Rescue Below The Rim
Most visitors to Grand Canyon view it as a spectacle, a tourist experience, even perhaps a “show of shows.”
I looked at its sweeping depths with a pair of eyes, and felt its mysterious spell with a sense of emotions that most others might never bring to the scene. I somehow looked at it as an extension of all the mountain wonders and all the desert silences and all the rangeland vastnesses of my native Arizona. One of course can never see and discover all that Grand Canyon means, but I admit that I probably reversed that process; doubtless I saw it — and projected characteristics into it — which the Grand Canyon may not have possessed.
Francis said my feelings for Grand Canyon, after I had absorbed its impossible scope for two days and nights, were something like his feelings when he watched his University of Michigan alma mater football team play in the Rose Bowl. Before every such game he would swear not to get emotional or excited. But when the team took the field, urged on by the fighting “Victors” theme song, played by the Michigan band, something changed within him which he could not control. Something irrational, emotional, primal.
That was my feeling as I looked down, my second evening there, on the silent emptiness of Grand Canyon. I already felt that I knew it — from Francis’ letters. Its emptiness filled me to overflowing; its silences roused resonating echoes of pride within me. In my varied life, I had lived in 16 different places, had attended probably half as many different schools; my geographical loyalties had become scattered and diluted. But this Canyon was mine. I was a native to this land. Those distances and depths and dioramas spoke my language. Francis expressed it quite well when he said, “Helen, this Canyon is mine by adoption, but it’s yours by birth.”
I was glad that he had discovered it first, and had grown to love it, before I saw it. From now on, it belonged to us both. Grand Canyon became a mighty factor in our married lives.
With much of America — and Europe also — beckoning us on, there was not time, on this first of my Grand Canyon visits, to explore extensively below the Rim. Perhaps a more practical reason was that I had never done any serious mountain or canyon hiking.
“We’ll just take a short foray,” Francis suggested, “for a mile or so down the Kaibab Trail — to get the feel and to test our legs.”
From the South Kaibab trailhead we started down. I had supposed that the climb back up would be the real test of its difficulties, and that the descent would be simple. That supposition was as far from the truth as the North Rim is from the South. The trail started off with a set of switchbacks and corkscrews that — had I not braced myself — would have pulled me downward so fast that I could have fallen, or turned an ankle, which I sometimes do. It left me breathless.
Francis often has to wrestle with a tendency to hike too fast. I am somewhat the opposite and on this first-ever Grand Canyon hike of mine I found two excellent reasons to take my time.
Almost at once I began to realize how different the Canyon looks when down in it than when viewed from the Rim. Those cold rock walls had become our close companions. They displayed strange patterns and configurations which needed time for study. Also, I needed time to adjust to the steepness of our descent.
Before starting down, Francis had indicated that there would be some gentle slopes along the way, even one or two nearly level stretches. If so, I missed them completely. After a seeming eternity, when the trail did straighten out and ease up a bit, at Cedar Ridge, I sat down under one of the old gnarled trees’ for which the place is named, and confessed: “I never knew I was such a tenderfoot!”
Then I queried: “Do you think I can make it back up? Is the whole trail this hard?”
After some hesitation Francis answered that latter query.
“Here at Cedar Ridge it is nearly level for a ways. But then it really gets steep. If we can go just a little farther — out to the edge of this clear place — you can see how it looks down below.”
We went — I saw. We turned back toward that tree and took another long rest, preparatory to the upward climb. For the first time I really became relaxed enough to begin enjoying the qualities and atmosphere of this world we had penetrated. I was actually in Grand Canyon. The complete silence which surrounded us was as expansive as the views. We sat for a long time, not so much to rest, for now I was feeling refreshed, but just to see and feel and absorb. We’d probably have sat even longer but the rays of the sun, which had been steadily arching across the sky, began to strike us with stinging blasts of heat. Rather than move back into the shade, we concluded that we better head on out before that sun turned up its thermostat any higher. Just then we heard a strange noise.
Down along the nearly level part of the trail below, a figure was stumbling toward us. It was a boy, maybe 16 or so. Our canteen of water still lay on the ground beside us. With a pleading look in his eyes he grabbed it and started drinking.
“Wait,” yelled Francis. “You may be thirsty but that’s the only water between here and the top.”
The boy was almost completely dehydrated. When he was able to talk he told us that he and two buddies had started up from the river that morning.
“We didn’t know we’d need water,” he admitted. When their exhaustion had become complete, they had abandoned their heavy packs. As he was half incoherently telling his story, his two buddies appeared, obviously in even worse shape.
Francis and I held a whispered conference. In our packs, we had one other canteen of water but for the present we kept that fact a secret. When the other boys — about the same age — made it up to our shade, Francis gave each of them two swallows of water, then explained.
“Boys, you’re in deep trouble. And so are we. Look at that sun. It’s hot, and it’s getting hotter. And the trail is getting steeper. We’re going to share our water with you, but you’re going to have to do a lot of climbing between each swig.” For the next couple of hours, the promise of those widely-spaced swallows of water is all that kept the boys going. Francis mentally measured off and calculated the distances; about every thousand feet we’d stop, and the boys would get one swig apiece.
As I brought up the rear, many thoughts raced through my mind. How providential it was that we happened to be on that trail that day when those boys were in dire need of water. What would have happened to them had we not gone on our “little foray?” We had not passed any other individuals on the Kaibab Trail that afternoon. There must be some kind of inner guidance even when we do not know it. We were so thankful we were there when needed.
Francis and I never drank a drop of water on that sunbaked upward climb. I can’t remember that I even realized there were any switchbacks. So intent were we on getting those young fellows to the top, we even forgot that the Canyon beauties were still spread all around us. There was probably half a cup of hot precious liquid in the last of our canteens when we approached the final switchback.
“Here, boys, you divide it up.” For the first time, Francis relinquished his hold on the water. The boys almost fought over those last few drops.
By now I had faintly come to my senses and realized that I’d made it — a mile-and-a-half down, and a mile-and-a-half back up — on one of the steeper trails in the Canyon. In sweltering weather. I had been initiated. Francis said I’d passed the test. Then he added, “Maybe we can do some more testing sometime. I hope we’ll be hiking all these trails a lot.”
After we had had some lemonade at the village, and I was completely rested, I hoped so too. 1