The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Eighteen

The Good News

In short, the good news is: You can do this.

We have seen hikers from their teens to their eighties on the Grand Canyon trails. Our huffing and complaining was utterly silenced when we passed an ancient man with two walking sticks enjoying his way up from an overnight stay at Hermit Rapids. We all have heard the story of explorer John Wesley Powell, the retired army officer who traveled the Canyon from end to end by boat, before trails and maps; he scrambled up canyon walls, roped over tight spots, confronted heat, storms, animals, rapids and the unknown--with only one arm. In 1963, Colin Fletcher became the first person known to have walked the length of the Canyon, which he did without having studied it; he says, "I was not going down into the Canyon to learn intellectual facts."

And there is the heart of it, no better described than Fletcher in his book, The Man Who Walked Through Time:

I would set aside two months for the journey. I knew that I could probably force a passage through the Canyon considerably faster, but to do so would mean making the journey a battle. And what I wanted, if I could manage it, was something closer to a picnic. Or perhaps I mean a pilgrimage.

It is no longer the 19th century now, no longer even 1963. The Canyon is heavily traveled today, and it is hardly possible to hike where you will be entirely alone and, of course, that is because of hikers like us, and you. To everyone's good fortune (the environment's, too), the uniformed keepers of the backcountry have restricted the access to it and, by maintaining only the tourist areas and letting the remainder of the old mining, tourist and WPA trails fall to ruin, have allowed a natural barrier to return, admitting only those who would love and care for this world.

It has been a long time since I have lived in an American city, but it has not become possible to forget why I left there: I was an artist fed on a diet of artifice, sated with ironic cleverness, and fatted with the arrogance of human creation. I still value human creation as our work, but as the sensory rural life--hectic and demanding though it is--replaced the "head trips" of urban America, I could become part of a nature whose wind played in the leaves, and whose water tweaked the air with a sound in which every melody could find its harmony. (My brain forces me to explain here that such an image is even musically true, as the white noise of water's flow encompasses all the frequencies of traditional musical invention.) I was reminded of this balance of sound and silence by Fletcher's comment that the noise of his stove--little more than a loud exhalation of breath--blotted out the hushed Canyon around him:

That night, again, I lit no fire. And as I sat waiting for dinner to cook--cut off from the silence, inside the roaring world of my little stove--I watched the evening sky grow dark.

There remain those who exploit the desert and the Canyon particularly to satisfy their needs and their greeds, obtruding from the canyon floor like homo boletus. Artists and photographers frequently go for what they can take, not what they can learn. Notorious advertisers expound the virtues of new television or automobile technologies by flying their alien products to the Canyon, creating noise and pollution and violating the spirit of that natural world. Even musicians for whom environmental awareness is their professed raison d'être ferry loads of equipment into sensitive areas to fill the Canyon with the squawks of human horns.

As we reread our early accounts, we are aghast at some of our safety and environmental fumbles; we've seen our mistakes repeated in others, and hope that you do not let our mistakes become your mistakes. Among those mistakes is to go as land-conqueror, photographer-thief, art-parasite, music-sucker, or even birder life-lister, for the desert will insinuate itself into your art at its own pace. You will not choose it, for should you attempt to, it will foul your recorders, sand your lenses, and bleach your paint. It is too large, too old for us. I have watched without comprehension those who would incessantly check f-stops on the Canyon rim, or search first for souvenir shops, or talk loudly of sandwiches and soda, or even declame tanned and broadly of trails and routes ... all in the very face of the impossibility of the Canyon.

The Canyon has changed us. David's accounts have metamorphosed from flippant to reflective; Susan has since become a potter with designs warmed by the southwest desert's earth; Stevie has discovered a new attention to detail and an appreciation for living in the present; and I think about music in more organic time and terms. None of this is Grand Canyon Suite nonsense, nor imitation of southwest jargon or Native American artifacts, nor dismissive unconcern for yesterday or tomorrow. Rather, the speck of time and space we occupy in the Canyon's world places us at the edge of invisibility as we vanish in its vastness. If half a billion years can have eroded to a few inches of the Great Unconformity, are we not but a geological eyeblink from our own deaths, an exhalation away from the disappearance and forgetting of our species itself?

This may seem a long and depressing digression from "the good news is you can do this." But once you are ready, a journey like this awaits, a good-news version, generalized from our accounts...

A Day's Reward A day's reward

He stands at the rim, surprised that his walking and exercising have still not prepared him for the pack and the high, thin air. Auto exhaust drifts above the cooperative rumble of engines and the voices of struggling children and testy parents. He hardly senses it, for in moments, they will be far in the future, together with their entire species, not yet born. Life and experience give way to the pressure of gravity on feet and pack; he steps forward, and the stones grow from manicured, crushed powder to untended scree. He is inside.

The broken Kaibab limestone crunches, clangs and tinkles as it slips from under his feet. A warm breeze rises from the side canyon as the morning sun has already begun to bake the redwall, carrying up with it the sagey scent of juniper and pinyon pine and brushing away the sound of civilization. The slope through the limestone is clear, with the rubble of spring piled along the trailside; in this direction, the switchbacks are long, gentle, guiding.

Taken over by an internal hum, he lets his eyes open to details. Two ravens, high, inaudible (still). Lichens in many colors here on this rock, but not there; it is recently fallen. A thick metal spike, reminder of miner days. One cloud, perhaps two, sliding east--possibly east, maybe north, anyway, from far away there to there. He notices a jabber of voices in the background, the remnants of his own quotidien worries, and sighs, exhaling them to the updraft; deprived of him, they are diluted, dissipated, dispersed. Now he is alone.

The ground has changed, but still there are juniper and pinyon guides. Creamy yellow with brown edges, he recalls the name of the Toroweap, rolling the sound silently over his tongue. Toroweap. Inwardly directed, outwardly clouded vision focuses for a moment on a shy mountain bluebird; gone. A cactus has appeared, a fence lizard skitters. How much time? He looks at a naked wrist, smiling at his wisdom; the timepiece is in his pack, hoarded for when (perhaps) it becomes important.

Drink, yes. (This tangy taste will keep him well, he knows, but recalls of chemistry.) He is in the sun now, sitting on a boulder of smooth Coconino sandstone. As the trail rounds the upper bed of this side canyon, he sees the first fetid marigolds, which will accompany him in all his moods for the entire journey. A rockfall in a multitude of colors has rioted across the trail, and he skips and scrambles, dancing the dance of the early hiking hours and skirting the upper edge of bright brown Hermit shale. A long traverse, a turn upward, then opposite, and he looks down at the nobly magnificent redwall in the full morning sun.

A flash of squirrel; breaking stride, a pause for liquid and trail mix. He picks through it for chocolate bits, smiling (for no audience in particular) that his mind--but not yet his body--remembers that such pickiness, too, will shortly fall away. The warm breeze picks up the scent of real heat as he resumes, stepping around broken pieces of shale and sandstone, no longer bright brown, but jumbled colors creating cliffs and ledges; it is the Supai group, all that he can recall about these millions of years of seabed silting and erosion.

The trail rises; it has become not so much faint as less used. Those who have come to photograph have done so and retreated, while the adventurous among them will travel as far as the spring and turn back, leaving the trail to but a few human steps. More traverses, rises, dips, rockfalls. The conifers are thinning out, cacti appear more often, and the occasional spiky agave (its nearby ancestors torn to strings by rodents) guards the wilderness to either side of the trail.

Another pause, another drink, a light stain of sweat on his shirt; he feels his feet, knowing what is ahead. The trail turns again, rises over a saddle, and dips into a jagged, rare break in the redwall. Dozens of switchbacks, littered with fallen rock and the occasional ancient spike or dried timber, lead downward through the stained limestone. He jams his boot; it is always like this, just at the top of a steep descent. Lizards leap away, a coral snake slides into shelter. Twenty-two, twenty-three, with chagrin he catches himself counting, mental detritus of civilization. Knees twinge, pack lurches, boot jams again. He leans backward on an angled rock, for there is no place to sit, and has a draught of water, observing the contrast between his shaded redwall descent and the light-flooded Tonto Plateau--far below, the trail a greying threaded hair of broken stone, yet hardly past the midpoint of his hike.

During that brief hiatus, he feels his feet swell to fill the bootshape, knowing that a long, descending traverse through the grey Muav limestone is still ahead; he remembers this as an insistent, endless hour in the sunlight, the beginning of midday. The trail is scree now, groomed only of large, tumbled stones by other hikers. Best traveled with a regular, heartbeat rhythm, the trail accepts his steps without interference. More ravens dance while an itch of rivulets hikes down his chest.

It is the trail marker that awakens him to conscious thought again; where has he been? The redwall is now above, an artifact of curiosity, it seems, to be admired during the sunset rest of day's end. The change from Muav to green Bright Angel shale has escaped him; surrounded by cactus and blackbrush, no longer with the fragrant, shading junipers, he feels with a physical sigh the level, even, fine crunch that is the vast, wide Tonto Plateau. The warm, rising breeze has given way to the desiccating stillness of afternoon. Pause, in high sunlight, for drink, fruit, chocolate, bread, while gingerly resting with his pack on the only nearby rock--a sharp, pocked surface of infinite detail and no comfort.

Sunset from Monument Sunset from the Monument Creek

Excitement has settled into calm, even peaceful, weariness as he rises and falls through drainages and washes, stepping on hard ledges and outcroppings, slipping past agave and beavertail and prickly pear and pineapple and cushion and barrel but being raked by the insistent blackbrush. There is some Mormon tea raised in jubilation, fluffgrass moving in the stillness, purple mat stealing back the trail. The Canyon is open now, rewarding his commitment to it with majestic views up, down, across ... yet still hiding the River. More drainages pass with nothing new to catalog, but at last the urge to classify has yielded to sensations alone. It is said that comprehending the dimension of time, especially of past and future, distinguishes the species that is humanity; so here in the Canyon, where time seems suspended (its future irrelevant), the hiker joins without protest the rest of creation.

Many steps later, the Bright Angel shale sags once again, and at the edge it finally cracks. Mesquite appears, and a catclaw acacia offers a wisp of shade to the hiker as he disappears into the crevice. Water flows below, a creek heading for the Colorado, and the cloak of afternoon heat engulfs him even in the high walls' shade. An unseen canyon wren sings in disjointed chips, the bloated body of a large lizard floats in a creek pool, a hanging garden glaciers its way down the wall. He notices that he aches, and that his legs are unsteady; intellect tells him it has been seven miles, five hours. Biology tells him: drink, rest, eat, cool.

Thus he swings into the creekbed, tracking upstream a few turns, until a fabled, deep pool is found. His steps are lightened by the water, and further as the pack is set against a rock, and further again (while desert four o'clocks observe) as he removes his salted clothing. Time is marked no longer by the mind but rather by the arc of the sun, and soon he is watching his own, odd footprints coming toward him; as they continue backwards and south, he swings forward, left, north, riverward.

Massive, shattered hunks of sandstone--Tapeats--fallen centuries ago pass slowly by; a field of glittering mica and a garden of sacred datura ripple past as silently as a tsunami; mule deer tracks are pressed into the caked mud, together with mirror-image human impressions, ekin, euqsav. He crosses once, twice, many more times (counting ceases) the narrow creek. He ducks through a forest of catclaw and mesquite, damaged by a fire long ago, but still revealing its scars. There, he sees, the iridescent blue of a lizard; an indecipherable message of sky-blue butterflies floating drowned in a tiny pool; a wasp of a blue so deep it can only be a fairytale hue. He can no longer, alas, ignore his aching legs, which are trembling their own way.

Until now, his company of sound have been heartbeat, breeze, bird, insect, ripple. From the somewhere comes something new, welcome: a low sensation of roar. With it, underfoot, sand, and around him, glinting, jagged walls of schist, granite, quartz. It will be soon.

There is tamarisk. Now, boulders. The boots do not carry the trembling legs well through sand. Louder roar. Faster. All sounds are lost to it. Pain, hard breathing. Then.

The feet are softening on cool sand. The ravens have ducked low with interest.

Reflection Reflection, refreshment, replenishment

It is a time of refreshment, replenishment, assessing. The miracle of materials that is his tent have been arranged on the upper beach amid tamarisk and reeds. Behind it, dark walls in the settling sun. He must be human again, temporarily, until (a future word) sleep: gaudy stuffsacks are hung from driftwood poles, a stove appears and assembles itself, then dry powders inflate themselves with an alchemist's magic into aromatically steaming bowls of food. The word menu, he muses, is alien to this, and properly so. Attached to him seem to be the toes a child is wiggling in the sand.

A whisper of bats clears mosquitoes for him as more trinkets are set in order. Rocks are burning high above him, but they will not be consumed. Black as ash, they will cradle him in the night. Night. There is no dusk, no dawn here, just day and its counterpoint. Songs sing in the river's roar as he blows out the candle. The moon has come to observe.

You can do this. Indeed, this route was my own first hike: The Hermit Trail, from rim to river, with David.

The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.

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