Life Begins at 80
Turning four score is an adventure; it needs special celebration. What better way than to spend a week of reminiscence and review surrounded by the scenes and challenges which have helped through the years to keep us physically fit, as well as mentally alert, aesthetically responsive, and spiritually attuned. In January of 1984 we celebrated Francis’ 80th birthday at Grand Canyon.
Our close friends Don and Joyce, much younger than we, and who bear the Canyon’s magical surname of Harvey, accompanied us on the festive occasion. They were newcomers to the Canyon; our week of review became, for them, a whole series of neophites’ initiation rites. During our time at — and below — the South Rim we tested portions of five major Canyon trails — the Kaibab, Bright Angel, Hermit, River, and Tonto. We walked the trail along South Rim and tried to absorb the thousand square miles of choice scenery spread before us. We experienced one of the best green flashes we have ever witnessed (see Chapter 36). So far as we have thus far been able to determine, this may have been only the second sighting of that phenomenon in the Canyon’s history. We again took our favorite hike down the steep South Kaibab Trail, for an overnight stay at Phantom Ranch, with the nine and one-half mile return next day on the Bright Angel Trail made adventurous by a coating of ice along much of the last quarter mile. This was the first time we had hiked to the river in mid-winter; the seasonal decorations were like icing on a birthday cake.
At Indian Gardens there had been more icing for the cake; a chance meeting with Bruce Aiken, who for years has been living with his wife and children in the Canyon’s depths — at Roaring Springs, where Bruce has supervised the pumping station which supplies water to the Rim. Imagine living in — not at, but in —Grand Canyon. He is a geologist, an artist, and — along with his wife — a teacher of their three small children.
The Canyon, in Francis’ birthday month, has a special charm, not only for its cloak of winter climate but because of the quiet, and at times the almost complete solitude, which the lack of summer crowds makes possible. One evening we went to a ranger lecture attended by only 14 persons besides ourselves. With a group that small we were able to get acquainted. Those 14 people came — variously — from Australia, Equador, England, South Africa, Nepal, Saskatchewan, and from Kansas, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and California. Grand Canyon’s outreach is worldwide!
A young ranger couple — as fine an example of dedicated park personnel as we have come across — hosted a birthday party for Francis in their snug little home back in the pines from the Rim. Mike and Ann Swartz both are seasonal interpretive rangers at Yavapai Geology Museum, perched on the Canyon’s edge. Their job is to explain the significance of the Canyon for the visitors in terms of geology, human and natural history.
Mike’s season of lectures had ended shortly before our arrival. We had taken such a liking to him, and he to us that — on his own time — he accompanied us on the round trip hike to Phantom. For us it was an exciting two day absorption of knowledge — and a renewal of a friendship. The only way that life can really begin at 80 is by reaching out to new and vital young friendships, and seeking out new and worthwhile experiences.
The climax of Francis’ birthday experience came at the bestowing of gifts. This was not at the actual birthday party itself — although the whole week long affair was a continuing celebration of love and life. The bestowing of gifts came in those magic moments after we had topped out, terminating our struggle up the final torturous switchbacks on the trail.
As we relaxed in Bright Angel Lodge, Mike produced a colorful brochure which had just come off the presses. “Grand Gifts for a Grand Canyon” was its theme. In a desire, with an ever more limited budget, to expand the Canyon’s outreach to its nearly three million annual visitors, the National Park Service is inviting everyone to share in the Canyon’s physical upkeep and well-being.
Mike excitedly opened the ten page brochure. He ran a finger along the descriptive list of suggested donations.
“We didn’t make our gift at the party,” he explained “Now is the best time. Now we know the spot on the Canyon’s trails which you love the most.”
Mike’s finger rested on the description of one particular gift, labeled “Adopt a Trail.” Maintaining these Canyon trails, which have meant and will continue to mean so much in our lives, costs money — approximately 800 a foot per year. The Swartz’ were “giving” us — or making it possible for us to “adopt” — 30 feet of the Bright Angel Trail, near the upper part of the Corkscrew. This is the section that traverses the marble-like polished rock which through the action of the ages has been metamorphized from dullness to grandeur. Years ago Helen mentally chose this strip of rejuvenated beauty as the most vital symbolic feature of the Canyon’s entire trail system. We have shared its symbolic message with a thousand friends. Helen says she always feels the eternal spirit here, putting the finishing touches on this exquisite Canyon — a rainbow in flowing marble. She echoes Walt Whitman’s words:
Spirit that form’d this scene,
These tumbled rock-piles grim and red .. .
These gorges, turbulent-clear streams, this
These formless wild arrays, for reasons of their own,
I know thee, savage spirit — we have communed together,
Mine too such wild arrays, for reasons of their own; . . . thou that revelest here — spirit that form’d this scene,
They have remember’d thee.
This strip of trail was the Swartz’ “gift” to Francis, which he will of course share with Helen forever. In Francis’ name, symbolically, that bit of trail will be improved and kept in repair, so that the visitors who pass over it may tread in safety as they absorb the metamorphic message. We and the Swartz’ have made a pledge to fund the maintenance of that portion of trail, at least until the year 2000.
Our guests the Harvey’s were newcomers to all this splendor. Don had never visited Grand Canyon before. Joyce had once passed by here briefly as a teenager. She had never done the type of hiking required to descend to the Colorado River and back.
Although Joyce didn’t tell us until it was over, that struggle up the final mile of ice-encrusted trail to the last tunnel, which was within a few yards of topping out — that last stretch tried her endurance to the limit. She said she could not have negotiated even one more switchback. Bravely she had endured to the tunnel and the top, and that was it.
We dedicated that tunnel to Joyce. It is a tunnel almost in name only — only 15 or 20 feet long. But vital. It is a clearly visible goal for those struggling toward the top.
Don and Joyce made us a “gift” of the portion of trail passing through that tunnel, and of a couple of hundred more feet leading toward the top. Thus we become, symbolically, agents in its maintenance for the benefit of the millions who come this way. Comparatively few of the three million annual visitors descend —either by mule or on foot — to the Canyon depths. But hundreds of thousands of them walk the few feet down to the first tunnel. Other donors may also choose to “adopt” that particular portion of the trail, which will be good, for all the boots and shoes of those visitors from every corner of the world will cause it to be in need of constant repair. Now we will be a more intimate part of that process. Through the gifts from our friends we have adopted two portions of the Canyon trails.2
Sixty-one years ago Francis realized that the Canyon was far more than its physical features alone. In our hundreds of visits here, we have sensed that there is not only an inner gorge, but an inner meaning — an inner message — to this bold creation. The Canyon is not only physically deep, it has a depth of symbolism which reaches the heart. Its aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual challenges stir one’s blood just as surely as the physical adventures which it affords.
The “Chariots of Fire” motion picture contains a statement by an Olympic running champion: “So where does the power come from to see the race to the end? From within! God made me for a purpose.”
Grand Canyon is more than a colossal chasm. There is reality in its designation as a “divine abyss.” On the Rim one senses its power. Down in the depths, one feels and experiences that power. Just as with a person, this power of the Canyon comes from within.
As Bruce Aiken’s wife, Mary, said after one of her many nighttime walks in the Canyon’s depths: “You can feel God. I never really knew God until I walked down here at night. I mean the power, the glory, all that stuff. You can feel God, sense His presense . “3
God made Grand Canyon for a purpose. On Francis’ 80th birthday party, this miracle chasm conveyed to us even greater and fresher meanings.
It’s a Grand Canyon.