Grand Canyon Love Story chaptertwenty-nine

Color It Gold, Again!

Our second hike to the Grand Canyon village of the Havasupais, on May 1 of 1977, really started something.

We take a trip, somewhere in the world, on every wedding anniversary. May 1, 1977, was our 49th anniversary. Although we had been down to Supai before — probably because we had been there before — we decided that was the spot for the celebration of our 49th.

One year later, of course, came our 50th. That was the big one. Where to go?

The choice was not hard to make. Phantom Ranch, despite an earlier disappointment, was a favorite spot with us. The round trip hike from South Rim to Phantom would be a 50th anniversary challenge, a real celebration.

That hike definitely established the trend. We have been making some kind of a Grand Canyon hike every anniversary since.The experience on our 50th was so golden that, the day we returned home, we dashed off a descriptive letter to our closest friends. The result caught the immediacy of that anniversary adventure.

May we assume that you are numbered among our special friends? If so, we invite you to read the letter, just as we dashed it off.

Dear Friends:
A 50th wedding anniversary, we discovered, is symbolically similar to the Grand Canyon, where we spent ours in an exciting hiking adventure. This important milestone has given us a new breadth of vision, and a new depth of experience, which we just did not have before. Like the Canyon, we have been subjected to maturing forces. Grand Canyons and 50th anniversaries both are charged with elements of depth and vision, and experiences of climbing.

At 5 a.m. on May 1, we looked out the window of the cabin at Bright Angel Lodge, on the South Rim, and saw sprinklings of snow on cars and rooftops. This seemed no hazard so we ate a small breakfast, packed, and at 6:10 a.m. stepped out the door to start our hike down to Phantom Ranch on the Colorado River.

A blizzard struck us in the face. Snow swirls filled the air, the ground was white, and the wind was whipping cold. Leaving our gear in the cabin, we at once went up to the lobby to reconsider plans.

Yes, we could cancel our Phantom Ranch reservations if we desired. It would be 7 o’clock before a decision would be made as to whether the mule passengers would be making the journey down.

We debated procedures as the blizzard grew worse. Our plans called for descending on the steep but shorter Kaibab Trail, and returning on the Bright Angel Trail. The Kaibab, we were told, would be just too dangerous under conditions of snow and wind and mud. So we donned heavy ponchos, with parka-like caps, used socks for mittens (for we had not dreamed we would need these), got a German tourist to snap our picture at the head of Bright Angel Trail, and started down at 7:40 a.m.

MUD. SNOW. GOO. WIND. Slippery red clay quagmires. COLD! This wasn’t exactly what we had visioned as our 50th wedding celebration. Sometimes the trail was nothing but continuous puddles of red water, which we had to jump across. Sometimes it was sloughs of crimson slush. When rocks were mud-covered they were slippery on the switchbacks; at such times, we had to take each step with caution befitting a newly wedded bride, rather than 50 year veterans.

The mule trips had not been cancelled. “It would take a flood or an avalanche,” the wrangler said, “to cancel those.” The mule train, with luggage and supplies, approached us from behind and according to trail rules we stood on the outside of the trail to assist their passage. “Better stand on the inside,” motioned the wrangler to us. “Less chance of a mule brushing you off.” In a few minutes, the mule train with the guests, also heading for Phantom Ranch, came by.

The clay mud had been bad before but the hooves of 20 mules turned it into a churned-up unending series of switchback mud pies. In places, the mule tracks showed that even those surefooted animals had occasionally slipped and slid. And twice we saw where deer had slipped!

By 9:30 a.m. we began to meet hikers coming up from their overnight stay at Indian Gardens — about halfway to the Ranch — where it had rained instead of snowed. At every meeting the question from them and from us was almost always, “How’s the mud ahead?” A trail comaraderie soon developed, and before the day was over we had exchanged greetings with hikers from the Swiss Alps, from Germany, Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Canada, and France, as well as a dozen American states.

By the one-and-a-half mile rest shelter the storm had ceased, but the next mile and one-half — to the second shelter and water — was the worst of the day for slippery mud and ooziness. Then a ray of sunshine broke the clouds, and Indian Gardens was a mile-and-a-half away.

Lest you think the trail itself is all there is to this journey, we want to say that everyone is moved to exclaim again and again at the vastness of the canyons, the walls of solid rock, the almost overpowering bigness of everything.

It is something one has to experience, to comprehend the feeling of height, depth, and breadth of it all . . . the colors of the escarpments, the bird calls, and the fragrances of unknown shrubbery . . . it creates its own atmosphere. We said so many times during the day, “0 God, how wonderful are thy works in this land. It fills our hearts and souls with its wonder, and we thank you for it.” Helen often went singing “Jesus hold my hand as I walk this trail, Jesus hold my hand as I walk this trail, for I don’t want to walk this trail in vain.” Around each switchback was a different alluring vista of grandeur. We were slipping from life-zone to life-zone, growing warmer and warmer as we headed into Indian Gardens.

Almost suddenly, mysteriously, a flower garden began spreading before and around us. This was more like the storybook version we had dreamed of. No 50th anniversary celebration had ever had such a bouquet of extravagant beauty as was spread about us here. Helen was in seventh heaven. One special white flowering, she called her Wedding Bouquet!

On into Indian Gardens we were thrilled at the number and variety of flowers. Literally millions of Mariposa lilies lifted their dainty cups. There were plentiful Indian paintbrush, graceful mallow, yellow encelia, Spanish daggers, yuccas, daisies, larkspur, and many more we couldn’t name. It was a garden beyond compare, not even overshadowed by the beauty of the Canyon itself. It stood a testament to its own loveliness.

We ate a handful of trailmix and some dried fruit here, and took advantage of their running water and facilities. It was delightful sitting under great cottonwood trees for our rest stop. Many persons only come this far, often carrying heavy packs and camping out. They come down quite easily, but the upward climb is a wearying one. Hard!

From Indian Gardens down to the Colorado River there were more torturous switchbacks but now the trail was nearly dry. Streams wound beside us which we often had to cross and recross by leaping from stone to stone.

On one precarious turn we met a friendly park ranger.

We told him this was our 50th anniversary, and that we were sure we would make it down, but that coming out might be a different story. “If you’ve come this far, you can surely make it out,” he encouraged us. “Just take your time. If you have any trouble going out tell the ranger at Indian Gardens. He’ll be able to help you.”

This was encouragement which we needed. Each time we entered a new canyon we said, “The Colorado River will be here.” But no. This was the most interminable part of the trek. Seemingly the river never would appear! Canyon after canyon, great up-lifting of the rocks in folds, if you can imagine that, gave a strange feeling of living in another age and time. When we finally reached the river Helen was really tired. The 1.7 miles on into Phantom Ranch we supposed would be flat and easy going. Instead it was up one rock escarpment, then down another, with some switchbacks thrown in for good measure. When at last it did level out, right close to the river itself, this trail became one continuous churned-up sandpile — some of the hardest hiking of the day.

We saw three river boats shooting the rapids as we crossed the narrow suspension bridge, the one that the hikers use. It was a bit scary for Helen, as the bridge gave her a dizzy feeling, and the river was wide and churning white — ominously deep — all visible through the open grillwork underfoot.

At 3:50 p.m. we were crossing Bright Angel Creek, now a roaring river, and soon we were at our beautiful cottage close to its sound. Phantom Ranch was no longer a phantom. We loved it, under green bowers of cottonwoods, with cool streams and frog ponds, which supplied us with their music as we napped.

Our hearty dinner was at 6:00 p.m., and all the guests gathered at the sound of a cowbell, which resounded through the canyon. It was a friendly group at our table. People from Pittsburg, Chicago, Ontario, California, Israel, and Germany. The man in charge of the dining room said it was the manager’s birthday, and suggested that we all sing happy birthday when he came out, which we did — lustily!

Then the man from Ontario said it was his birthday too, so we repeated the song; it was all very gala.

Then Francis got up and said, “In a small Michigan town, on May 1, 1928, Helen and I were married at 7 a.m., so that we could get an early start on our honeywoon to Kentucky. We have been traveling and adventuring ever since, and today is our 50th wedding anniversary. To celebrate it we hiked down in the snow and mud from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch. We hope to hike out tomorrow. I want to propose a toast to Helen Line, the most wonderful girl in the world.”

The kitchen crew had come in. They — and the more than 50 guests — really applauded. Everyone wished us the best and congratulated us. Even some boy scouts came up afterwards to shake our hands and wish us happiness. It was all very touching; we shall cherish these memories the rest of our lives.
After our dinner we went out under the stars on the banks of Bright Angel Creek and recited our marriage vows to each other, adding some new concepts to make them even more meaningful.

It was a precious moment in this most exciting trip. We both said there is something so special about 50 years of togetherness that just can’t be measured. It’s a part of the great intangibles of living. We felt it, perhaps more fully, due to our trip through the spaces of this marvelous Grand Canyon, where we had literally dropped through ages of time, through two billion years. Our lives had unrolled as we slipped down that trail. It is something like seeing a movie of your life run backward. The memories crowd in and you measure them against the agelessness of the Canyon. It’s quite an experience and one we covet for any couple who wants to evaluate their lives.

After a 6:30 breakfast next morning we left Phantom Ranch at 7:05. Helen had recovered her zip and set a fast pace for us, making Francis really strain to keep up with her. It was exhilarating in the cool of the morning. At one point on the switchbacks getting us out of the Colorado gorge, we passed a wall of rose colored marble, rough but beautiful, and then came to a place where water and sand and silt had poured over it for centuries — until nature had worn it down. It was a metamorphosed bedrock, solid rough marble changed by action of nature. That thrilled us. We like the idea of being metamorphosed — changed into something new and wonderful. This dry waterfall was a ribbon of soft-looking silk, rose and white, flowing down that great canyon wall. We asked ourselves — if rough marble can be metamorphosed why not persons, until they become more Christlike? Change is certainly one of the main features of this mighty Grand Canyon. Who knows what it will be in the future centuries?

We made it to the top of the switchbacks and on to Indian Gardens before the mules appeared, and everyone cheered us as they went by. At the Gardens stop one of the men said, “I hope I have your vitality when I celebrate my 50th wedding anniversary,” and a man in his 30’s spoke up, “I wish I had their vitality now!”

We all left Indian Gardens together, and began passing many others coming down. A group of 30 six-and-eightyear-old children from a Tempe school were coming as far as Indian Gardens — their first trip to the Canyon. A photographer from PEOPLE MAGAZINE was along to take their pictures. They were brave little folks.

We began to see the Grand Canyon as a blending bowl, without an age differential, or racial barrier, or social wall separating anyone. There had been people of all races and colors on this trail. We especially felt drawn to a young black man from Guinea, West Africa, who had been studying in France, and who was taking a bus tour of the USA before returning to Guinea to teach. He had seen movies of the Canyon in school in Africa, and had always yearned to visit it. We asked him what his impressions of it were. “Oh,” he said, “Its immensities are incomprehensible.” We shared some of our trailmix with him and took his name and address with the hope that someday our paths will cross again.

At each rest place on the way out we met fine hikers, and interesting conversations took place between peoples from all over the world. It was an enriching episode of the adventure.
Closer to the top we passed another park ranger coming down, and he asked us, “Are you the couple who are celebrating. their 50th anniversary?” We said we were, and wondered how he knew. “Why, it’s all over the Canyon. You’re a wonder to everyone on this trail. They all wish they had your stamina, and the joy you have in doing it.” We passed a girl from Eugene, Oregon, who insisted on taking our picture, with us kissing. She wanted it as a keepsake of a happy couple.

At 2:45 p.m. we ate our last sandwich which the Ranch had given us. With only a mile and one-half yet to go we started out, looking upward at each switchback, estimating which century we were passing through. Each layer of this Canyon was put down in a different period, with the river cutting downward at the same speed that the Canyon was pushed upward. The combination of these forces helped create this great gash in the earth. One woman on the trail said, “It’s quite a ditch, isn’t it?” We talked with a man from Bavaria, met more Swiss Alpine hikers — all persons of interest and worth.

Nearing the last mile we caught up with a couple of young fellows who were exhausted with carrying their heavy packs. They had run out of food and were weak, so we shared our trailmix with them, and they were grateful. We find that trailmix is one of the best picker-ups there is. That and raisins and a few dried fruits are our main foods while hiking.
With the weather well nigh perfect we topped out on the South Rim nine hours and 40 minutes after leaving Phantom Ranch. Helen came in great, so Francis said, but she made quick work getting out of her hiking shoes and unwinding all the tape she’d put around each of her toes to protect them. She didn’t get one blister by using this system. All we could say was — we made it! Thank God. Nearly 20 miles, with almost a 5000 foot altitude gain — a hundred feet for every year we’d been married.

A 50th anniversary hike in the Grand Canyon, we discovered, is a sacred adventure in time and space. We recommend it!

“Wide Horizons,” always.