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Soul of the Desert

Rim to Rim Grand Canyon

This article is an essay of the trip down: for reservation/planning/hiking advice in the Grand Canyon, try here: Grand Canyon Planning

Rim to Rim via North Kaibab & Bright Angel trails
May 22 – 24, 1996

A few years ago, my parents, my husband and family friend (Craig) hiked the Grand Canyon. I thought we would become part of the canyon and take a bit of it home forever.

From the moment we stepped from the shuttle to the North Rim, I knew it wasn’t to be.

The Canyon is too grand, too impersonal. The towering walls of the North rim mask any chance of becoming a part of the canyon even for a moment. Pictures cannot reproduce their distant, untouchable grandeur. The sights and smells do not belong to the rest of the world.

Even the deer we saw as we began our trek were uncaring of our presence. They ate as if they knew we were mere visitors and could not really touch them. Just as we could not move the deer, I could not touch the canyon.

View of Cliffs

The soaring walls loomed in front of us, behind us; on every side. I stopped to take pictures, to point out a certain rock, but my parents were already far ahead, my husband and his friend too far behind. I waited for them, but they had their own excitement, their own discoveries.

The first miles of the North Kaibab are not difficult, and I remember thinking that some of the dire instructions I had read were too grim. All advice warned that for hiking off the main trail, I should carry a compass, a mirror and tablets for purifying water. Off trail? Where? There was nothing but steep cliffs on either side! There wasn’t even enough brush to step to the side and answer nature’s call, never mind get lost.

As we descended, the pine trees that clung to tiny ledges were replaced by scrappy bushes hanging from scant soil, none of which could hide more than a rabbit. I found myself regretting that I did not know more about the flora. Even the giant asparagus-like plant that looked much like the New Mexico Century plant, or Agave, was alien.

The plants became increasingly desert-like as we hiked down. It had been a dry year in Arizona. We could see places where water had carved telltale marks, but this Spring, none ran. On the side of the canyon where we walked, damp rock fed a drying moss substance, but there were only two such spots that I saw.

The solitude of the North side was wonderful after the hectic, tourist-filled day we had spent on the South side. There were other hikers on the trail, but no more than ten or so.

Four miles into the canyon I began walking with my husband and his friend. We broke out snacks; we had left at six, too early to collect breakfast at the lodge. As the path crossed a water-carved white basin, we thought it a nice place to pitch a tent—except that it sloped downwards and if campers weren’t careful, they might slide right off the steep slope and down into the canyon!

As the day wakened and we passed flowering bushes, the locusts applauded; my husband doffed his hat. “Thank you, thank you.” Craig, our friend from Wisconsin, studied the ugly bugs; he had never seen a locust before.

Buildings came into sight way below us then and I thought surely it must be Cottonwood Camp. Soon, the breathtaking Roaring Springs made itself known and the rest of the descent to the buildings was spent taking pictures from every possible angle.

I identified Bright Angel Creek below, which the waterfall feeds. Happily I knew we were getting closer to succeeding, that much closer to Phantom Ranch. At Roaring Springs, my mother and father waited.

Outside the private residence area, we ate again. For me, it was the all-important moleskin stop. Before coming, I had seen the advice recommending moleskin. Not knowing what it was, I almost ignored it. I couldn’t find it in the camping section and had given up. Luckily, my mother found some in the “Dr. Sholl’s” section. I taped a bit wherever my feet were rubbed and sore and we continued on.

We stopped and ate again at Cottonwood camp, which is perhaps another mile. Now, before you picture five little piglets trooping to Phantom ranch… we were only eating small amounts! Besides, eating helps ensure that hikers drink enough water. I read that somewhere. :>)

Lizards abounded at Cottonwood camp, as did ants and very fat squirrels.

Bright Angel

For a while we marched along Bright Angel together. I was very excited about reaching Ribbon Falls. Of all the places on the North hike I had read about, this one excited me the most. I love waterfalls and hadn’t expected Roaring Springs to really have viewable falls. Even though it did, I was still looking forward to this next one.

When we reached the trailhead for Ribbon Falls, we could barely distinguish the trail. Dad pointed out where it possibly led, but try as we might we could see no possible place for falls.

Dad said, “It’s been so dry, perhaps there are no falls right now.”

Never! I refused to accept defeat. I had hiked all this way and by golly, I was gonna look for some falls! (In addition to eating, I’m very good at being stubborn.)

Dad resolutely put down his pack and suggested I do the same. Due to living in Houston for several years, for the first 20 feet of the trail, I refused to leave my pack. Pictures of evil hikers running off with my pack filled my mind.

Dad shook his head. “People who come down here aren’t the type to be concerned with taking another hiker’s pack. Besides, they’d have to carry it all the way out.”

Fool am I. Who in their right mind would want to carry my pack out of the canyon? It was eight miles straight up to reach the North rim and still six before Phantom Ranch.

“Besides, if they need underwear that bad,” Dad continued as I placed my pack against a rock, “they can have mine.”

I left my pack. The others, thinking we were a bit crazy to head off into what was obviously nothing but desert dust, continued on the trail towards Phantom.

Dad and I had a bit of a false start when we almost went up the mountain, but we saw the trail just in time and went around a bluff and spotted a trickle of water. A few steps more behind a boulder, the falls came into view. I was so pleased! There it was, nestled behind the mountain, not more than a quarter mile or so off the trail. From closer up, I could see that climbing behind the falls was possible. This I did, with alacrity.

Then, much to my dismay, I discovered that I only had two pictures left in my camera. And where was the replacement film? You guessed it. Back in my lonely pack, waiting on the hillside.

“I must go back for it,” I insisted. “You can go on ahead. It’s not far back here, I’ll be in and out before you know it.”

But dad would hear none of it. Out we went, back in we traveled. I got my pictures and dad, well he got an extra mile walk out of it. But I had seen the falls.

My pleasure lasted until we reached the main trail. The falls had been a cool respite from the gathering heat. Dad is a fast hiker under ordinary circumstances; when he is trying to catch up to someone it is like being tied behind a vehicle going forty miles an hour. By the top of the first hill, he thought I was dying of heat stoke. Quite the contrary, it was lack of oxygen I was dying from, but it’s hard to explain that when you don’t have any.

We still hadn’t caught up to our party before I needed more moleskin and Gatorade. By this time, I had developed a special liking for Gatorade and had been wanting some for the better part of a mile. When we stopped, I nursed my feet, fed my thirst and on we went.

The valley was still heating up as the noonday sun reflected off the rocky slopes and cliff sides. I remember crossing stepping stones across a path that was almost hidden by cattails. There were other places where I think water should have been, but spring rains, if there had been any, had not been generous.

Dad looked constantly for animals up on the high slopes and reminded me to look backwards at the view we were leaving behind. The purple and green swallows that my husband had pointed out earlier were still with us, swooping around us whenever Bright Angel was close.

Box Canyon

The walls closed in slowly. At first, they were mountains to one side, rock slides that were interesting but not near neighbors. Gradually, I began to wish for my black and white film as I knew we were entering the narrowest part of the trail. The water was loud now, not fading in and out. The canyon walls bounced the sound back to us.

Dad found a roll of film, not yet exposed. We assumed it belonged to someone in our party and sure enough, within minutes, Craig was coming back to look for it. Dad didn’t mention that he’d found it (fathers have a bizarre sense of humor) until Craig explained why he was trotting back along the trail. Then he handed him the film with a wide grin, and I knew that he had considered letting Craig walk back further a ways, just for the fun of it.

We caught up to the others and rested a while. Our legs were getting tired and very sore. Dad guessed we had at least three miles to go, a fact that mom wasn’t pleased to hear. I finished the color roll and put in black and white film to try and store an elusive memory of the sheer rock walls on either side of us. It was hopeless, because the rushing water wouldn’t be there, the cliffs in the picture wouldn’t breathe with the hot wind that pulsed through the canyon, the smell of dust wouldn’t be captured and, alas, nothing could capture their size.

I thought the canyon would be peaceful and quiet and in its own way it was. It had a voice, of course; it is the locusts, the river that drums its way through the canyon, the birds and the wind. But the loudest sound of all was my breathing. It filled my every step and kept me from listening to that which I could not grasp. I could not leave myself behind no matter how far I walked.

The box canyon faded as gradually as it appeared. The walls were not as high, then further apart. The greenery of the river life began to appear and I began to hope that we were near. I saw the sign for Phantom Ranch and for some reason the last mile was the longest.

Bright Angel Creek beckoned and I wanted to jump in clothes and all. Sadly, I hadn’t left behind my civilized behavior just yet. We showered and then, only then, did I get to soak my feet in the wonderful, cool waters. The water pounded the backs of my calves in a massage that no modern whirlpool could deliver. The fish, apparently, were hungry enough to nibble on our toes.

Dinner was too far away. We made it down fourteen miles by two o’clock, but alas, the stew was not ready until six-thirty! By the time it arrived we were too hungry to complain. Part of the plan I wonder?

As night fell, we sat outside our cabin and watched the bats. Tiny flittering creatures, they flew far overhead above the cottonwoods. As evening deepened, larger cousins came out. These furry friends were not shy! My husband and I were perhaps two feet apart and the bats flew between our heads, landed in the nearby grass to gather some morsel or other and remained close enough that we could hear their soft wings constantly.

Before we retired to bed, I unpacked one small item that was in none of the books of advice. I know that the canyon should be quiet and the wind should lull me to sleep. It should be peaceful beyond imagining, but ah, reality. My little earplugs shut out these sounds–but they also protected me from the snoring of my companions!

The second day we had a grand hike planned to Clear Creek. Our aching legs told us in no uncertain terms that a nine-mile hike one way, was not going to happen. Instead, we performed what we–ahem—fondly called the Kaibab Shuffle. This walk resembles the fluted Indian figure, Kokopelli, only without the flute and not quite so happy looking. We were all leaning funny and lifting our legs very, very carefully, never quite straightening them because our calves were too sore.

We limped to the Colorado. It was the greenest river I had ever seen. Across the west suspension bridge we ventured, spotting golden finches and hummingbirds on the shore. From the north side of the Colorado, the South Kaibab trail appears to be imaginary, a mistake on the map. The cliff along the south side of the water is sheer; boulders look like huge appendages. There can be no trail.

Once across the bridge, to the east I could see the beginning of the South Kaibab trail, and I almost wished it didn’t exist. The wind was still blowing and from this angle, the trail was not friendly. To the west was Bright Angel Trail, the one we would take out of the canyon tomorrow.

Rafts came down the Colorado and stopped just past the other, east-most suspension bridge. We eagerly waited on the South Kaibab trail for them to continue. Sadly, they were motored rafts. We longed to see people paddle, to struggle against the great current, and pit themselves against nature.

We spotted a cave buried along the north shore as we crossed the east suspension bridge. A set of footprints in the sand told us that we were not the first to attempt to reach the cave. But like our own footprints, they stopped before the entrance was reached. The cave is sheltered behind prickly trees and impossible rocks. Whatever lives there is safe from us.

The beach along the Colorado was new, created by the controlled flooding of a few weeks past.

The Indian ruins captured our attention next. They were small rooms and the Indians must have been short to fit, lying down. Perhaps they slept outside and only curled up inside during poor weather. Looking at the ruins I wondered if they ever reached the height of a real building. Did people really live there? Or was it just a campsite or a house begun but never finished?

There was a grave nearby, not of an Indian, but of a man who spent his life in the canyon. How could any human have touched the canyon enough to remain, even after death? Did he really belong here?

Dinner that night held its own surprise. While eating, I got to meet someone that I had long admired; the author of the “Unofficial Grand Canyon” web page. I received the best advice and the answers to my endless questions from this web page. The official Grand Canyon page was late and empty by comparison. There he sat, Bob and his wife, turning the dinner conversation to places yet unseen. He mentioned that I might try my hand at a trip report (author note: an older version of this trip is also posted on Bob’s website.)

Writing about the canyon is difficult. I cannot mimic its magic and even as we spoke of it, I could feel the memories slipping away.

The next morning, not yet very bright but very early, we struggled from warm beds into a blustering, threatening day. We stuffed as much breakfast as possible into five o’clock stomachs that were not ready for food.

I headed off alone. The others weren’t quite ready; packing the last of the food, or stretching stiff muscles. I wanted a color picture from the suspension bridge and with rain in the clouds above, I didn’t want to waste a moment.

I sang quietly, laughing at myself because I knew that within an hour, I wouldn’t have breath to hum a single note. Nevertheless, I entertained until I reached the edge of the bridge. At that point, the wind and beauty took all my attention.

Taking a picture to the east was impossible. Tiny raindrops threatened to spoil my lens for the rest of the day should I try it. I focused quickly west, took two shots and raced to the other side, hoping the sheer cliffs would save me from the wind.

I was not alone much longer; my mother and father caught me before I ventured much further. Dad took the lead and I followed with mom. Dad was already carrying both his pack and mom’s. My mother walked with her trusty walking stick, one my dad had found for her the day before.

Following the Colorado was exhilarating and a fitting good-bye to the end of our stay. As we turned south, away from it for the last time, I looked back. There is no salute to such a body of water; it cares not for our emotions. The water that cascades down was gone before I could say good-bye anyway.

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Posted: July 22, 2006
Filed in Hiking the Grand Canyon

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