Day 21: S. Rim to N. Rim via trans-canyon shuttle
Go forth and conquer! Packed up my gear and headed to the Bright Angel Lodge to await the shuttle to the N. Rim. My pack feels good but I might have to lose the two Gatorade bottles I planned on bringing as a treat. It’s also a treat to have a light pack in 90+ degree heat. I had to wait for a string of mules topped with tourists crossing the tracks. Oh the irony. I yield to them standing there in midday heat with 40-some pounds strapped to me as they sit high and mighty in an assortment of city slicker cowboy hats and Ray Bans. Made it to the lodge without getting hit by a tour bus and plunked down my $80 for the shuttle. Sat down to wait on the porch, where other backpackers were assembling. It was somewhat tortuous to watch a tourist on the bench next to me eat a giant bowl of ice cream as I was about to purge body and soul for the next three days. Gear stowed and on our way I was one of seven people: our driver, Rick, a 30-something couple from Quebec, and a trio from North Carolina—one of them leaving behind a spouse with bad knees. Christine, the woman from Quebec, was a forensic toxicologist and her male partner a math teacher. Mitzi, from Carolina, was former Navy and retired high school teacher of computers/business/economics. I don’t recall what her husband did, but their friend Jerry was former construction, attempting to get in as a shop teacher, and was rumored to be a marvel craftsperson with wood. He and his wife own a bed and breakfast in Richfield, North Carolina.
So assembled, the ride was uneventful, broken by a couple of stops for gas, and a slow crawl over Navajo Bridge to admire the Little Colorado. Navajo Nation lies to the east of the park, and the roadside was dotted with wooden lean-tos built by the enterprising Dine, selling an assortment of pottery and jewelry. Crossing the Painted Desert was desolate, but I was dazed by the pinks and reds of the Vermillion Cliffs. Approaching the N. Rim we crossed alpine meadows, an occasional deer plucking the sweet grass. Obnoxiously placed signs were the only mar to the landscape reminding equally obnoxious tourists to not drive off road onto the meadows. Someone surely attempted this otherwise there would not be signs for it. Not that the general populace ever adheres to signs, limits and warnings.
Rick dropped the couple from Quebec at the trailhead, the folks from Carolina at the Lodge, and me in the employee housing near the General Store where I hunted down Addy’s Tennessee plates. She has the best one person cabin facing a side canyon with a bit of a view from her kitchen window. We took a driving tour of the N. Rim facilities. As everyone had said, due to it being more remote, it was significantly more relaxed than the mad hordes swarming the S. Rim. One of the GCNP “branch libraries” Betty serves when she can is located in a brown, sliding door shed/barn/office/meeting/rec room building—a typical multipurpose structure to prove to the taxpayer that their dollars are being stretched. Not that the taxpayer cares what Rangers do, they are more concerned with where the Skywalk and the restrooms are located. The N. Rim branch library had a surprising number of books along with a rotating rack of magazines and a shelf of paperbacks…It’s a long drive to Flagstaff from up there.
The Grand Canyon Lodge, operated by Forever Resorts (as opposed to Xanterra, who runs all concessions on the S. Rim), was better than all the lodges on the other Rim put together. Situated right on the edge of the canyon, the buttes and mesas jutting above looked closer and I could imagine some truth to John Hance’s cloud-walking story. Every so often an inversion happens in the canyon, and all the clouds above the canyon fall into it. An old cowboy guide with a fondness for tall-tales (most of which involved himself) loved to impress visitors with his tale of being stuck out on one of the buttes when the inversion suddenly dissipated. He was stuck out there so long, the story goes, that he lost enough weight to walk back on the clouds without falling through.
The interior of the lodge reminded me some of Jackson Lake, with its big picture windows, dining area, rock walls, and fireplaces. This lodge had an outdoor fireplace however. Huge! Huge! Huge! Addy showed me the “moon room” a stone alcove on a lower level of the lodge accessed from a paved pathway. Two glassless windows provided human-sized sills to sit and look.
A rushed dinner of grapes and leftover chicken nuggets, a quart of Gatorade and to bed on the floor of Addy’s cabin.
Day 22: N. Rim to Cottonwood Campground
I woke up almost every hour checking my watch, paranoid about being late to the General Store where Rick was going to pick me up after stopping for the threesome from N. Carolina. Very dark. Got on the trail about 4:30am Headlamps were necessary for awhile. Pack felt great, less two quarts of Gatorade and various granola bars I left with Addy. Stopped for breakfast at Supai Tunnel. Mmm, peanut butter. Nice to hike with people. Gorgeous views, red rock, steep, but not uncomfortably so. Second stop at Roaring Springs, soaked my feet in the creek and counted water skippers. A bold dragonfly sat on my shoulder for awhile. I left the group there, preferring to hike at my own pace for a change. The clouds broke up and the sun warmed things up quickly. The cicadas buzz like lightbulbs gone bad. Cottonwood is near Bright Angel Creek amidst mesquite, lizards, and sandstone. After scoping things out (all the sites were virtually empty) I picked one of the 11 sites, #7. It had a perfect tree cave for lounging on my thinsulite pad. Hung my pack from the pole provided to keep scorpions from napping in pockets, and stashed contents in metal boxes to prevent nocturnal animals from consuming plastic bags.
Ate hearty and napped like a cat, one eye on a rock squirrel who would have liked to have some goldfish crackers, one ear out for rustles, which could be biting, stinging things. Just a lovely lizard doing his head bob, undoubtedly in pursuit of the flies annoying me. Hard to sleep for long. Some raindrops roused me, so I put the rainfly on the tent, probably a compulsive Oregonian thing to do as the precipitation never amounted to much. It doesn’t really rain, it spits, unless it’s a full on monsoon thundershower. I’ve only experienced one such deluge since I’ve been here. Since it was overcast and I heard the Carolina folk stirring I though I would join them. We had both stated our intentions of going to Ribbon Falls…magical place.
Ribbon is one of those falls you can walk right up to and touch, It falls off a cliff of Shinumo Quartzite and onto a cone of travertine (a limestone crystallized from fresh water). When you place your hand against the carpeted dome of moss glasses of water squeeze out. At the base of the rock a grotto has been hollowed out, a tiny cave opening behind a veil of water. The sort of place that entices you to come in, soak yourself, look jealously at the maidenhair fern who have permanent residence. Alas, I am only a visitor. There’s a path that walks behind the falls as well, but it was occupied by another traveler who popped up and asked me what the time was. I almost said I didn’t know, but for the watch on my wrist. Time does not exist in magical places.
It was with reluctance I tore myself away and returned to camp, but not before one last dunk in a mini falls on the creek I had spotted en route to Ribbon. Ecstasy and delight. Back in camp I used some hotel sized conditioner to comb my hair out. Rat’s nest. Dinner of jerky, assorted crackers and nuts, dried fruit. Mitzi came to visit for awhile. Talked about men right off. Funny how that happens. I suppose I’m somewhat conspicuous being a woman traveling alone.
Went to bed early, had a 3:15am alarm. Woke up multiple times in the night hearing strange night creatures attempting to break into the metal storage bins. Thankfully the ringtails haven’t figured out the concept of teamwork. A little thunder, a little rain, barely worth the rainfly, plus it always increases the temperature…
Day 23: Cottonwood to Bright Angel Campground/Phantom Ranch
My headlamp was ornery this morning, but thankfully got it working again without needing to replace batteries I didn’t bring. Checked cautiously for scorpions as I folded up my groundcloth, but none in sight. I felt lizard eyes watching me from the bushes. Packed up and began chasing down the group from Carolina, they had beaten me to the trail. Finally saw them from around a bend and they looked like Gandalf and crew walking through the mines of Moria. Apologies for the nerdy reference but it’s impossible to think of another when surrounded by the ancient stone shadows of 4am light. Cicadas don’t ever seem to stop buzzing. Electric wires of nature’s heater.
The canyon drainage for Bright Angel Creek eventually narrowed to a series of marvelously high walls, all made of schist. A favorite word of middle school aged boys. Stopped for breakfast after about two hours of hiking. Small stone in the back of my boot caused some skin breakage, but otherwise blister free feet. Muscles however beginning to wonder what I’m doing to them. Peaceful white noise, more soothing than the din of any cosmopolitan cafeteria. A snake! A rattler! Saw it prior to breakfast. It took the third person walking past before making itself known. Startling. Fascinating. I was slow at breakfast, so before catching up with the Carolinas a second time that morning I found an abandoned lizard tail along the trail. Almost as cool as the snake. Soft and flexible to the touch. I wonder how he lost it.
Came to an area called ‘The Box,’ which might also be known as ‘The Oven’ at the wrong time of day. Still felt like a boiled egg at 7am. Into Phantom Ranch and civilization. We arrived so early the canteen wasn’t even open yet at 7:30am. Moved on to claim a campsite at Bright Angel, but not before milling about the potable water spigot, meeting a group bent for a day trip to Phantom Falls, a bushwack up a side canyon somewhere in the direction we had just come from. Also met a crazy Rim to River to Rim runner, ultramarathon type, tanned and toned carrying two bandanas and two water bottles. Our jaws and muscles all stood in awe of either stamina or lunacy.
A marvel of a campsite. Right on the creek with a rock wall forming a pool in the stream. This architecture dots the stream all along the campground. I spent innumerable sessions partaking to waters in 100 degree heat. I brought a plant ID book along, but I hate to say it doesn’t make for the most compelling reading. I needed Tony Hillerman. Slept on my thinsulite in a patch of pre-mushed reeds. If I’m tracing the trace of a previous human am I still leaving no trace? At some point even the novelty of sleeping wears off. More eating, soaking, took 2pm tea with Carolina neighbors. Weird to be drinking something hotter than the air temperature, but somehow refreshing.
The canteen was smaller than I thought it would be. Lemonade on ice worth all $2.50 worth. Leather mail bag solicting the most uniquely mailed letters in the United States. Not the world because I’m sure mail travels by horse, camel, and elephant somewhere on the globe. Invested in the tiniest, most expensive plastic spray bottle ever: $6.25 emblazoned in blue, “Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.” You think? Where else in the world do humans go around spraying themselves with objects usually reserved for toxic household cleaning agents? Okay Death Valley, the Sahara, Chihuahua… Air conditioning inside the canteen was addictively dangerous. Didn’t spend a whole lot of time there as I didn’t want to become accustomed to the luxury.
Went to the ranger program at 4pm beneath a big cottonwood. It was on early exploration of the Rio Colorado from Tio to Coronado to John Wesley Powell. As I turned to go after the program I saw Marc (from Seychelles) and Jacob (Dept. Head of EE) had been sitting behind me the whole time. I took off my disguise of shades and wide brimmed hat so they recognized me. Jacob introduced me to a third man, Ricardo, now onboard with an international ranger exchange, the site manager for Karukinka Natural Park in Tierra del Fuego, Chile near Patagonia. Since Grand Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage site, Jacob has been trying to improve and expand the international exchanges that the park and its staff are involved in. Almost half our visitors are from foreign countries as well. To put in terms of my home school, Sabin, we’re so IB! A fourth man, Wayne Ranney, was introduced to us as a geologist, world traveler, and author of about half the books on rocks available in the GCA bookstore. Turns out I had purchased one of them, Carving Grand Canyon: Evidence, Theories, and Mystery. He had been to Seychelles, and had heard of the Wallowa Mountains in Oregon. Ho, mighty Eagle Cap. A true geologist. He has a great blog www.wayneranney.com
Jacob invited me to dinner at the Ranger’s bunkhouse at Phantom and I gladly accepted at the prospect of a hot meal and vegetables. There I was introduced to Mandy, the woman who had given the 4pm program, and Randy, a maintenance worker, in addition to Ricardo, Marc, and Jacob. I had previously met Steve at my campsite, going over the rules about leaving trash around for ring tails and using vegetation as clothes hangers. Marc and Ricardo talked about their purposes at Grand Canyon—Marc is interested in developing more educational programs and Ricardo wants to develop a management plan specific to his park since they don’t have one. We discussed survival literature and I discovered that Betty’s boss, Sissy, was at King’s Canyon and Sequoia during the time the subject from The Last Season, Randy Morgensen, went missing. In a later conversation with Sissy, she confirmed that Eric Blehm, the author, gave accurate accounts and descriptions of the characters involved in the investigation.
After pasta, Mandy took us on a brief scorpion hunt in the mule corral. Sure enough there was one on a rock. They glow under blacklight, but without it they are camouflaged so well that it made me glad about being so careful when rolling up that groundcloth. After the hunt I got a refill on lemonade for a buck and made my way back to my 90 degree tent.
Day 24: Bright Angel to S. Rim
Up at 3am and on the trail by a quarter to 4. Dark, still, hot. There’s no such thing as “cooling off” in evenings at the canyon bottom in summer. I beat the Carolina crew on the trail and they never did catch up, nor did I wait for them as I knew if I stopped for too long my momentum would fail me and I’d never get out of the canyon by 10am.
Hiking across the suspension bridge over the Colorado River was both spooky and thrilling. The river is about 300 yards across and seems even longer in the dark as you contemplate the bridge suddenly snapping and you sinking like a stone to the bottom, weighed down by leftover beef jerky and those items one brings on a backpack trip and never uses. The “just in case” items like extra batteries, compass, and Dad’s 1960s era snake bite kit, that I would not have used even had I been bit by venomous fangs. It was somewhat unfortunate to be walking with only the glow of my headlamp, as even in the dark I could tell that there were some spectacular views along the river from the Bright Angel Trail. On the other hand, when hiking in the dark amidst columns of stone one develops a surreal sense of presence. As if royalty were lined up to review your meager progress and snicker at your struggling pace. More like indifference. Those cliffs, washes, and slides know not of emotion, but I’m convinced they experience.
There were long stretches of sand after the bridge until the Pipe Creek drainage where I turned uphill away from the River. I had my chance there to stop and go to the beach to stick my big toe in the mighty Colorado, but I’d already stopped to turn off an annoying cell phone alarm clock that I didn’t shut off properly. Who knew it would still ring after I had turned the phone off? That’s one persistent alarm.
Ahh, so much cooler along the creek compared to the sweltering night at Phantom. A frog even hopped across the path. Canyon treefrog? Also scared two deer (we scared each other actually, as usually happens when to creatures come around a bend out of sight and sound range) headed toward the creek. As it grew lighter I kept hoping to see desert bighorn, but no luck. Did see an old mine shaft opening in the side of a cliff near Jacob’s Ladder. Near the top of the Ladder I spotted the Carolina three at the bottom. I thought about waving or yodeling, but it seemed irreverent somehow, especially with dawn breaking, a subdued time of day. Yodeling is best done in afternoon with the sun in complete control of the sky.
The rock formations are impossible to accurately capture on film, either with my camera or my rudimentary photographic skills. The light is tricky too. Predawn light isn’t enough, and even the earliest rays proved to wash out some of my attempted efforts. I met two wranglers on the trail leading strings of mules down to Phantom. No tourists, too early, just supplies. I made it to Indian Garden about 7:30am, far before I had intended. There wasn’t a soul around. I contemplated waiting for the trio, but the Rim kept beckoning, so I pushed on after a refill on water. Passed 3 mile rest house, 1.5 mile rest house, the tourists increased, my peace was shattered. The switchbacks seemed longer and more arduous, “heartbreak hill,” they call it. I started fantasizing about showers, milkshakes, and swimming. The tourists were in flip flops, no shirts, carrying small plastic bottles of water. Many whined, “Whose idea was this to hike the canyon?” Most grew silent when they saw me, perhaps it was the potent smell I was giving off. I don’t think there was a dry spot left on my shirt when I topped out on the South Rim. No one was at the top to congratulate me, I turned around and looked at the Bright Angel drainage I had just traversed. Pretty cool. Not so cool for a man, or body, that was helicoptored out by the Park Service as I came up those last few miles. I sat and watched it from the shade. Rumor had it he had died of heat exhaustion. A woman had died earlier in the weekend on the trail to Lava Falls, and a man was found 250 feet below Moran Point—he was rumored to have jumped. The only place I was jumping was in the shower.
Jenny Gapp, has twenty years experience as a teacher librarian, four seasons as a seasonal state park ranger assistant, and two summers adventuring with National Parks in an official capacity.