To go or not to go? Lots of things to do, but procrastination, after all, is one of the things I do best. So, I go. But first, I procrastinate a week.
The Middle-Aged Hiker
Halloween in the Canyon
Thursday, October, 1986. The farther west across Pennsylvania I drive, the more necessities I remember I've forgotten to bring along; the more I stew in the small steering cubicle, the closer I press the accelerator pedal to the floor. It's all relative. Later, in Indiana, it is, indeed, all relatives.
Friday, 1180 miles. After Missouri, the windshield resembles a biodegradable Jacson Pollock painting. I spot an Oklahoma road sign,
Do Not Drive Into Smoke, spend two hours searching for some smoke to drive through to see what they're talking about, find it at last in a leaky bus exhaust. Actually, it's quite, um, instructive. It's late by the time I get to Amarillo, and the Helium Museum is closed, quashing my attempt to get high in Texas. I finally stop for an 11 p.m. breakfast at a restaurant overflowing with Stetsoned cowpokes. The joint offers a 72-ounce steak free to anyone who can eat it all in an hour. Pulling down my cap Che Guevara-style and radiating my best East Coast supercilious sneer, I swagger up to the bar, demand a Shirley Temple, and insult the nearest galoot's ladyfriend. It works; the big lug loses his appetite. The sudden tension shatters as a square dancing convention prances in, a herd of heifers in fancy dress. Amidst the choreographed fracas, I leave. Later, neither away nor asleep, I pull over somewhere in New Mexico to remember something else I've neglected to bring along.
Saturday. I pass a Navajo trading post selling petrified wood moccasins. Also Meteor Crater, "the planet's most penetrating natural attraction," also the name of an erotic show on Times Square. I pass the Continental Divide Bar & Grill where, on the left side of the joint, all the catsup flows towards the Atlantic. Half a time zone later I stop in a Flagstaff grocery to buy a jar of salsa that's on sale. Great, I drive 2240 miles to do comparison shopping. At Grand Canyon, 70 miles north, my attempt to sneak into the campground for free fails, so instead I shell out the cash I saved at the grocery and then some just to set up the tent on some rocks near a thicket of recreational vehicles. Fair weather's forecast so, while loading my backpack, I opt to forego the tent. The aroma of grilled beefsteaks wafts through Winnebagoland. My carrot and water leaves a lot to be desired, also leaves me cranky.
Sunday, 5:15. Suddenly awake, aware that something's staring at me. It's the moon, nearly full, a giant glowing clam eye. Very quiet now, probably the lull before the storm. I toss and turn, get up at last, begin to ready myself in the cool early morning air. After a hearty breakfast of another carrot and water, I drive to Bright Angel Lodge, the beginning of the Bright Angel Trail but the end of my hike. I'll start at Hermit's Rest, eight miles away, amble on down to the river, meander back east to Indian Gardens, then stroll back up Bright Angel. This makes a 28-mile loop. Thirty-six, if you count walking to Hermit's Rest, which I wasn't planning on. Two miles and 45 minutes pass before I get a lift, by which time I'm pretty grouchy, but the sight of the trailhead invigorates me. It isn't exactly an amble, what with scrambling over rockslides, twisting knees and turning ankles, and by noon I'm ready for a rest stop at Santa Maria Spring, a tiny shelter near an intermittent stream. My journal entry: "Ouch, damn it, ow! I'm not a hiker, OK? I'm a day tripper. This may not be readily apparent in my normal environment of linoleum and rugs--though I've taken more than one tumble on shag carpeting--but in the Canyon where I'm trying to pick my way down a nine-mile circular staircase on which some miserable kid has taken Tonka Trucks from every Toys-R-Us warehouse, smashed them beyond return-for-refund, and strewn them over every spot that you'd want to step, it's more evident; like just now, when I placed a foot on a rock for support and suddenly that support took off on a kamikaze dive over a cliff and I barely managed to execute a tango turn so free-form it would've given Arthur Murray heart palpitations but which, in fact, launched me into a bramble bush, safe from a more outlandish fall. Since then my legs have been doing an imitation of what was excised from Elvis Presley's televised appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964." And so on. I plod on, frequently stopping for pictures, finally reach Hermit Rapids at 4:59. The last mile and a half, says the Trail Guide, is obvious, just follow the creek down to the river. Well crimony, it wasn't a happy path the creek took to get here. My feet ache something awful. Oh sure, it's scenic here. Loud, too, with the river rapids a Nike hiking boot's heave away. But after tromping over miserable toe-stubbing terrain for six hours, fording the damned creek 19 times--something I don't do at all well, especially with the equivalent of a vacuum cleaner bag of cannonballs on my back numbing all useful sensory input--I make another journal entry in large, wobbly letters: "That's it! No more Canyon hikes ever again. And I'm not kidding! Waxing ecstatic about a place after the fact doesn't take into consideration the misery and utter crankiness of the moment, remember that!" By 5:30, I've nearly caught my breath. The western sky above the rim glows brilliant orange. Beautiful and sublime, not that I'm waxing ecstatic or anything. Suddenly, thunder--but not the way Ferde Grofé wrote it in his Grand Canyon Suite --followed too quickly by dark clouds and lightning overhead. Time to find shelter. Uh-oh, it's my 5x8 plastic groundsheet with the 2x3 holes and that's all. Fair weather forecast, huh? It rains. A lot. Time passes. The rain has stopped and I've eaten. I ingested extra roughage from the sand I kicked into the cooking pot while attempting to keep the stove out of the rain by holding the groundsheet over my head. And failing. And a sleeping bag lined with wet sand does not bring the sort of solace after which a part-time outdoorsy sort might yearn. And with a nearly full moon glowering down like a giant Klieg light, just daring me to forget my stage lines again, I'm seized by a wanton desire for a queen size bed in a nicely appointed room with a tray of donuts nearby. Either that or a big stick with which to beat silly the next person I spot wearing a Sierra Club baseball cap. Shut up, all of you. I'm going to sleep
Coke in Canyon
Monday, 6:30. Sand in my teeth, my shoes, my cup, everywhere. Wet sand. It rained again. A few innocent clouds hang in the sky now, going through vivid daybreak color changes. Bats dance their final furious dances, head for daytime garages. Damn, sand in this journal, too. And in the pen. It certainly seems to be the focal point at Hermit Rapids. I wonder, am I at the proper campsite? I just dropped everything on the first flat surface I stumbled across. Yes, and even with all of those stumbling, stubbing, cursing, bruising, miserable miles I trudged yesterday, right now it's quite serene, even pleasant, here by the river. Ah yes, the river. Had I elected to sleep--for want of a better word--where I'd first fallen down at a minute before five yesterday, I'd be considerably damper and sandier and much much crabbier now. Something about the river level rising, you see. The sun plays hide and seek behind the clouds. The flies play aha gotcha!, happy to've found a human plaything. Here by the river, boulders strewn everywhere like bad welfare checks, I'm overcome by an urge to shuck all duds and prance about like a Neanderthal. Which I do. But this only eggs them on--the flies, not the boulders--gives them a larger target area to strafe, and I'm soon clothed in orange socks, purple pants and blue Spam tee shirt. Time to be back on the road. In the midst of one of those 19 stream crossings, I stop to refill my water bottles. Have to purify the water, but something's amiss. Some tiny threads join the water in the bottle. Where did they come from? Will they be good for me? Answer tomorrow. Meantime, I climb out of this side canyon and head east on the Tonto Trail. The sun's out and hot, there's no other sound except for buzzing flies. Also a raven circling in the sky, a great echoing sound, "flawp-awp-awp-pp-pp-p." Puffy cumulus clouds in the distance, does this mean snow? Half an hour later, I reach Monument Creek, the next campsite already! There's a lovely creek that flows past the chemical toilet, down into a natural jacuzzi and, so I hear, all the way down to the river. Maybe sometime I'll follow it. Daring the spiteful rain gods, I roll out my sleeping bag away from the protective overhangs, near the creek. Unlike the roaring Colorado, Monument Creek gurgles and soothes. And how much easier eating is when I don't have to hold a flashlight between my teeth!
Tuesday, a fitful sleep. Achy body parts catching up. Full moon rose late, bringing along a weather front and lots of sand. Finally figured out the mystery of the threads in the drinking water: I had connected the purifier upside down, and flushed into the bottle what previously had been filtered out. Dyslexia strikes again! The only way out of Monument Creek is up, a steep ascent over broken rocks. Wouldn't want to try it crabby. No other pedestrians but lots of air traffic; otherwise, peaceful. I'm on the Tonto Plateau, about halfway between the rim and the river, and frequently out of sight of both. But occasionally a side canyon does open up and I can hear the distant roar of river rapids. Another dozen paces, out of view of the river, and silence returns. Noon, a peace meal: carrots, dried apricots and water by the side of the road. Trudging onward, I pass through more uninhabited campsites along the Tonto Trail: Cedar Springs (dry); Salt Creek (dry and salty); Horn Creek (dry and full of ... horns?). I reach Indian Gardens mid-afternoon, not too tired to appreciate the modern amenities: chemical toilets, tap water, packbars, and a mule corral, for this campground is on the Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon's interstate. Plenty of folks are here already. Also giant squirrels with grazing rights, hungry for anything freeze-dried and ornery enough to get it. Some folks camp in style: wine, cheese, bagels, lobster thermador. Darkness falls precipitously, but there's enough ambient glow from the microwave ovens to skip the flashlight. I've not chosen my campsite wisely, and my sleeping quarters are on a tilt. The air is full of exotic aromas, none of which emanate from my cookstove. The two camp ravens, Ramona and Raoul, watch for spare food. So do I.
Wednesday, 7:30. I wake up late, covered with tree sap. Sleep was again hard to come by, this time due to carousing hikers stumbling around late into the night. Today's goal is only four and a half miles away; better yet, it's downhill. In fact, 80 minutes later, I'm already at Pipe Beach Rapids, sitting down and watching the water lick the rocks. It's still another mile to camp, but the trail parallels the river, and the proximity invigorates me. Bright Angel Campground is the Park's version of Grand Central Station: 33 campsites, indoor lavatories, and a federally protected panhandling turkey named Cathy. A nice place to visit. So, too, is Ribbon Falls, providing you travel with a podiatrist. It's nearly six miles up the road (a euphemism). Me, I'm not that ambitious. A lizard investigates my rolled out sleeping bag, finds it habitable. So do I, particularly in the 75º tree-lined campsite-by-the-creek. A sinister guy in camouflaged fatigues stalks by, the knife on his belt the size of a backhoe. Wealthy mule riders sleep in real beds at nearby Phantom Ranch, which also features a beer hall that anyone can enjoy, anyone with a buck ninety for the muled-in brew. The alternative: attempt to squint-read by candlelight Brave New World, my chosen bottom-of-the-canyon entertainment. Let's see. Page one. Hmm, wonder if something better'll come along? (It won't.)
Halloween, 6 a.m., cocooned in the groundsheet in a steady drizzle. A wet hour passes, by which time I've packed up and am en route to the Clear Creek Trail, a seven-mile trek that deadends, says the trail book, near a spectacular waterfall. Five wet hours later, I'm back at Bright Angel. Here's why. After trudging uphill for an hour in a steadily increasing rain, I note my hands and arms are likewise increasingly numb from the cold. Hypothermia alert! The sky darkens, the air chills--fine conditions for a mystery story, less desirable for a part-time hiker. Then, somewhere between rock cairn markers, I lose my way. Cold, wet and, yes, crabby, I turn around and begin to head back. But my sense of balance is somewhat askew and I stumble and slide a dozen feet down a talus slope, oops. My crankiness abates somewhat when I observe that had I slid another 20 feet, the next stop would've been the scenic Colorado River, a thousand feet below. Mentally crackers, I plod back to Bright Angel Campground, get authorized ranger permission to stay here tonight, and wander around in a semi-fog while the rain gradually subsides. At dusk, a little kid with a false nose trick-or-treats. I give him a packet of instant coffee, hoping it will keep him from running back up to the rim to soap my car windows. The night sky is bright with twinkling stars, the air alive with Halloween shrieks.
Friday, 3 a.m. A ringtail cat investigates my pack, but it's 42º and I'm not budging from my sleeping bag, where I'm at least eight degrees warmer. I get up after the sun does, putter around, finally break camp by 7:00 while most others here are still asleep ... which I'd be, too, if I had their sense. It's just over nine miles to the rim, and taxicabs don't make this trip. Mule trains do, though, and I pass three of 'em heading down, leaking spoor. I'm sort of locked in to the hike and I fail to take note of the dramatic landscape through which I'm walking. I do remember stopping briefly at Indian Gardens again, adjusting my pack, drinking water every so often, but mostly it's strictly a painfully slow, uphill walk. After four and a half hours, out of breath and humor, I'm back on the rim. Ignoring all of my earlier protestations, even forgetting about the blisters the size of freezer bags on my feet, I drive to the Backcountry Office and promptly sign up for yet another hike next year. A real one, listen to the trail guide: "... you will pass several drainages before you come to the proper break. Once through the Redwall, a maze of wild burro trails requires carefully picking the route." Wait, I had difficulty finding the parking lot from the damned lodge, how will I survive a real wilderness? After zooming to Flagstaff to graze at a restaurant salad bar for an hour, I head down a twisting road into Owl Creek Canyon for more tenting, but I lose my way again, happen upon the interstate, at midnight finally give up and pull into a rest area to watch transients act out "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Stripping."
Saturday, 6 a.m. and still cold. I drive north to Navajo Bridge behind a 60 mph cop. At least the mileage gets a boost. I snap some bridge pictures at the very vertiginous edge of a cliff overlooking the Colorado River (no tangos here, please). Then down to Lee's Ferry, the Colorado's a scant 60 feet from the parking area. Raises the question, why hike down to the river for ten rocky miles in Grand Canyon with 40 unwanted extra pounds on your back? I drive on to Glen Canyon Dam, 15 miles upriver, where the clientele changes precipitously: hardy backpackers with a week's worth of stubble are replaced by tourists in Bermuda shorts flocking to the gift shop to buy souvenirs dams. I drive east across the Navajo Indian Reservation into a Monument Valley sunset. Hmm, not bad. Even with the police car-produced 42.24 mpg, I'm still low on fuel, forced to abandon the wiggly road north of Mexican Hat to Natural Bridges, instead head for Edge of the Cedars National Monument in southeastern Utah. But it's closed, locked up for the night. On to Arches, half a state to the north. Since I'm suddenly sedentary, the inactivity catches up with me about the time I reach Hole in the ... Something, a bit south of Moab, and I find a rest area just in time to fall asleep.
Sunday. Early morning Moab sports no decent groceries open for business; at least there's a radar cop cruising the streets. Arches National Park is a mere two miles away. But what last time was scarcely visited is now overpopulated with Winnebagos, and I don't mean Indians. I meet more folks on one out-of-the-way trail than I saw on the entire Hermit loop. The trail leads to Delicate Arch, a gigantic hole through which the snow-capped La Sal Mountains loom in the distance. I lie down under the arch, take a picture of it looking upward, my idea of a novel perspective. But the ground is sloped, and I begin to slide downhill. Downhill, by the way, ends precipitously a hundred feet below. But my boot tread catches on the slickrock surface at the last moment and I scramble safely away, my appetite for novel photos surfeited. I walk back to the car on wobbly legs and vacate the park, resolved to give the sedentary lifestyle another try. I head east on Route 128, the glorious road I discovered a trip or two ago that follows the Colorado River canyon contortions. But how things have changed! The road's been smoothed and widened, the dirt washes paved and guard-railed, and a foundation has been laid for a new bridge over the river, big enough for tractor trailers, to replace the seven-foot wide Dewey Bridge, my all-time favorite river span. The interstate soon looms ahead, smooth and sterile, and I head east without looking back. I cross the Rockies, alert for sudden snow squalls. But a minor flurry near Vail doesn't even slow me down, and after gas, bread and water in Denver, it's flat and drab through the rest of Colorado and half of Kansas, the magic of the trek long gone.
Monday, dawn. Weather forecasts which the Kansas rest areas continually broadcast come in handy. Now I know how cold I am! I drive numbly east to Kansas City, wherein I get lost, but only temporarily, then on into Missouri, and Illinois, and still further on to Indiana, 890 tedious miles that felt like, well, 900.
Tuesday, the last day. I circumnavigate Indianapolis, miss my chance for a free meal and real bed at relatives, instead head into the Columbus, Ohio, morning rush hour. I drive to the University area, curious about my old stomping grounds. Again, how things have changed! The old hippie haven, Pearl Alley, two blocks from my domain on 13th Avenue, has been revitalized with yuppie boutiques; the formerly one-way street is now partly two-way, with scores of parking meters; a raft of masonite apartment buildings has sprouted in the previously quiet residential area; even the friendly neighborhood grocery has been razed. Ahh, but The Olde Hudson Hotel, my home from 1969 to 1972 during the turbulent Days of Gas Masks, still stands, still in need of paint, a legend in its own ghetto. Well, they say you can't go home again. Likewise, I can't go back to Seattle again, mainly due to those darned outstanding traffic violations, but that's another story. This story is about to end, as I pull into New Stanton, grab a pint of HoJo ice cream, then another 250 miles east on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, unintimidated by speed traps. Two tolls, a bridge, a couple more turns, and back in Riverton.
So was it worth the 5,080 miles? Answer next time.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.