Down And Up Again

Three Maniacs And Four Days In The Grand Canyon

March 31, 2003

Last September a couple of college buddies and I walked across the Grand Canyon, from the North Rim to the South. It was one of those trips we were always going to make, sometime, but hadn't. Planning had been elaborate. The Park Service wisely limits foot traffic, requiring permits that must be gotten far in advance. It's a nuisance, but keeps Disney out. Rob and I flew into Denver, where Dan lives, and drove the rest of the way.

The open road was a relief. The flight out had not been pleasant. The country was in the grip of its new institutionalized fear. The security police were being themselves. I had thought to bring a book on the Wahabis to read on the flight, but had imagined a security apparatchik deciding he had found a terrorist. I left it at home.

On the far side of the Rockies the land flattened out and lost the excessively lived-in appearance that begins to make Colorado look like the East. I realized that I hadn't crossed the deserts since I had hitchhiked them in the Sixties. Much had changed since then, and more since I had first seen the big empty lands while crossing the continent at age six with my parents. The deserts were still appallingly large despite the intrusion of the Interstates. Towns, though, were giving way to the homogenization and franchised conformity that cause any part of America to look like any other. The West remains magnificent territory.

The Canyon was the same glowing caldron of reds and dusky purple that I remembered from earlier trips, changing shades and hues with the dying sunlight. It is probably impossible to take a bad picture of the Canyon. At the North Rim we checked into the lodge, ate, and hit the sack, suspecting that four a.m. would come early. It did. We saddled up in chilly darkness, had breakfast, and hoofed it toward the trail head. The last day would be a climb of 5000 vertical feet, so we kept our packs light at about thirty pounds.

Going down, you don't see the Canyon. The trail descends through a narrow side-canyon, a crevice, so that you find yourself traversing vast walls that loom above and fall away to depths that an acrophobe would not want to contemplate. The rock face varies from green to tan to brown, weathered by thousands of years of wind and rain. You walk for hours in a huge shaded silence. The thought inevitably comes that you are in the presence of something above your pay-grade. The Canyon was old when whatever partial molar and fragment of jawbone, thought to be our ancestor, was gnawing bones in the perplexity of too much skull and not enough content. It will be around when we are long gone. I doubt that we will be missed.

In my wandering years I passed through the South Rim, I forget just when or why. Hitchhiking by its nature is anecdotal: You remember people and places, but not how they are connected. At a place on the rim that did not seem much traveled, I climbed down a face that was exposed enough that I probably shouldn't have done it. Falls tend to be long in the Canyon. In the rock face I found a small chamber, hollowed out I thought by hands. It was deep enough to escape both weather and detection, and did not look natural.

I sat in it for some time and surveyed the Canyon, which wasn't doing anything. Since then I have wondered whether anyone else had been there since some Indian, for whatever reason, had sat where I was sitting, and watched for… what?

We continued down. A cold stream ran along the trail much of the way, tumbling and splashing and seeming to enjoy itself mightily. When the urge hit we sat in it, buck nekkid if we chose, until the heat of the trail had dissipated. If life gets better, I'm unaware of it.

The lodge and campground of Phantom Ranch at the bottom were, like everything in the Canyon, well run and full of good people. Long-haul backpackers are extraordinarily convivial and decent. I don't know why. They seem to have a better idea than do most of what is important to them. Those who solo hike the 2000 miles of the Appalachian Trail, as several of these had, tend to be self-contained and able to fend for themselves. We ran into a couple of Chinese nurses from San Francisco and an Australian gal and her boyfriend to pal around with. They confirmed me in my liking for both Chinese and Australians.

We were booked for two nights at Phantom. The next morning Rob and I did a twelve-miler up the Kaibab Trail, across the plateau on the Tonto, and down Bright Angel. The climb out the next day would be a serious day's walking. We wanted our legs to be ready for it. Besides, we're crazy. For hours we went across rolling empty pink country, immense, pocked with blue-gray vegetation like frozen mortar bursts. A shriveled creek provided water and shade for lunch. Except for us and one idiot who had gotten lost--you can die in the desert---the world was deserted.

I decided that if God hadn't created the Canyon, he missed a good chance.

To be on the safe side we began the climb out at first light. Rob and I had a long history of week-long up-and-down hikes through the mountains of the East, with substantially heavier packs, but this was going to be pure, steady, serious ascent. We wanted to get the jump on it. The store on the South Rim carried a book called something like Death in the Canyon, of which there are some. I'm told that most involve out-of-shape people who proceed to cash in because of heart attacks and heat stroke. Still, it is wise to respect the geography.

It was a hump, but not a killer. A major help were Leki poles, now almost universal in the back country. Their virtues are hard to quantify, but they improve balance, avoided twisted ankles, and shift muscular effort to your shoulders. You go faster. As we ascended above the level of the plateau we found ourselves on endless sunny switchbacks overlooking the whole gaudy basin. The walls of the Canyon have well-marked strata. You measure your progress by which of them you have put below you.

It was a splendid trip. If you have the chance, do it.