Jottings at Phantom Ranch
Phantom Ranch cabins have perhaps the earliest check out time of any place in America — 8 a.m. In many hotels and motels the guests aren’t even up by then.
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On our 50th anniversary visit to Phantom, hikers and the mule parties ate dinner and breakfasts together — with nearly inch-thick steaks for all. Then the perennial problem of crowding — too many customers — changed the system. Now, the mule folks dine at 6 p.m. — with steaks. Hikers eat at 7 — with beef stew. In our opinion, the stew beats the steaks. It is laden with vegetables. The later hour also allows more time for resting and writing — after that strenuous descent.
Breakfast for mule parties is now at 7 a.m. Hikers eat at 6, and can get the much-needed early start to help avoid afternoon heat. But if you are staying over a day or so, you eat breakfast at 6 or 7, regardless. No sleeping in, at Phantom.
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On our earlier Phantom visits the cook knocked on our doors to waken us. Now each cabin is equipped with an alarm clock. Automation has even reached the Canyon depths. But whether cook-knock or alarm, woe be to those who are late. No breakfast!
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In the Phantom Ranch staff dining room hangs this sign: Please do not annoy, torment, pester, plague, molest, worry, badger, harry, harass, heckle, persecute, irk, bully, vex,
disquiet, grate, beset, bother, tease, nettle, tantalize, or ruffle the animals
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Next to us, as we ate our evening stew, with all the trimmings, was a couple from the Netherlands, down here to explore Grand Canyon. In her soft voice the woman said, “We don’t have anything like this in Holland.”
Understatement of the year!
“But you have the world’s finest tulips.”
“Yes, we’ll be back home next week — in time to see them bloom.”
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Meals were enlivened with what the manager called his “Grand Canyon Information Hour.” Example: “Here at the Ranch, you may have noticed all the irrigation ditches — to flood
the trees. Those ditches are dry now. You should be careful walking around after dark. Some of our help have taken first aid courses. But they may not be too good at fixing a broken leg.”
Americans poke fun at the postman who goes for a walk on his holiday. That is no joke here. Most of the young rangers, as well as many of the workers at Phantom Ranch, Bright Angel, and in Grand Canyon Village spend their free days hiking up or down the Canyon trails or to its more remote areas. One reason they work here is because they love it so much. Their most satisfying vacation is to go exploring. Each hike, even over familiar trails, is a new discovery; the Canyon takes on a new face with every change of hour or season. The Phantom workers have ten days on, and four off. Four-day “weekends” allow for a lot of exploring.
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Major John Wesley Powell named Bright Angel Creek. He put ashore here on August 15, 1869, on his boat journey of discovery down the Colorado. If he’d come along here right now, he’d have definitely called it something else. This torrent isn’t Bright, in the sense of clarity, on this May morning; its racing waters are thick with sediment dislodged all the way along its mad course down from the North Rim. It is not a Creek, but a wildly charging river. And certainly no Angel ever looked or acted like this. Had Powell happened by at a time such as this (and they are rather rare, we understand) he would have had to call it something else. Actually, he named this stream Bright Angel, in contrast to a turbulent muddy tributary they had encountered much earlier and which they had dubbed “Dirty Devil.”
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Bright Angel Creek, this year, is on a spree — the wildest we’ve ever seen it. Boulders are clashing against each other as they are being tumbled downstream. The frantic brown waters are racing like an untamed child plunging into adolescense to see what lies ahead.
Plenty! First, the great Colorado itself — its swirls and depths and roars and rapids. Then the dizzying plunge over the Hoover Dam spillways, and encounters with half a dozen other dams beyond. After that, the Sea of Cortez, with a battering inflow and outflow of tides which are among the highest and strongest in the West. Finally, little Bright Angel will be swallowed up and lost, in the vast Pacific. If she only knew what lay ahead, perhaps she’d slow down and linger here awhile. Few spots in her future can be better than this.
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With all the gear we packed down here to Phantom Ranch, we forgot one thing — which we’ll surely bring next trip. It seemed so unnecessary here that we never even thought of it. In all this punch bowl of vastness, one would think that the most likely aid to vision would be a telescope or field glasses. They would help, for there is more here in way of distances than the unaided eye can take in.
But the thing we forgot is a microscope.
For this Canyon is not only vast — it is intricate. Its depths are not only to be measured in miles, but in millimeters. It is made up, not only of sky-scraping monoliths — but of tiny flecks of mica, particles of billion-year-old rock, and even powdered red dust. It displays miniature flowers, perfectly shaped, though as small as the head of a pin. For those with time to tarry, the Canyon’s gifts of Lilliputian creations are endless; delicate lichens, patterned algae, diminutive roots, minikin shoots, miniature stems. Even tiny ants and insects. They are all a part of Grand Canyon. We need a microscope. Small is beautiful, too.
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One idle day at Phantom, we walked back to pay homage to the suspension bridge across the Colorado. On the downward hike one is just too preoccupied to survey it properly.
There are two bridges, of course. The more recent one — a smaller affair — is for the Bright Angel Trail hikers. It was constructed, primarily, to support the large pipe through which water is conveyed to South Rim. Originating at Roaring Springs, far above Phantom Ranch, water flows by gravity this far. Then the buildup of sheer pressure pushes it on up hill to Indian Gardens, from where it is pumped to the top. This bridge is not used by the mules, which seem to be frightened at its open-grilled flooring. They continue a short distance to the Kaibab Trail bridge — the one we had headed out to inspect. When we had reached the Kaibab bridge, we surveyed it for a moment in wonder.
“Wouldn’t you like to have been here when it was being built? It would have been a sight!”
It certainly would. The 440-foot-long steel structure is supported by two enormous cables, each 550 feet long, each weighing 2320 pounds. How to get them down from the Rim? Mules? No way. Helicopters? Out of the question. Forty-two Havasupai Indians, strung out along the tenth-of-a-mile length of each cable, hoisted it on their shoulders, then skillfully made their way down all those rugged descents and zigzags, like some strange giant centipede from another world.
Helen suggested that the sight of that 84-legged writhing black snake could very well have given rise to a New World myth — “The Grand Canyon Monster.”
She observed also that in the building of the West, many of its “impossible” feats had been accomplished by the American Indians, such as here, by the Chinese who did much of California’s hardest early day railroad construction, and Mexicans who labored at difficult tasks everywhere. We extend our heartfelt “Thanks” to them all. Especially to those 42 native Americans who became the “legs” for those giant cables.
Our children and grandchildren were brought up on Kenneth Graham’s WIND IN THE WILLOWS. In one of its favorite passages, could that author have been thinking about this Phantom Ranch haven, where Bright Angel meets the Colorado? Here is the passage:
“And you really live by the river? What a jolly life! ‘By it and with it and on it and in it’ said the Rat. It’s brother and sister to me, and aunts, and company, and food and drink, and (naturally) washing. It’s my world, and I don’t want any other. What it hasn’t got is not worth having, and what it doesn’t know is not worth knowing. Lord, the times we’ve had together!”
We applaud those sentiments. What times we have had in the Grand Canyon, which a river helped create!