Reunion in the Grand Canyon

Granite Rapids and Whites Butte, March 15-17, 2003

March 14, 2004
Long before I reached Flagstaff, I knew that I was finally getting close. It was a long, long drive from Indiana out to Arizona and I had definitely not been taking my time. I wanted to be out, and out right now. I should have flown, but I was too cheap to spring for a plane ticket and rental car. Besides, I like driving. Humphrey's Peak is the first, and only, big thing you see between Indiana and Arizona on historic Route 66 (now dominated by I-40) and it comes into view about two hundred miles before Flagstaff.

I roared past the pines of Flagstaff and over to Williams, where I picked up some dinner and Budweiser before driving out to the campground where I was meeting my friend James. James works as a copy editor for the Times-Picayune, Faulkner's old newspaper, in New Orleans and had rode his motorcycle all the way out here. Although we had spent four years in school together, we had never gone hiking before as I didn't return to the life until a few years later, when I was in Illinois, of all places. James was safely encamped next to his motorcycle and we quickly built a fire to ward off the onset of the cold as night fell. Also, it made drinking the Budweiser a little easier. As the night drew on we started to wonder if Pete was going to show. Pete had been two years behind us in school and had moved out to Fort Collins after graduation. Snows had been brutal in the front range of Colorado recently and he might have gotten stuck. Just as we were about to write him off, a rattling Jeep Cherokee rolled up and out poured Pete after a hellish drive through the snows to get here. We were now three, and tomorrow would grow to seven as the others came in from Las Vegas. They were planning to gamble some and then drive all night out to the Grand Canyon to meet us tomorrow. A re-union in the Canyon.

Knowing the habits of those we were supposed to meet at 8 at the South Rim, I slept in and refused to get out of my sleeping bag until it was at least moderately warm. The three of us eventually got packed and then drove out toward the South Rim, making a leisurely stop at a gas station for coffee and doughnuts, arriving a half hour late. I expected to have to sit around for another half hour or so, but much to my surprise I found the four tapping their feet in the parking lot, anxious to go. Andrew had started this whole thing by suggesting that we go for a hike together during my spring break. He lived in Cedar City, in southern Utah, and taught at a school for (rich) troubled youth. James came in right away. Steve and Val were both two years ahead of me in school but we had been good friends then and had managed to keep in touch over the years. Both were physics types and could actually explain what it was they did in terms that my poor brain could understand. I had spent four years in school with Patrick, who had bounced around various jobs in the theater and business and was now working for a company spamming people. He would later correct me on this point. I smiled at the abuse hurled at me for being late and, that done, we lined up for some pictures before setting off down the Hermits Rest trail.

Almost immediately I was in love. Very quickly the awesome spectacle of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado (originally the Canyon of the Grand) came into view, with its pink walls and preternatural formations. The sheer size of the place was amazing. Things so large that they cannot be seen in one view are rare and powerful.

Dropping down on the well built trail, I felt like I was walking through the abode of some giant king. I was the mouse in the castle, sneaking along hoping not to get stepped on. Everyone was feeling it and we hustled down the trail in an initial burst of energy that was appropriate to the setting. I hoped people wouldn't burn themselves out during our plunge to the river.

We were heading down into some sort of mini-canyon that led toward the Colorado, but the steepness of the land kept us just above it on precariously built trail. Even though this area gets some snow and some precipitation, the climate is dry enough that narrow trail, built on the edge of a cliff, can last for a long time. Clear out some rockslides, and you are good to go.

Across the river we could spot the powerful, trailless, formations of the North Rim. Each was a Temple or an Amphitheater, named after some ancient deity or god or prophet. The scale, the size, the immensity. It would take forever to explore just what I could see from here, especially given the difficulty of access.

We dropped past a sort of trail shelter with a piped spring next to it, along with the obligatory "No Camping" signs, before making our way down to a plateau and a rest. I wasn't even close to being tired or needing a break and wanted to run and jump and prance about like some sort of wild pagan from the olden days. Looking about, I noticed some tired faces, however, and so I declined to prance and instead looked over my gear. In a few months I'd be setting out from Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail and had a brand new pack from ULA for the 2650 mile trek to Canada. This was its inaugural voyage and I hadn't even noticed it on the way down. Then again, I could have had a piano on my back and I wouldn't have noticed it.

After thirty minutes of lounging Andrew and I got the group mobile once again and we set off for Granite Rapids, which was to be our home for the nice. As we neared the Colorado, the group began to get strung out along the trail as the initial enthusiasm began to wane and knees began to tire. We bent around a large ravine, and I began to pull away from my friends. This was just to good. At a trail junction leading down to the river, I stopped for a while and waited for some of the others, but there was no real reason to as the junction was huge and hard to miss.

I should have, perhaps, waited until everyone was there, instead of dropping down a bit to where there was a nicer resting spot. I sat for a while and Patrick rolled up, smiling. We sat and sat and sat some more, waiting for the others. Figuring that they had stopped at the sign, we continued on down the trail, but separated once again. I reached the river and the sandy beach that was to be our home and plopped down for a rest, still in awe of the land around me. I had never seen such a thing. All of my other hiking experiences had been in mountains or forests. I had never hiked in a kingsland.

I sat and waited for a while and realized that the skies were grey and that we might get rained on. Funny,I thought. I usually am always on the lookout for rain, but hadn't even considered the possibility on the walk down. I wandered about and found Patrick standing about, but no one else. James and Pete rolled up, having missed the turn at first. Slowly Val and Steve stumbled in, suffering a bit from sore knees and general tiredness, but in good enough spirits. Finally, Andrew rolled in, looking very beat. I put my tarp up on the beach and James, Steve, and Val pitched their various tents. Pete piled in with James and Andrew took out a large blue tarp and started trying to rig it up. We ate dinner mostly in silence and people turned in early, suffering from the hike down. Andrew joined me for some hot tea and overproof rum, but ended up rolling into his tarp when rain began to fall lightly. I wondered if anyone was as thrilled to be here as I was. I could have shot myself to the moon with the anticipation I felt for tomorrow. How could anything possibly be this good? This perfect? All it took was several thousands of years and a stream of water to build this monument to beauty. I doubted civilization could ever come close to matching it.

I slept magnificently on the beach, waking up occasionally to hear soft rain falling on the silnylon above my head. I sat up around 6am and made some tea to kill time. I wanted to get going, and get going now. Like a kid on Christmas morning, the anticipation was eating away at me. At 8 I noticed Andrew rolling about in his tarp and proceeded to move around trying to wake up the rest of the people. A lot of tired faces could be seen. Patrick's feet were chewed up from his workboots that he had hiked in the day before. Luckily, he had brought a paid of sneakers as well, for camp wear, and was going to hike in those. Steve's knee was stiff and sore and in very nonfine shape.

There was no mystery about what was coming next. Steve and Patrick were going to retrace our steps and spend tonight at the trail-shelter-that-isn't-a-shelter that we had passed earlier, and then climb out tomorrow. We'd meet them in Tusayan the following day. Val, although doing just fine, didn't want to leave the two hurt hikers to walk out on their own and so volunteered to go with them. And so our large group was down to four.Everyone got packed up and we started back up the trail, as we had to do some re-walking before we could set out toward Whites Butte, our destination for the day.

We moved slowly back up and around the various ravines we had traversed on our way down to the river. The sky was grey and occasionally bits of rain would fall down, but never in a concerted, organized effort and it wasn't hard to ignore the weather when the land had the particular qualities of the Grand Canyon.

When we reached the trail junction where our two groups would diverge, we all had a seat to rest for a while. I was hoping to convince the others to come along with us, but knew that this just wasn't going to happen: When you are hurt, the only thing on your mind is to get some place comfortable as soon as possible. Steve handed a liter bottle of whiskey to take along with the rum that I carried and we sat about chatting until rain began to fall with a little more strength, prompting our group to don raingear and set out.

The rain fell for only a few minutes, but a light mist still sat around the river. We strolled and talked and generally moved slowly and comfortably until around one o'clock, when lunch seemed like a good idea. We stopped at developed campsite, complete with pit toilets, and pulled out various snacks and other goodies. I wolfed down my sesame sticks and Clif bars and waited for the others to finish. They did, and then took naps, much to my consternation. It wasn't that I really wanted to get into camp quickly, or that I wanted to pump out long miles (we were not that far from Whites Butte), but rather that I wanted to be out in the Canyon and see what was around the next bend. Pit toilets are only so interesting. However, I sat and ate some more while Andrew and Pete napped on a rock.

By two I had to go, and fortunately the others were ready. I sped off in my excitement, rolling up and down small hills as the trail wound its way around ravines and other obstacles to a straight line. The weather was beginning to worsen. Rain fell lightly, but was accompanied by a cold wind that made taking a break seem like not so pleasant of an idea. About 75 minutes after setting out from lunch, I found myself at the junction with the Boucher trail, near which there was supposed to be a spring. I didn't want the others to miss it and go waterless, despite our having talked about this before, and so sat under the semi-shelter of an overhanging rock and tried to wait for them. Thirty minutes passed, and I was shivering mildly from the cold. Another thirty minutes passed, and still there was no sign of my friends. The rain had ceased, but I was cold enough that I had to move on. I dropped down the Boucher trail, steeply, until i heard the sound of water in the ravine below me. Scrambling off trail toward the sound of water, I had to fight through the thick vegetation that choked off the spring. I filled up with 4.4 liters of water, enough for the rest of the day and tomorrow, and then sat down on a log to wait for a while longer, now that I was warm from motion.

Twenty minutes later I was cold again and there was still no sign of my friends. I climbed back up to the trail junction and didn't like what I saw: Tracks from my friends. This was not a good sign. It meant that they had passed up the water source, although it was possible that they were hauling river water. Unlikely, however, given that we hadn't been close to the river since this morning. I started the climb up toward Whites Butte, slowed down by the additional water on my back. I first passed up Pete, but declined to ask him about the water as he just looked too tired. About ten minutes later, I found a great looking white and black snake sitting in the middle of the trail, stunned by the cold air. Not wanting Pete to step on the snake by accident, I waited for a while. After ten minutes, I decided Pete was resting some where and pushed on. I found Andrew and James on a minor flat stretch and asked them about the water. They said they were planning on carrying their packs up to Whites Butte and then to go back down to the water. Given that we were already about 700 vertical feet above the water source, with another 1000 or so to go to Whites Butte, I was incredulous and almost lost my temper. There was no way they were going to go back down for water, which meant that my ample-for-one water supply would become a not-enough-for-four water supply.

Andrew proposed that we camp here instead of at Whites Butte and so I dropped my pack and looked around for some place that might be acceptable. The only places flat enough and large enough to throw up a tarp or tent were in the gullies, down which water would pour during a storm. And, a storm was coming for sure. I searched for twenty minutes and then came back to declare my verdict. I was going up to Whites Butte, or the first available safe place to camp. There just wasn't a choice in my mind. I tried to explain why this had to be, but think I came off as saying, "I'm going up, you do what you want." I gave James and Andrew some water, as they were completely dry, before they set off back down the hill to get water. And, now Pete rolled up. He was beat. Deathmarch stage. I remembered the last time I was on a deathmarch and could totally sympathize. On my first Deathmarch, at the end of the day all I could do was sit in the middle of a trail and keep myself from crying. I didn't have the strength to eat, to set up a tent, or to fetch water. All I could do was not cry. But, Andrew and James still had some juice left and had the good fortune to scramble down into the ravine next to us and find some pooled rain water, thus saving themselves the hike back down to the spring.

I set off for Whites Butte, promising to stop at the first camp site and holler. The trail stayed vertical for sometime before passing through a brush choked gully and coming out at a reasonable campsite on top of a cliff. I gave a holler and heard James respond, not far below. Thirty minutes was all it took. Just above was the plateau of Whites Butte, so I headed up hoping for a view. And a view is what I got.

The mist was lifting and I thought, for a moment, that the weather might even clear for us. I certainly hoped so, as the plateau had absolutely zero protection from a storm. In my ignorance, I put up my tarp in a grand spot and stripped off my sweaty shirt to prance around in the open, cool air. After getting my tarp rigged and reinforced, I started water boiling for a big pot of pasta and James came walking up, looking a little tired but still in good shape and promptly put up his tent. I cooked up dinner and was sitting down to eat when Andrew arrived in full on Deathmarch mode. We walked by us, about 10 feet away, and kept going. We called out his name a few times, but he didn't seem to hear us or see us. James called out a colorful nickname we have for Andrew and he finally snapped to and wandered over to us. And then the rain came. Andrew and James ducked inside his tent and I dropped under my tarp to eat. Twenty minutes later Pete arrived, impossibly feeling better, and put up his tent.

During a lull in the rain, I restaked my tarp and added larger rocks to the tops of the stakes, as the wind was blowing with a fury. Andrew and James emmerged and put their gear under Andrew's tarp, as James' tent was a small solo thing that could barely fit the both of them. I offered up some whiskey, but Andrew seemed too tired to be bothered with such a thing. The storm returned and we dove under our respective shelters. I sat up drinking hot tea with rum and reading Edward Abbey as the storm raged outside. By some miracle, I had put up my tarp with the backside into the wind, which meant that I stayed dry, even though my tarp at times threatened to blow away. I had never rode out a storm in the tarp and this seemed like a good omen. The tarp was holding, and so I should be ok with it on the PCT. I got up a few times to retrieve Andew's tarp when particularly strong winds grabbed it, but mostly kept to my sleeping bag and hot drink. Despite the weather, I was as happy as I had ever been. Despite the wind and rain and cold and mist, the day had been rewarding beyond what I could have imagined it to be. This big gash was just a magical place.

Andrew got people up early after a long and miserable night for the tent dwellers. The wind had died down shortly after I went to sleep, but a light rain had stuck around and soaked through the two unsealed tents. Pete had spent a near hypothermic night huddled in a pool of water trying to stay warm. I was quite dry in the morning, my tarp having performed well in the wet. Andrew wanted to get an early start to the day so that we wouldn't have to rush to make it to camp. We were planning on staying at a slightly out of the way camping spot near the top of the Rim, about 10 or 12 miles from here. The others packed up as I lounged in my sleeping bag, knowing full well that I could get packed up and moving in 15 minutes. When I sensed that they were getting close to being ready, I packed up and was ready to go just as they were. Being St. Paddy's day, Andrew broke out a couple cans of Guiness that he had been hauling around for the last two days for a little morning celebration.

The Boucher was well marked and easy to follow, contrary to the Park Service's descrption, and in general was fairly flat. Spectacular views all around and the rain even (mostly) held off. Andrew and James pushed on ahead while Pete and I walked in the rear, moving slowly but steadily. I felt a little bad about how Pete's trip had gone so far and didn't want to leave him as I did yesterday. So, we strolled along together until we found Andrew and James taking a rest near a little slide that we had to climb up.

We scrambled up the easy slide and traversed along the open, exposed trail for a while before coming to Yuma Point, which we all thought would make for an excellent lunch site. James fired up his Zip stove and made some hot lunch for the others, while I sat off alone in the lee of a little ledge with a nice view. Given that it was only around 11, and we were only a few miles from our camp for the night, it didn't seem necessary to spend another night in the rain and cold of the South Rim. After lunch we talked about the option of climbing out and meeting the others in Tusayan tonight, instead of tomorrow. This seemed agreeable to all.

Hiking along, we reached the junction with the Dripping Springs trail around 12:15, which we were supposed to take for another mile or two to a campsite. Instead, we headed off to the Hermit Rest trail, which would bring us back up to the South Rim. The four of us sat next to a tree and rested for a bit in one of the rare moments of sunshine during the past two days. A few day hikers flitted about here and there, but nothing compared to what the place must see during the summer. I'd be back here, for sure. Our rest over, I told the others I'd meet them at the top and set out at a good clip, climbing the broad switchbacks with a fury and losing a lot of sweat along the way. Back and forth, back and forth, gaining elevation quickly, but monotonously. Trees began to appear and I quickly gained the Rim and the parking lot. Drenched in sweat, I quickly got some warm, dry clothes out of my car and had a slug of whiskey to fight off the cold. I strolled about and took a picture with my SLR, which had been sitting in my car, of Whites Butte and the area we had hiked through this morning. The Canyon really was grand.

With nothing else to do, I pulled out my car camping chair and had a seat near trailsend to wait for the others. Fifty minutes went by and Andrew came hiking up the trail with a big grin on his face. Despite the difficulties he had experienced on the trip, he seemed to have enjoyed himself and his smile was not simply the smile of someone who has completed an arduous task.

James and Pete came up the trail twenty minutes later and we had a little celebration at the trailhead. The transition from the inner canyon to the South Rim had been abrupt for them and we wandered about, slightly lost, for a little while trying to regain the mental state necessary for dealing with things like roads and traffic signs. We still had to find Patrick, Steve, and Val in Tusayan, but this wouldn't be much of a difficulty as Tusayan was a small place.

The four of us sped, in three separate vehicles, toward Tusayan and found Patrick's PT Cruiser parked outside a posh looking hotel. I wandered in and had the clerk connect me to their room. Three minutes later, Steve appeared wearing a polo shirt and a bath towel and handed me a cocktail made out of Crystal Light and 151. I haven't been back since to the hotel, which is probably wise.