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Creek Running North

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May 23, 2005

The Canyon hike

Oh, and that's 154 total hiking miles this year.

I should start by saying something about Cindy. I didn't know her when the hike was planned: she's a friend of Joan's, a hairdresser from Southern Arizona. Immaculate blond hair, eye makeup, painted toenails, 59 years old and betraying a bit of a Dallas-Fort Worth sensibility. Were I to indulge in stereotypes, I would have guessed her unequal to the Canyon when we met the day before we started hiking. I did not so indulge, if for no other reason than I wasn't sure I was equal to the Canyon.

But boy, would I have been wrong if I'd made that judgement: Cindy hiked uphill and down as if her pack had a jet engine in it. She complained a little, good-naturedly, about the state of her leg muscles after the first day, but we were all doing that stiff-legged walk we called the Kaibab Shuffle. Six and a half miles with 5000 feet of down on a day that maxed out at a conservative 100 degrees in the sun will make anyone's thighs a little sore.

Bill and Joan I had no worries about. Bill has been a desert rat and mountaineer for longer than I've been alive, and Joan's a biologist-cum-law enforcement type for Arizona Game and Fish. They've both done a number of Canyon hikes, the most recent one a rim-to-rim in the aftermath of Joan's hip replacement. I figured they would do better than I would, and I was mostly right.

The night before we set out, I started packing my new internal-frame pack in my hotel room. Trouble ensued. Not enough room. How long had it been since I'd done this? How had I forgotten? Forget the four bags of trail mix, the halvah, the spare polypro shirt, the second pot in the nested set and the journal. I managed to squeeze the following into the pack:

Sleeping bag
three pairs underwear and socks, each
"pajamas:" pile shirt and pants for cool evenings
cotton tank top
poly t-shirt with long sleeves
swim trunks
pot, with stove squeezed inside
fuel bottle for stove
eight tortillas, 1/2 lb each dried black beans and rice
two packages each beef and salmon jerky
two pounds trail mix
the drugstore: toothbrush, paste, ibuprofen, Zantac, imodium, Claritin, bar hand soap, wipes for glasses
Leatherman tool
Camera bag with Digital Rebel EOS and extra lens
100 ounces water in Camelback reservoir

That's the inside. Strapped to the outside of the pack:

Over-indulgent self-inflating mattress
two 70-oz Nalgene water bottles
plastic coffee cup from Stovepipe Wells store

Or so it seemed when I picked the thing up.

South Kaibab Trail

That morning I woke at 6, met the gang at the restaurant for breakfast at 6:30, and we were on the shuttle and then at the trailhead by 7:30. Walking the first few steps under the (conservatively estimated) 50-pound pack, I was pretty certain I'd never make it downhill except the fast way.

The South Kaibab trail follows a ridgeline down to the Tonto Plateau, and is the crowded trail to choose if you want broad views of the Canyon. I was mainly too busy keeping my pack off the ground to want to stop and take pictures along the way: the thumbnail above is a shot from a few days later of the ridge that constituted the first quarter of the day's hike. (Think upper-right to lower-left.) These folks documented the trail well, and it hasn't changed much since. I did take a shot or eight of some of the wildflowers along the trail, notably in a field of weak-stemmed mariposa lilies. No matter how tired I may be, if I see a calochortus I have to stop and take a picture.

Cindy disappeared from view in the first two miles of hiking: we didn't see her until we reached the Colorado River, where she'd sat most of the day in cottonwood shade. I hiked along and then every so often waited for Joan and Bill to show up. At the first stop, at a wide spot in the trail called Cedar Ridge, a devastatingly cute ranger asked me solicitously about my water, snacks, etc. "I think you're carrying too much water. You may risk hyponatremia if you drink all that with no salty snacks."

As it turns out, I was able to foist some of that excess water on the two excessively macho hikers I mentioned a couple posts down.

An hour or so later, I rested at a sunny, hot spot called The Tip-Off, where Bill and Joan caught up with me. "The next section of trail is one of the best in the West, I think" said Bill. It wound down into the Inner Gorge from the Tonto Plateau, through a bunch of interesting sedimentary rocks past the Great Uncomformity into the quite frankly rather sinister-looking Vishnu Schist. I set off again, down a bunch of switchbacks that promised increasing proximity to the Colorado but which were awfully shy about delivering.

A quarter mile from the river, with about five switchbacks to go, my knees started to feel like they were going to buckle. (This would have happened much sooner had I not brought along my trusty companion of the last ten years of hiking.) I found a shady spot beneath an overhang and sat for a while. Realized I could easily stay there until dark: I had enough water, enough food. Ah, hell with it. Time to go. I got to the black bridge across the Colorado, crossed, then headed toward camp on a south-facing river trail backed up by a rock wall: it was an oven. Perhaps 105 degrees with no breeze. That last half mile into Phantom Ranch was one of the longest forced marches I've done in a loooong time.

Bright Angel Canyon

We stayed at the bottom that night and the next, Joan and Cindy in bunkbed dorms and Bill and I in a nice campsite in Bright Angel Campground. It was too hot to use the tent. We slept on the ground. My mattress proved worth its weight. We ate a huge steak dinner that first night in the Phantom canteen, slept under the moon, ate a big breakfast in the same venue, walked up Bright Angel Creek for three miles or so with sack lunches provided by the canteen, then napped in the campsite for an hour or so. I'd been wearing a long-sleeved cotton shirt over a tanktop for maximum air circulation and minimum sun exposure. When we walked down to the river at three or so to dabble our toes in the cold Colorado, I realized this was not the best strategy in the Inner Gorge's breezeless oven. I found shade under a tamarisk and took the overshirt off. Still got a sunburn, still felt queasy when it was time to head back for our second huge steak dinner. Ate the whole thing anyway. Felt fine afterwards.

Bright Angel Creek is usually a placid little thing. The two days we were there it was in flood, brown and roiling, alive with rolling boulders. Bill and I listened to stones hitting large stones both nights in our campground. At one point the first night, an especially loud collision roused me, and I looked out at the mouth of our sidecanyon. The moon was setting, and our canyon was in shadow. But the wall of the Inner Gorge was still illuminated, faint pale rays limning the jagged, treacherous rock. I smiled and went back to sleep.

Bright Angel Trail

I'm not completely finished with my acrophobia, it seems. My first day at the Canyon I went to Mather Point, walked to the rail, and recoiled. I couldn't help but imagine deliberately throwing myself over the rail. A few minutes and the feeling passed. I had height-related nervous moments throughout the hike, but they weren't much more than twinges - except along the first mile of the Bright Angel Trail where it followed the river. The trail climbed up and down tiny side canyons, losing every foot it gained, then swung out toward the river to bend after vertiginous bend a hundred feet above the water. Funny thing that the 80-foot falls would spook me more than the 400-foot ones. Has to do with human scale, I suppose. Eventually the trail met the mouth of Pipes Creek and turned away from the river for good. Cindy and I followed it up and out of the Inner Gorge, past a beautiful series of small pools and one or two dramatic slides, along a series of switchbacks called the Devil's Corkscrew.

Out of the Gorge and into the Garden Creek watershed, we found a huge flat rock in the shade and laid down for a while, our feet elevated. The rangers at Phantom had suggested this practice to recover from steep sections of trail. I'm going to remember it. At about eleven-thirty we got to Indian Garden campground, about halfway to the rim in trail distance though only a third of the way in elevation. We set up camp, by which I mean we took out our mattresses, let them inflate, then lay down for a nap.

I slept on my stomach for a while. Heard a scrabbly noise near my head; opened my eyes. On a cottonwood trunk a few inches from my face, a desert spiny lizard regarded me suspiciously. He did pushups at me, seeking to show his dominance. I was already on my stomach, and I thought "what the hell?" So I gave him a few pushups right back. He looked astonished, if a lizard can look astonished. He went through a few submissive head bows and scuttled away. I was now officially Boss Of The Campsite.

Joan and Bill showed up. We ate some more. We napped some more. I made a cup of coffee. We napped again. I re-lit the stove, made the rice and beans, brought out the fresh tortillas to general amazement. We ate burritos. We then decided to take a break in our hectic routine by hiking three miles out to Plateau Point and back. I took a few more photos. The one in the thumbnail is a composite of the top half of the Devil's Corkscrew.

The next day was almost anticlimactic. We got up without an alarm clock, dawdled and ate and drank tea and coffee and slowly got our packs put together over the course of an hour or more. When we at long last set out onto the trail, Joan announced that it was 6:40 am. Cindy and I wound up in the lead, and climbed with a measured pace - a few switchbacks, a few minutes' rest - until we got to Three-Mile House, the first of the resthouses along the trail, three trail miles beneath the rim. Feet up and relaxing for a bit, we ate and drank until we were comfortable, then set out again just as Bill and Joan caught up. Before we knew it, we were at Mile and a Half House, chatting with the ranger as she triied to stop the clueless from hiking into the oven with a soda and a beach blanket. And out again, in perfect cool weather to hike out of the Canyon.

I'd forgotten what happens when you emerge from a multi-day backpack into a crowded area, like Yosemite Valley. Even though you may feel your trip was an easy one, it's light-years beyond the experience of most park visitors. Of the four million or so visitors the Grand Canyon gets in a year - all of whom were trying to find parking when I arrived - about five percent do so much as step onto a trail for a ten-minute walk. Of those, about two percent reach the river. Phantom Ranch is by no means lonely: around 40,000 people visit in a year, which averages out to more than a hundred a day - though there's certainly seasonal variation in that.

But that still means that a person with a multi-day backpack walking toward the rim is a bit of an oddity, a one-in-a-thousand tourist, and coming out of a forbidding wasteland like the Canyon cements that impression in many minds. "You guys camping?" was the favorite question, though "What are you carrying in that pack?" - directed at me - came in a close second. I improvised my answers: bowling balls, gold ingots, country ham.

"Five days in the Canyon?" one older guy exclaimed near Mile and a Half House. "You guys are like pioneers!"

"Well sir," I said, thinking of eating myself to satiety on Phantom Ranch steak dinners, with baked potatoes and salads and cornbread and iced tea and cooked carrots and chocolate cake, "I'll tell you one thing. It's not for everyone."

But there's another thing about leaving the Canyon. On the trail in the inner canyon, especially away from Phantom, each person you meet is a welcome spark of humanity in a huge inhuman landscape. You stop, you ask if the person is comfortable and they ask you, you trade life stories and plans for the next hours of hiking, you feel a bond of sincere appreciation. Over a few days, I met a dozen folks I thought of as friends. I never learned their names.

Walk toward the rim and that diminshes. The closer you get to the ice cream trucks and gas stations, the less important it seems to cultivate those ties. Your every need is granted, assuming you have the cash. The closer you get to the rim, the more distant the strangers' eyes become, the more your wave of greeting is seen as a startling intrusion. Mommy, what does that dirty, hairy man with the backpack want? It took me a few hours, after Cindy and I stepped triumphantly and with some wistfulness onto the Rim, to stop striking up conversations with total strangers.

Posted by Chris Clarke at May 23, 2005 01:09 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Tracked: May 24, 2005 02:47 AM
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Another great story. Thanks. I'm glad you had water for that hike. Kind of obviates my haiku, though.

Posted by: carpundit at May 23, 2005 04:34 PM
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Oh, I'll leave the water at home for some hike soon, I'm sure.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 23, 2005 07:03 PM
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I envy you the trip, and I thank you for relating it in your delightful way.

I never got around to the hike, but I did make the trek by mule -- an overnighter down to Phantom Ranch and back (apologies if I said that in an earlier post here). My one regret is that I didn't have the address of a single friend: in proper touron fashion, you can buy and send postcards at Phantom which will bear the postmark "Mailed by Mule from the Bottom of the Grand Canyon" (or something like that).

That thing about the socially-closening effect of solitude, I wish everybody could know that. The crowds-equal-aversion effect is one of the ways cities are unhealthy, but if you live in them your whole life, you never know it. You just suffer the cool distancing and think it's normal.

A similar issue is that when I'm out in the wilds, that's when I feel most human, and glad of it. Out of the thousands of good reasons for preserving wildness, this is one that doesn't get a lot of press.

Re: the Vishnu Schist. I got a pleasurable feeling from it, as if I was privy to a secret almost nobody else knew. I mean, hey, how often do you get to TOUCH something 1.7 billion years old? It makes antiques seem like kiddie toys.

I was also very intrigued by the rafters. There's some kind of social effect going on there, too: I noticed that rafters don't really talk much to anyone outside their temporary "tribe."

Someday I want to take the 17-day full-length rafting trip through the Canyon.

And someday, just as you did ... the hike.

Posted by: Hank Fox at May 24, 2005 06:43 AM
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You just let me know, Hank, when you're ready to go. I'm ready to go again. I think Becky will insist on coming along this time, though. Which is not a bad thing.

And we probably ought to drag Carl down in there too, don't you think?

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 24, 2005 01:57 PM
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Okay, one more reason I'm not doing this: hypernatremia. Just keep on giving me reasons, Chris, though you had me at acrophobia.

Posted by: KathyF at May 24, 2005 02:07 PM
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Sounds like a great hike! I do miss that dry desert heat. And your (and Hank's) remarks on wilderness cameraderie were spot-on.

Posted by: Dave at May 24, 2005 04:45 PM
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You'd think Japanese were really unfriendly people if you went by Tokyo, but everything changes in the mountains. Maybe because of an unspoken, mutual pact that people ought to be cheerful, be helpful and generous, and watch out for one another while in a place that might very well get you hurt or even killed if you're not careful, the people in the mountains in Japan tend to be a wonderful lot, and human company very often welcome, especially on cold, stormy days, when a shared stove and cups of coffee make all the difference in motivating you to brace yourself for the rain once again. I always feel most alive when I'm up there, down to the bare essentials.

By the way, you ought to have a gander at what the ultralight folks are doing. Even if you don't completely adopt what they are doing, there is a lot ot be learned from them:

Southwest Ultralight Backpacking

It sure helped me drastically reduce my pack weight.

I think anvils are perfectly appropriate for the desert, don't you? Nothing like a good Vulcan symbology to add spice to your walk!

Posted by: butuki at May 24, 2005 06:13 PM
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"It took me a few hours, after Cindy and I stepped triumphantly and with some wistfulness onto the Rim, to stop striking up conversations with total strangers."

For some reason, this reminds me of a trip I went along on, rowing big wooden boats through the Missouri Breaks in Montana, camping each night along the shore. To minimize our impact on the wilderness, we plastic-bagged our used toilet paper, and when we had to take a crap we took the shovel, walked off into the bushes and dug a nice deep hole.

Back in "civilization," in the airport (I forget which one) on the way home, I was waiting for my plane when I felt the urge to go to the bathroom. And, faster than thought, I thought, "Where's the shovel?"

I think there's a good reason why your story reminded me of this funny one. The rituals of the wilderness go deep quickly, because they go home, back to simple, strong ways of living we recognize and are homesick for.

Posted by: amba (Annie Gottlieb) at May 26, 2005 09:32 PM
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Thanks for jogging some memories. Years ago (in the Days Before Kids) my wife and I did a similar hiking trip in the Canyon with my brother and my wife's sister and brother-in-law; down the So. Kaibab and up the Bright Angel, with overnights at the bottom and at Indian Garden and with some day hikes mixed in. We still have a couple of carousels of Kodochrome to prove it; all I need now is a slide scanner.


Posted by: Nick Theodorakis at June 2, 2005 08:44 PM
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