The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Ten

Mad, But Alive

October 27, 1986--Heading west again, brimming with apprehension. I've already made up my mind that this'll be the worst hike ever. This time, see, I'm taking a different route into Grand Canyon: the Hance-Grandview loop, a steep, rocky trail. One not recommended for dilettantes. Like me.

But first, Oklahoma, as usual, provides momentary diversions. Near Tulsa, a tractor trailer smashes into a pick-up truck in a work zone one nanosecond after I zoom by untouched. An Oklahoma City gas station offers a free car wash with a fill up. I'm game. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the swirly water and brightly colored revolving brushes. Ga-chink rrrrr shhh kwook-wook-wook mmmm ga-shhh mmm ca-woing! (Huh?) shhh rrrr kwoo-wook-wook mmmm ca-woing! Whup-up fwoing! Oh shit, it's the antenna! Whup-up-upp fwoing! Instinctively, I roll down the window. Shhhhh ga-wook Ga-SHHHHHHHHHHHHH-HHHHHH! A mistake....

Next day, Grand Canyon, apprehension at a peak. But then I reach the rim, gawk at the big hole in the ground, and grin stupidly, happy to be back. After searching high and low for a couple of hours, I locate the trailhead, two pointy rocks on the edge of the canyon, 17 miles from the village. Surrounded by trees and sky, a Coors can, and that big hole in the ground over there to the left, it's smack dab in the proverbial middle of nowhere.

Back at the village, I wait till the attendant leaves her post, then sneak into the campsite. It's crowded, but I find a vacancy at Fir Loop #2. I set up my expensive new tent and settle down. But there's a knock at the flap. Seems another party is also registered at Fir Loop #2. An administrative error, we both presume. Lucky for them there's enough room for both of us.

Thursday. I'm up, packed, and parked by 8:30. I start out for the trailhead, six miles away, anxious to turn back at the slightest provocation. My feet hurt already, I'm getting a late start, I'll lose my way for sure--new self-doubts plague me with each passing step.

Two hours and ten minutes and half a dozen unsuccessful cop-outs later, the trailhead. Well, as long as I'm here, I'll try it for a quarter mile.

Steep and rocky, indeed! Like an elevator shaft lined with ball bearings. A quarter mile later, I realize I won't be able to make it back up without a winch. So, I continue down.

And down and down. I slide 15 feet, rip my pants to shreds. My toes throb like a Friday night discotheque. I'm too busy being mad to take pictures. By 5:00 it's apparent I won't make the river before dark, so I begin looking for a place to stop. I find it at a seasonal spring burbling out of the Redwall. An hour later, I'm cooking by flashlight again, mad but alive.

During the night, a bighorn sheep passes nearby. I don't exactly see him, I just hear him. "Ah-oo-gah," he says.

Morning, a bit less mad. The river can't be far now, right? In fact, it's just an hour away. A soothing foot rub in the wet sand, a nice hot bowl of porridge near the rapids, fluffy clouds scudding across a wide sky, convivially warm temperatures--say, it almost makes up for yesterday's torment.

But not quite.

Soon, company: Louisiana river runners--a private entourage of four rubber rafts, a wooden dory, a kayak, and the ever present videotape cameras. I tell them they're the first humans I've seen in weeks, and beg them to take me along back to civilization. They ignore me and paddle through the rapids, waving to the camera.

An hour later, more company: four members of a hiking club, strolling down the Hance Trail. The leader is Colonel A. J. Tony Rose, USAF (Ret.), decked out in military fatigues and an Australian bush hat, and carrying a pack the size of a Volkswagen. "Nice trail," he offers, and he means it.

But he's a wealth of information, having clambered through the canyon scores of times. Since, like me, they're heading for Hance Creek tomorrow, I'd be silly not to tag along. But I was silly to attempt the Hance Trail in the first place. At dusk, the Colonel salutes the river with a cassette of Handel's Water Music, a particularly worthwhile use of batteries down here. Perhaps things are looking up.

Saturday morning, rain clouds overhead. More company during the night. River runners, I presume. Hungry ones, too, for they crept up to my backpack parked next to my feet, gnawed through it, and ate my granola.

The way out, says the trail guide, can be found at the top of the highest sand dune. It's true. I hike up the sand dune, and there, leaning on his staff, is the Colonel. We head west, uphill. I lead for a bit and promptly get lost--not intentionally, you understand; it simply comes with the territory. But fortunately, the Colonel doesn't have my creative sense of direction.

After some hours, we catch up with his cronies, who are lunching at the edge of a precipice that would give an acrophobiac terminal willies. The five of us--me safely in the middle--reach Hance Creek by 2:30. For such an out of the way place, it's awfully crowded. More than a dozen trail drifters are already here, hogging all the good campsites. I settle for a flat, dry area near the creek. The others don't. I wonder why?

I follow them as they head up a drainage for a quick look-see. Why am I doing this? They're exploring, I'm hobbling! Fortunately, one guy bails out after a mile, and I can retreat with him without undue ignominy.

My Thermarest has suffered its first puncture, so the ground is unfashionably hard. But this is nothing compared to what will follow.

It rains, pours, and my expensive new tent is up in the car. But so what! I'm quite snug inside my expensive new bivy bag. Except it doesn't keep me snug for long. In fact, it wicks the rainwater inside, saturating my sleeping bag. And me.

And it doesn't help that I unwittingly chose a dry stream bed for my campsite.

A Bad DreamStreambed, rain, dreams of vultures.

Sunday, 7 am. The rain has abated, but not by much. Everything is soggy. After sloshing about in my campsite pond for half an hour, mad, I suddenly get an idea. There's a rocky overhang 50 feet away--I can dry out there! Like everyone else is doing! But even with the stove on high, the best I can do is wring things out. With the temperature dropping and snow right around the corner, this is not the best of all possible worlds.

I cook a pouch of blueberry cobbler. It doesn't bring the warm, rosy glow to my cheeks that I'd hoped for. Instead it tastes like aluminum foil. My error--I cooked the pouch, too.

I put on my least soggy clothing, which is still immensely soggy, then check my trail guide. It says there's no way out of here. I cynically compare my "as long as I'm here" rationale at the trailhead to Hansel and Gretel finding the witch's cottage in the forest and adopting a similar attitude of "as long as we're here, let's jump into the cauldron."

The rain continues. I start up a muddy path, lugging along a few extra pounds of waterlogging. I reach historic Horseshoe Mesa by 10, then wander around in the wrong direction looking for the Grandview Trail. Snow here. And wind. And abandoned mineshafts, dusty canyon wombs. I'm numb from the cold, and only my mad disposition keeps hypothermia and exposure at bay.

Horseshoe Mine Horseshoe Mesa Mining Equipment

Three miles to the rim. I ascend into a cloud. Then I ascend some more the wrong way up a burro path, emerge onto a narrow precipice. The drop-off is 47 miles. (Newspaper headline: "Dumb Hiker Falls 47 Miles ... And Deserves To!") But I'm mad, remember, too mad to die, so I crawl back down and find the proper trail. Munching on a sliver of blueberry-flavored foil, I give myself three and a half hours to make the rim. Otherwise, I'll ... I'll....

Good timing, I make it in three hours, twenty-nine minutes. I dig the car out of the snow, turn the heater to Tropical, and sneeze my way back to the village, two days early. One hot shower and tuna fish salad sandwich later, I'm--and stop me if you've heard this before--ready to believe that things weren't really that bad. What an irresponsible memory I have!

Checking the weather, I learn that snow has blanketed southern Utah. This would effectively include Burr Trail, a 75 mile long dirt road that cleaves a bunch of spectacular canyons. Enemy developers want to pave the trail, make it negotiable for Winnebagos. My mission: to go yank up some survey stakes. Let's see: Burr Trail plus snow equals--naw, my memory isn't that irresponsible, and I pull the plug on the rest of the adventure.

Back to Flagstaff for a real restaurant meal, then On The Road east. I pile the wet clothes next to the heating duct, rotate them every hundred miles, and by the time I've reached Indianapolis, nearly everything's dry.

First, though, I stop in Amarillo for gas. A local TV news crew is doing a live remote broadcast, reporting on fluctuating gas prices. I tell them I've kept track of prices across the country, and noticed that six days ago, here in Amarillo, a gallon of gas was nine cents cheaper. Sensing some real news, the reporter zooms his camera in as I hold up my documentation. "Not only that," I continue, "but this paper also lists the names of known Communists who've purchased gas in...." Suddenly, the camera light winks off, the reporter backs away, someone else does a voice over, I pay for my gasoline, and leave. Just another day On The Road.

And that road ends back in New Jersey after five thousand and one miles, only twelve of which were really wet and lousy. But they were the ones that counted, the ones that left me ... mad but alive.

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

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