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A Fine Line

Flagstaff, Arizona, began as a railroad town, founded in 1876 as a distribution center for the timber industry. The railroad still has a pervasive influence on the city today.

How pervasive? Well, mammoth freight trains rumble through town about 100 times a day. That pervasive.

U.S. Route 66 is one of the main highways through the city, bisecting Flagstaff from east to west. Roughly paralleling it are the tracks of the BNSF Railway. The city has a few overpasses and one underpass, but most of the railroad crossings are the old-fashioned kind with crossing gates.

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In short, much of Flagstaff is at the mercy of the trains. And the problem is at its worst in the downtown district, which has significant vehicular and foot traffic from visitors, residents, and students from Northern Arizona University, which is close to downtown.

The city’s relationship with BNSF has been prickly for years. Not only are the trains a constant disruption, but deaths occur regularly from accidents (inattention, drugs, alcohol) and suicides.

A few years ago, the city went to court and forced BNSF to slow the trains down, improve the crossings, and stop blowing their horns for the hell of it. The locals were furious at being startled awake multiple times overnight, plus having to endure the horns all day.

Part of me finds the situation amusing. But, noise and inconvenience aside, a moving train is a truly sobering thing. There is a fine line between continuing your day and being dead.

That lesson was driven home when I was in Flagstaff on vacation in September. Specifically, along with several dozen other people, I had an alarming close call with a passing freight train. The memory of it still gives me the willies.

To get you oriented, here is a map of the downtown area that I lifted from the city website.

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The main business district is north of the railroad and Route 66. The area south of the tracks is a mixture of retail and residential.

I should add that, inside the city limits, the BNSF tracks are double. Eastbound trains use the south tracks, westbound trains use the north tracks. Like a two-lane highway.

The close call happened at the Beaver Street railroad crossing. Beaver Street is one-way going south. This is the crossing looking north.

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The day it happened, I had just returned from shopping downtown. When I reached the tracks, a westbound freight was in the process of passing. The crossing arms were down, holding back the vehicles. Waiting with me at the northwest corner were six or eight pedestrians. A dozen more were across the street on the northeast corner.

Later that day, I took this photo, looking west from the same spot. The westbound freight had been on the right set of tracks, blocking the view of the eastbound tracks on the left.

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After the westbound train passed, the crossing arms went up, and the cars and pedestrians started south across the tracks. At the same time, pedestrians on the south side of the tracks proceeded toward us.

Suddenly, the warning bells went off again. The crossing arms came down.

I looked to my right and saw another train, this one eastbound, almost upon us. The first train had hidden it until the last second.

Train #2 was going faster than the westbound freight. The engineer leaned on his horn. Most of the pedestrians, me included, were caught by surprise and were a bit disoriented.

Later, I took this photo of another eastbound train. This is what I saw bearing down on us.

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In the next five seconds, a lot happened. The first few vehicles proceeded across the tracks, maybe unaware of the oncoming train. The cars behind them were stopped by the crossing arms.

But among the pedestrians, pandemonium ensued. People screamed, shouted, and scattered in panic.

I was halfway across the tracks when I spotted the oncoming train. I ran forward toward the people coming in my direction, waving my arms and yelling for them to get back.

Most stopped, but one young couple looked at me funny and continued forward. “No! No!” I yelled. “Train coming! Another one!” They retreated.

With a blast of wind and noise, the train shot past. People milled around, breathless, rattled.

Like all the freight trains, it was a long one. After it was gone, I looked around the crossing. No casualties.

The excitement was over, and everyone disbursed. I walked across the street to Altitudes Bar & Grill to have lunch and a well-earned beer.

The waitress was friendly and chatty, and I told her what had happened. She was a native. The subject was close to her heart.

She sat down opposite me in the booth and gave me a detailed report on the city’s battles with BNSF. She also told me about some of the more memorable deaths — a gruesome litany of horrific accidents and suicides.

“Honey,” she said, “there ain’t no sugar-coating it. Death by train is always messy.”

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I just got back from a satisfying road trip to the Southwest in my RV. I was on the road for 17 days, had good weather, no problems to speak of.

I went to Roswell, Hatch, and Gallup, New Mexico. Also Flagstaff, Grand Canyon, Tuba City, Lees Ferry, and Page, Arizona.

I largely avoided the Interstates, which allowed me to pass through countless cites and towns that are their own little worlds.

As always, I came home with a nice batch of memories. To my surprise, one that stands out is not an experience, but an article I read in a promotional publication at Grand Canyon. It amounts to a fluff piece in a brochure for tourists, but it’s nicely done.

Maybe it clicked with me because I’ve been to Grand Canyon so often (this was my 27th trip), and I’m so familiar with the place, physically and operationally. When the writer describes a coyote at Lipan Point or the shuttle bus to the South Kaibab Trailhead, I have mental pictures.

The article is presented as the “untold story” of anonymous park employees and volunteers, but, inevitably, it also includes the experiences of visitors.

For the record, I forgive them for liberally taking artistic license — basically, making up hokey stuff to advance the story — because it gets the job done.

Here’s the article.

———

A Day in the Life of Grand Canyon National Park

(From “100 Years, One Million Lives, One Grand Canyon,” published by Grand Canyon National Park and Grand Canyon Conservancy)

Much has been written about the beauty, geology, and history of Grand Canyon. But the canyon does have an untold story — the tales of the people who live and work there.

For a national park as immense and remote at Grand Canyon to operate smoothly, it requires an army of dedicated employees and volunteers.

They are on hand daily doing their jobs, and that simple act allows millions of visitors each year to experience one of the best of America’s natural crown jewels.

12:01 AM — A shooting star streaks across the sky, catching the eye of a coyote near Lipan Point. No one knows whether she made a wish.

Day-1

1:22 AM — A river guide assisting with a science trip wakes up and pushes the rafts farther out into the Colorado River because the water drops after the daily release from Glen Canyon Dam.

2:06 AM — Search and Rescue Dispatch takes a call from a distressed hiker on the South Kaibab Trail. Staff immediately respond to aid the struggling hiker.

2:18 AM — A Delaware North (note: a park concessionaire) plumber is roused from sleep when he is called out to respond to a broken toilet in a Yavapai Lodge guest room.

3:06 AM — Xanterra (note: also a concessionaire) mule packers arrive at work to begin grooming mules and packing supplies for Phantom Ranch.

4:00 AM — The Hiker’s Express shuttle leaves Bright Angel Lodge on its way to South Kaibab Trailhead.

5:34 AM — An excited Boy Scout troop starts a backpacking hike down Bright Angel Trail.

5:58 AM — Staff at Canyon Village Deli begin assembling breakfast burritos and bagel sandwiches.

6:03 AM — Shades of soft purple melt away, and the canyon’s terraced formations seem to glow as the first rays of light caress ancient stone. Dawn’s color wheel turns, saturating the sky with pink, gold, and bronze hues so astounding they do not yet have a name. The sun has risen at Grand Canyon.

6:08 AM — Bright Angel Bicycles & Café serves up the first cappuccinos and cinnamon rolls to visitors who were up early to witness the sunrise.

6:47 AM — Custodial staff finishes cleaning the restrooms at Yavapai Geology Museum.

7:38 AM — An Italian father wakes his sleepy son and carries him to the window of their North Rim cabin so the boy can see deer grazing just outside.

8:00 AM — Grand Canyon Visitor Center opens for the day.

9:00 AM — Morning briefing begins for the park’s emergency services personnel.

9:03 AM — Trail crew pushes wheelbarrows of dirt down South Kaibab Trail for maintenance work.

9:17 AM — At Desert View Watchtower, a Hopi painter and a Navajo silversmith work on their art and answer questions as part of the Desert View cultural demonstrator series.

Day-2

9:21 AM — An Oregon family pedals along Hermit Road after being carefully outfitted with bikes and helmets from Bright Angel Bicycles.

9:30 AM — Volunteer campground hosts begin rounds to ensure visitors are checked out and campfires are extinguished.

9:31 AM — An El Tovar Hotel bartender starts the three-hour preparations for a busy day and evening ahead, full of thirsty Grand Canyon guests.

10:04 AM — A visitor from Minnesota takes photos of her family as they ride mules to Phantom Ranch. She cannot remember the last time she’s seen her moody teenager wearing such a broad smile.

10:37 AM — Grand Canyon Conservancy Field Institute staff lead a group of new backpackers down Bright Angel Trail to Indian Garden.

11:01 AM — Law enforcement rangers respond to people feeding squirrels near Bright Angel Lodge. They provide first aid for a bitten hand and instruct the visitor to get rabies shots as a precaution.

Day-3

Day-4

11:16 AM — In Desert View Watchtower, a young woman from Canada chats with Grand Canyon Conservancy staff. Amazed to discover the building and many other park structures were designed by Mary Colter, she purchases a book to learn more about the pioneering architect.

12:01 PM — A philanthropy manager from Grand Canyon Conservancy meets with prospective donors over lunch to discuss endowing the park’s trail maintenance program.

12:22 PM — While strolling along the Rim Trail, a Swedish couple stops to enjoy the playful cawing of a raven seemingly saying, “Come fly with me.”

12:41 PM — Fee collection staff at South Rim Entrance Station competes to see who can move vehicles through their lane the fastest.

1:13 PM — A Canyon Trail Rides mule packer leads visitors on a ride through the North Rim’s lush forests to Uncle Jim Point.

1:26 PM — Representatives from the park’s Traditionally Associated Tribes meet with park staff to give input on a new vision for the Desert View area that will include more tribal participation.

1:30 PM — A volunteer on summer break from college begins a guided tour of Tusayan Ruin.

1:43 PM — Custodial staff restocks Grand Canyon Visitor Center bathrooms with a pallet (48 cases) of toilet paper, which will last one week.

2:11 PM — Diners finishing a delicious meal on the patio of Grand Canyon Lodge strike up a conversation with the busboy, only to discover they once lived in the same small Idaho town.

2:38 PM — Wildlife staff work to move elk away from human drinking-water sources at South Kaibab Trailhead.

3:07 PM — Park rangers and emergency medical technicians administer CPR to revive a visitor who collapsed in the Market Plaza parking lot.

3:25 PM — A shaft of sunlight pierces the cloud cover, bathing Brahma Temple in a satiny glow while the surrounding formations are dappled by shadows. An Indiana man watches and wonders whether it is the single most beautiful sight he has ever seen.

3:36 PM — A couple from Missouri celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary sitting on the rim, eating ice cream cones from Bright Angel Fountain.

3:42 PM — A park ranger and her equestrian partner, Rio, stop to talk to a family about the desert bighorn sheep they can see from the rim. The kids pose for photos with Rio and give him lots of love.

3:51 PM — During a program on California condors, two of the impressive birds fly past. The park ranger conducting the program wisely takes credit for the visual aids.

Day-5

4:00 PM — A Phantom Ranch park ranger begins a program in the amphitheater about water conservation.

4:12 PM — A sudden monsoon drives visitors into Grand Canyon Visitor Center. The movie theater fills, and the line to the information desk backs up the length of the building.

4:23 PM — A park ranger roving the campground at Desert View tells visitors about the sunset talk happening that evening. At one stop he hears a Grand Canyon pink rattlesnake shaking its tail.

5:48 PM — As quickly as it began, the rain ends. The buildings in the Village nearly empty as everyone hurries to the rim to watch the shifting pattern of sun and clouds, light and shadows reinventing the canyon right before their eyes.

6:07 PM — A bartender at Yavapai Tavern pours another local Arizona beer for a guest.

6:30 PM — Employees from different departments of the park gather for a weekly volleyball game.

6:41 PM — Over plates of salmon tostadas at El Tovar Hotel, two old college friends compare aches and pains acquired from their backpacking trip to Horseshoe Mesa.

6:47 PM — A river guide serves a cake baked in a Dutch oven to visitors rafting the Colorado river.

7:11 PM — Although the sky is mostly clear, a few low-lying clouds linger. They seem to go up in flames as the sun slips below the horizon. Bands of red and orange streak the sky, dancing across the formations below. Spontaneous applause is heard from several viewpoints. The sun has set at Grand Canyon.

7:13 PM — With lavish sky and a color-streaked canyon as a backdrop, a young man from Wisconsin proposes to his girlfriend. She tearfully accepts, thus ensuring the couple an impressively romantic engagement story.

8:00 PM — A park ranger on the North Rim welcomes visitors to the evening program in the Grand Canyon Lodge auditorium.

8:26 PM — Wildlife staff net bats to determine if white-nose syndrome is in the park.

9:11 PM — Unable to sleep after an amazing Grand Canyon day, an aspiring 12-year-old poet scribbles in her notebook at Maswik Lodge.

9:39 PM — A family from Phoenix stands at Mather Point gazing skyward and for the very first time sees the Milky Way.

10:06 PM — The musician at Bright Angel Lounge launches into an obscure Bob Dylan tune, and without a word two friends at the front table smile and clink their glasses.

11:59 PM — A coyote lopes across bare stone, pausing near the rim to sniff the breeze wafting out of the canyon. She glances at a slice of moon, yips twice, and trots off.

No one knows what she said.

Day-6

Not bad for a fluff piece.

 

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One of the many intriguing places at Grand Canyon is the remote area at the west end of the North Rim known as Toroweap or Tuweep. This quiet, lonely place averages eight visitors per day. That’s 3,000 people per year out of Grand Canyon’s total of five million annual visitors.

Most people use the terms Toroweap and Tuweep (Tu-veep) interchangeably, but there’s a technical difference.

Toroweap refers to various named landforms — Toroweap Valley, Toroweap Point, Toroweap Lake, and Toroweap Overlook (the latter being a spot at the rim where the Colorado River is 3,000 feet below you, straight down). In Paiute, Toroweap means “dry valley” or “barren valley.”

Tuweep is the general spot on the map — a scattered settlement, if you can call it that, consisting of a small ranger station, the ranger’s residence, a few outbuildings, a Park Service airstrip, a primitive campground, and half a dozen trails of various lengths and degrees of difficulty. Tuweep is a Paiute word for “the earth.”

I’ve been to Toroweap twice. My first trip, in April 2000, was a four-day camping and hiking trip with the Grand Canyon Field Institute. Experienced guides made all the arrangements, provided transportation, and watched out for us. The trip was deceptively easy.

My second visit was an ill-fated solo hike in September 2001, cut short in dramatic fashion when I got food poisoning. The experience was sobering and scary.

I think of Toroweap/Tuweep as having four defining features.

The first is its remote location, at the end of a treacherous washboard road, 60 miles from the nearest pavement, 75 miles from the nearest town. The odds are high that your vehicle will have a flat tire, maybe two, somewhere along the way.

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Inching along the road to Tuweep.

The second feature is the lack of services. There is no water, food, gas, lodging, phone service, or internet connection. You bring everything you need, and you solve your own problems. Yes, the ranger station is connected to park headquarters by radio, but the ranger station is six miles from the campground and the overlook.

Feature three is the scenery. The views of Toroweap Valley, the inner canyon, the river, and the ancient lava flows are truly spectacular. They will give you goosebumps.

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Looking east/upstream from Toroweap Overlook.

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The downstream view from Toroweap Overlook showing Lava Falls, the baddest rapid on the river. Covering the right bank: its namesake lava flow.

The fourth defining feature is historical: the story of John Hauert Riffey, who served as the sole park ranger at Tuweep from 1942 until 1980. A career of 38 years at one of the loneliest, most isolated places on the map.

Tuweep is stark desert country. The area is both bleak and beautiful, a mix of sagebrush, yucca, cacti, piñon pine, and rock. The weather, summer and winter, often is extreme.

Toroweap Lake is normally dry. Water collects there, and in scattered pockets among the rocks, only briefly after a storm.

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The Tuweep campground.

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The Tuweep Ranger Station.

John H. Riffey from Durango, Colorado, held degrees in forestry and range management when, in 1942, he accepted a ranger position at Grand Canyon National Monument. When he and his wife Laura arrived at Tuweep, they used firewood to heat the ranger’s residence, cooked on a gas stove, and collected rainwater and snowmelt in cisterns. They had no electricity and no refrigerator. Their nearest neighbor was a rancher who lived 20 miles north.

Under circumstances that might drive others mad, John and Laura were comfortable and content at Tuweep.

Riffey’s job was to take care of anything that needed attention. He repaired whatever broke, maintained the campground, greeted visitors, pulled vehicles from the mud, put out wildfires, and collected trash.

His equipment included a road grader to repair the local roads after storms. He kept records about the local flora and fauna. He submitted the reports demanded by the park bureaucracy.

Laura took an interest in the area’s birds, native and migratory. She had no training in such things, but for years, she kept detailed records of her observations. Her notes are considered scientifically important and are preserved in the park’s archives.

In 1943, John was drafted into the Army, and he served for 17 months as a medical technician on a hospital ship. After the war ended, John and Laura returned at Tuweep.

The years passed, and John did his job well. He received regular commendations and awards, while simultaneously turning down promotions that would require him to relocate.

By the late 1950s, John had become known around the Park Service for his dedication, hard work, and unusually long service at the same location. Normally, rangers take new assignments every few years.

At one point, the park superintendent ordered Riffey to accept a transfer, on the grounds that rotating to new assignments was what park rangers did. Riffey refused.

The superintendent gave Riffey a choice: leave Tuweep or face dismissal. When Riffey chose dismissal, the superintendent backed down. Riffey was quietly cheered by rangers throughout the Park Service. His status as a living legend was strengthened.

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Ranger John H. Riffey.

Laura, who had several health issues, died in 1962. John stayed on the job. He said he had no problem living alone, although he enjoyed greeting visitors. “You like people if you are not overrun with them,” he explained.

He told a reporter, “My only contribution to society is trying to keep this place just like it is.”

Riffey may have been content with his solitude, but he didn’t remain a bachelor for long. In the spring of 1964, a graduate student from the University of Utah, Meribeth Mitchell, came to Tuweep to study the vegetation. She was 40, John was 53.

After her trip, they corresponded often. She returned to Tuweep in the fall, after which the correspondence continued. They were married in 1965.

Meribeth Riffey kept her job teaching biology at Western Washington University, north of Seattle, but she spent spring and summer at Tuweep. John scheduled his vacations in winter and spent them with Meribeth.

Sometime in the late 1960s, John took flying lessons and purchased a second-hand Piper Cub. He named the aircraft Pogo. A wooden enclosure to block the strong winds served as a hangar. Riffey nailed a sign to the enclosure that read

TUWEEP INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
SOUTH CONCOURSE
GATE 2

With Pogo, John was able to patrol thousands of acres around Tuweep and make quick hops to civilization for mail and groceries. He was known to fly through Grand Canyon below the rim. Meribeth was a regular passenger.

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Ranger Riffey standing next to Pogo.

In July 1980, as John and a friend were hauling water to Tuweep from a nearby spring, John’s vision blurred, and he became weak. It was the beginning of a heart attack. The friend took the wheel and tried to reach the hospital in St. George, but John died on the way. He would have turned 69 in August.

With Meribeth’s permission, the park superintendent lobbied his superiors to suspend the rules and allow John to be buried at Tuweep. The request was granted. A spot with a sweeping view of the valley was chosen along the road between the ranger station and Toroweap Overlook.

This is inscribed on his monument:

John H. Riffey
‘The Last Old Time Ranger’

The man who could spend a lifetime on the rim and not waste a minute
National Park Ranger, Tuweep from 1942 to 1980
Good Samaritan, gentle friend, teller of tall tales

Meribeth died in 1993 and is buried beside him.

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When I ventured out to Toroweap in 2000 and 2001, I knew nothing about John, Laura, and Meribeth Riffey. If the instructors at Grand Canyon Field Institute mentioned them, it didn’t register.

That’s a shame. I have vivid memories of Toroweap and wonderful images in my mind’s eye, but knowing this part of the human history adds to my appreciation of the place.

It also makes me regret that I missed a chance to visit the graves and pay my respects.

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Pete Gross, known to his peers as “Dirtbag” or “Dirt,” is a legendary Colorado River boatman who began his career in the 1970s rowing dories through Grand Canyon. He is now retired and living in Moab, Utah.

Karma handed Pete his nickname; he had a habit of calling everyone “dirtbag,” in the affectionate manner of addressing others as “dude” or “pal.” Eventually, the term ended up affixed to him.

In the boating world, Pete is respected for being not only a skilled professional, but also a sincere, practicing environmentalist. He is known for truly walking the walk.

To get around, Pete rides a bike or takes public transportation. To reach his energy-efficient home in a green community in Moab, you either walk or bike; no cars are allowed.

He doesn’t have a TV set or an internet connection. He goes dumpster-diving at Moab grocery stores on the principle that too much perfectly good food is thrown out. That practice evolved into a local food redistribution program run by Pete’s friends and other volunteers.

Pete lives modestly, with a goal of leaving a responsible footprint on the planet. Yet, he insists he is comfortable and content, and life is good.

In 2009, he was interviewed at length as part of a program designed to preserve the memories and stories of the old-time river guides for posterity. When I came across the transcript, I was struck by his explanation of why he feels so strongly about treading lightly on the earth. He made his case with passion and eloquence.

Here is an excerpt.

————

I remember the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969. When I first read about that, my reaction was, “Okay, so it’s made a mess of the whole coastline, but we need the oil.”

But slowly, I came around to the notion that I was basically anti-people, anti-technology. I just chose environmentalism over economics. It was a pretty naive viewpoint, but that was the conscious choice. My attitude was, it was one versus the other.

I’d just chosen that the environment was more important to me, and people and the economy came second. It was a slow realization for me that — whether it was just my misperception, or the powers-that-be fueling the notion that it’s one or the other — it was a big epiphany for me to realize, no! Those are not two mutually exclusive options.

I think there are certain… like, the oil companies and certain powers-that-be have a vested interest in fueling a false… bifurcation? Is that the right word? You have one or the other, you can’t have both.

But really, you can’t have one without the other. Or, you can’t have a healthy economy if you’ve spoiled and ruined your foundation for that, which is the environment.

There’s a book by Amory Lovins — he and some others, Lovins was a co-author — a book called Natural Capitalism that talks about a post-industrial era. What makes the most sense, not just environmentally, but economically, is to realize that there are these natural services that are irreplaceable, yet we place no value on them.

Like our atmosphere, and the biosphere that cycles through nutrients… just the whole cycle of energy, the sun shining on the earth, plants taking the sun, converting through chlorophyll, taking CO2 and making glucose, and then enriching the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which then makes it possible for the plants to grow that make our food, whatever.

There are all these natural services that we can’t replicate, and yet we don’t value them. And so we destroy them in the notion that we’re gonna make a buck. We’re profiting, but we’re destroying our real capital to create this income stream that isn’t sustainable.

That was when I finally had this realization, “Oh, I don’t need to choose that I’m an environmentalist, and therefore I oppose economic development.” I realized you can’t have a healthy economy without a robust, healthy environment.

You know, I look at a forest, and I don’t see board feet. I look at a river, and I don’t see kilowatt hours. But you look at a forest and realize, “Okay, yeah, there’s an economic value to the wood in that tree. Yeah, we could log that tree and mill it and sell it and stuff, and there’s a certain economic value.

But what we ignore is that that tree, standing in place there, is providing wildlife habitat and watershed. It’s helping give us a sustainable clean water source and protecting us from floods, and so on. We cut that tree down, we’re not very good at putting a price tag on how much value it has just in place.

The same thing comes up when you’re looking strictly at river issues, when you talk about dams versus irrigation and water rights.

Well, like we’ve learned with the salmon fisheries. There’s an incredible value to this food source. We have eliminated or almost decimated these salmon populations, which were natural services, provided for free. An incredible food source.

Instead, we put a lot of infrastructure in place, and a lot of irrigation and what-not, to raise cows. Takes a lot of effort, a lot of money, at the price of — we’ve decimated salmon fisheries, for which we didn’t have to do anything. They were there for the harvesting!

————

He had me at “bifurcation.”

Lachs / Wanderung / Kanada

 

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Trip 25

Part 4

Wednesday morning after a hearty Canteen breakfast, I set out east on the Clear Creek Trail. It was built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps and initially was used by mules coming up from Phantom Ranch, but now is for hikers only.

Halfway up to the Tonto Platform is Phantom Overlook.

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The CCC’s stone bench and other nifty trail work.

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Phantom Ranch from Phantom Overlook.

Half a mile later, at this bend in the trail, you get the first view of the Colorado River looking upstream.

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The trail continues the long climb up to the Tonto Platform. The Park Service claims to perform regular maintenance up there, but it appears to be minimal.

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After a few more bends of the trail, you get this awesome downstream view. Ordinarily, I avoid the word awesome, but in this case, it fits.

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The Black Bridge (lower left) is where the mules cross the river.

The golden cottonwoods at the bend in the river mark the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. Phantom Ranch is along Bright Angel Creek half a mile upstream.

For scale, consider this:

– The Tonto Platform on the south (left) side of the river — the prominent ledge halfway up — is half a vertical mile above the Colorado.

– The South Rim, the highest point in the distance, is a full vertical mile above the river.

A closer view:

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Look close, and you can see the Silver Bridge, where most hikers cross the river. It’s in the shadow just before the Colorado disappears around the last bend.

Three miles from Phantom Ranch, you arrive at what I consider one of the grandest sights in Grand Canyon: the view looking up at Zoroaster Temple.

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I know these things are subjective, but I think Zoro is a phenomenal landform. It’s beautiful and majestic, with amazing symmetry.

And it becomes even more impressive when you are standing close, the arms looming on both sides.

Magical.

Many people observe that being at Grand Canyon is like a religious experience. I certainly see it that way.

As it happens, so does Bob Dylan. These are the closing lines from Dylan’s “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie” from 1963:

You can either go to the church of your choice
Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital
You’ll find God in the church of your choice
You’ll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital

And though it’s only my opinion
I may be right or wrong
You’ll find them both
In the Grand Canyon
At sundown

————

Early Thursday morning, the mule riders left Phantom Ranch and returned to the South Rim via the South Kaibab Trail. Starting out, we still had pleasant, shirt-sleeves weather.

But about halfway to the rim, that abruptly changed. Dark clouds rolled in, the wind picked up, the temperature dropped. The coats, gloves, and earmuffs came out. It was the beginning of a storm that would leave Northern Arizona and most of New Mexico in the deep freeze for the next week.

The South Kaibab is an exposed, ridgeline trail, and, especially near the rim, the wind can be brutal. For the last mile of the ride, we sat hunched in our saddles, shivering in an icy, 40-mph wind.

I could feel Twinkie leaning, leaning, leaning against it. I did my best not to interfere.

————

So far, I have no specific plans for another trip to Grand Canyon, but the odds are pretty good I’ll go again.

Yes, I do believe I’ll go again.

25-21

 

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Trip 25

Part 3

So, there I was, newly arrived at Phantom Ranch and gloriously happy — joyful, ecstatic, stoked, take your pick — to be there.

Mostly, my thoughts were on the following day, when I planned to hike out the Clear Creek Trail for the day. The hike would be a bit strenuous, a climb of 1,500 feet up to the Tonto Platform and a distance of six miles round-trip, but the views make it worthwhile.

After a steak dinner at the Canteen, I walked down to the boat beach and the mouth of Bright Angel Creek. By the time I got back, night had fallen.

At 8:00 PM, the Canteen reopened, and I staked out one corner of a quiet table. For the next hour, I nursed another beer and leafed through some books from the library. The Canteen has a wall of books devoted to Grand Canyon history and geology.

At 9:00 PM, I said goodnight and headed back to my cabin; I didn’t want to miss the arrival of the full moon. I had experienced a full moon at Phantom before, so I knew what to expect.

To prepare for the moment, I got comfortable on the bench in front of the cabin, opened the container of brandy I had brought along in my saddlebag, and poured two fingers’ worth into a plastic cup. I commenced to sipping and waiting.

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My cabin.

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The view toward the Canteen.

Thanks to a few strategic streetlights and light from the canteen, I could see my surroundings clearly.  Now and then, guests walked by on the main path 20 yards away, headlamps flickering through the foliage. Overhead, the east wall of Bright Angel Canyon was growing steadily brighter as moonrise approached.

In the spirit of the moment, I drank a toast to the River Gods, and whatever other deities might be listening, and I thanked them for my good fortune.

I toasted Phantom Ranch and thanked it for years of incredible memories.

I toasted Twinkie, who had been so calm and cooperative during the morning ride. While I spent Wednesday hiking, Twinkie would be rewarded with the day off.

By the time I toasted Grand Canyon in its entirety, the brandy and the emotion caught up with me, and tears came to my eyes.

Dammit, I thought, You never used to cry at anything. Now look at you.

But the tears flowed because, at that moment, I was blissfully content.

Then, just in time to keep me weeping like a fool, the Moon sprung from behind the rim. Phantom Ranch was bathed in a brilliant, most sublime light.

I gasped, leapt to my feet, and took photos, all forgettable.

As I returned to the bench with a sigh of satisfaction, a slight movement on the right side of the path caught my attention. I peered intently at the spot.

Seconds later, barely 10 yards away, a fox emerged soundlessly from the undergrowth. He paused on the path, looked carefully around, and spotted me.

My presence didn’t seem to concern him. He studied me calmly for a moment and continued on his way.

I blinked in disbelief. The incident was almost surreal. Had I imagined it?

Of course not. A passing fox just looked you in the eye.

Blubbering anew, I raised my cup and toasted the fox.

The next morning at breakfast, I told a staff member about the encounter. I knew ringtail cats live around Phantom Ranch, and you spot them occasionally, but I wasn’t aware of a fox population.

Yes, she said, foxes do reside at Phantom. What I saw was a gray fox. They’re quiet, harmless, and fairly common. The Park Service is especially fond of them, she noted, because they hold down the rodent population.

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In my next and final Trip 25 post, my hike along the Clear Creek Trail.

 

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Trip 25

Part 2

On Tuesday at 7:00 AM, we mule riders assembled at the corral at the top of Bright Angel Trail. The wranglers gave us instructions, assigned us a mule, and adjusted our gear. We were ready for the trip to the bottom of Grand Canyon.

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At 7:30 AM, we started the 10-mile ride to Phantom Ranch.

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The most important bit of advice from the wranglers: trust your mule.

For practically the entire trip, they told us, you’ll be riding uncomfortably close to the edge. Trust your mule. Avoid the temptation to lean away from the edge; doing so will cause the mule to compensate and lean toward it.

In case you’re wondering, mules are not the “easy way” into Grand Canyon. Unless you’re a seasoned rider, a mule trip is almost as strenuous as hiking.

Riding uses muscles you didn’t know were there. And, especially on the trip down, it isn’t easy to stay in the saddle. You aren’t lashed down, and nothing says you can’t go flying over the handlebars.

But I hung on, and I trusted my mule, and five hours later, we arrived.

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With a groan, I climbed down from my faithful steed, Twinkie.

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I dropped off my gear at my cabin (at right below, across from the Canteen).

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After a celebratory beer, I spent the rest of the afternoon taking photos.

When we left South Rim that morning, the temp was 35 degrees. At Phantom Ranch, it was 72, calm, and sunny.

That’s fairly typical of the Canyon floor in winter, because all that rock collects and radiates the heat of the sun.

This also explains why summer nights at Phantom sometimes remain above 100 degrees.

Within an hour, the muscles in my legs had recovered from being astride a mule for half a day. I wasn’t wincing and hobbling around any longer, and I was ready to explore.

For starters, I stopped at the mule corral and said hello to Twinkie.

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In Part 3, I drink a toast to multiple deities under the light of a full moon.

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