If there's one thing you can be sure of, it's that no postcard can portray the true effect of the Grand Canyon. You have to stand on that 7,000 foot rim, with the wind whistling around your head, and try to absorb the deafening immensity of it all in person.
And if you really want to try to understand this American icon, you have to go into it. You have to leave the gaggle of tourists at the rim, step over the edge, and spend some time in its heart.
And that's just what I and three Chattanooga friends, Jerry McClanahan, Chris Kleehammer, and Phil Hitchcock, did. We all came for the adventure, but I came for an additional reason: I had a promise to keep.Into the canyon
On the chilly but sunny morning when I'm finally standing on Lipan Point overlooking the vastness of the Grand Canyon I try to keep my fear of heights carefully pushed out of my head. My emotions are a changing mix: fear, excitement, and sadness rippling like cloud shadows across the canyon floor. As I began to discuss the possibility of this trip with Jerry almost a year earlier, my brother Richard began a waiting game, going faithfully every four weeks for chemotherapy. The diagnosis of leukemia was sudden and unexpected and, as always with cancer, utterly without reason.
"I want you to go to the canyon for me," he said one day, when it was clear that he was losing the battle. I smiled and I promised, for him and for me.
Our group is going in on the Tanner and out on the Grandview, which are actual trails. In between, though, we'll be on the Escalante route, a find-it-yourself cross canyon trek. We've got the Sierra Club guidebook and a mimeographed handout from the Park Service; otherwise, we're on our own for five days. And, according the sign over the info desk back at park HQ, a helicopter lift out costs $1,200, paid for by the passenger.
The Tanner begins incongruously off the side of the Lipan parking lot, and we're soon descending switch backs into the canyon. In an hour the Pinyon Pine and Juniper of the rim give way to desert shrubs; the temperature goes from mid 30s to mid 80s. Even in the desert climate I am amazed at the number of things blooming. Yellow blossoms poke through gnarly shrubs. Century plants punctuate the sky with white spikes.
In fact the Tanner is initially gentle enough and the changing terrain fascinating enough that I'm lured into overconfidence. Maybe this isn't going to be so difficult after all, I think, ignoring all the cautions and warnings in the guidebook.
Half a day later, standing on the edge of the Redwall overlooking the Colorado River winding through a dizzying panorama, I'm reevaluating the situation. The Redwall is a shelf of hard limestone that guards egress to the inner canyon. Fault joints and constructed trails are the only way down and up it.
We have to make the river by nightfall. It's our only source of water on the Tanner. Hiking in the eastern Appalachians is one thing, but covering miles in the canyon is something different. The vastness renders distances unreal. The fact that you see where you're headed deceives you into thinking that it's close, when it's not.
Our final push for the river begins here with a steep, rocky descent down the Redwall. The first step over the cliff edge, with a 5,000-foot view, is like stepping off into space. All my new found confidence blows away on the hot canyon wind, and I want to do anything but take that step.
We reach the river, finally, at dusk. We set up camp in the dark on auto pilot, working like exhausted zombies. Our trek down the Tanner has taken all day and worn us out.
That first night, to the roar of the river, I dream of high windy frightening places and my brother.Reconnaissance
After the hard first day, Jerry suggests that our second day be an easy one. He gets no argument. We hike a few miles down river and find another beach.
The guidebook hints of interesting things for the next day. We decide on a quick reconnaissance hike. The route climbs quickly and steeply. In short order we skirt high cliffs overlooking Unkar Rapids and can see both north and south. The wind is staggering, coming at us in great chilling bursts and intensifying the sweeping sense of heights.
Before us looms a steep high, cliff-crowned ridge, blocking our way. According to our information, we can go over this--taking the high route--or climb back down and try to go around the base, if the river's low enough.
Chris has gone ahead, and we meet him coming back, a wry look on his face. He points out the way.
"I only want to do that once," he says.
We look at the faint path on the side of this ridge and shake our heads. Mountain goats probably wouldn't hesitate, but surely men loaded with packs can't stay on the side of that. By the time we walk back to camp, we've convinced ourselves: it's definitely the lower river route tomorrow.
I concentrate on 1) putting one foot in front of the other, 2) not overreacting whenever a foot slips in the loose sandstone chips (which is often), and 3) not calculating how far I'm going to fall when I do finally slip.
Wednesday morning, our third day below the rim, has dawned clear and calm. Gone are the staggering wind blasts of yesterday. Whether it's bravura born of a new day, or simply the fact that nobody wanted to climb all the way back down to the river, we're on the high route, contrary to yesterday's firm decision.
The faint path we saw the day before is no better close up--a foot-wide track of loose, slippery stones stuck to the 60 degree side of a mountain. As the guide book says, the high route should pose no problem for those with canyoneering experience. Right.
Every so often my fear of high spots wells up again. In fact, when the others stop to rest, I can't wait for more than a few minutes. Got to keep moving. Got to keep focused on getting to the end. Hanging on to the next boulder and waiting for the helicopter is not what I promised my brother I'd do.
The end comes a long hour later, a point of wine red sandstone ledges. At 4,400 feet above the river we've reached our highest point for the day. The view--the Colorado a brown ribbon snaking toward us then away--is, I decide, probably worth the scariest hike of my life. But like Chris, I wouldn't want to do it twice.Slow time
We are lying on the beach formed at the end of Nevills Rapids. The Colorado eddies back into a crescent bay rimmed with hot white sand. After descending the drainage of 75-Mile Creek we have come upon this small paradise, the best spot to end day three.
The 40-degree water of the river is painfully cold-- only Jerry and Chris brave total plunges--but the cold pulls the tiredness out of your legs like a sponge.
Lying there, basting in heat from sand and sun, I stare up at Solomon's Temple across the river. Its erosion carved red top juts 5,100 feet into the intense blue sky. Birds drop effortlessly off the rim into an infinity of air.
Canyon time is slow time, measured in thousands, millions of years. The ages of the rocks of the canyon span a period equal to one third the life of the planet; some are 1.7 billion years old. Human time is quick time. It changes with the blink of an eye, with the results of a doctor's test.
One moment there is life, conversation, laughter; the next, hushed voices, the hideous pumping of a respirator, fading readouts of vital signs--fading into the time beyond time.
After a while, rafters shoot into view on the river, spinning, waving when they spot us. Then, just as quickly they are gone, and we're alone again in this place of slow time. Native Americans call it the house of stone and light.
In a haze of fatigue and accomplishment, the morning's tricky ascent now a proud memory, I feel like I can almost grasp the reasons behind things. I want to lie here forever in slow time, open to sky and stone, listening to the brown river wash by, washing away memories and pain and loss.Bragging rights
"Right out of the river," Nels says, in answer to my question about how he gets his water. The well weathered Nels (short, I learn, for Nelbert), has been drinking right out of the Colorado for all the 120 or so runs he's made down it.
As we float gently down a deep quiet stretch of the river, I consider myself rescued. It's our fourth day, and Nels has picked us up just before we had to begin another high wire trek over another big ridge looming in our way. He's taking us the easy way around.
Shortly we catch up to the other rafts in Nel's party. They've all pulled in to scout Hance rapids.
Jerry, Phil, and I scramble down the rocky beach and gain perches on big boulders to watch the run. The water is rolling white and jet engine loud here. We see the rafts pull out one by one and begin their approaches.
Nels picks his line, and with the craftsmanship of a veteran, begins a precise and controlled run through the holes and rapids. As he sweeps past my position on the bank, I recognize the ear splitting grin on his passenger. It's Chris. He's gotten a ride with Nels and scooped us all for top bragging rights for the day.Horseshoe Mesa
Miner's Spring is a beautiful round pool in an alcove of stone at the base of Horseshoe Mesa. After a day hiking in 90 degree plus temperatures, the shade of the spring's oasis is almost too cool. We load up with water at the spring, for there is none on the mesa, and head for the top. The mesa is Redwall limestone, and sure enough the trail zig zags right up its hard slab side, cutting the map's contour lines like soft butter.
By now, our last full day below the rim, I've gotten a little more used to walking on the edges of shear drops with an unruly pack on my back. I even like to fool myself into thinking I've become a canyon veteran.
As we fix supper at our camp on the wide, Juniper strewn top of the mesa, the canyon treats us to a photographer's sunset. The sinking sun paints the stone monuments of the canyon one by one--Angels' Gate, Vishnu Temple, Rama Shrine--with intense golden light. The clouds above turn blood red.
It's as if the canyon is making one final attempt to burn itself indelibly into memory. Whenever you think you've seen me, understood me, conquered me, says the house of stone and light, look again and realize that you haven't done any of those things. My possibilities are infinite and amazing and dangerous. And so, perhaps, are yours. We sleep in the open that night. In the morning we'll take Grandview Trail the final 3,000 feet to the rim.Final photo
The throng of tourists and sightseers at Grandview Point--running children, overheard snatches of foreign languages, folks in big hats and sunglasses and white loafers--confirm that I've finished the canyon and returned to the world outside.
Grandview, just as Lipan Point in the beginning, is a place of emotions. At that very moment, I'm glad to be there, glad the climb out is over, glad I won't be walking along any more sheer edges for a while. But pausing to look back, I'm in awe of where I've been. And after a day or so, I realize, I'll be wishing I was back amongst stone and light.
We snag someone to take the obligatory group photo of ourselves. I'm unshaven, dirty, and fragrant--and proud of it. I think Richard would be proud too. I just wish I could show him the picture.