Leave New Jersey, one car, camp gear, fresh cannolis and clean towels in the back seat. After 11½ hours of westness, Indianapolis and relatives, who appear tranquil till the cannolis hit the bloodstream.
Southwest through St. Louis, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, then west in the night until a tumultuous thunderstorm stops the car. Had we been a boat we would've capsized. Slip soggily into a Shamrock Texas motel.
West to an Amarillo egg breakfast, a Gallup fruit stop, a Flagstaff pasta supper. Sleep on Bob & Jan's back deck, new house, airy and skylit, with a dogdoor for giant Kancho, the back yard full of trees, rocks and the attention grabbing song of Santa Fe Railroad engineers leaning on their klaxons.
Load raft gear onto a pick-up truck with bald tires and gimpy suspension, more onto the shuttle bus which also transports the 16 of us 126 miles to the launch site, Lees Ferry, an average of 10.125 miles per rafter. Inflate the four boats, startle a rattlesnake in the brush, get warned about scorpions and red ants (don't mess with 'em), dine on salad, pick out a campsite in a field around the corner, turn in at dusk as folksingers cleave the night air with songs about shoes.
In Bob's boat, the Roaring Twenties (rapids from mile 21-29). At 24-mile rapid a boat flips, no one hurt but a lot of bread gets soggy, dies. Stop at Silver Grotto, Vaseys Paradise, Redwall Cavern, camp at Nautiloid, S sees a zillion faces in the cliff wall, stares back well into the night. A cricket climbs into the sleeping bag, tickles.
Through Chuar and Tanner rapids, stop to scout Unkar, a two mile uphill hike to a dizzyingly high vantage point. Clouds scud, disappear, now it's hot. Lunch in the shade. Shoot through Unkar, stop above Nevills to await higher water. Long afternoon naps.
Crystal, one of the two biggest rapids, probably the most dangerous one, we're underway by 7:00, safely through by 7:02 as turkey vultures watch in anticipation. On through the other jewels: Agate, Sapphire, Turquoise, Ruby, Serpentine, Zircon. In Turquoise, Bob's boat kisses the wall, shatters a spare oar. Stop at Shinumo Creek for a short splash to a warm waterfall, crash through big water at Waltenberg and Rancid Tuna rapids, cruise down to scenic Elves Chasm. But it's late, getting dark, gotta go, row another mile to camp. Set up tent 10 feet from the river under starry sky. Drift off to sleep longing for more sunscreen, aloe, moisturizer, seltzer.
Back in the kayak through Tapeats and Helicopter Eddy, then a placid float through the Narrows, spot Christmas Tree cave, beach the boat, climb up and have a look. Find a palm tree but no Christmas tree, tear a hunk of salt off the wall for a souvenir, paddle down to Deer Creek, big waterfall, wet power. Follow the trail upstream to another sublime grotto, splash pools of churning water, siesta locale. Later, downstream to Kanab, a relatively harsh campsite amidst the canyon majesty.
Bang hand, foot, other body parts on the rocks here, a red ant sanctuary. Three and a half miles to Matkatamiba Canyon, takes an hour to secure the boats, then a happy clamber over fluted rocks to a paradisiacal garden, amphitheater, stage, library, Roman bath. Gurgling water, ferns on the cliff face, cool shade. Innumerable stone angles. An unseen person stops by, pipes a flute, a raven alights in the uppermost balcony, listens. Otherwise, silence, the serenest place in the world. On the river again, spurt through Upset, float past more cliff gargoyles, stop at new ledgey campsite dubbed Hobart's Hotel.
Three-quarters mile downriver, Havasu, another magically verdant canyon. More people here, a standard rest stop for river tourists. Four hours to walk around, we leisurely follow the creek towards Beaver Falls, 3½ miles, don't make it, instead spend time lounging in lagoons, surveying lizards, gawking at cliff faces. Searing afternoon sun in the boats downstream to Tuckup, layover day tomorrow.
Start in Honeymoon boat, transfer to kayak, a mistake. River currents are fierce again and in innocuously named 205-mile rapid I'm washed overboard, sucked under, dragged to shore via Peter's kayak. Rescue follows. Back in my kayak, I'm warned of the next rapid, told to stay center because a nasty hole, bigger than life, lurks on the right. In I go, there's the hole, I paddle away, too late, I'm swept in, under, then casually spat out, sideways, no thanks to me. Cheers from the onlookers who assume I planned it all. Later I negotiate aptly named Little Bastard rapid, but just barely. Camp at Pumpkin Springs, named for a spring pourover shaped like a watermelon. Two years ago I performed the AzRAP here. The ants are unimpressed. Thirty miles today. Overhead a golden eagle. Out on the promontory the portapotty, great view, just don't lean forward too far.
Just outside our tent the ants have awakened and are investigating the GoreTex. Late morning, hot sun, another river party stops, swaps cake mix for boxed milk. We proceed leisurely, done with all the major rapids, still a minor one dumps a kayak. River level is up, the water's murky, laden with debris. Diamond Creek, the take-out, is just ahead. Nevertheless we continue downstream through all the wiggly water so we won't have to secure gear to the boats tomorrow. Camp on a pristine beach, Diamond Creek in sight. Gaity into the night.
Not quite. There's a lot to clean up. At the house, gear is sorted, crammed into an already full garage, clothes are washed, leftover food is categorized, dead celery discarded. Not at the house, metal storage boxes are steam cleaned, human waste product trucked to the Flagstaff landfill and dumped in front of a bulldozer. Later, three out of four manage to stay awake through Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, a movie of sorts.
Late start and heavy Ohio traffic make for a long day. Turkey club sandwiches at Howard Johnson's then the newly exorbitant turnpike. Western Pennsylvania brings angry tractor trailer pilots, eastern Pennsylvania brings rainy roads, New Jersey brings familiar tap water.
Shopping day #2: raspberry seltzer and picture frames. Shake sand out of the sleeping bags, load Redcar, eat fish, sleep with the birds.
Optometrist neighbor Bob offers to adjust glasses, accidentally switches lenses, a 30 minute job balloons into a two hour project, consequently we reach the hateful Hartford corridor at peak drive time. Takes an hour to get through the hot stupid city, necessitates an ice cream sundae stop in Brattleboro. Two more hours to a cooler clime, more expensive gasoline, plus five weeks of unsolicited mail: home.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.
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