Monday, February 11, 2013

The Arizona Diaries: 13-21 October 2012, Part V

In October of 2012, I spent ten days on a road trip that traced a loop. Starting in Los Angeles, I went through Tucson, Arizona to the Grand Canyon and back to Los Angeles through the Mojave Desert.

At the South Kaibab trailhead, I took one last look at the view and shouldered my backpack. From above, I could see the first tight switchbacks winding down the cliff and watched as each walker tried to find a footing. It was sweet, really. All of these grown folks as keyed up as little kids at recess, lots of slipping and sliding in the dust and scree. I made quick work of the switchbacks, and it wasn't long before I reached a rest. I had read that there was no water on the South Kaibab Trail, and I guess I had just assumed there wouldn't be any toilets, either. But here was a nice triple outhouse with the cleanest chemical toilets I'd ever seen. It was only eight o'clock, but it was already warm, so I took a break in the shade, removed a few layers, and adjusted my backpack.

Setting out again, it wasn't long before I was all alone. Twenty or thirty of us had all started on the same trail at the same time, but in a matter of three short miles, we were all walking our own walks. I also noticed that I wasn't hitting a stride. I was stopping every few paces to take a picture. Each turn offers up come new marvel, and it's hard to resist taking a picture of every view. But I was realizing that I wasn't able to truly capture what I was seeing and decided to put my camera away. Mostly.

While it was impossible for me to get the big, sweeping landscapes, there were so many rocks and plants that captivated me, too. It's these small things in their millions that make up the enormity of the landscape. As I watched the sand and silt beneath my feet change colors, it occurred to me that I was walking through the layers of geological time that now towered over me. The colors filled my imagination with pre-verbal stories of Earth's formation.

After crossing a short plateau, the trail wound around a huge red rock formation before making another steep ascent down the side of a cliff. Rounding the second switchback, I got my first glimpse of the river, a small green ribbon snaking through the red landscape. I tried to overtake a small band of teenagers singing songs about God, Our Lord in between bouts of loud, gossip-y talk and was finally successful when they stopped for a picture at an overlook. Now that I had seen the river, I was even more excited to descend farther into the canyon, and their shenanigans were disturbing my walk. Worse, my reaction to their behavior made me feel like a curmudgeon.

The switchbacks kept coming, growing ever longer, and I appreciated them. The path was well-graded and mostly in shade. I rounded another bend and saw the river again. This time, I heard it, too. The sound of the rushing water was a revelation. Back at the base of the first set of switchbacks, I had thought about how descending into the canyon was giving me a better sense of its scale. But when I heard that sound, my comprehension of the immensity of the place acquired a new dimension. From four thousand feet above, the river had looked still and silent. To learn of my ignorance was delightful.

Soon I saw a familiar green backpack up ahead. As I came to learn over the next half hour, Chuck lived in San Diego and had joined the Sierra Club a few years prior to learn more about hiking and backpacking. I had spoken to him briefly on my first day at the Backcountry Office when I noticed that he was carrying a backpack from Mountain Laurel Designs, one of the companies I'd researched when looking for my own pack. After he showed me the pack, I was still pleased with my choice of a Gossamer Gear Mariposa.

We soon came to a tunnel leading through a huge rock face to the Kaibab Bridge, a suspension bridge built in 1928 that spans the width of the river. I pointed out a little beach on the other side of the river. On the north side, the path was more sandy. I saw a rocky spur trail off to my left, and knowing it would lead to the beach I'd seen from above, I said a quick farewell to Chuck and ran down the path.

The sand was silky and the warm water at the river's edge lapped against my boots. The river was a flat expanse of opaque celadon, and the deep red south canyon wall rose high above me on the opposite side.

Hunger interrupted my reverie, and I walked another half mile or so to Bright Angel Campground to find a campsite. I'm not sure what I expected to find, but I was surprised by how built up the campground was, more like a car camping campground than what I had envisioned. Each site was clearly delineated and was furnished with a metal picnic table and a hanger to keep backpacks and other gear off of the ground and inaccessible to varmints. A small building housed separate restrooms for men and women and an outdoor sink for washing dishes. Bright Angel Creek ran parallel to the main trail and the campground path. Many of the available sites on the cliff side of the campground path were large. I found one small site, the last remaining on the creek side. I ate some salami and cheese and nuts while I unpacked. Leaving most of my gear behind, I walked the half mile to Phantom Ranch.

When the path led into the heart of the ranch grounds, I found Mary Colter's little cabins tucked into the small side canyon formed by Bright Angel Creek. Only around ten in number, the cabins are just lovely, a full expression of Colter's ability to create an atmosphere of rustic comfort and nostalgia for a particular kind of Americana that never really existed. I soon found the mess hall at the northern end of the grounds. A woman was sitting alone on a bench near the door, and I thought she looked so beautiful. I got closer and saw that she was the woman from the small group I'd seen at the Backcountry Office on the two prior mornings. I greeted her and introduced myself. She invited me to join her and her friends for a beer. I passed on the beer, but after I bought a few postcards and a Phantom Ranch patch, I went over to say hello. Rainy introduced me to her husband Joe and their friend Mike. They had come from Vancouver, Canada to hike the Grand Canyon, explore the slot canyons of southern Utah, and walk across the Death Valley salt flats. We swapped hiking stories for a while and then walked back to the campground together. As it turned out, their site was right next to mine.

As I finished setting up my tent and stowing odds and ends away for safe keeping, Rainy came over. She looked at me gravely and said, "I just realized that it's three o'clock. It's very important that you come over as soon as possible for tequila shots." I laughed: I'd finished off my own tequila two nights before, and she didn't have to twist my arm. One shot turned into a few, and I couldn't remember the last time I laughed so hard. These Canadians were hilarious, and the woman who looked so serene to me back at Phantom Ranch turned out to have a mischievous streak. Rainy insisted they show me the side canyon they found earlier in the day where a waterfall emptied into a small pool. I demurred but soon gave in when it became clear to me that there is no use resisting once Rainy has an idea.

We passed Phantom Ranch and crossed the creek on a small bridge as the sun dropped behind the cliffs. At an opening in the trail, we took off our boots and crossed the creek again to enter a small side canyon. Straight ahead, a pile of boulders wedged into the canyon formed a rushing waterfall. My feet were already numb as I followed Rainy and Mike into the cold water. All I could manage was a quick dip, but it felt heavenly. I hadn't showered in four days, and the water soothed me. Dripping wet, we walked back down to the campground. Rainy made plans for our evening: we would eat supper, go to a ranger talk, and have a drink at the commissary.

I was ravenous and was so disappointed when I took a bite of my salad and almost spit it out for its odd taste. I took another bite thinking that maybe I'd just gotten an off piece of avocado, but the second bite tasted just as strange as the first. I finally realized that it was the olive oil. I thought I was so clever the night before, washing out a nearly empty travel container that had held hair conditioner so that I could bring just a bit of olive oil with me. But the plastic container held the conditioner's perfume, which it then imparted into my olive oil. Luckily, I had plenty of macaroni and cheese to eat. While I sat by the creek with my supper and read my book, going to a ranger talk was about the last thing I wanted to do, but it was hard to resist Rainy's enthusiasm. The talk had already begun when we arrived. All of the seats were taken, so we stood at the back. The ranger wasn't very engaging, and it didn't take long before all four of us were a little antsy. Everyone was tired but still game for a drink. I ordered a liter of wine that turned out to be more generous than expected, but we managed to put it away. I learned that all three of the Canadians are accomplished athletes. Between them, they've completed more marathons, long-distance bicycle races, and sundry amateur outdoor events (including Rainy's recently-competed Iron Man) than most people ever even think of. I was way out of my league, but it was fun to hear them talk about their adventures.

Back in camp, I sat by the creek and read my book before going to sleep. Before first light, I was awakened by voices on the campground path. Trail runners were stopping in to get water and not bothering to keep their voices down. It must have been around four in the morning. I opened my tent and was astonished to see a steady stream of headlamps on the main trail. So much for the endless National Park Service warnings against attempting to make it to the river and back in a day or walking from one rim to the other in a single go: all of these people were doing it, and they were running. What I figured to be a risky and unusual walk that pushed the boundaries of a day hike is actually a popular activity for walkers and runners alike. Now that I had experienced the canyon for myself and seen all of these walkers and runners out on the trails, my desire to walk from one rim to the other in a day was renewed.

To be continued.
Go to Part I

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