Monday, February 18, 2013

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

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.

As the stars faded, I dressed, made tea, and walked over to the little beach where I'd stopped the day before. I stared out at the Colorado River and thought that I'd never been in a place where the stillness was so complete. Sitting there next to the powerful river, feeling the energy of its never-ending movement, I felt outside of time. The river speaks of what it knows, and the present moment is its eternal story.

By the time I returned to my campsite, the Canadians were packed up and ready to go. I was trying to light my stove when Rainy came over the retrieve Joe's tent peg. While pitching my tent the day before, I managed to break a titanium peg. I didn't have an extra one and was lucky that Joe was willing to let me borrow his. When Rainy saw that I had run out of fuel, she offered me her stove. I had already benefited so much from my new friends' hospitality, and I was staunch in my refusal. I had enough other food and didn't really need to make oatmeal. I wrote down my contact information and said goodbye to the Canadians. Rainy invited me to come with them on a different route than I was planning to take, but I was worried that I would be too slow to keep up with them and wanted to see the whole Bright Angel Trail. Rainy insisted that this would not be the end; she predicted we would meet again at Indian Garden Campground, on the way back up to the South Rim. At the very least, we would surely meet up in the Backcountry Office parking lot.

Bright Angel Bridge

I put together some breakfast, broke camp, and was on my way by around eight thirty. Leaving the campground and walking past the ranger station, I hoped I might see the little kit fox I'd encountered the day before when I was snooping around the old horse corral, but she wasn't anywhere in sight. I crossed the Bright Angel Bridge and began my ascent. The guidebooks advise planning for an eight to nine hour walk from the river to the South Rim. They also note that it generally takes five to six hours to walk down to the river from the South Rim. It had taken me just over three hours to descend. I settled in for a long day, but I also thought about a target time.

The Bright Angel Trail is considerably different from the South Kaibab Trail. The north and south cliff faces are much closer together in the area, so the views are less expansive. The space feels intimate. I was tremendously moved by the place. I was on a clear trail with nowhere else to be, plenty of food and water for the day, and a reservation at Bright Angel Lodge for the night. Unconcerned with speed, navigation, food or shelter, I became ever more entranced by the canyon. Thinking only of my body drawing a line through space, of my feet connecting with the Earth, my pace and my breath enmeshed.

I came to a lush area filled with tall grasses and cottonwoods along a small stream. The east end of Indian Garden Campground was filled with weary walkers and runners slumped in the shade on benches surrounding a stone water fountain. I walked through the picnic area and campground looking for a place to sit down for lunch. A stone and wood shelter with a single picnic table was empty. After five miles in the morning sun, it felt good to take off my pack and sit down for a spell in the shade. I made a sandwich with my remaining salami and cheese and mustard and read my book while I ate. Soon, I heard a familiar voice on the trail above me. I looked out and saw Joe's shock of white hair. I called out to Joe and Mike, who in turn called out to Rainy. "I told you!", she said. "I knew we would meet up again here!" When I learned that they had seen three California condors on the Tonto Trail, I almost regretted turning down the invitation to walk with them, but I was glad that I had taken the time to walk alone in the canyon for a while.

The mid-day sun was hot as I approached the foot of the switchbacks leading up to the South Rim and Grand Canyon Village. So far, the climb had been gradual, but this stretch was like walking up a four and a half mile staircase. When I reached the first rest, I knew I had already traveled a mile and a half. Three more miles to go. I heard quick footsteps behind me and turned as I stepped aside. Mike and I greeted one another as he passed. He was nearly running and looked none the worse for wear. His drive was contagious, and I set my mind to moving forward without stopping until I reached the trailhead. I set a pace and stuck to it, no matter how much my legs resisted. The only real obstacle was the other walkers on the trail. The Bright Angel Trail is popular; not only is the trailhead the only way into the canyon from the village, it has long switchbacks and rests at regular intervals, so there are more tourists than serious hikers on the trail. Dodging wandering couples, families, and groups of friends on their short strolls up and down the trail was frustrating, but I was able to maintain my stride. When my feet hit the pavement of the Rim Trail at the Bright Angel trailhead, I felt high. Mike was waiting there. It turned out that Rainy and Joe weren't far behind me, and high fives were had all around. 

My walk from the river to the rim took around five hours, a good bit less than the eight to nine hours the guidebooks indicate. I'm only pointing this out to stress (again) that I learned an important lesson on this trip about guidebooks and National Park Service literature: much of what I was reading is written for people who have little or no experience in the outdoors. I also learned about my ability to judge terrain with an eye to determining how to proceed (or whether to proceed) based on the conditions and my strength, stamina, and preparedness. Next to my walk on Mount San Jacinto, this overnight trip into the canyon was my most edifying so far. I felt the accumulation of my walks and my reading and research synthesize into valuable experiential knowledge.

We walked the short distance to the Backcountry Office parking lot and raised a tequila shot or two to the canyon. I checked into my little Mary Colter cabin at Bright Angel Lodge and spent a long time in the shower, untangling my snarled hair and scrubbing the sediment of sunscreen, dirt, and sweat from my skin. The Canadians went over to Mather Campground to shower and do laundry, and we met later on at the bar at the El Tovar Hotel for margaritas, beers, and huge bowls of chile. Before turning in for the night, Rainy thought, on our last day at the Grand Canyon, why don't we toast the sunrise? I'd never before set and alarm to make sure I was up in time to drink tequila, but I was game.

Joe and Rainy

Unaccustomed to a bed, I slept fitfully and finally got up around five thirty, put on a lot of clothes and walked out into the still, silent morning. I saw a few headlamps down the road, and then I heard Rainy singing. We walked out to one of the overlooks off of the Rim Trail and tried to stay warm as the first light of the day set the sky aglow. Rays of pink and yellow began to creep over the canyon rim to the east, throwing the clouds into steely relief and bathing the western canyon cliffs in warm orange light. It was, indeed, a great way to spend our last morning at the Grand Canyon. By seven thirty, we were on our way to breakfast. As we sat at a sunny table eating piles of eggs and potatoes and toast, I felt giddy with exhaustion and gratitude. I was sad to say goodbye to my Canadian friends. I had a lot of fun hanging around with them, and I had some talks with Rainy and Mike that meant a lot to me. The openness with which they told their own stories and their willingness to hear my troubles will not be forgotten.

I went back to my cabin, drew the curtains, and crawled into bed. I slept for a couple of hours, read my book in the late morning quiet, and then, reluctantly, packed up my things. I stopped in Williams for lunch and then pointed my car west on the 40. The drive across the Mojave was beautiful. So much wide open space, and the hills lit up by the sunset. Once night fell, though, I just wanted to get home. At nine, I finally walked through my front door. I loved my ten days of living like a drifter, but it felt nice to be home. The next morning, I thought about the Canadians making their way through Utah to Death Valley and the salt flats. They had done their best to coerce me into calling in sick to join them. Later in the week, as I continued to adjust to being back at my desk, this came down the line:

And I thought to myself, "Is that a little bit of a sore throat I feel coming on?"

Go to Part I

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