Saturday, May 18th
I had very ambitious plans to get up at the crack of dawn and, with the promise of splendid weather today, photograph the Grand Canyon in all it’s colorful first light magnificence. Nope. I should have known better. I got up early enough but could not overcome my own considerable inertia. I did manage to open the door to our little motel room to find an enormous mule deer mowing the lawn outside. She was not the slightest bit impressed with the dribble of tourists moving sleepily to and from their cars in the parking lot. There’s something about being in the sudden, unexpected proximity of a large, wild animal that changes the voltage in your system. It woke me right up. I remember experiencing the same exact thing when, as a kid, I met the Flyers’ Dave Shultz. Galvanizing. But it wasn’t enough to get me out on the trail. I went back inside and made some coffee.
So a quick word about the park. We entered on the East end of a long road that traces about 25 miles along the South rim of the canyon with multiple turnoffs for viewing. At the West end of that road is a village (Grand Canyon, AZ 86023) which includes a beautiful old hotel and several other structures dating from the early 1900s. The town is also the terminus for a passenger rail line that runs North and East from the town of Williams, AZ. Back in 1914, the railroad was boasting of twenty-five thousand tourists a year to the South rim of the canyon. Now that most visited part of the park gets a total of something like five million annually. So the place is pretty busy. The National Park Service has privatized the major hospitality contract to an outfit named Xanterra which, best we can figure, is some kind of international resort vendor. And they do a decent job, in their relentlessly cheerful, red golf shirt, Disney disciple kind of way. Lodging is clean, comfortable and available from fancy (the main hotel) to spartan (at the canyon floor). There are plenty of places to eat and a quite large store where you can buy everything from groceries to camping equipment. Everybody smiles and asks how you’re doing. And they have the logistics down. On a small footprint, they handle tour busses and cars and campers and delivery trucks with the precision of an aircraft carrier flight boss. It’s all very impressive and completely civilized. And I was going with it until this morning. When I went to the store.
Xanterra makes a big deal of how “Green” their operation is. Recycling bins dot the landscape, the motel rooms remind you to reuse your towel, to only request clean linen if you really need it. And they tell you not to buy bottled water because there are hydration stations at strategic intervals on the trails where you can refill reusable containers with spring water. All fine. But we didn’t bring any reusable containers. When we’ve hiked on this trip, we’ve usually purchased four, one-liter bottles of water and…recycled them when we’re done. And when I went to the store this morning to camel-up…no bottled water for sale. But the store did have plenty of other bottled items. Like three full aisles worth of soda, boutique flavored water, juice, energy drinks – basically everything except actual H2O. And all in plastic bottles. So, The National Park Service pimped the park to Xanterra. And Xanterra, in turn, pimped the high fructose corn syrup concession to Pepsi. And where the bottled water would have been? Small, cheap plastic souvenir water containers for sale…at $7.00 each. Which anyone but a hoarder would throw out when they get home. And based on the park’s own carrying recommendations, one person would need four of them for a half day hike. The level of cynicism necessary to play the “Green” card in a profit agenda that naked is really pretty impressive. So I had a private tantrum, then cut my losses as cynically as I could on short notice. I bought two, two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew (the cheapest crap I could find). Total cost, $4.98. I took them back to my room, poured the green-yellow toxic waste down the bathtub drain, rinsed the bottles out, cut the labels off and filled them with water from the tap. Ridiculous. Then we went for a walk.
The only way to hike the Grand Canyon, no matter what trail you pick, is down and back. And this is important. As one sign warns: “Down is optional, up is mandatory”. Because we had a four hour drive (to Hoover Dam) on our afternoon agenda, we picked a medium hike: three miles and 2,100 feet down a zig-zag course along the cliffs. Then back. We checked in at the ranger station to make sure we hadn’t bitten off more than we could chew and didn’t get waived off by the nice lady there so, down we went.
The steepest part was at the very beginning and there were a couple of sheer drops in the early section where the pucker factor for somebody of my vertical sensibilities was pretty off the charts. But mostly the path was plenty wide enough that I wasn’t in freakout mode the whole time. Going down, We passed all manner of folks headed in both directions. Those facing downhill were mostly giddy and chirpy. But I was immediately tuned to the passing return crowd. Because that was going to be me pretty soon.
There were very many up-hillers who had braved camping excursions to the bottom. Some were in the final stage of a several day project walking rim to rim. One guy was running from rim to rim. And back. In the same day. Which is literally insane. All ages. All abilities. All manner of human suffering. Some folks clearly regretting their birth. Some silently resigned to their fate and enduring their private hell with a kind of morbid dignity. Others panting and grimacing and questioning their belief in a higher power. Some just numb with shock, like prisoners marching out of Bataan. No warning signs about fitness, hydration, pacing, sun protection, proper maps or anything else was as effective a wake up call to the dangers of that place as the spectrum of human misery manifested in the uphill crowd.
And then I was part of it. And it was tough. But it was also fantastic. I stopped frequently, drank a lot of water, manufactured breaks to take portraits for couples, feigned cheerfulness when confronted by a soon-to-be sobered downhiller, counted steps when I wanted to cry, and vowed to get in better shape so I can hike this thing like I mean it. Because I’m coming back here.
Bill? He just loped along without a care in the world. He disappeared entirely on the return and finished a half hour before I did (about three hours). And regretted not having pushed further. He wasn’t even breathing hard. So I made him drive us to Nevada. Ha.
Summary? Fantastic day. Best hike of the trip. Great company (down hill anyway). Scenery worth every irritation required to enjoy it – really just plain magnificent. Perfect weather. Tomorrow: Hoover Dam in the morning, then we meet Emma and Nic in Vegas, then head for L.A. and dinner with my sister, Kate.
Random notes from today. It’s official, Bill is part goat. His fear of mountain lions makes sense now. The most prolific species on the canyon trail? Squirrel. Seriously. Dozens of them. Same size as in Connecticut but, as with the chipmunks out here, different cammo. Scariest animal on the trail? The goddamned hummingbirds. They’re loud, arrive violently without warning and disappear just as fast. Like CIA drones. Unnerving. Saw a bunch of teenage girls hiking down the Grand Canyon in espadrilles, short shorts and loose cut tops. No water. One had a sequined handbag. Lord, have mercy. Palm trees in Nevada. Car is so dirty we may have to torch it.