The Hike Back

24 10 2012

High noon and the sun is directly overhead. There is little shade along the river and for the first time on the hike I’m starting to feel the heat.

We cross another narrow suspension bridge and pick up the Bright Angel Trail on the other side, where after a few minutes, we encounter another mule train. This one had people on it, being carried to Phantom Ranch from the rim. We let them pass, squeezing against the trail’s rock wall. On the other side, a steep drop to the river.

The mules appeared miserable, their skulls sunken in from the intense heat and yet they carried on. When I first arrived in the Canyon, I was fascinated by the mules and would visit them quite regularly at their stable next to Victor Hall. This only added to the dorm’s unique smell. Riding one of these beasts of burden from rim to river was never something I desired to pursue. I was more than healthy enough to make the trek on my own and as the wranglers can attest, a mule ride is not the most comfortable way to travel.

As the mules passed, Desmond used the break from hiking to look for small rocks. They were everywhere. We both took one each, as a memento of sorts. Mine was a mix of red and black with shiny quartz sprinkled in. Taking rocks out of the Grand Canyon, of course, is against park regulations, but since the Grand Canyon was damn near taking all of the life out of us, what’s a couple little rocks going to matter.

As we left the river side and began a steeper climb up the Bright Angel Trail, I found it harder and harder to keep up with Desmond. He was much younger and had recently competed in a marathon. This was by far the most physical activity I had taken on since roaming the streets of New York City a few summers back.

Desmond was steady and he began to distance himself from me. We were no longer talking. We were hiking up a mountain. A Grand mountain.

The switchbacks were damn near murder. Every time you rounded another corner there was a steep stretch of trail awaiting and a steeper one after that. The vegetation was disappearing and so too was the water. There was hardly a soul coming from the other direction. It was early afternoon and most were taking shelter from the unrelenting sun.

Finally, after an hour or so of steep switchbacks and heavy breathing, the trail began to level out and I recognized the rock formations from my previous hike to Plateau Point. This is when I felt totally consumed by the Canyon. One small piece to the puzzle.

Yucca and blooming century plants appeared more frequently as we pressed on, up the Bright Angel Trail toward Indian Gardens. Tiny lizards began to scurry across the path and sounds of birds chirping from the brush filled the air. It was during this stretch of the hike where I felt like stopping, making a camp and just hanging out for a while. That would be so nice, but we both had to work the next day. The summer season was upon us and soon the park would be overrun by tourists.

“It will look like a giant ant hill’s been stirred with a stick,” was how one bus driver referred to the peak summer  season.

Deep inside the Canyon, however, was another story entirely. Only a tiny percent of visitors to the park actually enter the Canyon and even a smaller percentage make the hike to the river and back. We were a good three-fourths of the way to completing this super challenging endeavor when the swaying Cottonwoods of Indian Gardens came into sight.

And little did I know, pain was waiting.


Reaching the River

24 09 2012

We dipped our feet in the river and the cold water was a welcome relief. Having hiked downhill nearly seven miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon this was the payoff… the reward and hypothermia be damned.

When you first set eyes on the Colorado River, it gives you pause. Desmond and I made it to the river just before high noon and we immediately started to snap pictures. This was an accomplishment to take note of. Before reaching the river, there is a small tunnel drilled out of a huge boulder just before you cross a narrow suspension bridge. The tunnel was dark, but the midday sun kept it from being too scary. I also felt safe with Desmond.

We walked through the tunnel, across the bridge and down to the river bank, which was guarded by a maze of prickly pear and Beavertail cactus. And it was hot. Mid May at the bottom of the Canyon brought near 100 degree temperature with not much of a breeze. But we weren’t the only ones at the river bank, gazing up at the Kaibab Bridge and the mountains all around. There were about a half a dozen college aged kids soaking their feet in the river and just as we joined them, a large rafting group floated up to the beach-esque bank and unloaded for lunch.

Phantom Ranch was nearby and that’s where we would have lunch and, more importantly, shelter. Sitting on the river bank, we didn’t say much to each other, instead basking in the fact that we had reached the halfway point. The water was extremely cold. You could put your feet in for a couple minutes but then they started to get hard and hurt. And no one dared go more than ankle deep, except for one of the rafting hands who had to jump in and tie up the raft.

From the river we wet our shirts for the first time, a tip Desmond picked up from reading some travel guide, and headed towards Phantom Ranch. It’s a short hike up the North Kaibab Trail and one that is teeming with life, from deer resting by the stream, ravens flying overhead and campers singing songs and playing music. As we approached the ranger station, a large American flag welcomed us to Phantom Ranch, prompting Desmond to remark how much we as a nation loved to wave the stars and stripes.

“There is not a lot of this in my country,” he said.

Americans, Desmond had quickly learned, are very patriotic in addition to their love affair with fried foods and beer.

We went inside the canteen, unloaded our packs and chowed down. My sub sandwich was pretty disgusting. It had damn near deteriorated on the hike down, but I ate it anyway. The canteen was about half full. It’s a simple setup with long cafeteria type tables and a cash register near the door. They had some souvenir T-shirts and hats for sale, but we just bought postcards. I told the clerk I worked at Maswik Lodge up on the rim and he immediately tried to recruit me to come down and work on the ranch.

“We work hard and we play hard,” he said. I had kind of gotten that vibe earlier when I was eating my sandwich and one of the employees came out of the kitchen to reload the napkin dispenser. He was a young, hipster type with a full beard and tight jeans. He looked me straight in the eyes and smiled.

“It’s a great place to work if you like to hike,” the clerk continued, making his best sales pitch. “We make good tips here too.”

This I did not dispute, but the reality of living in a place that was a hard 8-hour hike from civilization, and a partial one at that, was too daunting to consider. Being nice, I told him I would think about it.

We refilled our water bottles and soon were on our way again, this time hiking up. As we departed the canteen, the clerk reminded us to wet our shirts before crossing the river. We had not yet experienced the day’s full heat.

Flight of the Condor

4 05 2012

The ladies advised me against going down to the river, whether they knew it or not.

“If you don’t mind hiking in the dark, go for it,” one of them said, in an exhaustive sort of way.

That was all I needed to hear. I did not bring a flashlight and wasn’t about to hike in the pitch black. So I decided to take the trail to Plateau Point instead. After all, I did have all summer to make it to the river.

The hike from Indian Garden to Plateau Point does not involve steep inclines or switchbacks, but is completely exposed to the elements and on this day, the sun was shining bright with sparse clouds in the sky. Again, I probably should have gotten an earlier start. Had I left at dawn I would be soaking my feet in the river by now.

There was hardly a soul on this trail and the only signs of life came from the sprouting yuccas and flowering cacti. Every once and a while, a spiny lizard would scurry across the rocks and puff up at me. Like the squirrels before, these little lizards have ample amount of moxie.

As I approached Plateau Point, a figure emerged from the rocky ledge. As they got closer I discovered it was a park ranger, her head and face completely covered with bandanas and sunglasses. If this were a Star Wars movie, she would be a perfect Sandperson. The ranger informed me there was a baby California condor nearby and then asked me for a favor.

“Sure thing,” I said, always willing to help out a woman in uniform, even if she looked like a Tusken Raider.

“If the condor comes at you, I want you to chase him away — wave your arms, yell and scream and do whatever it takes to scare him away, OK?,” she said.

“Got it,” I replied.

I then asked the ranger if she would snap some pictures of me for evidence of my excursion. She gladly complied and even remarked that the last one was, “beautiful.” Then she hiked away. It was just after three o’clock. I guess it was time for her to clock out. I was all alone at what seemed like the end of the world. As I took the final steps toward the edge, I was not prepared for what I would see next. I don’t think anyone ever is.

From Plateau Point, the Colorado River is a sight to behold. With a blue-greenish tint — from all the minerals — the river flows between towering gorges of rock. Looking down, I could see rafters making their way through a gauntlet of rapids as their cries echoed off the rock walls. I took my backpack off and found a shady spot under one of the overhanging rocks. Then I had my victory meal: a bag of raisins, peanuts and chocolate balls. As I munched on my trail mix, I stared down into the gorge. It was mesmorizing.

And dangerous.

The wind had begun to pick up and my backpack had attracted a lone raven. Ravens are very smart birds and this one was intent on pecking its way into my backpack, hoping to score some more trail mix. This forced me to abandon my shady perch and chase the raven away. And just as I did, I came across the condor the ranger had told me about. Much larger than the raven and just as black, the condor was indeed an infant and he didn’t know what to think of me.

Whereas the raven beat a quick retreat, sqawking as I chased it away from my backpack; the condor never flinched. The sight of this endangered bird stopped me in my tracks with the ranger’s request still fresh on my mind.

“We want him to be scared of humans,” she said. “Or else he’s going to die.”

There are roughly 400 California condors remaining in the wild and around 80 of them call the Grand Canyon home. At full maturity, condors can reach a 9-foot wingspan, making these scavengers easily the largest bird in North America.

So I screamed and yelled at the top of my lungs, jumped up and down and waved my arms like I just didn’t care. And the condor never moved. He just stared at me from his perch a few feet below from where I had enjoyed my victory meal.

Then I pulled out my trusty i-phone and snapped some pictures and only then as I lowered myself for that perfect shot, did he flap those big black wings and take flight, catching a burst of wind and soaring along the top of the gorge.

Farewell, young fella. May you survive and thrive.

The wind was so strong that it convinced me to get off the rocky cliffs and start my journey back to the rim. I had accomplished so much on this hike already and now was not the time to get greedy — or to be blown into the gorge.

The last thing I needed was to meet the rest of the condor’s family.


26 04 2012

It was a Wednesday morning and I awoke ready to tackle the day. I had renewed energy, knowing a trip to Phoenix — and civilization — was on the horizon. I also had caught the hiking bug.

Intent on making progress into the Canyon, I resumed my descent along the Bright Angel Trail, making it to the mile-and-half reststop much quicker than I had before. I carried more water with me this time and less clothes. The weather was getting warmer and the sun was out and the deeper I went into the Canyon the hotter it would get.

The trail was packed with tourists, some coming up and others going down. At the three-mile reststop, shade was in high demand. The covered benches were full of people swigging electrolyte water and lathering themselves in sunscreen. With no room to spare under the reststop roof, I found a nearby tree, plopped down under its shade and quinched my thirst. It didn’t take long for the squirrels to notice. Grand Canyon squirrels are an aggressive breed and from what the rangers say, the squirrels have become one of the biggest threats to man.

As cute as these little critters look, they will bite and their bite has sent many to the Canyon clinic. Watching the squirrels pander to each passing hiker was amusing and their total lack of fear in humans was equally suprising. With the squirrels dancing around for crumbs, I could hear the discussions from inside the reststop as to how much further should we go. It was the thought on everyone’s mind.

It was just a few minutes after noon and the sun was beating down on the Bright Angel Trail. I decided to shed my long pants and thanks to the Northface brand, all I had to do was unzip the lower end and my legs were free to breathe. As I continued my descent from the three-mile reststop, the number of hikers coming up began to greatly outnumber the ones going my direction. I probably should have gotten an earlier start, I thought.

Indian Garden was the next stop and from the rim, it truly did appear to be like an oasis along the trail. The hike began to level out as I approached this oasis and the Canyon also began to open up and display more of its beauty. I was now almost completely alone on the trail and a subtle pain began to emerge from my right foot. I ignored the pain and pressed on, heading straight for the lush greenery of Indian Garden.

The tall waving Cottonwood trees were a sight for sore eyes indeed and as I entered the Garden their fuzzy white blooms were floating everywhere in the air. It was almost, dare I say, magical.

With its ideal location halfway between the river and the rim, many hikers use Indian Garden as a camping site. It has an ample supply of water, campgrounds and a ranger station. As I wandered into one of the covered rest areas, I encountered two female hikers sunburnt and exhausted, one laying across a picnic table and the other hovered over a water spicket. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked them how they were doing.

“Hot, very hot,” said one of the ladies. They had just hiked up from the river, a narrow stretch of the trail with not much air flow.

I asked them what it was like down there. They said the river was very cold, that there were some idiots who jumped in and were swimming around, but it did feel good on their bare feet. This made me think about my foot and the pain that I was too afraid to confront. I also began to think long and hard about how much further I should go. At the beginning of my hike, Indian Garden had been my destination, but now that I was here and not nearly as tired as I thought I would be, I desired to go deeper into the Canyon.

Just before you leave Indian Garden and cross over its trickling creek, there comes a fork in the trail. You can hike west to Plateau Point and Tonto Trail or head east and down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. For a brief moment, I thought of the Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled, a piece of work which could be used to characterize my travels. This next decision, would indeed, make all the difference.

Searching for Friends among Victims

16 04 2012

Making friends has been much harder here than I had originally thought.

For starters, most people in the Canyon work a lot of hours so there is very little free time for social activities. You may meet someone briefly in the employee cafeteria that you click with, but if they work in another part of the park and your schedules do not match up, well then, you probably won’t see that person very often.

Take Thomas, the man who paved my way here, for example. We’ve met for breakfast on a couple of occasions, but he works nights at the El Tovar while I’m folding T-shirts at Maswik. To his credit, Thomas did warn me about this.

“You won’t see me that much,” he said. “You’ll make your own set of friends at Maswik.”

And I have tried, but it hasn’t been easy. I’m living just across the railroad tracks from Maswik Lodge in the all male dormitory Victor Hall, or as the locals like to refer to it — “Victim Hall.” Legend has it, there was a murder there a few years back.

You won’t find Victor Hall on any map provided to tourists. It’s almost like the Park Service doesn’t want people to know the place exists. And for good reason.

I’ve lived in dorms before, back in college and Victor Hall is everything you could imagine when you think of a smelly, old, cold brick and mortar building. The nice old Native American ladies I work with at the gift shop get a good laugh out of calling the place an “Animal House.”

And oh are they right.

On the lower level of Victor Hall is what is known as the TV room. There’s soda and snack machines inside, couches and tables, a bookcase full of books no one reads and the television set perched high in the corner. If you are lucky enough to get to the room first or outlast the previous inhabitants, then you get possession of the remote control — A position of great authority at Victor Hall.

Most of the time, the TV is tuned to an action movie with a lot of gunplay, fast cars and faster women or some sort of sporting event. The news is never on.  As I have come to find out, half of the people who live in Victor Hall are in their own little fantasy land so the news has little bearing on them. The other half are foreign workers who cannot understand what Anderson Cooper has to say.

Among the regular visitors to Victor Hall are the fine men and women of NPS Fire and Security. They usually arrive at night, especially on weekends, when things tend to get rowdy. Last Saturday night, just after midnight, the fire alarm went off and we all had to pile outside with snow coming down and temperatures near freezing just because some bozo decided he was going to light one up in the bathroom.

It was my second fire drill at Victor Hall since I got here and it won’t be my last.

Most of the long term employees at the Grand Canyon get out of Victor Hall as soon as they can. One of the more popular sayings is, “I did my six months at Victor.” It’s kind of a sympathetic solidarity amongst the male workers.

Thankfully, I have a stable roommate and the hot water works so I’m in no hurry to abandon Victor Hall just yet. As a writer, the material here is priceless. However, I doubt very seriously I will find a hiking companion in the TV room.

The Initial Descent

7 04 2012

Starting to get settled in here with the initial shock of moving across country and into a completely different climate now fading away. I got a couple of paychecks under my belt too which helps in the confidence department.

And I finally descended into the Canyon, bringing clarity and perspective to the big picture. I have always enjoyed hiking, whether it be the backcountry of Arizona or the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Hiking — which is walking essentially — can tell you a lot about yourself.

As I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail, my mind raced with thoughts dominated by fear. Had I brought enough water? Were my shoes appropriate?? Would I go too far down and not be able to make it back up???

All indeed valid questions. The Park Service does not supply the trail with water until the summer months, but it is in the spring — if the wind cooperates — when conditions are best to descend into the Canyon. The difference in temperature between the bottom, where the Colorado River flows, and the top of the South Rim is usually between 25-30 degrees. The deeper you go the hotter it gets.

On this day the trail was full of hikers and tourists disguised as hikers. I have been surprised by the large numbers of foreign tourists that come here. I have engaged in more conversational French in one month than I had in 10 years in Panama City. This substantial presence of not only Europeans, but Asians has made me realize how foolish I was to believe that I was living in an international tourist destination in Panama City. That was a lie floated by the power brokers to build a new airport. Panama City may get a handful of international tourists, but it is far from an international tourist destination. It is a regional tourist destination at best and will remain that way until a better strategy of attracting visitors is implemented.

Back on the trail, hikers had to make sure they not only avoided mule droppings, but also watched their step for loose gravel and leftover snow and ice. I wore my trusty adidas running shoes, the same pair I bought at the Ross discount store back in Panama City a couple years back. I have a habit about wearing shoes for a long time and this pair of adidas felt good on my feet. They may not look hiking professional, but they were light and comfortable and I was able to make my way down the trail without any missteps.

There were a few tense moments like when the wind would gust up as I approached a narrow overlook with oncoming hikers headed my way. Fortunately, most of the people who hike are considerate and will always ask how you’re doing. I was relieved to make it to the first rest station, one and half miles down. Coming back was much tougher and required a couple stops to catch my breath and hydrate.

What I learned about myself on this foray into the Canyon was I’m in better shape than I thought, but still have a ways to go to make it to the river. That is the goal during my time here — To hike to the bottom and back. It will take more than an afternoon to do it and I will have to be well prepared for the trip.

And I probably shouldn’t go it alone.

The After-Hours Tourist

10 01 2010

John wasn’t about to kiss and tell in the Canyon …. there is a code among Nerds, one that is sometimes solved by Queers.

But Gabe was another story.

“They can’t grow grass up there,” he said, in his thick Jersey Shore accent.

We were back in Panama City, comparing notes on the trip with Jim and Gabe was unveiling his turf research. John, admittedly, was envious of Gabe’s youth with that baby face that would never be kicked into the streets — at least for very long.

In Vegas, Jim had even encouraged Gabe to walk The Strip, but the youngster keenly stayed inside the casino’s cozy atmosphere.

The Canyon was a different climate, entirely. “How can you stay inside a place like that?,” Gabe declared.

The workers in the park rarely mingle socially with visitors. Tourists, despite being their life source, were usually held in contempt at “after hours” get-to-gethers.

And I was about to get my first taste of Canyon “after hours.”

Stallone, the twinky Hawaiian server, invited me back to his apartment after dinner to meet some of his friends and Jim gave me the green light, offering up the keys to the Murano.

It was cold that night and very, very dark. I drove slow and tried to remember the way, knowing the drive back would be a solo affair. Stallone was a friendly fellow and his language skills impressed me… and then he surprised me, “You don’t have a joint on you, do you? Because I would really like to smoke a doobie.”


The answer, of course, was no and this seemed to solidify park workers’ biggest complaint.

“You tourists,” Stallone said, shaking his head with a sheepish grin.

We arrived at Stallone’s apartment before the herd. Stallone introduced me to his roommate, a short lesbian who liked football and beer. I don’t recall her name as shortly after introductions the apartment began to fill with Canyon people, all workers in the park and all with vastly different personalities.

Still sporting my blazer and khaki pants from dinner, I was overdressed for this soiree, but still my ‘Southern Good Ol’ Boy’ wit attracted quite a crowd. The girls seemed to like to hear me talk. So did Stallone, who grew more girlish by the hour.

A whiskey bottle was passed around and inside Stallone’s living room people huddled on the floor and lounged on couches, conversing about Canyon life. There was a young Asian girl there who dispensed the trouble with housekeeping and her beef with management.

Her comments made me wonder why Jim always tipped the bellhop but never the maids.

There was no music playing and nobody was dancing. I guess you could say it was a drinkin’ party…and since I was the token tourist in the crowd, an outsider, I wasn’t offered any mind-altering substances.

And that was cool with me. The decade of decadence was coming to an end. Stallone probably would have had more fun with Gabe.

After a few hours of spin the bottle, I said my goodbyes and returned to the El Tovar, driving ever more slowly through the dark park. A steady wind made the cold air slightly bitter.

On the way, I came upon a large elk, casually walking a long side of the road. There was no fear in this magnificent creature’s eyes as I passed by. Back home, that elk would be a welcome addition to many walls. My trophy, however, was seeing this beast roaming free.

Something only a “tourist” could truly appreciate.

The Canyon Dinner

5 01 2010

From Durango, we drove through Monument Valley to get to the Grand Canyon.

Jim had secured dinner reservations with an old friend at the El Tovar, a landmark lodge overlooking the Canyon’s South Rim. It would be a chance for me to dust off the blazer with a night of fine dining in store.

Parked outside the El Tovar

Parked outside the El Tovar

Monument Valley was stunning.

“Can’t you just see John Wayne leading the Calvary,” Jim remarked.

We pulled off the road on several occasions to take pictures of the rock formations and mountain backdrops.

And this leg of the trip was the first time we spotted hitch-hikers. It was a sight I was not accustomed to, certainly not around Panama City.

It made me think about Barry, my Berkeley friend. When we were preparing for our renedezvous in New York, Barry had suggested I skip the bus ride and instead hitch-hike to Atlanta.

This idea, of course, seemed preposterous to me, but to Barry, the 60s radical, it was something he had done many times before in his youth. Turns out, the bus ride, with all those convicts in tow, might have been more dangerous.

Jim wasn’t about to stop and offer any hitch-hiker a ride. I was plenty enough company on this trip. We got to the Canyon before sundown and the bellhop at the El Tovar helped us unload the car and showed us to our room. Before dinner, Jim did some shopping at the gift shop, buying a piece of Native American pottery with a price tag that could be a mortgage payment for most folks.

Meanwhile, I was saving what little cash I had for Vegas and sprucing up, back at the room, for dinner.

We met Jim’s friend Tom in the lobby. Tom knew Jim’s annual routine well as the two had met years ago when Tom was a server at the El Tovar. These days, Tom was pretty much in charge of the place and had recently published a book on Grand Canyon National Park.

The three of us had a delightful dinner and great conversation. Tom was originally from Michigan, a stout fellow with a neatly trimmed beard. His overall appearance, sans the beard, reminded me of Syracuse’s famed basketball coach Jim Boeheim.

My intellect seemed to surprise him at first. Jim’s previous travel companions had probably not been as challenging a conversationalist and Tom appeared to appreciate this change.

Tom also seemed surprised that I had given up my newspaper career.

“But your stories were on the front page?,” Tom asked.

Before I could respond, Jim came to my defense, “But, if you’re not alive to read them, it doesn’t matter.”

As usual, Jim was right on the money. He had seen my career at the newspaper come full circle. He knew how tough it was, for me, at the end.

After dinner, which included a tasty entree of duck, we moved into the lounge where some of the park’s workers had just gotten off their shift. Waiting there, was another surprise. Tom introduced me to a young server named Stallone. He was a thin fellow of Hawaiian descent with feminine mannerisms. After a few drinks, Stallone asked me if I cared to step outside.

He wasn’t looking for a fight and neither of us wanted to smoke a cigarette.

“Do you kiss and tell?,” Stallone asked.