Grand Canyon Love Story chapter thirty-three

Dispelling a Myth, on Our 55th

“Your 55th wedding anniversary? You shouldn’t attempt hiking down that Canyon. You’ll fall and break some bones. Especially if you go down the Kaibab Trail. It’s too steep.”

That, in essence, was the nature of the comments which we heard from several persons — including a physician — when it was learned that we would be hiking in and out of Grand Canyon on our 55th wedding anniversary, just as we had been doing since our 49th.

“Age has relatively little to do with it,” might have been our answer. “The ability to hike the Canyon trails depends on keeping fit, exercising and eating properly, and maintaining an affirmative mental attitude.”

Helen, in her so-called “middle age,” experienced three separate falls — in and around our home — and broke a bone —in her wrist or foot — each time. Then she learned how to strengthen her bones through proper diet and calcium supplements. Now, at double the age of her bone-breaking experiences, she has less likelihood of a fracture or break than she did before she learned better.

She was once plagued with arthritis. Now — again through controlled, careful diet and regular exercise — that has been brought largely under control.
Francis, in his middle years, was overweight. Again, sensible diet and exercise. He shed one quarter of his avoirdupois.

We eliminated red meat. We drastically reduced intake of sweets. We cut out excess eating of every kind. Now we gorge on fruits. Helen loves gardening. So she planted a garden. She composts it with our kitchen scraps. Since we do most of our living on the second floor of our home, that means going downstairs, then digging in the compost pile. The result — more vigorous health for Helen, and fine vegetables for us both.

Those stairs are one of our heaven-sent “built-in” exercizers. We descend and ascend them an average of 20 times daily. When we hike from the Grand Canyon Rim to the river once a year, we descend approximately one mile in vertical elevation, and ascend that much coming out. In one year, going up and down the stairs of our house, the annual figure is 12 miles down and 12 miles up, in vertical elevation loss or gain. Stairways are footsteps to health.

We walk up and down steep hills three times weekly. We jog a bit. Through reading — and practice — we have learned the value of correct mental attitudes; of affirmative living. We don’t neglect our spiritual life.

With all of these things going for us, why shouldn’t we, as a 55th wedding anniversary celebration, hike down the steep South Kaibab Trail, to the river and Phantom Ranch?
Leaving trailhead on a May 1st day beset with clouds, we headed down. A small pool of frozen water winked at us in farewell.

Down! The South Kaibab Trail is sheer descent. Yesterday’s mule tracks, frozen solid, made good stepholds for our cleated shoes, but frozen mud puddles were hard on our feet. A few small patches of snow, just below the Rim, gave us cool greetings. Far over on the North Rim we could make out large banks of the white stuff.

A series of steep switchbacks.

About a mile down, sheer dropoffs extending for several hundred feet on both sides of the trail. These made us stop to reminisce. Twenty years before we had made our only ascent by this route — at night.

Helen looked down over each edge, “I think I remember this place. I was scared.”

The trail had widened to six or eight feet; there was no real danger, at least by daylight.A sign: “Rim, 1%2 miles. You have descended 1500 feet.” This was Cedar Ridge. We stopped to rest, and to reminisce again. Around us was a gently sloping area, perhaps five acres in extent, of red hermit shale. Witchlike, bare juniper tree skeletons made dramatic statues against the sky. The live junipers were gnarled, bent by action of wind and weather. One end of the large area was graced with a public toilet. Very public. Its top, one side, and a strip around the bottom, were open. In the other direction, we visited a glassed-in display of fossils.

Time to move on.

Long switchbacks took us down from Cedar Ridge. A mule train approached. With no place to stand on the outside of the trail (it dropped off sheer), we squeezed into a crevasse on the inner side. Passing areas were scarce along here; this was as good as any. Ahead of us we could see a baker’s dozen of switchbacks snaking downward. We snaked down with them. Then almost level for a ways. Then real switchbacks. Steep.

We stopped. But not because of the steepness. Over ahead, against the dark backdrop of Vishnu Temple, lightning streaked the sky. We listened. After a moment, thunder tumbled and echoed through the Canyon. This was a show! With sound effects.

Five minutes later came the show’s second act. Rain. As fast as we could we rummaged in our packs for waterproof windbreakers. Black thunderheads encircled the temple formations to the east. White cumulus formations billowed over the North Rim. Thunder rumbled. Nature was murmuring her secrets to us.

The Tonto Platform is only a narrow strip at the point we crossed it, near the Tipoff. We scarcely were conscious of it on this 55th anniversary hike of ours. Probably because our thoughts were on the rain. But last year! We had made this same descent on our 54th and the Tonto Platform had been a flower garden then. No need to list the varieties. Just get ahold of any Flower Guide for this area and nearly every flower in the book had been blooming — last year — in celebration of that anniversary.

It was as though a rainbow had dropped from the sky. There were yellows, purples, whites, reds, blues. Mallows were strewn in the rocks. Daisies peeped from behind the mallows. Indian paintbrush painted the bare spots.

A dozen varieties of these flowers — hundreds of delicate blooms — were shaped like perfect stars.

Francis had jotted in his notebook: “I must look up at the sky tonight to see if Orion and the Pleiades are still there. Otherwise I think they may have tumbled earthward during the darktime hours and scattered in starry grandeur along this section of the Trail.”

Less than half an hour later the rain was gone. Lunchtime and the most majestic view of the entire day arrived hand in hand. Trailmix, dried fruit from our packs, and water from a flask, were refreshing. But we really didn’t need food or drink at this moment; we had one of the Canyon’s best views to feast on, and a panorama of splendor to drink in, as we ate.

Just below us was the Colorado River, the principal sculptor of all this tumbled immensity. Last year its waters had been silver. Now they had turned to gold. At least deep chocolate yellow. The river was galloping through this mighty chasm laden with so much sediment — picked up from the late winter runoffs — that we could hear it groan under the weight. Before Glen Canyon Dam was built, up near the Utah border, the Colorado hauled off a million pick-up truckfuls, every ordinary day. Even now, with these heavy runoffs, it was carrying away vast quantities of soil. This gorge was being cut and scoured a trifle deeper — even though infinitesimally — right as we looked.

That gorge! This was very close to the spot where Francis and his brother, exactly 60 years and one month before, had stopped to absorb its multicolored granite-walled wonders. By roughest calculation, over 20 billion truck loads had been hauled off since then. Francis couldn’t notice the difference. But we drank in the immensity, as nature’s orchestra tuned up to provide background music. Song of birds. Gutteral rumbling roar of the Colorado. Even Bright Angel Creek, joining the Colorado just below us, was adding its ruffle of drums to the orchestration, as it galloped and snorted downward with a speed and power that was moving boulders. The great rock amphitheater below us — this two billion-year-old colosseum of Vishnu schist — was vibrating with muted sounds. Muted thunder of water below. Then —repeat performance! muttering thunder overhead. Our peaceful lunch scene was rudely drenched with more rain.

We started down, over the most wicked part of the trail. First along and over red rock. Then the real switchbacks took command. Helen’s feet began to throb. She changed to a pair of easier shoes, from our packs. It was hard for her to make the high steps over great logs, imbedded in the trail to stop runoff.

Wind! In addition to windbreakers, we had gotten out our ponchos. They flapped crazily in the gusts sweeping up from below. We were becoming soaked.
Just two more switchbacks and we could take shelter in the trail’s only tunnel — leading to the suspension bridge across the river. Then:

We’ve been pummeled by hailstones in many parts of the world. But none like these. They were not unusually large. But they struck us with unusual force. They stung like bullets. Later we reasoned it out. All other hailstones which have ever fallen our way have come from storm clouds hanging low in the sky. Had we stood on the Rim to receive this beating of hail, that would have been the case in this storm.

But the Grand Canyon is different — in its hailstorms as in so many other respects. We were one vertical mile below the Rim. The hailstones fell from the clouds, found there was no earth beneath them where it should have been, so had to continue falling. With each foot of descent those stones gained speed. A mile down they were bulleting through empty space like a thousand tiny cannon balls. A hailstorm in the Canyon’s depths, taking advantage of an extra mile of gravitational pull, produces effects like few other places on earth. It can be injurious to one’s health. No wonder we ran for that tunnel.

It was crowded with hikers — lucky ones, who had gotten to that shelter before the rains and the hail. But after we had joined them, we had momentary doubts. Not about them, but about what they were enduring. This was a wind tunnel, at least on this particular day. Gusts and blasts of air fury were whipping through it like a Texas Norther. The storm god’s exhalations.

We groped our way farther back — into complete darkness. A bend in the tunnel cut out all light. When we reached the far end, the hail had ceased. But not the tempest. We stepped out onto the 440-foot-long suspension bridge leading across the great river. It was buffered on either side by heavy steel fencing. Otherwise we might have — at least so it seemed at the time —gone with the wind, right into the Colorado. About half a mile later, we were at Phantom Ranch.

Ice. Snow. Frozen mud. Lightning. Thunder. Hail. Wind. Accompanied by grandeur, all the way, the Grand Canyon had lived up to its name. It had pulled out all the stops for an anniversary celebration.

Near the conclusion of the meal that night, in the 50 seat dining hall — with every seat occupied by a hiker (the mule parties ate separately) — the Phantom Ranch manager made an announcement:

“We have a couple with us tonight who should be an inspiration to us all. Helen and Francis Line hike down here every year on their anniversary. Today is their 55th.”

The applause drowned out all sounds of Bright Angel Creek, just outside. “Try to top that,” someone shouted. A man from the next table gave Helen a huge kiss, and shook Francis’ hand. Two others followed suit. A hiker from Switzerland shouted from across the room, “Which was harder, hiking down, or the 55 years?” When we got up to leave, they all applauded again.

One young man wearing a “Michigan” sweatshirt ran out of the building and stopped us. “My wife didn’t dare ask you this, but she insisted that I do it. What is your secret for staying married so long?”

“It’s because we’re in love,” spoke up Helen.

“Love — and complete unselfishness,” Francis added.

At breakfast next day we were the king and queen of the party. The fellow hikers at our table vied with each other to serve us. Someone asked, “Are you stiff?”

“When I tried to get up, about 1 o’clock to go to the bathroom, I didn’t think I could walk.” That from Helen. Then she added, “But now I’m feeling just fine.”

That is perhaps the test of good health — the ability of one’s body to recoup after a good night’s sleep.

When we departed Phantom Ranch we chose the longer Bright Angel route for our exit. The Kaibab Trail, on our descent, had already bestowed on us more than we had a right to ask. It had given us a storm-wrapped package of glowing memories for our 55th anniversary celebration.