Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim Shot

North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP

18-wheeled behemoths roared among terrified desert rats, icy chaos on Arizona highways whenever snow flies. I settled in behind a big one until the turnoff to so-called Grand Canyon National Park. Heavier snow north, and more storms foretold so no tourist traffic.

If you skip the modern fancies, backpacking may be the cheapest vacation possible. (A week of fasting and meditation is cheaper still, but how fun is that?) Get your gear from the used crap store and eat stuff from your own shelves. If your cheap gear doesn’t kill you, it will only make your trip miserable.

at North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP
Wilderness is my church, and this Park a favorite cathedral since it’s only a couple hours’ drive. This time a “rim-to-rim-to-rim” excursion, South Rim to the North and back, 47 miles roughly. Some overly devoted worshipers do it in one self-flagellating marathon.

Problem is, all overnight “below-the-rim” hikes must be reserved and paid months in advance. December days may be sunny and 61, or a snow-blown 16. On paper, my five day stroll was a breeze; on the ground now a wet and howling wind.

South Rim tourist hub almost a ghost town. An enthusiastic couple with two little kids and an infant were my only company on the early shuttle to the South Kaibab trailhead. How heroic their adventure--playing tourist with baby animals in deadly weather!--compared to my self-indulgent solo slog.

A doo-dad I use: “crampons.” Metal spikes with a rubber cord to hold them on your boots, $2 at a Flagstaff used crap store. They bite icy trails just enough to prevent bruised bum, bone-cracking tumble, or sphincter-clenching cliff-edge “near death experience."

Ribbon Falls, GCNP
Doo-dad I do not: mp3pod or any other magic music box. My jet-engine-loud workplace makes my ears scream for silence. Sloppy frosting makes this monster church quiet as deep space: the Eternal Soundtrack. Eventually my grey database always supplies a marching tune, in this case Message To Love, Jimi Hendrix, over and over, mile upon mile.

Snow and ice turned to rain and mud, down down down. Bored burro trains lugged tourist goods, and decorated the trail with poop. Very few other souls. Hunkered over a tiny stove out of the crazy wind in a shallow ravine for instant coffee, dried cow, and a little smoke. Cracked my first big can of beer on the sandy north shore of the big river as the sun peeked out for the first and only time. Soon it sank below the western cliffs, not to peek again for three days.

Suspension bridges over Colorado River, Grand Canyon NP

Had my pick of the 33 Bright Angel camp spots--was the whole hiking world afraid to get wet? Drank my other beer and watched the few tourists straggle past to Phantom Ranch. Splashed the dark juice from a pre-made fake Oriental concoction on my only pants, a funky cologne. For easy after-dinner clean-up: lick your plate like a dog, then rinse. Cold but no fires allowed ever. As soon as it was dark enough I slept like petrified wood.

Daylight, intermittent rain. Stopped at the “Phantom Ranch Lodge” to check the chalkboard forecast: 100% chance of rain low and snow high. I interrupted two employees to ask about humans on the North Rim, in case I was dying up there. The shaggy long-hair said with a chuckle that there was a “caretaker...probably drunk.” The other, scarred and tattooed, glared like a snow leopard eager to rip my head off.

North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP
Steady rain on North Kaibab, a superhighway foot trail that wound along the wing of the church built by Bright Angel Creek (as opposed the the Dirty Devil far north, both renamed by John W. Powell.) Signs “Watch for rock falls,” short detours around collapsed piles. Monster boulders loomed above, perched on pebbles and twigs, and I stepped lively to reduce odds of being squished like a parking lot condiment packet.

Wet snow, near Cottonwood Campground. Three Park employees hurried south. I asked a straggling fourth whether they were abandoning their posts or changing the guard. He grumpily insisted the latter, but was the last green uniform for two days.

Cottonwood campground, Grand Canyon NP

Assessed mud depth among the 10 campsites while drinking rum and Gatorade. Four toilets, one unlocked and warm but too stinky to serve as a survival cubicle, across from 15 barrels and 87 bags, in rows, marked “COMPOST" (yes I counted.) Snooped around the rangers’ vacant cabin, decided I’d bust in if gods brewed the Storm of the Century. Only sound my random nose-blast or loud fart.

Cottonwood campground, Grand Canyon NP
Space six, under a scrub oak, was a mistake. Icy clumps, formed in the branches and scattered by wind, scratched at my garage-sale tent all night. A tiny leak soaked my pants. What an idiot! Shunned by hiking elite, jeans are fine for most desert jaunts, but not this. No choice but to put them on over my long underwear of warmer fiber, and hope to dry with wind and body heat. Destination North Rim and back, 14 miles, toting only a little food and water.

Roaring Springs area, GCNP
Another battened-down ranger station at Roaring Springs, steep uphill from there. Up up up, snow snow snow, sweaty work in a semi-blizzard. Mine were the only foot prints.

Halfway through the grey day was turn-around time. I started back, then reconsidered--I was so close, when would I get another chance?--and pushed on for another hour, one slow high step at a time. Long sections along sheer cliffs. Slipped and fell twice. Snow blew fiercer, drifts grew knee deep, and the Rim was lost in the clouds.

North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP

In a nook under a rock overhang I stopped to catch my breath and argue with me in the swirl. Accept failure? Or risk a life-or-death struggle, like a Jack London story, unable even "To Build A Fire" since that would violate Park Regulations? As “Dirty Harry" said, “A man has got to know his limitations.” To admit defeat is less failure than freezing. A snack and a smoke and I bounded down in my own lonely footsteps, mission unaccomplished. Close enough.

North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP

Soon I encountered the only other human of the day, making the same attempt all the way from Phantom Ranch. Small, sun-wrinkled as I, scabby chapped lips and tobacco-flecked teeth, he wore running shoes with ankle socks, which he claimed to have worn in the Alps. I felt less insane and wished him good luck.

Cottonwood campground, GCNP
Cottonwood Mud-Ground felt like modern civilization with its iced-over solar panels and flopping wind-sock (for helicopters which haul supplies, injured hikers, and, as it turns out, the “compost” to trucks which haul it to the Flagstaff landfill.) Rain and snow, off and on. Pants still mostly wet. I wrestled the tent to a slightly-less-muddy site, and violated regulations by improving drainage with a stick.

Alps-man tramped past, said he’d turned back not long after I had. Still, he’d hiked 17 miles that day with seven to go, to my ten. Maybe his running shoes were less dumb than my work boots. Plus he wore proper hiking pants.

Cottonwood campground, Grand Canyon NP
Woke to steady rain. Breaking wet camp sucks. My borrowed jacket slowly un-waterproofed, inundated. Only my back stayed dry, under the pack and its one-dollar garage-sale cover which actually worked. I hurried to reach the Lodge before it closed at four, my only hope of drying out a little.

North Kaibab Trail, GCNP
Mother nature had killed their electricity but they stayed open and tracked sales in a notebook, like olden times. In a dim corner I took off as many clothes as I decently could, draped them on chairs around me, and gratefully drank overpriced beer. In another corner, middle-aged Americans played spades, one reluctant partner annoying the trying-to-win others with her apathetic bad play. Six young men with British accents, wearing little head-lamps and correct pants, argued vigorously over a map at another table. Almost four, the rain abruptly quit so I threw on my less-wet clothes and got out.

Roaring Springs, GCNP
No longer deep dust and burro dung, the short path to the campground was now pungent sloppy soup. I’d hoped to sneak my tent under a ramada at the “group” site, but five tents, and ten people talking and laughing, were already there. They were from Monterrey, Mexico, and I knew enough Spanish and they enough English to talk, about--what else?--the weather.

North Kaibab Trail, GCNP
Pitched wet tent in least muddy site instead. A Park Ranger visited as always, to check permit and recite a little speech about the rules. He informed me that despite the power failure, the Lodge would open for two hours at eight, as usual, and that a fire would be allowed for once. I told him thanks but that was past my bedtime.

But after drinking the last of my booze (no sense in carrying it out), my last smoke, and pacing in rain-squalling darkness a while, a fire sounded pretty good. Surely the delicate few tourists were cold--an emergency, why were they waiting? I would muck back, find the guy in charge, and offer to help start a bit early. It made perfect sense. I could even dry my pants!

North Kaibab Trail, GCNP
My flashlight was a hand-crank “re-chargeable” that wouldn’t re-charge, it flickered weakly only if you continuously cranked. I straddled the worst of the ooze path like a kid with poopy pants, and cranked like a sport-fisherman. Someone inside the Lodge was lighting gas lamps but ignored my knocking, fed up with dumb-ass tourists no doubt. Undaunted I went out back hoping to corral a grunt worker, they usually know what’s up.

There, under tarpaulins, by lamp light, supper bubbled in big pots over gas burners. Soon a burly woman came out and began babbling happily about the whole set-up as she stirred. When I asked about the fire she frowned and gave me a grim once-over: five day ratty grey beard, reeking of body odor and liquor and dripping like a drowned hobo.

“There are no fires allowed--”

“Aw, come on, the Ranger told me--”

“Well, yeah, but only in the bunk-house, for paying guests.” Her tone: working girl who takes no crap.

“So that’s that?”

“Sorry,” clearly insincerely.

North Kaibab Trail, Grand Canyon NP

Defeated, deflated, befuddled, and bone tired, I cursed like a petulant child and staggered back into the dark and stormy night, prancing bowlegged and cranking furiously. Nature, the gods, and people, are sometimes jerks for no good reason. I lurched past the British camp where they still yapped earnestly at their map by torch-light.

Fortunately I do some stuff right: had fixed the leak by tightening rain-fly knots, and managed to keep my bed and one set of inner clothing dry, against all odds. Ahhhhh! Drifted off to the sound of Mexicans singing and laughing and hollering, like some of my old neighborhoods, and rain.

Burro compound at Phantom Ranch, AZ
Overcast morning but no sky-spit, 9.6 miles on Bright Angel Trail to go, uphill. Spurred on when one of the British punks, passing while I rested, wisecracked about my age. Passed them when they rested and they never caught me again. Geezer my arse, I showed them blokes.

Wet snow had wrought havoc with the trees at Indian Gardens (site of a former--can you guess?) Broken branches willy-nilly on and around the trail. A Ranger tried to lasso a dangling stray, the area roped off with red “DANGER” tape. While I heated soup under a delightfully dry ramada, a sudden brief thunderous rattle up-canyon. A stadium-high section had fallen, I could see the now-exposed dry rock. The roping Ranger ran that direction, then a staggering pot-bellied veteran, barking strenuously into his two-way radio. Whatever they were hoping to do about this subversive act of wind, water, and gravity--fill out a report, stand and say wow, or what--they were very excited.

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon NP, looking south

The last tired miles often make me wonder why I do it, even though I know. Wilderness recreates religious awe, reminds me to respect nature, its creatures, and all their gods. I am nothing in the cosmic scheme, same as every human that has ever lived, which makes holy this meat we live in and this rock we walk on. Better have a little fun while we can! And I remember that to love and be loved are the best.

Bright Angel Trail, GCNP
The latter propelled the final trudge to my old truck, alone in the lot and buried in snow. Starter’d been sketchy but it caught. Skipped my traditional post-hike fast food and 40 ounce barley-pop. Had to get back to my home church, shed wet pants, shower in warmed water, and worship in the sanctuary of my hot working goddess!

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon NP

“Well I travel at the speed of a reborn man...

If you wanna be free come along with me...

Find yourself first, and then your talent,

Work hard in your mind so you can come alive...

Everybody come alive!

Everybody live alive!

Everybody love alive!”

   --James Marshall Hendrix (1942-1970)

Bright Angel Trail, while under the influence of James Hendrix

All photos by me as usual. The black and white mutations here are my first and last "photo-shop" efforts. Too cheap to buy a photo mutation program, too honest to steal one, and too lazy to use one.