Grand Canyon Love Story chapter eight

Catcalls at Phantom Ranch

The Grand Canyon changes with each hour, and with every visit.

This is in part because each floating shadow, each storm, each different angle of the sun or moon, as day and night play hide-and-seek with its temples and gorges, creates new shapes and colors and patterns.

The Canyon aspect changes, also, with the physical alterations, improvements, or destructions which have been imposed by men and machines. My brother and I first saw the Grand Canyon — and made our first descent into its open corridors of space — in the adolescent stages of its modern human development. Only El Tovar Hotel, the old Santa Fe rail station, the Kolb studio, and a small handful of other such landmarks were on the South Rim in early 1923. Except for a stretch leading to Hermit’s Rest, no paved roads were in existence anywhere in the entire area. The privately controlled Bright Angel Toll Trail, from South Rim down to the river, was steeper, and shorter, in the early 1920s than it is asThe toll must have been just for animals and riders; hikers were few and far between. No one was on hand to collect a fee from us. It was because of this toll on the Bright Angel Trail that the Hermit Trail was constructed, and the upper South Kaibab Trail later on.

There was no river trail then. To reach the just-constructed Phantom Ranch one went from Indian Gardens eastward over the Tonto Platform to the head of the Kiabab Trail (which did not extend up to the South Rim), thence down to the suspension bridge.

The present structure over the Colorado is, in a way, a third generation affair, built in 1928. The bridge my brother and I crossed preceded that one, and came shortly after the cable car which had originally been used in the crossing. The bridge we used seemed as slender and fragile as a fishing rod, swaying in the wind even without a person on it. Only one mule and rider could cross at a time. Win and I thrilled to discover its fragility, and found that by shaking vigorously at one end we could cause the other end, several hundred feet away, to shimmy in tune with our motion.

Phantom Ranch was still experiencing birthing pangs when we first came upon it in April of 1923; it had been started just the year before.

“You boys made it here all the way from Michigan?” the woman in charge replied in response to our oft-repeated explanations about this trip we were on. “My home was back there — in Indiana, just a few miles below Niles, Michigan.”

“Niles? Just a year ago I was in the state oratorical competition there,” spoke up Win.

It’s a small world. This woman manager of Phantom Ranch, which now seemed to us (and to her also, as she later confided) like the most remote spot in America, had heard all about that contest where Win had spoken.

“A friend of our family was in it,” she told us, then added, “Boys, I wish I could invite you to stay here overnight in our new facilities. But I’m just new here myself. The head boss is due in tonight. It might be against the rules.”

A rather frequent turnover, we have later learned, takes place in the managerial job at Phantom. Years later, I had great reason to wish that this woman had still retained that position.

No campground existed, so far as I can recall. The Ranch hugged the banks of spirited Bright Angel Creek, just above its convergence with the Colorado. Going on up the fault a short distance, we threw down our packs in a spot so exhilarating that it made us glad we hadn’t had the opportunity of staying at the Ranch itself. Roaring creek before us, giant scarred cliff behind, tree limbs overhead, and a blazing campfire as our centerpiece, Win and I luxuriated in isolated grandeur.

As we were sitting around the fire preparing for bed, from across the creek came a piercing cry or call which sounded like the angry meow of a cat as heard through a megaphone. I had never heard a wildcat use its vocal chords, but since the rush of the stream would have drowned all ordinary sounds, I hastily concluded that these shrieks were not from a domestic animal. Crooking my head skyward I measured the distance from a low, overhanging rock above, to the place where my head would be in bed.

“This is a hell of a place to sleep.” Now, I am a great hand to use slang but swearing just doesn’t come naturally to me. In the early days of the century, “hell” was considered swearing.

Win had been less disturbed than I, when he heard the giant “meow.” But when he heard my unexpected reaction, he hurled himself around in surprise. A few moments later the wild cry came again, but from farther upstream.

“Guess you scared it to hell and gone,” was Win’s comforting comment. This droll observation eased the tension. The night marauder did not bother us and we were lulled to sleep, not by wild catcalls, but by the wild galloping of Bright Angel Creek. Next morning Win couldn’t resist a pun. “I really didn’t sleep much,” he lied. “I just catnapped.”
On our return to the suspension bridge we physically examined some cactus blooms — the first we had ever seen —then spent odd moments for the rest of the morning trying to bite out or dislodge the needles of these Arizona forget-me-nots which had embedded themselves in our fingers.

We also gathered specimens of the rocks. No wonder the Canyon walls are mosaics of color when seen from the rim of the gorge. Green, brown, grey, red, white — our rock specimens were like pieces of a broken rainbow.

Just as we started back up the South Kaibab Trail, toward its junction with the trail along the Tonto Platform, a rider on muleback overtook and passed us.

“Howdy,” came his rather stoical greeting. “It’s a bit steep. Have a good walk.”

A rise of 1500 feet in elevation would be part of the next two miles of climbing. We knew it was steep, without being told, for we had been forced to put on the brakes nearly every step of the way, coming down the day before, to keep from catapulting over the cliffs. But Win’s catnap had evidently refreshed his spirits.

“Let’s beat that mule out of the gorge,” came his challenge.

We did. The mule and rider rested several times; we did not slacken pace for the entire climb. Fifty minutes later we were sitting lazily at trail’s edge, dangling our feet over a cliff and taking in the gorge view down below, when the mule and rider appeared.

“It was a little steep one place back there,” Win called in greeting. For the next few minutes we and the rider became better acquainted.

We’d carried the tiny fragments of our rainbow rocks up that trail with us and now we took them from our packs and tried to match up their colors with all the tumbled ragged beauty of that granite gorge just below. The strata of the rib rock walls ran up and down, making them resemble Gothic pillars, except that they were far more rugged.
Green predominated — a rich impenetrable green whose somber luster suggested awful strength. There was brown, with a chocolate sort of darkness which merged in shadows to iron black. The greys had the sheen of steel. Mixed with it all was the red, like the red of a polished Michigan apple, which ran in veins with granite of pure white.
When the sun came from behind a cloud, the greens lost their darkness and shown like emeralds, the chocolate browns took on the gloss of a polished shoe, and the reds had the fire of a coke oven furnace. From our rock-ribbed armchair we saw not only the gorge; we saw and heard the river. Its white-foam tumbling rapids hurled echoing rumbles up to our ears. The mule rider was gone now. This whole stupendous panorama of scene and sound belonged to us alone.
Here was the payoff for all of our climbing. If the Grand Canyon is one of the seven scenic wonders of the world, its granite gorge is an authentic eigth wonder in its own right. Travelers have tried to describe this view; artists have tried to paint it. In later years, Ferde Grofe even tried to set it to music. Words and paint and notes on a scale are either too florid, or too inadequate. This view must be experienced in the flesh. And soul. We had “Ohed” at it while making the descent, and we “Ahed” at it on the climb back out. This was the most precious gift that the Canyon had given us, thus far.