Grand Canyon Love Story chapter twenty-one

Down — and Out.  Rim to Rim

by Helen

“Too bad we don’t have a thermometer. It must be nearly freezing,” I chattered through my teeth to Francis as we prepared to start down the North Kaibab Trail from Grand Canyon’s North Rim. The day was June 4; the time about 4:30 a.m.

“How about this? It is freezing,” came Francis’ rejoinder a few minutes later. “Look, there’s a scum of ice on that water.”

Grey light had just begun creeping into the sky. Our sweaters and windbreakers had little effect in keeping out the chill. Francis, a native Michigander, didn’t mind at all. But I was born and raised in central Arizona. I was cold.

Many hours — and 14 miles — later, down at Phantom Ranch close to the Colorado River, there was a thermometer. The temperature was 110° — in the shade of the cottonwoods that bordered Bright Angel Creek.

We had experienced just one more aspect and superlative of this incredible Canyon — a soaring in temperature of 80 degrees in a few hours, in traveling from Rim to River. I had long since learned that it is hard to avoid superlatives in Grand Canyon.

It is hard, too, to avoid adventures when traveling with Francis. We were planning on a two-day hike, from Rim to Rim. Phone communications before leaving home a few days earlier had brought the bad news that Phantom Ranch, usual stop for overnighters down below, had no room left; reservations for that place should be made months in advance. We would have to camp out. But we were assured that we could eat there. That was good to learn. Francis was certain that I could make the long hike even if I had a few secret doubts.

I was really proud, as we signed the hikers’ register at trail’s head:
“Francis and Helen Line, Capistrano Beach, California. Hiking across to the South Rim, via the Kaibab Trail, June 4, 1963.”

We were celebrating our 35th wedding anniversary, a month belatedly, because the North Rim trails were not open on May 1, our actual anniversary day.

Cold yet confident, we headed down — down through pines and aspens — and enormity. Fragrance of high mountain air filled us in great draughts, as a chill wind whistled a tune about our ears.

Gradually, some shafts of sunlight began seeping into our newfound world, spotlighting the surrounding cliffs. All was still and expectant. A cloudless sky stretched high above. It was a perfect day for adventure.

We took long gliding steps, trying out our legs on the unfamiliar trail, and were grateful for deep, soft dust which cushioned our feet. Sudden stops were hard to make but necessary as we came “head on” into vistas of tremendous depths —and heights — colored in all shades of reds and blues and whites. Every stop was a breathtaker.

We were dropping fast through millions of years, through Permian time, when seashells, ferns, and large animals inhabited this region. Evidences of bygone days were recorded in sandstone and rock.

The steepness of the grade pulled us downward like an invisible magnet, keeping us moving so fast that we didn’t see the details at first. We were just conscious of the vastness and greatness of it all. But gradually we slowed down to admire the flowers which began to festoon our path. Wisteria-like vines with soft lavender colors, plants resembling night blooming datura, yellow daisies, and a few scarlet buglers. All of these added a softening touch to the rugged scene.

I had never before attempted this extensive a Canyon hike. Francis did everything to favor me. He carried the heavy pack, with all our extras of clothing, socks, first aid equipment, a gallon of water, rice, raisins, and the classified section of the Los Angeles Time.

“Why the Times? Why the classified section?” I wanted to know. “Do you think we might need to consult the ‘Help Wanted’ column?”

Francis laughed, then responded with a serious answer. “We’ve got to sleep down there tonight you know. Sleeping bags are heavy. Newspapers will help cut the chill.”

We spoke of the possibility of being “dragouts,” the term applied to those who have to send for a mule to bring them out if they become exhausted. In the freshness of the morning, this seemed remote.

Zigging and zagging, the trail dropped swiftly and we were soon within sound of “Roaring Springs,” a beautiful swish of foaming water cascading down a steep canyon wall. Longingly we looked across the deep chasm and wished for a drink of the precious liquid, but decided against the trip down for it would have added more distance to our hike. Instead, we took the righthand fork of the trail, marked “Power House, one mile.” Beside us now were pipes, part of the engineering system by which drinking water is carried up to the Rim.

Bidding good-bye to the gnarled old juniper trees as we descended deeper into the Canyon, we exchanged them for a stand of gorgeously blooming Apache plume — feathery and soft to the touch. A huge cactus plant spread protective hands at the gateway to the power house. Then — a welcome but almost ridiculous sight. There before us was a modern drinking fountain.

Ridiculous or not, we almost ran to reach it and were soon relishing drinks of real Grand Canyon spring water. My knees were trembling as we luxuriated in the refreshing pause; —
holding back on the downward plunge is sometimes harder than climbing.

We sat briefly, looking up, quenching our thirst and absorbing the beauty of our surroundings. The sheer red cliffs of massive formations towered above us, the rushing sound of Bright Angel Creek filled our ears. It was to be our “music of the trail” for most of the remaining day.

Slowly we drifted down an easier incline, which leveled out gradually as we entered the Sonoran Zone. Our vistas were up now. The majesty of peaks, temples, thrones, and domes were visible to us. We skirted the base of a great rock mass, passed other fine formations which were hard to identify. It was absolutely tremendous to be a wayfarer on this almost holy ground. We had the feeling that God’s creation is still going on, and will be into eternity.

Desert vegetation was plentiful in this area. Yucca in bloom, blossoming cactus, sage, and agave. Cottonwood trees kept their feet in cool, galloping Bright Angel Creek and made a pattern of shimmering green the entire length of the lower canyon. We crossed and recrossed the creek on small plank suspension bridges, or in shallow places jumped from boulder to boulder.

Twice we came upon surveyors close to Cottonwood Camp, the home for the workers of the trail. A public camp is also available here. The men were laying out a new pipeline from Roaring Springs.

We were “down in” — looking up, seeing the Grand Canyon from new angles. Experiencing it, feeling it, hearing it, contemplating its history and struggle to be born. We sat silently and let the drama of it all flow around us. Words were extraneous. We would be different for having experienced this adventure. Hiking is surely the way to do it. One needs the textures of the trail, the deep soft dust, the fine-ground buoyant stone path, the gravel, the hard rocks, the mile on mile of downhill pull, the quietness, the lilting joy of Bright Angel’s cascading waterfalls. These can best be seen and felt on foot, slowly, with time to digest their message.

We had to crawl over huge boulders for quite a distance off the trail to find “Ribbon Falls.”

I was reluctant to attempt the extra hiking but, in this instance, Francis was adamant.

“When my brother and I first came to Grand Canyon, and heard the government lecture,” he explained, “the ranger rolled a phrase off his tongue which we could never forget. He said one of the great sights of the Canyon was ‘Ribbon Falls on Angel Creek. — Francis explained that the ranger had accented the first syllable of Ribbon and of Angel, making it almost like a phrase of music, which he and his brother had repeated for days. He was insistent that we set eyes on the inspiration for that ranger’s lilting phrase.

I was glad that Francis had been adamant. That extra few minutes of boulder hopping carried us into a musical fairyland. A gossamer sheet of water, sprayed out by the wind, has dropped through the centuries down onto a veritable king’s throne, now moss covered, at its base. “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” came to mind as we viewed it. This has been here for an eternity for all to see who pass this way. Perhaps it’s more beautiful because not too many see it. It is completely unspoiled. Quiet shadows of boulders and trees cooled us as we rested. Tiny tree frogs were sunning themselves on rocks below the falls. One of them was emitting a subtle sound.” I think I know what he’s saying,” suggested Francis.”He’s repeating, `Rib’bon Falls on An’gel Creek,'”

As we regained the main trail, and continued downward, occasional lizards, as large as Mexican iguanas, darted across our path. Animal tracks were numerous — deer, ringtails, foxes, and rabbit — but the lizards were the only ones brave enough to enjoy our company.

Going on, a sign told us we were looking at some of the older rocks on this earth. One should say “in this earth,” for these rocks were formed far below the surface. They were of the Archean period, the era of geological time in which this granite gorge, which we were now entering, was formed, some two billion years ago. Imagine this little Bright Angel Creek cutting its way through these gigantic formations to expose these ancient rocks, originally composed of layers on layers laid down both on land and in the sea. They are no longer recognizable in their original forms, because of the tremendous pressures and heat to which they have been subjected for a couple of billion years.

These concepts became the ingredients of mind-boggling meditation as we quietly drifted on through this Methuselahn area. Going first on one side of the creek and then the other, with the walls rising higher and higher and the space between them growing narrower and narrower, we felt squeezed in.

The last five miles, even though mostly level, were the hardest of the day, for the heat was becoming intense. And we were tired. Tired not alone physically, but mentally as well. Trying to come to grips with a two billion-year-old environment into which you are suddenly thrust requires an enormous feat of mental gymnastics. As bend after bend in the canyon walls failed to reveal Phantom Ranch, we finally lay down beside the creek in a small stretch of sand and rocks, and let our bodies — and our minds — go limp.

It was only after reaching Phantom Ranch that we discovered that the afternoon temperature was 110°. It was probably good that we hadn’t known how hot it actually was. Later still, we learned that heat of this kind, recorded on a thermometer at eye level in Grand Canyon, can translate into a temperature of nearly 200° at ground level, where rocks reflect the rays of the sun. (See Chapter 37) Had we known that fact, we probably would not have lain down as we rested.

A human voice brought us suddenly back to twentieth century reality. The first hiker we had encountered all day — he was on his way up to the North Rim — stopped to say “hello.”

Our surprise guest was a young Polish mathematician, in America on a one year teaching assignment at Notre Dame. Figuratively we tipped our hats to him as we learned that he was hiking across the Canyon just to save bus fare to the North Rim and other points of interest.

By midafternoon — approximately 3 p.m. — as the shadows in this deep Canyon were already beginning to lengthen, a grove of cool cottonwoods told us that our day’s hike of 14 miles was nearly completed. Francis even thought that he recognized the spot where, 40 years ago, he and his brother had been entertained with the sounds of what they thought was a wildcat.  There were no such sounds this time. But soon we heard voices — and the sounds of mules. Then we came to small cabins, and a dining lodge.

This was Phantom Ranch.

I lay down to rest while Francis went to find out when the dinner hour would be. Five minutes later he came back. “Damn,” was, at first, his only word.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re too crowded. They won’t feed us.”

“But — they told us . . . . “

“No — the people that we phoned up on the Rim told us. Those people forgot to notify Phantom Ranch. They’ve got too many people here already. An extra mule train came in. I guess they’re low on supplies.”

Perhaps we might have pleaded our case in another try. But Francis was a bit disgusted.

“Look, we’ve got some rice. Why don’t we cook it? The weather’s going to be even hotter tomorrow. Why don’t we eat some rice, take a good rest, then try hiking on out tonight?”

“You mean by dark? Hike the whole Canyon in one day? You’ve got to be kidding.”

I was the one who finally said, “Yes, let’s try it. We’ll have something to talk about when we get home.”

“If we get home,” I added, a bit grimly.