Grand Canyon Fever

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Chapter One

What began as a childhood trip turned into an obsession.

My love affair with the Grand Canyon began upon my first visit back in 1964 while on a family vacation to California. We had stopped there on a camping vacation out to Los Angeles from Kansas City and, like most tourists, I was awe-struck. Such a vast expanse! To this twelve year old boy, it seemed like that big hole in the ground was calling my name. As I stood dumbstruck on the rim at Mather Point, I can remember wondering what adventures must surely lay inside that cavernous expanse. How did one get down in there? Was it even possible? I knew this place was destined to hold a special fascination in my psyche forever. I knew, even then, that I would come back.

My first return visit was as a newly married young adult in the summer of 1972. My wife and I, along with another couple, borrowed my family’s pop-up camper trailer and headed west. I can vaguely remember the planning process, but my intent was clear: we were to hike into the Canyon.

None of us (least of all the two women) had very much hiking experience, but the information I had gleaned from the Park Service showed me it was possible, although quite strenuous. We were all young and confident and willing to take chances.

So, as ringleader, I planned the trip and secured the proper permits. We would hike down the South Kaibab trail for an overnight at Bright Angel camp then head up to Indian Gardens for a second night, leaving the Canyon via Bright Angel on the third day. Sounded reasonable to everyone, and on a bright July morning, we set off.

Of course, it was hot and grueling. The women didn’t complain, but, by the time we got to the Black Bridge, my wife had some beautiful blisters started. The march on to camp was less than pleasant.

Suffice to say that it only got worse for my poor wife. She wasn’t much enamored of the Canyon, as I was, and to have to endure the hot, difficult climb out was nearly more than she could bear. In fact, I can remember clearly, on the upper switchbacks of the Bright Angel, having to actually carry her piggy back for brief sections, while our two friends carried the gear.

We made it out, to the usual litany of complaints and declarations that “I’ll never do anything like that again!” from certain quarters. But I knew I would be back.

Chapter Two

Years passed, circumstances changed, but still the call of the Canyon was clear in my head. And so, in 1985 I began to plan for another expedition with my brother Dave and another friend. We also would head down the South Kaibab and back up to Indian Gardens. But from there we would travel west on the Tonto to Monument Creek and on out the Hermit trail, a four-day trip.

Thinking I had learned something from my earlier experience, I exhorted my partners to train for this trip. What a joke! Our training consisted of one long march, with
packs, about twelve miles down a railroad line. My thinking (very flawed) was that the stone rail bed would be good experience for our feet, sort of toughening them up as it were. But, as with most railways, it was nearly flat hiking.

Nevertheless, we schemed and plotted and, again, I received the coveted permits in the mail. We took off in a 1973 Volkswagen bus the second week of September. At least I had learned that hiking the Canyon in July was about as close to hell as a living person can get, and the September start would be cooler.

Part of the planning was solving the problem of getting back to our vehicle, which would be parked at Babbit’s General Store, from the hike’s end at Hermits Rest. This was before the days of the now mandatory shuttle buses, so, being a cyclist, we brought my bicycle, lashed it to a small pinion pine at the Hermit trailhead and drove the bus back to its resting place for the duration of our adventure.

Our hike was incredible but non-eventful, save our last night, spent at the Monument Creek camp. We had not had any trouble with “critters” finding our food, were really not even aware that such a problem existed. But, that night at Monument, we awoke to the sounds of rhythmic scratching, which would cease whenever we shined our lights outside the tent. Our packs were propped up against some rocks, about ten feet away. We finally caught a ringtail cat in our beams briefly and devised a terrible plot to dispense with this bother. Grabbing a couple of rocks, I took careful and quiet aim at the packs and waited for the intruder to appear again. Mind you, I’m not proud of what happened next, but when we heard the persistent varmint clawing at our packs again, my partners flashed on the lights and I let go with a mighty heave with one of the rocks. A squeaky yelp went up, then all was silent, and remained so the rest of the night.

In the morning light, an inspection of the battle site led to the discovery of a tuft of ringtail cat fur embedded on one of the rocks. Apparently my aim had been true and I had actually hit the hapless creature with the rock. Further inspection found no other remains. I like to think he survived, albeit with a tremendous ringtail cat headache!

The climb up Hermit trail was suitably grueling. My partners were slowing way down, so I took off ahead of them and reached the trailhead first, my bicycle still chained to the tree where I had left it.

I hopped astride my trusty Mare of Steel and rode the seven miles down the rim road to civilization and our waiting bus. After a quick drive back to pick up my partners, who were now safely at Hermits Rest, licking their wounds, the adventure was finished.

My Canyon fever showed no signs of subsiding with the years, it was only getting worse. I planned another trip in 1992 with my then burgeoning family: wife, two daughters, a niece and a step son.

Chapter Three

The plan this time was a grand Rim-to-Rim trek, starting at Hermits Rest and ending up on the North rim via the North Kaibab trail in three nights and four days of hiking. The wife and others would make the long drive from the South rim and be waiting for us on the North rim at the end of our hike, four days hence.

Unfortunately, I carried the bulk of supplies in my ancient pack, leaving a much lighter pack for my step son to carry. I think my pack weighed in at about 65 pounds. Nothing I carried was light weight or high tech. This misjudgment would be my undoing.

The first part of our hike was a reverse of the previous one: down the Hermit to Monument Creek, then across the Tonto to Bright Angel camp (in one day, another serious misjudgment), finally overnighting at Cottonwood camp and on out to the North rim and our waiting family.

The first day was intense and very difficult for me with such a large and heavy pack. The next day I was already suffering from extreme fatigue by the time we got to Horn Creek. But we slowly continued on, a very long day of hiking. My stepson, who was 15 at the time, was getting very concerned with my deteriorating condition and not a little scared, too.

We finally made it to Indian Garden, which was not on our itinerary, but I was cooked and could push myself no further. It was late afternoon and we were just hanging around the camp when a ranger stopped by. I told her that I wasn’t doing very well, that our permit was for Bright Angel camp that night but I felt sick and unable to continue. Could we stay here? A curt “no” was her answer. “We’re full up here tonight. You’ll have to either hike on to Bright Angel or head up the trail and out.” Well, I knew I wasn’t going to be doing either, especially not going on to Bright Angel. Then I remembered that the rest of my party was supposed to drive the 280 miles around to the North rim to meet us. I realized our trip was to be aborted, but the wife had no idea of what was happening to me down in the Canyon. It was imperative to get out as quickly as possible and alert them, before they took off for the North.

Still, I was severely dehydrated and generally tore up from the grueling hike that far. The ranger came back around and told us there was a chance they’d had a cancellation and we may yet be able to camp there for the night. This was good news, as the next day would be soon enough to head off my wife and other kids.

Miss Ranger came around yet a third time, right at dusk, and gave us permission to stay the night at Indian Garden. Whew! We set up camp, cooked a meal and retired for the evening.

The next morning, we were up and at ‘em and on the trail early. I was feeling somewhat better, although Canyon hiking is never easy, and we made good progress up and out of the Canyon.

On the rim, I headed for the nearest pay phone to call the wife in Flagstaff at the motel where they were staying. The desk clerk said they weren’t in. When he realized I was her husband and I told him my wife needed to be notified about where we were, he told us she was at a local garage, getting our car fixed! What? She had had her own mini-disaster. She and the three girls had gone to Sedona and Sliderock for the day. On their way back to the motel, the fuel pump went out on the car about five miles south of Flagstaff. With no cell phone, but a firm constitution, she began to march the three girls (the youngest was seven) up the highway toward Flag. Someone finally stopped and she accepted the offer of a ride to the motel. A call to a local garage and a tow into Flagstaff for repair was her own little challenging adventure.

I finally got through to her at the garage. The car was being fixed as we spoke and she assured me they would drive straight to the South rim to pick us up. I was relieved, as I had averted an unnecessary trip of over 280 miles for her. She was relieved that we were alive and safe, after hearing of our debacle. We limped home from that vacation, I’ll tell you for sure.

Incredibly, some might muse, I still had a burning desire to return to the place I love the most in the entire world. I was an experienced Canyon hiker by this point (so I felt), learning valuable, if not frightening, lessons. I needed to lighten up my pack. I needed not to bite off such a large hunk of hiking in one day. But the wheels began turning in my head again at the approach of my fiftieth birthday in September of 2002.

Chapter Four

There was a man in my local bicycle club, retired, who rode almost all the time. He mentioned to nearly everyone he met that, when his time to go came, he’d rather it happen while he was riding his beloved bike. He got his wish, suffering a fatal heart attack at the age of 72 while riding one of his favorite routes.

That’s the way I feel about the Grand Canyon. Not that I yearn for an early checkout from the Life Hotel, but if I could choose the place of my demise, it would surely be in The Grand Canyon. I have never felt closer to God, more in tune with the cosmos than those times I was there.

I know that many of my fellow Grand Canyonophiles would probably feel the same. Such is the inexorable draw the Canyon has on some people. The beauty and grandeur of, in my humble opinion, God’s finest handiwork, are only two of the salient features that provide endless awe and pleasure. It is a place of infinite colors, changing by the minute. The weather can also turn quickly, desert hot and dry as a bone one minute, a monsoon-like gully washer with lightning flashing and thunder crashing the next. It makes my head swoon to try and comprehend the vast span of time that it took, first, to build the rocks from which it was created then another shorter, yet equally incomprehensible, space of time for the mighty Colorado to slice down through the uplifting plateau.

And so, it calls us back, those of us who have had a taste of life inside the Canyon. Fraught with both beauty and danger, it excites the senses as no other place on earth can. It causes one to challenge one’s self; the Canyon draws you back, inspiring desire for ever more exciting and lengthy visits. It is, indeed, a fever, a fever of the human spirit.

I have two younger brothers, Dave, who you’ve already met, and Ted, the baby of the family. I thought it would be very cool if the three of us could go out and do a rim-to-rim in three days. They heartily agreed, although Brother Ted was not nearly as enthusiastic as Dave. So, as a 50th birthday present to myself, we made the long car trip out to the South rim. We camped at Mather one night before heading off to the North rim, where we would stay one night, leave our van and return to the South rim via shuttle bus to start our hike. It was an excellent time of bonding for three brothers and we all came out of the ordeal none the worse for wear.

Chapter Five

Since then, I have been back for non-hiking visits a couple of times. But something inside me wanted more. I wanted to test myself. I wanted to hike it alone.

And so, after another trip in the fall of 2005 with my Lady Jane (heralded in another story in these pages), I decided I would plan a Grand Adventure for the following year. It was to be an extended, solo hike, on trails that were pretty far off the well-traveled corridor routes. I began to research on the Internet and every other available resource. I decided on a Hermit-Boucher loop hike.

In the spring of 2006, when I made my plan public, my family thought I was nuts. “It’s too dangerous going alone, that’s too long a time, you must have a death wish, Tim!” they would say. But Jane supported me as much as possible, all the while keeping her own fears and dreads to herself.

I decided on the trails, as I said, and so began to refine my plan. I would do the loop starting at the Hermit Trail and hike down to Hermit Camp, stay two days with a hike to the rapids at the river, then hike across the Tonto to Boucher Creek and stay there two days, taking another hike to Boucher Rapids. Then I would tackle the incredibly difficult climb out the Boucher Trail in three segments; a climb to the saddle at Whites Butte for a camp there, the climb up Travertine Canyon for a camp below Yuma Point and, finally, the hike to the rim via the upper Hermit Trail.

I drove out in my Volkswagen camper bus at the end of September. The hike itself was fantastic, despite a few foibles, the worst of which was a self-inflicted knife wound to my right eye (which ended up being more scary than damaging). And, of course, that occurred when I was at the most remote, most uninhabited portion of my hike! You can read every gory detail of this hike (and a coupla others) by going back to the Travelogues Main Menu.

But this dream hike was everything I had hoped it would be. I had tested myself against the mighty Grand Canyon and come up a winner, although a very humble one. The solitude I enjoyed for four days without seeing another person was incredibly illuminating. There is nothing like being deep in the bowels of the Canyon to make a person reexamine their place in the universe. The feelings of cosmic insignificance are so intense that it might scare some people. But, for me, it was an epiphany. Having an unshakeable faith that there is a God out there that created all of this merely reinforced my idea that, no matter how insignificant, every being on this planet has a place and is meant to be here.

Most visitors to the Grand Canyon are suitably impressed with the sheer grandeur that presents itself. Some may ooh and aah and comment on it, using platitudes that are both trite yet appropriate. However, some, such as myself, are drawn to its glory on a deeper level, and are called back time and time again.

I am a well traveled person. I have seen the marvels of Yellowstone, stood in amazement at the base of Half Dome in Yosemite, gazed out over Bryce Canyon, and pondered the mysteries of Mesa Verde. I have traveled through Germany, France, Italy, Greece and Ireland, among others. I know there are amazing sights and places out there in the world. I’m sure I will visit more of them for the first time. But nothing can compare to the absolutely cosmic, magnetic attraction that is The Grand Canyon. In my humble yet versed opinion, there is no place like it on earth.

I will go back.

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