't even enough brush to step to the side and answer nature's call, never mind get lost! The pine trees clung to tiny ledges that were too far away to reach. As we descended, large trees were replaced by scrappy bushes hanging from scant soil, none of which could hide more than a rabbit.
I found myself regretting that I did not know more about the flora of this place. Even the giant asparagus-like plant that looked much like the New Mexico Century plant, or Agave, was alien. Different from my familiar world; I had no name to offer. The plants became increasingly desert-like. It had been a dry year in Arizona. We could see places where water had carved and left behind telltale marks, but this Spring, none ran. On the side of the canyon where we walked, damp rock fed a drying moss substance, but there were only two such spots that I saw. The solitude of the North side was wonderful after the hectic day we had spent on the South side. There were others on the trail, but no more than ten or so traded places with me on the trail. Four miles into the canyon I began walking with my husband and his friend. We broke out snacks; we had left at six, too early to collect breakfast at the lodge. We talked about the Agave plants, wondering what they were. As the path crossed a water-carved white basin, we thought it a nice place to pitch a tent--provided it and the campers didn't slide right off the slope and down into the canyon.
As the day wakened and we passed flowering bushes, the locusts applauded; my husband doffed his hat. "Thank you, thank you," he said, and I smiled. Craig, our friend from Wisconsin, studied the ugly bugs; he had never seen a locust before.
Buildings came into sight way below us then and I thought surely it must be Cottonwood Camp. I lost my concern soon, however. The breathtaking Roaring Springs made itself known and the rest of the descent to the buildings was used up taking pictures from every imaginable angle. I identified Bright Angel creek, which the waterfall feeds and happily knew we were getting closer to succeeding, that much closer to Phantom Ranch. At Roaring Springs, my mother and father waited.
Outside the private residence area, we ate again. For me, it was the all-important moleskin stop. Before coming, I had seen the advice recommending moleskin. Not knowing what it was, I almost ignored it. I couldn't find it in the camping section and had given up. Luckily, my mother found some in the "Dr. Sholl's" section. I taped a bit here and there and we continued on.
We stopped and ate again at Cottonwood camp, which is perhaps another mile. Now, before you picture five little piglets trooping to Phantom ranch... we were only eating small amounts! Besides, eating helps ensure that hikers drink enough water. I read that somewhere.
Lizards abounded at Cottonwood camp, as did ants and very fat squirrels.
For a while we marched together. I was very excited about reaching Ribbon Falls. Of all the places on the North hike I had read about, this one excited me the most. I love waterfalls and hadn't expected Roaring Springs to really have viewable falls. Even though it did, I was still looking forward to this next one.
When we reached the trailhead for Ribbon Falls, we could barely distinguish the trail. Dad pointed out where it possibly led, but try as we might we could see no possible place for falls. Dad mentioned that it had been so dry, perhaps there were no falls.
Never! I refused to accept defeat. I had hiked all this way and by golly, I was gonna look for some falls! (In addition to eating, I'm very good at being stubborn.)
Dad resolutely put down his pack and suggested I do the same. I live in Houston and for the first 20 feet of the trail, I refused. Pictures of evil hikers coming upon my pack and running off with it filled my mind.
Dad shook his head. "People who come down here aren't the type to be concerned with taking another hiker's pack. Besides, they'd have to carry it all the way out."
My eyes opened wide in surprise. Fool am I. Who in their right mind would want to carry my pack out of the canyon? It was eight miles straight up to reach the North rim and still six before Phantom Ranch.
"Besides, if they need underwear that bad," Dad continued as I placed my pack against a rock, "they can have mine."
I heartily agreed and left my pack. The others, thinking I was a bit crazy to head off into what was obviously nothing but desert dust, continued on the trail towards Phantom.
We had a bit of a false start when we almost went up the mountain, but we saw the trail just in time and went around a bluff and spotted a trickle of water. A few steps more, behind a boulder, the falls came into view.
I was so pleased! There it was, nestled behind the mountain, not more than a quarter of a mile off the trail. From closer up, I could see that climbing behind the falls was possible. This I did, with alacrity.
Then, much to my dismay, I discovered that I only had two pictures left in my camera. And where was the replacement film? You guessed it. Back in my lonely pack, waiting on the hillside.
"I have to go back for it," I exclaimed. "You can go on ahead. It's not far back here, I'll be in and out before you know it."
But dad would hear none of it. Out we went, back in we traveled. I got my pictures and dad, well he got an extra mile walk out of it. But I had seen the falls.
My pleasure lasted until we reached the main trail. The falls had been a cool respite from the gathering heat. Dad is a fast hiker under ordinary circumstances; when he is trying to catch up to someone it is like being tied behind a vehicle going forty miles an hour. By the top of the first hill, he thought I was dying of heat stoke. Quite the contrary, it was lack of oxygen I was dying from, but it's hard to explain that when you don't have any.
We hadn't caught up to our party before I needed more moleskin and Gatorade. By this time, I had developed a special liking for Gatorade and had been wanting some for the better part of a mile. When we stopped, I nursed my feet, fed my thirst and on we went.
The valley was still heating up as the noonday sun reflected off the rocky slopes and cliffsides. I remember crossing stepping stones across a path that was almost hidden by cattails. There were other places where I think water should have been, but spring rains, if there had been any, had not been generous. Dad looked constantly for animals up on the high slopes and reminded me to look backwards at the view we were leaving behind. The purple and green swallows that my husband had pointed out earlier were still with us, swooping around us whenever the water was close.
The walls closed in slowly. At first, they were mountains to one side, rock slides that were interesting but not near neighbors. Gradually, I began to wish for my black and white film as I knew we were entering the narrowest part of the trail. The water was loud now, not fading in and out. The canyon walls bounced the sound back to us.
Dad found a roll of film, not yet exposed. We presumed it belonged to someone in our party and sure enough, within minutes, Craig was coming back to look for it. Dad didn't mention that he'd found it (fathers have a bizarre sense of humor) until Craig explained why he was trotting back along the trail. Then he handed him the film with a wide grin, and I knew that he had considered letting Craig walk back further a ways, just for the fun of it.
We caught up to the others and sat for a bit of a rest. Our legs were getting tired. Dad guessed we had at least three miles to go, a fact that mom wasn't pleased to hear.
I finished the color roll and put in black and white film to try and store an elusive memory of the sheer rock walls on either side of us. I knew it was hopeless, because the rushing water wouldn't be there, the cliffs in the picture wouldn't breathe with the hot wind that pulsed through the canyon, the smell of dust wouldn't be captured and, alas, nothing could capture their size.
I thought the canyon would be peaceful and quiet and in its own way it was. It has a voice, of course; it is the locusts, the river that drums its way through the canyon, the birds and the winds. But the loudest sound of all is my breathing. It fills my every step, keeping me from listening to that which I cannot grasp. I cannot leave myself behind no matter how far I walk.
The box canyon fades as gradually as it appeared. The walls are not as high, then further apart. The greenery of the river life begins to appear and I begin to hope that we are near. I see the sign for Phantom Ranch and for some reason the last .8 mile is the longest.
Bright Angel Creek beckons and I want to jump in clothes and all. Sadly, I hadn't left behind my civilized behavior just yet. We showered and then, only then, do I get to soak my feet in the wonderful, wonderful cool waters. The water is strong enough to pound the backs of my calves in a massage that no modern whirlpool can deliver.
The fish, apparently, are hungry enough to nibble on our toes. At first we think they are merely swimming by, but no, they are definitely interested in more than swimming!
Dinner is too far away. We made it down fourteen miles by two o'clock, but alas, the stew will not be ready until six-thirty! By the time it arrives we are too hungry to complain. Part of the plan I wonder?
As night falls, we sit outside our cabin and watch the bats. Tiny flittering creatures, they fly far overhead above the cottonwoods. As evening deepens, larger cousins came out. These furry friends are not shy! My husband and I were perhaps two feet apart and the bats flew between our heads, landed in the nearby grass to gather some morsel or other and remained close enough that we could hear their soft wings constantly.
As we retired to bed I unpacked one small item that was in none of the books of advice. I know that the canyon should be quiet and the wind should lull me to sleep. It should be peaceful beyond imagining, but ah, reality. My little earplugs shut out these sounds--but they also protect me from the snoring of my companions. Ah, sleep!
The second day we had a grand hike planned to Clear Creek. Our aching legs told us in no uncertain terms that a nine mile hike one way, was not going to happen. Instead, we performed what we--ahem--fondly--called the Kaibab Shuffle. This is a walk that resembles the fluted Indian figure, Kokopelli, only without the flute and not quite so happy looking. Basically we all leaned over a bit and lifted our legs VERY carefully, never quite straightening them because our calves couldn't quite perform the feat.
We limped to the Colorado. It is the greenest river I have ever seen. Across the west suspension bridge we ventured, spotting golden finches and hummingbirds on the shore. From the north side of the Colorado, the South Kaibab trail appears to be imaginary, a mistake on the map. The cliff along the south side of the water is sheer; boulders look like huge appendages. There can be no trail.
Once across the bridge, to the east I see the beginning of the South Kaibab trail, and I almost wish it didn't exist. The wind is still blowing and from this angle, the trail is not friendly. To the west lies Bright Angel, the trail we will take out of the canyon tomorrow.
Rafts come down the Colorado and stop just past the other, east-most suspension bridge. We eagerly wait on the South Kaibab trail for them to continue. Sadly, these are motored rafts. We longed to see people paddle, to struggle against the great current, and pit themselves against nature.
We see a cave buried along the north shore as we are crossing the east suspension bridge. A set of footprints in the sand tell us that we are not the first to attempt to reach the cave. But like our own footprints, they stop before the entrance is reached. The beach is new, created by the controlled flooding of a few weeks past and is a bit treacherous. The cave is sheltered behind prickly trees and impossible rocks. Whatever lives there is safe from us.
The Indian ruins capture our attention next. They are small rooms and we think the Indians must have indeed been short to fit, lying down, inside what is left of the walls. Perhaps they slept outside and only curled up inside during poor weather. Looking at the ruins I wonder if they really reached the height of a real building. I know the sign says differently, but did people really live there? Or was it just a campsite or a house begun but never finished?
There is a grave nearby, not of an Indian, but of a man who spent his life in the canyon. It is strange, I think. How could any human have touched the canyon enough to remain, even after death? Did he really belong here? Do any of us?
Dinner that night held its own surprise. While eating, I got to meet someone that I have long admired; the author of the "Unofficial Grand Canyon" web page. I received the best advice and the answer to my endless questions from this web page. The official Grand Canyon page was late and empty by comparison. There he sat, Bob and his wife, turning the dinner conversation to places yet unseen, shared circumstances, hopes for pictures yet undeveloped. He mentioned that I might try my hand at a trip report and so here I write. But, darn. The rock walls breathed with a life of their own. An alien one, to be sure, ut with elements that I hoped to understand. I despair because I cannot reproduce it here, I cannot mimic its magic and even now it fades from memory.
The next morning, not yet very bright but very early, we struggled from warm beds into a blustering, threatening day. We stuffed as much breakfast as possible into five o'clock stomachs that were not ready for food.
I headed off alone. The others weren't quite ready, packing the last of the food, or stretching stiff muscles. I wanted a color picture from the suspension bridge and with rain in the clouds above, I didn't want to waste a moment.
I sang quietly, laughing at myself because I knew that within an hour, I wouldn't have breath to hum a single note. Nevertheless, I entertained until I reached the edge of the bridge. At that point, the wind and beauty took all my attention.
Taking a picture to the east was impossible. Tiny raindrops threatened to spoil my lens for the rest of the day should I try it. I focused quickly west, took two shots and raced to the other side, hoping the sheer cliffs would save me from the wind.
I was not alone much longer; my mother and father caught me before I ventured much further. Dad took the lead and I followed with mom. Dad was already carrying both his pack and mom's. My mother walked with her trusty walking stick, one my dad had found for her the day before.
Following the Colorado was exhilarating and a fitting good-bye to the end of our stay. As we turned south, away from it for the last time, I looked back. There is no salute to such a body of water; it cares not for our emotions, the water that cascades down is gone before I can say good-bye anyway.
The rart of the trail leading to Indian Gardens is not very steep, but has several magnificent views worth a moments pause. Almost immediately after leaving the Colorado, the landscape changes. The rocky desert is back, and as always, bluffs surround each footstep.
We leave one river and then, find another small tributary. This one is quiet. I do not remember gurgling or its voice; only the green that marked its existence. The prickly pear are in bloom and tired, I shoot a few more pictures. The clouds obscure the light and I have trouble getting my camera to focus. It is cooler today than before. We heard the rim was only sixty degrees, but none of us believes it.
Indian Gardens is a welcome place to rest. We are proud; it only took us two hours to achieve this distance. A few snacks and again, we are on our way to a torture we did not imagine.
The last four and a half miles should be marked as a hiking trail with potholes from hell. Mule trains have carved into the dust; holes that wait to trap tired feet. The dust, unfortunately is not trapped. We climb up two thousand feet in two miles and the thickening air that rises from mule feet and human feet is enough to choke us all. Four times we leave the trail to let the mule trains pass. They are bigger than us and all we can do is cover our mouths and noses and try not to breathe as deeply as our tired lungs demand. When I said I wanted to take part of the canyon home with me, this isn't what I meant.
The middle two miles of this last four--well, you'd have to hike it to believe it. They must have measured these two miles as the crow flies. They are the longest two miles I have ever walked. The trail is crowded from Three Mile station on up. People make their way into the canyon on day hikes. The downward momentum they have makes it dangerous. My tired muscles cannot get me out of the way fast enough and several times I must jump out of the way. I fear there will come a time when I get knocked off the side of the trail.
The worst switchbacks begin right before and after the mile and a half stop. At this stop I see a young boy with his parents. Several times on the way up, we exchange places. The parents try and keep him from running ahead. Sometime before the top, we arrive at the same place to rest.
The young boy, of all of us, is the only one not tired. He is bemoaning the unfairness of it all. "We've come all this way down and all this way back up." He sits in the dust. "And not one single mountain lion yet!"
I had no energy to laugh, but I did look at my husband in amazement. There is no place for a lion except upon the trail where we stand. "Yeah. Darn. Not a single one."
He shook his head. "If we see one, it can eat me. It can't hurt any worse than I do right now."
Now, I find a small chuckle. "I certainly can't run from it." But we do find the energy to keep climbing. Sometimes I only make it twenty steps before I rest. My legs are not tired, but my lungs don't seem to be able to get enough air. The altitude is rising.
My father and I pass the first tunnel out and I refuse to believe there is yet another tunnel before the top. "There's only one tunnel," I insist. "We must be almost out. I don't want to know if there's another one."
But there is. And it takes forever to reach it. The edge of the rim is close then and the jackets we have seen people wearing begin to make sense. As I pull myself up over the edge, the wind, from which I've been protected, slices through the sweat on my back. I'm too tired to take my pack off to get my jacket, but luckily my husband is waiting and he helps.
A lone woman finds us and asks for a ride to a campground. Unfortunately, I am disoriented. I don't know where the car is and I'm worried about my parents. Before I can take any of these words back and focus, she was gone. I feel pangs of regret at my callousness, however unintentional. My husband is too tired to worry. His friend and I sit on a rock while he starts for the car.
It begins to penetrate that I made it. All the way in and all the way out. A small smile creeps across my face.
Finally, my parents round the bend. My mother's hair is dusted almost completely white from the dust on the trail, but she made it. My father still carries her pack and I reach out and take it from him.
We shared ice cream before we left. Craig looked out across the South rim and all the people scurrying about taking pictures in the cold wind. "I feel sorry for them," he said. "They don't...they only take a few pictures."
I know what he means. Though I could not touch the canyon, it left its mark on me. Like a tiny string around my soul, it tugs, signifying things greater than myself; peace, endurance and the hope that I felt with each step I took. The canyon embodies the solitude I have felt at different times in my life, something to embrace in grateful friendship.
I could not capture the canyon, or take it all in. I'll have to go back. I only hope that every small picture I look at can bring a part of it back to life.
Coconino Sandstone cliffs
near the top of the
North Kaibab Trail
Heading down the
North Kaibab Trail
The Devil's Corkscrew
section of the lower
Bright Angel Trail
early morning rain,