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Trip 25

Part 1

When I started this blog in 2009, among the first stories I posted was Bliss, a recollection from my childhood about the magic of waking up at the beach and savoring the sounds, sights, and smells of the moment.

Well, last month I was blessed with a similar magic moment, and it happened, fittingly, at Grand Canyon, my go-to vacation spot for lo these many years.

Ah, Grand Canyon. I certainly have a thing for the place. My December trip was visit #25.

My family and friends see this as something of an obsession — harmless and amusing, but a bit irrational.

Not really. I simply discovered a place that fascinates me, pleases me, speaks to me — and I’m in the process of exploring it.

Every trip has been unique. Carefully planned to be that way. It hasn’t been like, say, going to the Lincoln Memorial or the Bronx Zoo 25 times.

Allow me to elaborate.

Trip #1 in 1994 was a one-week raft trip down the Colorado River. Trip #2 in 1995 was a two-week raft trip.

Trip #3 in early 1996 was a hike to Phantom Ranch, the guest ranch/lodge on the floor of the Canyon. Trip #4 in late 1996 was a hike from North Rim to South Rim.

Over the years, I’ve hiked in Havasu Canyon and Paria Canyon. I’ve camped twice at Toroweap in the remote western region. I’ve taken four river trips and four mule trips. I’ve backpacked on the Tonto Platform. I’ve ventured off-trail in some crazy places.

I’ve hiked the Canyon with my sons, separately and together. I’ve gone rim-to-rim twice. During the course of all that, I’ve stayed at or passed through Phantom Ranch, one of the most terrific places on earth, 14 times.

And no two of those trips were alike. None.

Long ago, I promised myself that when the thrill is gone, I’ll be done with the place. If the day comes when I don’t get butterflies about going, or if the hikes and the scenery seem repetitious, or if I stand at South Rim contemplating Cheops Pyramid or Zoroaster Temple and my heart isn’t in my throat, I won’t go back.

But, having just returned from there, I can report that the thrill is not gone. Nothing about it was ho-hum or repetitious. I’m still exhilarated by the sheer grandness of Grand Canyon.

My December trip was built around a mule ride to Phantom Ranch. I booked the trip in winter because in the off-season, you’re allowed to stay two nights. That gives you an extra day to hike, explore, and enjoy the Grand Canyon vibe.

As a further incentive, mule riders stay in private cabins — unlike hikers, who either stay at the campground or in one of the dormitories (two dorms for men, two for women, 10 beds per dorm).

To fully appreciate this story, you need to know a few things about Phantom Ranch and how it functions.

The place is, quite literally, a desert oasis. It’s rustic, and it requires genuine effort to reach, but it’s perfectly comfortable once you get there.

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Phantom Ranch consists of a campground, cabins and dorms for the staff and guests, the Canteen where meals are served, a ranger station, mule corrals, a heliport, a boat beach for river rafters, and assorted support facilities (water treatment plant, laundry, maintenance sheds, and so on).

The facility was built in 1922 where Bright Angel Creek meets the Colorado River. The Kaibab Trail, which runs from North Rim to South Rim, passes through the spot.

At any given time, the population at Phantom is about 100 people, give or take.

The center of activity is the Canteen, which serves breakfast and supper, provides box lunches for the hikers, and sells supplies, snacks, and souvenirs.

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Nightly from 8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, it becomes your friendly neighborhood tavern.

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So, there you have it. In Part 2, my trip gets underway with a mule ride down the Bright Angel Trail to Phantom Ranch.

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As documented here many times, I am a huge fan — HUGE fan — of Grand Canyon.

I’ve been to the Canyon 23 times; I’ve hiked many of the backcountry trails; I’ve taken four river trips down the Colorado River. Show me a random photo taken from the rim, and odds are, I can identify the landforms.

I’ve become more familiar with Grand Canyon than the average dude because, for reasons I can’t explain, I find the geography, geology, and history of the place endlessly fascinating.

Which is why I just got through re-reading “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons” by John Wesley Powell, a remarkable account of the first recorded journey down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon in 1869.

Here are some facts every schoolchild should know about that expedition…

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The leader of the 10-man Powell Geographic Expedition of 1869 was John Wesley Powell, geology professor, self-taught naturalist, and Civil War veteran. His purpose, in addition to being the first to explore the last uncharted stretch of the Colorado River, was to document the geology, biology, and native people of the region.

The members of the expedition:

Powell, who had lost an arm at the battle of Shiloh and was the only man who wore a life preserver. He was “Major Powell” to the men.
Walter Powell, his younger brother, a former Union Army captain. Described by the others as “surly and quick-tempered.”
John Sumner, a trapper and Civil War veteran. Worked for Powell on a previous expedition in the Rockies.
Frank Goodman, an Englishmen and skilled boatman who came to America to find out what the American West was really like. Signed on to have an adventure.
Oramel Howland, a mountain man and hunter, but also well educated. Worked as a newspaperman.
Seneca Howland, Oramel’s younger brother, a war veteran hoping the trip would bring fame and fortune.
William Dunn, a buckskin-clad hunter and trapper from Colorado.
William Hawkins from Missouri, the congenial expedition cook, just out of the Army after a series of disciplinary problems.
George Bradley, an Army sergeant who joined the expedition on Powell’s promise of an prompt discharge afterward.
Andrew Hall, a strong, hard-working Scottish lad, age 20, a crack shot with a rifle.

Powell’s boat was the Emma Dean, a fast, lightweight, 16-foot vessel built of pine. The other boats, Maid of the Canyon, Kitty Clyde’s Sister, and No Name, were heavy, 21-foot oak vessels. The boats were divided into three compartments, one of which was watertight to protect the provisions.

The four boats were easy to handle on relatively smooth water, but not through the shallow, rocky rapids of the Green and Colorado rivers. Powell portaged most of the larger rapids or lined the boats through the rapids from the shore with ropes.

During the journey, several of the men grumbled that Powell was overly cautious, and many of the rapids he made them portage were runnable.

The expedition lasted three months, from May 24 until August 29. The men traveled about 1,000 miles. They began at Green River, Wyoming, journeyed downstream through a succession of canyons, and emerged from Grand Canyon not far from where the Virgin River meets the Colorado, near present-day Las Vegas.

Map-1

Map-2

In 1871, Powell repeated a good part of the original voyage, this time with more provisions, better equipment, and photographers in tow. He also knew what was ahead; the Colorado was the Great Unknown no longer.

After turning his diary of the first expedition into a book, Powell went on to head the U.S. Geological Survey and to serve as a director at the Smithsonian Institution. He died in 1902 at his summer cottage in Maine.

The expedition of 1869 was genuinely harrowing. The No Name was wrecked, the Emma Dean abandoned. They set out with provisions for 10 months, but most of the food was lost or spoiled. Only six of the 10 men completed the trip.

A depiction of

A depiction of “Disaster Falls” in Lodore Canyon, where the “No Name” went down with much of the expedition’s food and supplies.

Probably the most dramatic and climactic event of the expedition occurred in late August, when three men left the group and set out walking north, back to civilization.

Two months earlier, the expedition had lost Goodman, who dropped out after a series of especially difficult rapids.

At the time, the party had reached a stretch of calm water on the Green River in Utah. Rolling meadows covered both banks of the river. The expedition remained there for about a week to make repairs and buy supplies from a nearby tribe of Utes.

On July 5, the day before the party was to continue downriver, Goodman informed Powell that he was quitting. Apparently, he had his fill of adventure.

Now, on August 27, three more men were leaving.

The three were Dunn and the Howland brothers. All were seasoned mountain men. The terrain was harsh and the heat scorching, but they trusted their abilities. With the food almost gone, and fearing that worse rapids were ahead, they concluded that the odds favored striking out cross-country.

This is Powell’s account of the incident in his diary.

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August 27 — After supper Captain [Oramel] Howland asks to have a talk with me. We walk up the little creek a short distance, and I soon find that his object is to remonstrate against my determination to proceed. He thinks that we had better abandon the river here. Talking with him, I learn that he, his brother, and William Dunn have determined to go no farther in the boats. So we return to camp. Nothing is said to the other men.
 
For the last two days our course has not been plotted. I sit down and do this now, for the purpose of finding where we are by dead reckoning. It is a clear night, and I take out the sextant to make observation for latitude, and I find that the astronomic determination agrees very nearly with that of the plot — quite as closely as might be expected from a meridian observation on a planet.

In a direct line, we must be about 45 miles from the mouth of the Rio Virgen. If we can reach that point, we know that there are settlements up that river about 20 miles. This 45 miles in a direct line will probably be 80 or 90 by the meandering line of the river. But then we know that there is comparatively open country for many miles above the mouth of the Virgen, which is our point of destination.

As soon as I determine all this, I spread my plot on the sand and wake Howland, who is sleeping down by the river, and show him where I suppose we are, and where several Mormon settlements are situated. We have another short talk about the morrow, and he lies down again; but for me there is no sleep.

All night long I pace up and down a little path, on a few yards of sand beach, along by the river. Is it wise to go on? I go to the boats again to look at our rations. I feel satisfied that we can get over the danger immediately before us; what there may be below I know not.

From our outlook yesterday on the cliffs, the canyon seemed to make another great bend to the south, and this, from our experience heretofore, means more and higher granite walls. I am not sure that we can climb out of the canyon here, and, if at the top of the wall, I know enough of the country to be certain that it is a desert of rock and sand between this and the nearest Mormon town, which, on the most direct line, must be 75 miles away.

True, the late rains have been favorable to us, should we go out, for the probabilities are that we shall find water still standing in holes; and at one time I almost conclude to leave the river. But for years I have been contemplating this trip. To leave the exploration unfinished, to say that there is a part of the canyon which I cannot explore, having already nearly accomplished it, is more than I am willing to acknowledge, and I determine to go on.

I wake my brother and tell him of Howland’s determination, and he promises to stay with me; then I call up Hawkins, the cook, and he makes a like promise; then Sumner and Bradley and Hall, and they all agree to go on.

August 28 — At last daylight comes and we have breakfast without a word being said about the future. The meal is as solemn as a funeral. After breakfast I ask the three men if they still think it best to leave us. The elder Howland thinks it is, and Dunn agrees with him. The younger Howland tries to persuade them to go on with the party; failing in which, he decides to go with his brother.

Then we cross the river. The small boat is very much disabled and unseaworthy. With the loss of hands, consequent on the departure of the three men, we shall not be able to run all of the boats; so I decide to leave my “Emma Dean.”

Two rifles and a shotgun are given to the men who are going out. I ask them to help themselves to the rations and take what they think to be a fair share. This they refuse to do, saying they have no fear but that they can get something to eat; but Billy, the cook, has a pan of biscuits prepared for dinner, and these he leaves on a rock.

Before starting, we take from the boat our barometers, fossils, the minerals, and some ammunition and leave them on the rocks. We are going over this place as light as possible. The three men help us lift our boats over a rock 25 or 30 feet high and let them down again over the first fall, and now we are all ready to start.

The last thing before leaving, I write a letter to my wife and give it to Howland. Sumner gives him his watch, directing that it be sent to his sister should he not be heard from again. The records of the expedition have been kept in duplicate. One set of these is given to Howland; and now we are ready.

For the last time they entreat us not to go on, and tell us that it is madness to set out in this place; that we can never get safely through it; and, further, that the river turns again to the south into the granite, and a few miles of such rapids and falls will exhaust our entire stock of rations, and then it will be too late to climb out. Some tears are shed; it is rather a solemn parting; each party thinks the other is taking the dangerous course.
 
My old boat left, I go on board of the “Maid of the Canyon.” The three men climb a crag that overhangs the river to watch us off. The “Maid of the Canyon” pushes out. We glide rapidly along the foot of the wall, just grazing one great rock, then pull out a little into the chute of the second fall and plunge over it.

The open compartment is filled when we strike the first wave below, but we cut through it, and then the men pull with all their power toward the left wall and swing clear of the dangerous rock below all right. We are scarcely a minute in running it, and find that, although it looked bad from above, we have passed many places that were worse.

The other boat follows without more difficulty. We land at the first practicable point below, and fire our guns, as a signal to the men above that we have come over in safety. Here we remain a couple of hours, hoping that they will take the smaller boat and follow us. We are behind a curve in the canyon and cannot see up to where we left them, and so we wait until their coming seems hopeless, and then push on.

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Ironically, the expedition was already over. The two boats encountered no more significant rapids. The next day, they arrived at Grand Wash, the unofficial western end of Grand Canyon. There, they learned from Mormon farmers that most of the country assumed they were dead.

Dunn and the Howland brothers were never heard from again. By many accounts, they were killed by men from the Shivwits tribe who mistook them for three prospectors who had raped and killed a Shivwits woman.

Prior to his second expedition, Powell visited the Shivwits, hoping to find out the truth behind the rumors. According to Powell’s Mormon interpreter, Jacob Hamlin, the Shivwits admitted killing the men in a case of mistaken identity. Powell accepted the story and smoked a peace pipe with the chiefs.

But speculation also arose that the Howlands and Dunn were killed by Mormons, who blamed the deed on the Shivwits. The Mormon colonies of the time were paranoid about a possible attack by the U.S. Army. Hamlin easily could have altered the story.

Further, the killings happened only a decade after the Mountain Meadows massacre, in which 100-plus settlers on a wagon train to California were killed by a Mormon militia force.

Shivwits, Mormons, the heat of the August desert — we may never know for sure.

Of the 10 members of the first Powell expedition, nine have geological features in Grand Canyon named after them — a butte, a point, or in Powell’s case, an entire plateau. Not to mention Lake Powell.

The exception is Frank Goodman, who left the expedition before it reached Grand Canyon.

In 1939, on the 75th anniversary of the expedition, the rapid where Dunn and the Howland brothers left the group was named Separation Rapid. A commemorative plaque was placed at the site.

Today, the plaque and the rapid are deep below the surface of Lake Meade.

Drawing of George Bradley rescuing Major Powell from a predicament. One evening, while exploring near camp, Powell became stranded on a ledge and couldn't go up or down. Bradley was able to haul him up by using his long underwear as a rope.

Drawing of George Bradley rescuing Major Powell from a predicament. One evening, while exploring near camp, Powell became stranded on a ledge and couldn’t go up or down. Bradley was able to haul him up by using his long underwear as a rope.

Photo of Powell prior to the 2nd expedition with Tau-gu, a Paiute chief.

Photo of Powell prior to the 2nd expedition with Tau-gu, a Paiute chief.

Noted violinist Maud Powell, niece of John Wesley Powell, shown in 1918 at the Powell Memorial, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Noted violinist Maud Powell, niece of John Wesley Powell, shown in 1918 at the Powell Memorial, Grand Canyon, Arizona.

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Martin Litton, environmental activist and Grand Canyon river runner, died late last year at 97. He was a fierce and effective advocate for conservation in the American west for 80 years.

Litton was a staunch opponent of roads in wilderness areas and dams on the Colorado River. He was the spark behind the Sierra Club’s celebrated activism in the 1960s and 70s.

At a time when river-runners were switching to inflatable rubber rafts, he founded Grand Canyon Dories, which carried passengers in traditional wooden boats. In 2004, at age 87, he became the oldest person to row the length of Grand Canyon.

Litton has been lauded profusely, and I won’t list the battles he fought or recap all the posthumous praise here. For that, go online.

But I do want to pass along some statements he made over the years that are revealing of his character and influence.

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People always tell me not to be extreme. “Be reasonable,” they say. But I never felt it did any good to be reasonable about anything in conservation. Because what you give away will never come back — ever.

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There are reasons why the river should be natural. One is the joy of running on a natural river, knowing you’re as close to nature as you can be. And the other is — whether we run it or not — nature has its right. It has a right to be here, untrammeled, unfettered.

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My feeling has always been, you can’t always win, but you can always try. And that we’re not as poor for the battles we’ve lost as for the ones we never fought. Win or lose, there’s a measure of victory in the endeavor.

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Man doesn’t have to screw everything up, and yet we go out of our way to do so. Greed is the motive, and it’s important to frustrate greed. We’re all greedy for one thing or another, but some of our desires are on a higher plane.

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We have no right to change this place. Do we have a right even to interrupt nature, even for a short time? To exterminate species? To kill the last fly? That’s not really our right. We’re the aberration on earth — humans are what’s wrong with the world.

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It was once said in a Sierra Club publication that the only way we’d ever accomplished anything was through compromise and accommodation. That’s exactly the opposite of the truth. The only way the Sierra Club ever won anything was by refusing to compromise. Grand Canyon dams, Redwood National Park — you can go right back through the whole list. When we compromised, we lost.

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We created something more beautiful by not defiling it. Saving it is an act of creation. We kept it undesecrated. We had made the case that the Grand Canyon was worth saving. The Grand Canyon is holy, you know. In the public’s eye, the Grand Canyon should not be fooled around with.

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The best way for people to understand how important it is to have the bottom of the Grand Canyon preserved, and have its aquatic life saved, and its riparian zone, with the beauty that’s there, kept, is perhaps to have them on that river and let them feel the way it stirs and rumbles and moves you along at its own pace, and to sense the kind of “life” the river has. It has a tremendous force and appeal that I can’t describe.

And the memory of the majesty of the Grand Canyon — what it does to their lives to be away from their routines for a while — even a short while. They begin to realize there’s something more in the world than their tiny little bit of it. The experience has somehow opened their eyes to something bigger and greater in life. They understand the whole universe better because of having been in the Grand Canyon and isolated from other things and having time to think.

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You’ve still got to try to save the earth, even though we know it’s hopeless — it’s too late. But that’s when great, heroic things are done — when you’re going down with the ship.

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Litton and a small group of contemporaries created the environmentalist movement from scratch. They made it effective because they didn’t pull their punches.

We can thank them for the Environmental Protection Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and many other important protections to our national parks and wildlands.

I’m a true believer. It’s clear to me that our survival depends on the preservation of the world we have left. But the reality is, I’m just a follower. I’m not cut out to be a take-charge activist.

Over the years, I’ve tried to pay attention, made my feelings known, and donated more than my share to a range of environmental organizations — Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, NRDC, Friends of the Earth, the Wilderness Society, and others that were passionate and effective, but stopped short of spiking trees.

A few years ago, I stopped donating.

Today’s environmental groups are bigger and richer than ever, but they lack the passion and dedication of Litton and his contemporaries. Greenpeace acts up on occasion. But for the most part, the organizations are preoccupied with fund-raising and deal-making. The fire has gone out.

In the 1960s, the Disney Corporation wanted to build a resort in Mineral King Valley in the Sierra wilderness. The U.S. Forest Service was on board. Litton opposed the plan (which was abandoned because of much vocal opposition) at a Sierra Club board meeting.

When board member Ansel Adams expressed surprise that the Mineral King project would involve constructing a highway through Sequoia National Park, Litton barked, “Look at a map! Pay some attention!”

Litton had a long and consequential life, and now he’s gone. He was a voice and a conscience that we really couldn’t afford to lose.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

Martin Litton (1917-2014) by John Blaustein.

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In March 2007, I hiked the dusty eight-mile trail to the village of Supai, Arizona, located in western Grand Canyon, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Supai is the home of the Havasupai tribe. The village is located in Havasu Canyon, which leads down to the Colorado River and is famous for the spectacular waterfalls along Havasu Creek.

It’s also famous for being isolated and  remote. No roads lead to Supai. You get there by foot, mule, or helicopter. You visit by reservation only.

The trailhead and the helipad are at Hualapai Hilltop, a desolate parking area 60 miles from the nearest town. No services are at the trailhead — only a few trailers and a couple of tribal officials who check permits.

For a fee of $85, you can helicopter down to Supai. For another $85, you can helicopter back out. Otherwise, you hit the trail, which winds down to the village on the floor of the canyon. Park Service campgrounds are located two miles beyond Supai along Havasu Creek.

For my trip in 2007, in order to avoid the weight of camping gear, I made reservations at the tribal motel in the village. The motel is a small, bare-bones place, but clean and adequate.

The trip was a blast. The weather was ideal, the scenery astounding. I got plenty of good photos — although I discovered that the season was wrong for photography; in the spring, when you face the waterfalls, you’re facing the sun.

In 2009, I twice wrote about that trip on this blog.

One story was about the tribe’s long struggle to maintain its homeland and identity.

The other focused on something I didn’t expect to find down there: a healthy population of mongrel dogs living at large in the village.

But neither story got around to documenting one of the most indelible memories of that trip: the harrowing finale, when a sobering realization brought everything to a proverbial screeching halt.

Let me begin at the beginning.

After flying into Las Vegas, I picked up my rental car at the Budget office, drove east into Arizona, and stopped for the night in Kingman. The next morning, I got up early and drove the 100-odd miles to Hualapai Hilltop.

Bird's-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

Bird’s-eye view of Hualapai Hilltop. The trail to Supai drops into the canyon in the upper left.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

The state-of-the-art helipad at Hualapai Hilltop.

On arrival, I parked, got out my gear, locked the car, obtained my entry permit from the tribal guy, and set off down the trail.

For the next two days, I explored the village and the waterfalls at my leisure. Meals were at the Supai Cafe, the only place in town that serves hot food.

How was the food? Expensive and awful. The cheeseburgers were served on sandwich bread. The lettuce was wilted, the tomatoes overripe. Tater tots came with everything. The breakfast burritos were frozen.

Some of the tourists were unhappy and vocal about it. My attitude: you shouldn’t go to a place like Supai expecting an Outback Steakhouse.

On the third morning, in a heartbeat, my trip unraveled.

I awoke, showered, and dressed. My plan was to grab a bad breakfast and hike down to the waterfalls for more photos.

Then, as I puttered around the motel room, a strange sensation came over me. A voice inside my head spoke to me.

It asked if I had seen the keys to my rental car lately.

Hmmm… Let me think… After I locked the car, I undoubtedly put the keys in my waist pack. Actually, I haven’t seen the keys lately, but what of it?

Well, you carry all your personal stuff in the waist pack — wallet, loose change, penknife. You empty the contents onto the dresser every night. Where are the keys?

Where, indeed. After calmly checking the waist pack, I calmly searched the motel room. Then I calmly went through all my clothes and possessions thoroughly. Twice. The keys were not there.

My blood ran cold as I realized the implications of that turn of events.

The keys could be anywhere. I could have dropped them during the initial hike. Or at the waterfalls. Or somewhere in the village. At that very moment, one of the town mutts could be gnawing on the transponder.

Fighting back the panic, I methodically covered all the appropriate bases. I asked the motel manager if anyone had turned in a set of car keys. I did the same at the restaurant, the general store, the post office, and the tribal office. No luck.

Back at the motel, I made the decision to call the car rental office in Las Vegas. Surely, they would know what to do about lost car keys.

Supai had no cell phone service then, and probably still doesn’t. But several places had land-line phones. They’re for official use, of course, but the motel manager graciously allowed me to call the Budget office in Las Vegas.

The Budget lady seemed a bit surprised about my situation, but was quite sympathetic. She gave me the phone number of a locksmith in Kingman and said to call him. He could meet me at Hualapai Hilltop and set me up with a duplicate key.

I asked what sort of spectacular bill his service call might incur. She couldn’t say.

I sat there for a few minutes, weighing my options and bemoaning my situation. Just as I was concluding that calling the locksmith was my only solution, the motel manager spoke up.

“Did anyone call Hualapai Hilltop?” she asked. “Somebody could have turned in the keys up there.”

I was incredulous. Call Hualapai Hilltop? Hualapai Hilltop has phone service?

Well, sort of. As the manager explained, the people on duty at Hualapai Hilltop carry two-way radios.

The manager called the tribal office. Minutes later, the tribal office called back. Yes, my keys had been turned in at Hualapai Hilltop.

I was so delirious with joy, I nearly swooned.

To celebrate, and to get my hands on those keys as soon as possible, I promptly checked out of the motel, gave the manager a lavish tip, and treated myself to an $85 helicopter ride out of Supai.

When I climbed out of the helicopter at the trailhead, a Havasupai man was standing nearby, smiling and dangling my keys.

Two hikers, a man and a woman, had turned in the keys earlier that morning. They found them on the ground next to my locked car. Apparently, when I dropped the keys into the zipper pocket of my waist pack, I missed.

“You were lucky those two were honest,” the man told me. “They could have taken your car. Some folks would do that.”

So, my trip ended happily, not in utter disaster. I drove back to civilization and spent the next week at Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, slowly calming down from the experience.

How sweet it is to dodge a bullet thanks to the kindness of strangers.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

Incomparable Havasu Falls.

 

The village of Supai.

The village of Supai.

 

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

The mail arrives by mule, not helicopter.

 

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

Village mutts lounging outside the cafe.

 

Havasupai Lodge.

Havasupai Lodge.

Supai-8

Supai-9

 

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The two best American nature writers in my lifetime are Craig Childs and David Quammen.

Both men write as passionately as Edward Abbey, but are more articulate. More insightful. More willing to edit their stuff.

The website of Craig Childs describes him thusly:

“Childs is an Arizona native, and he grew up back and forth between there and Colorado, son of a mother hooked on outdoor adventure, and a dad who liked whiskey, guns, and Thoreau. He has worked as a gas station attendant, wilderness guide, professional musician, and a beer bottler, though now he is primarily a writer. He lives off the grid with his wife and two young sons at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in Colorado.”

You would expect such a man to hike into Grand Canyon in January, during a storm, to experience and reflect upon “the full weight of winter.”

Those reflections became a superb essay in the January issue of Arizona Highways Magazine. Here is a small excerpt.

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The winds this morning are of a different nature. They are winter-storm winds, built of turbulence from a large system dragging itself over the Canyon. Vortices are set up behind cliff faces, great swirling eddies inscribed in the clouds. I stop at one of the long points of land under the Coconino. I’ve seen ravens here in better weather. I’ve sat on this point in the fall and watched them play in the rising air, banking and swimming around one another. Now, I stop and look into the bottomless Canyon, wondering where ravens go. This peninsula of Hermit formation just hangs here. I feel as if I’m being held out for sacrifice and that the Grand Canyon is this gulping infinity beneath my feet. No sign of solid ground anywhere. Occasionally, I will see something, some tip of land suspended out there. Then it is gone.

Now I see the ravens. They rise out of the abyss, taking form where there should be nothing. Two of them look like black shreds of fabric hurled against the storm. They spin up, pausing over my head to take account of this figure standing in the clouds. This close, I can see the curve of their armored toes, tucked under as if holding a marble or a stone. (Damn ravens, coming here without parkas or backpacks or extra food. Swirling through this storm as if it were a playground.) I have to protect my eyes with a hand. The wind takes snow down my neck, against my skin. Once the ravens get a good look at me, they continue up and are absorbed. And I’m standing here alone.

I turn back down the trail. Within a couple of minutes, I see someone coming up. He moves slowly, working his boots through the snow. Head down. Shoulders humped forward. He must have started walking from the desert during the night, or slept in the snow, which is not too uncomfortable if a person has the right gear and the proper mind-set. As he approaches, I can see he looks like he’s just been rolled from a Dumpster. Plastic garbage bags cover his body. He’s torn a hole in the bottom of one in order to breathe and see ahead. The clothes underneath are insufficient. Maybe he’s got a sweater and a coat. In both hands are walking sticks, their tops splintered as if they were hastily broken for this purpose.

He doesn’t notice me until I am about 4 feet away. When he sees my legs in the snow, he inches his head up a notch. His face looks like the result of a trying night. Dull, vacant eyes. He can’t hold eye contact. Late 20s, maybe 30s. “Be careful down there,” he says, with more of a groan than an actual voice.

Down there. As if he had just climbed out of a monster’s stomach — the empty space that gave birth to the ravens. I ask whether he needs help. In the same ponderous tone, with a touch of anger, he says, “That Canyon almost killed me.”

As he passes, I turn and ask again, offering food or water. He does not stop, does not ask how far to the rim. In fact, his pace has not altered at all. “I’ll make it,” he says. I look for a limp or some sign of injury. There seems to be nothing but fatigue. He’s close enough to the top that he’ll be out within an hour. Like the ravens, he is taken in by the storm above me. Is he delirious? Has he fallen? I imagine him sledding down, arms flailing, and catching a piñon trunk just at the edge of a chasm, snow spraying all around him. His comment about the Canyon made it sound as if it were malevolent down there, as if he had narrowly escaped and the Canyon still had his hair in its teeth.

So I follow his tracks. They keep to the trail down to Cedar Ridge, a clearing of hitching posts for mules and three outhouses. The outhouses are sturdy structures with a deck and solid wood doors. His tracks begin here. I open the middle door and am confronted with a nest. My first thought is that some large animal burrowed here. It look like a mouse nest on a huge scale. Wood chips, used for the composting toilets, are a foot deep all over the floor. Food wrappers lie unfolded. A bag of bread. A candy bar. A flashlight is propped on the toilet-paper dispenser. He slept here, using the chips as insulation. A locked storage closet joins the back of one of the toilets. Its door hangs off its hinges, ripped from the wall. He had found the plastic bags and wood chips in there, as well as the broom handle he’d busted for walking sticks. A box of screws and various small tools he had examined and rejected.

I would later discover that he had hiked to Phantom Ranch, down at the river, with the intention of returning to the rim that night. It was a day hike. Backpackers had tried to talk him into staying. He had refused, mentioning that he needed to catch  a plane. He accepted their offerings of a flashlight, bread and candy, setting off for the South Rim in the late afternoon. When he reached the only emergency phone on the trail — at some outhouses 2,000 feet below here — he was desperate. Night had come. A storm has set in, bringing rain and wind. He had no idea that it would turn to snow above him. He made a call to the Ranger at Phantom Ranch, and he sounded panicked. He wasn’t asking for anything, just wanted to hear a human voice, said he had to catch a plane. The ranger patched him through to someone closer, but in the transfer, he dropped the phone and continued up the Canyon. The phone dangled off the hook, draining its solar battery.

He arrived at Cedar Ridge in a blizzard. Ice had formed on his clothing, and he probably was suffering from hypothermia. When he found these outhouses, he found plastic bags and wood chips, enough to keep him alive. If he had not reached Cedar Ridge, I probably would have come across his body below O’Neill Butte, curled in the mud in one of the sheltered alcoves. No one at the Canyon knew his name or ever saw him again. There are only a few trails with outhouses and emergency phones. He was lucky.

The Grand Canyon is not the thing that almost killed him, as he had said. The Canyon is here, with its winds and sunshine at random intervals. There is no pretense. The rocks do not bear ill will, nor will they offer to save you. The personalities of storms deal with updrafts, moisture content and temperature, not with grudges or malice. A person must learn how to move inside of this place. Like the ravens. I close the door and continue into the Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Winter hiking at Grand Canyon.

Refuge -- the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Refuge — the composting toilets at Cedar Ridge.

Ravens

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House of Reprehensible

I’ve never added up the nights I’ve spent below the rim at Grand Canyon, whether in a sleeping bag, dorm, or cabin. I’ve been going to the Big Ditch regularly for 19 years, so the number is getting up there. A guess: maybe 60.

Last week, I had plans to add two more nights to the total. But alas, the House of Reprehensible — specifically, the Republicans in the House of Reprehensible — sabotaged my trip.

Please note that the government shutdown wasn’t caused by “Congress” or “the politicians,” although most of the news people frame it that way. No, the shutdown is 100 percent on the Republicans. They thought it up and did it all by themselves.

Before I go off on the mindlessness and mean-spiritedness of the conservative mentality, let me explain how my hike to Phantom Ranch, which is at the bottom of Grand Canyon near the Colorado River, got aborted.

Phantom Ranch is a magnificent oasis along Bright Angel Creek. Each day, a hundred or so people have reservations to stay there and groove on the Canyon. The place consists of a campground, a handful of rustic cabins, hiker dorms for men and women, and a restaurant/beer hall. You get there on foot, by mule, or via the river.

Reservations for Phantom Ranch are made on the first of the month, 13 months in advance. In my case, I made reservations the morning of September 1, 2012, and I booked two nights at the hiker dorm in October 2013.

It works like this: You dial and redial the phone number, usually hundreds of times, always getting a busy signal. Then, after an hour or two, you miraculously get through to the switchboard.

If you are unlucky, Phantom Ranch is already booked solid for the month in question; if the gods are merciful, meals and a bed will be available sometime during the month. In my case, I was able to make reservations for October 1 and 2, 2013.

13 months later, I drove west to Arizona. I arrived at the South Rim of Grand Canyon on September 30, checked into the Bright Angel Lodge, and reported to the Transportation Desk, the official sign-in station for Phantom Ranch.

During the drive west, I was well aware that the Republican jackals were scheming to shut down the government. It was expected — a part of their normal delusional behavior. But, fool that I am, I thought I would be safe if I could get inside Grand Canyon National Park before the shutdown occurred.

I was scheduled to begin the hike down to Phantom Ranch early on the morning of October 1. I figured I would be halfway down the trail by the time the gears of government ground to a halt.

But, as the dude at the Transportation Desk signed me in, he explained the reality of the situation.

“If they shut down the government tonight, all trails below the rim will be closed immediately,” he said. “They closed the park entrances about an hour ago. No one else is being allowed into the park.”

“We’ll know by bedtime whether the shutdown will happen. If it does, I’ll give you a refund in the morning. If it doesn’t, you can head for Phantom Ranch.”

“And I’ll tell you what I tell all the hikers: don’t get any funny ideas. If anyone plans to get up early and head down the trail anyway, they’ll be facing a fine and trespassing charges.”

After that sobering news, I retired to the Bright Angel Lounge and had a few beers.

By bedtime, we all knew our collective fate. The shutdown was on, and the park would be closed in 48 hours. All trails leading into the canyon were closed.

The next morning, I got my refund and spent a couple of hours walking along the rim trails, taking photos — photos of the same scenes I took on my previous trip, and the trip before that, and the trip before that. I can’t help myself.

After lunch, I decided to exit the park at the east end. That way, I could take advantage of the scenic drive along the rim and stop at the viewpoints along the way.

But the park police wanted everyone out, pronto. Every parking lot along the east rim drive was blocked with orange traffic cones. The authorities were trying to encourage the tourists to hasten their departure.

In practice, this had the opposite effect; since the visitors couldn’t use the normal parking spots, they merely stopped their cars along the roads and walked to the overlooks. This caused traffic to back up and further delayed the departure of the tourists and the closing of the park.

So, I drove all the way to Grand Canyon with my cherished reservations, but I didn’t get to use them. I might as well have stayed home and saved a thousand bucks.

It’s hard for me to get too exercised about missing out on the hike. I’ve done it a dozen times. It’s a blast, but I know practically every step of every trail. And I can always book another trip, albeit 13 months from now.

But I do get exercised when I think about people who were going to Grand Canyon for the first time. People who flew to the canyon from Maine or Germany or Japan, and who might not be able to make the trip a second time, and who wasted a lot of money for nothing.

And I get angry about the Republicans, the mean and selfish Republicans, whose philosophy, by any standard of normalcy, is perverted and preposterous. Delusional lunacy.

Their worldview is driven by the myth of the welfare queen. They believe our national problems will be solved if we only stop giving money to undeserving black freeloaders. It’s that simple.

The Republican politicians are easy to understand. They don’t really believe the crap they espouse. They are just professional shills, working diligently, and quite successfully, to separate the conservative masses from their money.

And what about those masses, the herd of conservative voters who elect the jackals in the first place?

Conservative voters are not particularly stupid people. They just don’t use their brains for thinking.

They listen to the propaganda, and they elect people who will stoop so low as to sabotage their own government.

I weep for the future.

Trail closed

 

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In September 1995, I shelled out the sobering sum of $2,061.00 for a 12-day raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.

One year earlier, on a crazy impulse, I had taken my first Grand Canyon raft trip, and it had been a life-changer. I was smitten by the experience. Infatuated. Hooked forever.

Accordingly, as soon as the trip was over, I got busy planning to do it again.

That second trip began in Las Vegas. Per the outfitter’s instructions, our group was to meet “No later than 3:00 PM at McCarran Airport, main terminal, level 1, in the seating area behind the information counter between the baggage claim areas.”

I recall the place and the moment vividly. As I descended the escalator to the aforesaid seating area, lugging my rafting gear, three or four people already were present. They sat quietly, waiting for someone in authority to arrive and tell them what to do. I joined them, quietly.

Minute by minute, more gear-laden people arrived. Taking their cue from the rest of us, they dumped their bags on the floor and sat down to wait, quietly.

Then Candi came down the escalator.

Candi Butler from Toledo, Ohio, was a 40-ish woman with short brown hair and thick, rimless glasses. A spectacular, high-wattage grin illuminated her path.

She stepped off the escalator, beaming, and surveyed our group, which by then numbered about 12 or 15.

After a few seconds, she walked over to me, dropped her bags, held out her hand, and gushed, “Hi! I’m Candi! What’s your name?”

I leapt to my feet and introduced myself. We chatted for a few seconds, and then she moved to the next guy.

“Hi! I’m Candi! What’s your name?”

Soon, the entire group was engaged in a flurry of introductions. It was still underway when the authority figures from the rafting company walked up.

Candi’s arrival had been memorable, but in all honesty, she didn’t make a very positive impression on me. She was cheerful and pleasant, but she came across as a bit of an airhead. Naive. Possibly not very bright.

All I can say is, first impressions can be deceiving.

During that trip, I became especially close to four of my fellow passengers, all of us traveling alone. Candi was one of them.

We soon learned that she was a veteran river-runner. She rafted somewhere every three or four months.

She explained that it was a pressure-relief mechanism. She said she needed regular time away from work to decompress, relax, recharge.

That’s because Candi was a surgeon.

Her specialty was breast cancer.

Meeting with, talking to, and operating on woman with breast cancer was what she did — all she did — every day.

It was work that weighed heavily on her and took its toll.

Fortunately, she discovered that a week of rafting, when she was isolated in the wilderness and far removed from thoughts about patients and hospitals, was wonderfully healing and restorative. It allowed her to keep doing her work.

Without the safety valve of the river trips, she told us, she couldn’t possibly continue in that specialty.

Galdalf the wizard said about the hobbit Bilbo Baggins, “There is a lot more in him than you guess.”

A lesson, I submit, not to judge people until you get to know them.

Our merry band of voyagers, September 1995. That's me to the left of the cowboy. Candy is in the center, yellow shirt and blue hat.

Candi Butler, M.D.

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