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The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Thirty-One

OK, Next Time For Sure We'll Go To the Bahamas



10/7/92. Rush in Jane's truck with hay on the seats to the airport, where I slice my hand attempting to stash my winter coat in one of the carry-on bags. Board the plane with five minutes to spare. Zooming west, the leaves below radiate iridescent colors, the Adirondack lakes sparkle in the morning light. Time flies, so do we; hello, Chicago. A giant sunlighted concourse leads to our Phoenix connection. S sits next to a crazy old woman from West Chester, a tennis player ... no, a composer ... no, a pianist, studied at Juilliard, Tanglewood, all over the world. Well, she wouldn't shut up till aerolunch, a welcome, if somewhat tasteless, interruption. Cloud cover for most of the flight, an occasional Rocky Mountain peaking through. Then severe and foreboding terrain, craggy gray buttes and dull escarpments. Phoenix approaches with a zillion tedious suburbs. It's 90 here and we have 4 hours till the next flight. We wander, gawk, read, start a crossword puzzle, eat ice cream till dusk. The last 35 minutes to Flagstaff is aboard a Fairchild Metroliner, a tiny loud prop plane. Bumped my head on the low ceiling; no blood, for a change. Sunset in the air. The Flag airport is even tinier than Burlington's. Baggage claim is two 4x4 aluminum tables. Miraculously, our bags appear. A moment later, so does Jan, in a heated Isuzu. Home to Jan & Bob's--Carpenterville-- greetings, stories and pasta, then it's snooze time. They sleep upstairs, where it's warm; we're downstairs in a bed that wobbles, where it isn't.

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S awakes to periodic flow onset--good timing, really--I awake to EDT sunrise confusion. We both awake with back ailments. Breakfast at a swell eatery with Martha, 1989 river guide: oatcakes with blueberries, yogurt & applesauce; trout & eggs; English muffin & coffee--a Mr. Creosote feast. Two more guides arrive, Kevin from the ol' Hotel Melville and John Somebody. Back at Carpenterville, Martha listens to the SDS tape, then vanishes. J&B return with a change of plans. Needing more solitude, they'll go to Cape Solitude without us, but leave us Bob's oil-leaking Mazda. We'll go, um, somewhere else, then leave the car at Hermit's Rest for Bob to pick up on his way to Lake Powell next week. Assuming we survive our Canyon adventure, we'll snag the 5:30 NavaHopi bus to Flag at Bright Angel Lodge on the 18th. If, however, either of us is unable to walk, we'll do, um, something else. Plan in hand, we begin with one of our best activities, comparison shopping. It's exhausting work, especially figuring in the time zone differential, so we clamber into bed early, but are kept awake till morning by locomotives passing nearby, their drivers leaning hard on their horns.

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Late start. S to chiropractor at 9:45, then a late breakfast, last minute groceries, gas, finally on the road north to Page. Thirty miles west is the Paria Canyon Wilderness, a glorious locale. The ranger station's closed but there's a map and a posted weather forecast, with a note warning that the forecast is frequently wrong. The campground is two miles away, a dozen cars are already there, but no tenants in sight. We find a great tent site, but it's occupied. A less great one, closer to the parking area, isn't. We grab it, set up housekeeping. Good view of the moon rising over the slickrock. A metal picnic table facilitates dinner prep: Progresso chicken soup, pita pockets with turkey, cheese, a few greens from the Safeway salad bar, apple cider in a bag. Back is still cranky as we turn in at dusk, 7:00. Wait, Utah observes daylight savings time. It's 8:00. No wonder we're so tired!

Tent zipper is also tired, worn out, the teeth don't always mesh. This happened on our river trip 17 months ago, meant to fix it then. Breakfast is pita pockets with cheese heated to perfection ... or at least to melting. Also hazelnut coffee-in-a-bag, sadly weak & bland. A water bottle that had been frozen for extra cooling has burst. Load the borrowed daypack and head out. The Paria River drains into the Colorado at Lees Ferry, 36 miles away, but our goal is the beginning of the Narrows, four miles downstream. It's an easy walk for me, less so for S, who is still recovering from chiropractimosis. We meet a dozen folks coming out, including an exhausted boy scout troup. Shorts and shirtsleeve weather here. At a recess in the cliff we pause for gorp and water. Just ahead, the trail meanders around a corner, looks intriguing. But we're both test driving our backs; better to retreat in leisure. So we walk ten miles total, not a lot in absolute discomfort. Once back at the campsite we return to the ranger station, now occupied, for water and conversation. He recommends exploring the slickrock canyon right around the parking area, which we do. Dinner is--I forget.

Bob said the car was good for 200 miles on a tank of gas, but I want to try for 400. We pack up and drive off by 9:00 towards a Page breakfast. First we stop at Lone Rock, part of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area. But lonely it ain't; dozens of RVs are parked nearby to keep it company. In Page we discover lots of interesting churches, just no interesting eateries. We try Bubba's Texas Style Barbecue, but the plastic utensils and styrofoamed coffee bids us keep looking. Likewise unappealing are the Taco Bell, the Sonic Drive-In, RD's Drive-In, the Sandwich Place and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Then we spot the Glen Canyon Steak House. Doesn't have a non-smoking section, does have a Sunday breakfast buffet of scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, biscuits & gravy, cereals, fresh fruit, orange juice, muffins--a mini version of the Circus Circus casino buffet, just a third as much at three times the cost. Wrap bacon, egg and biscuit leftovers in a napkin for later. Now south on 89 into the Navajo Indian Reservation. Just north of Cameron we stop at Chief Yellowhorse's roadside stand, find swell dreamcatcher earrings, but decide against helping the Native American economy today. Back to Flag, where we begin to assemble hiking paraphernalia. Whatever else happened today is lost to faulty memory parts, though the car did manage 333 miles.

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We sleep late, do laundry, shop for celery and folding toothbrushes. M.A., a cartoon-voiced Oregon river guide, pops in to wash her sleeping bag and borrow $20. At 4:00 we return to the bone aligner. He pops S's back a few times, then turns to me. As I lie on my stomach on a table, he points out that my right leg is shorter than my left. Yanks me around, my body resists. Then he pulls sharply on my leg, pop! I see stars. Seeking a new therapy, we go for a walk. Painful. Stop at the Downtowner Motel to look for Les, a former river rafter. He's in surgery, but Dave, still another river personage, isn't. Chat for a while, while back stiffens. Plan to meet for food after our hike, then move on, me just barely. Later we gamble on a Mexican restaurant, get spicy, stringy food. I'm despondent, convinced I won't be ambulatory by tomorrow. In bed by 9:00, I dream a romantic thought: I love the sight of those little white flects of deodorant as they cling to your underarms hairs.

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Up at 5:30, back is better, not screaming anyway, load packs, wash celery, out the door to Denny's for the free breakfast entree and lousy coffee. On the road to GC by 7:45, playing it close. Fifteen minutes out of Flag, in the midst of the lovely Coconino State Forest, last night's Mexican entree clamors for attention. A forest service road beckons, I pull over, dash for the trees and squat. O cucaracha! Back on the road again, we make good time to GC. Just not good enough, as I get to the Backcountry Reservation Office at three minutes past 9:00. Outside, the daily lecture about the dangers of the joint to wannabe hikers. Inside, I squabble with Ranger Tim, who has cancelled our reservation. He flaunts his bureaucratic superiority, twiddling with the peace strapped to his leg, finally relents and reissues our permit. "Regulations are important," he preaches. OK, so we get the permit, mail the postcards, search Babbitt's store for a GC trinket in vain, drive to the trailhead, adjust the packs, change film, start down. It's 10:20. Late. Loose scrabbly rock makes walking difficult. Plus S's boots appear to be too small. Frequent rest stops. Pretty good vistas when we don't focus on the pain. Lots of air traffic, only a dozen hikers, coming and going. Clouds and cliffs afford good shade. We rest at Santa Maria Spring, where a robust grapevine shields our actions from nosy UFOs. After granola bars and Gatorade, we continue our halting hike. The first view of Hermit Gorge is terrific. We pause just before the Cathedral Stairs which, while no worse than anything else, is still plenty bad. Steep downhill loose rocky switchbacks. S sums up the Hermit Trail with eloquence: hateful. Finally we can see the sign at the Tonto-Hermit junction, then it's a mile and change to the Hermit Rapids Trail. We rest a bit, a bit before 5:00. Only a mile and a half to the river ... but what a mile and a half! The trail seems even harder now, thanks to fatigue, pain, impending darkness, depression and too many creek crossings. S lands hard on her foot, a puffy blister explodes. At a quarter past six we finally hear, then see, the river. Also Vermont pals Dennis & Stevie, who'd about given up looking for us. They lead us to their campsite upstream from the rapids, still plenty noisy. A lot of beach has eroded. We trade hiking horror stories. They win. Pooped, we set up the tent, forego supper. Tent zipper still malfunctions, a lot of sand blows inside, also briefly blows over their tent. To bed at last, but wind thrashes and pummels the tent, making sleep tiring. That and achy body parts. Was it always this hard?

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Groggily up at 7:00 to make cocoa. D&S are late, too. Stevie splints a big toe, gives S some blister antibiotic. We eat soup and oatmeal, they eat rice. After pausing for a photo op, they leave. We immediately move our tent into their superior site, stare at the river. Temperature inside the tent is 85 degrees, so we wash clothes, bathe, think about another meal--the alu muter borrowed from J&B. With the added can of turkey, it's great. Plus we're in the shade now. More air traffic. Back still sore. Since we drank infrequently yesterday, we rehydrate today. Love our collapsible bucket, no matter it unexpectedly collapses and we have to hurriedly move the tent out of the flash flood path. Three more arrivals, but they stay away, nearer the rapids. Blister report: me, 4; S, 4, plus 3 black toenails. Around 4:00, we spot two rafters scouting the rapids. One shoots easily through in a buoyant blue mini-snout; the other follows in an inflatable kayak. Observing all of this from a rocky vantage point is--oh no! ... it's Ranger Tim! "I remember you!" he gloats. "I nuked you, then restored you. Your name again, so I can check it against the permit list?" Small talk follows, easy for him because he's so small. Dinner is Mountain Chili in a bag, darned good. Clean-up, then bed. More gusty winds coat the inside of the tent with sand. Another hard night with strange Norman Bates-type dreams.

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We try for an early start, give up, make do with 9:00. A slow and painful trek up the creekbed, much harder for me today. And S's feet need medical attention. Plus I should've readjusted the pack. After frequent rests, we reach the Tonto Trail at 10:15. Two hours of difficult hiking follow. Difficult enough to make me realize I'm no longer in my element. Time, maybe, to leave the Canyon to fitter folk. A parade of helicopters flies overhead, transporting the fiscally fit. Oh, but a river trip would still fit into our element. Downhills are especially hard on S's feet; everything seems to be hard on mine. Suddenly a splendid view of the river, Granite Rapids, and the creekbed as it plunges out of Monument Creek. The side canyon which precedes Monument is particularly onerous, down the crumbling canyon wall over loose rocks. I remember falling on my back(pack) here once. 1:00, the Monument Creek suburbs. We'll stay here tonight, skip our date with Granite Rapids. I guide S to a burbling creek pool, room for one. She sits in, relaxes, soothes bruised feet. Later, she stands up, her legs covered with wriggly fly larvae. We choose a good site, likewise a good dinner--noodles & sauce augmented by dried shiitake mushrooms, a can of white meat chicken, and parmesan cheese. A hiker with a broken propane stove asks for repair advice. We advise him to get another stove. He leaves Monument, heads east towards Babbitt's store. Two other parties here tonight. No blowing sand, just a gentle breeze. Animal noises during the night, many of them imagined.

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Wake to the song of a canyon wren, first we've heard since the upper Hermit Gorge. Next to our campsite is an overhang. Did Dennis and I really shinny up the chimney four years ago and exit onto the shelf above? Restful here, but we'll try to make an easy hike to Salt Creek, where there's reportedly water. Readjusting my pack takes longer, and we don't leave till 10:35. Up the Monument Canyon wall, scrabbly switchbacks--20 minutes, including rest and photo stops. Then east across the Tonto. An hour and ten minutes to Cedar Springs, a dry, bleak campsite. More east, a few ups and downs, mostly level, two good views of the river, the inner gorge, and an unknown minor rapids. Two folks from Albany pass en route to Horn. At 1:15 we reach Salt Creek, a canyonette with a tiny stream gurgling through it; rest ledges in the shade. I'd forgotten how lovely this place is. Previously I'd just stopped here before the long, hard five mile push to Horn Creek. Tadpoles in the water but, with careful scooping, clearer than Monument. Really, if I could walk I'd stay here again. I carry a bucket of water up to the campsite. Box toilet uphill still farther. More helicopter traffic, many carrying giant buckets. At 3:00 we eat soup, begin reconstituting the sundried tomatoes for tonight's black bean burritos. Looks like it'll fill 30 tortillas. During dinner prep--chopping celery and opening the Taco Bell hot sauce packets--a bighorn hurtles down from the Tonto onto the opposite ravine wall, probably for Salt Creek water. Stares at us unperturbed for a moment, then gracefully moves silently and easily away.

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Last night's burritos provide ample morning direction to the field toilet as S prepares to hike in Tevas. We consume oatmeal, cocoa, two quarts of Gatorade, skip the planned pre-hike soup. Dawdling delays our Salt Creek exit till 11:00, the hot time of the day. A pretty easy uphill out of the canyon, a few rest stops, a pause for a sublime downriver photo view, then a long long straight line traverse over the plateau towards Horn Creek. You can see the damned campsite from nearly two miles away, very deceptive. And discouraging. A minor scramble down into and out of a side canyon precedes Horn, but finally we arrive at 2:30, really not too bad for two hiking dilettantes with four bum feet. The place is already occupied by a guy who passed us at Salt Creek. Still, there's a fine tentsite for us, with a great cooking and sitting rock nearby. Helicopter traffic has abated, but now we hear the whistle of the steam train from Williams near the rim, a sound that harkens of civilization, albeit of a different century. My feet are plenty sore and I'd like to wash for dinner, but water is at a premium till tomorrow morning, when we hit the taps at Indian Gardens. Two hikers approach from the east. They pause, consult a map. The guy has a daypack, the dame has nothing. They head back, confused. Probably they were looking for Plateau Point and turned left at the Tonto junction, the silly touristos. We share the leftover burrito, then prepare the last supper, the Backpacker's Pantry Hawaiian Rice with Chicken, pretty good, but I still dream of Denny's. Wrap the scraps in the leftover tortilla for tomorrow. Washing pots and teeth leaves us with 1 quarts, including a bottle of river water--plenty for tomorrow's little jaunt to IG. Brackish water here. We follow it up to the toilet--another great view!--and down to the chokestone, near where our neighbor says he spotted a bighorn. Back to the tent by 6:00, by which time it's cooler and too dark to wri ....

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Early morning moonlit stumble to the loo doesn't disturb our neighbor, whose snores continue uninterrupted. Otherwise deathly quiet. No wind, no water noise, no animal sounds. Allows me to focus on the low frequency hum in my head. They start, then stop abruptly. Too uniform to be tinnitis, I figure; more likely subsonic radio waves from Planet Zontar. Our neighbor is up and out by 7:00. We shoot for 8:00, miss it by 26 1/2 minutes, the delay caused by a pronghorn grazing near the loo causing a photo op. After cocoa, we head out. An easy trail, 45 minutes to the intersection with the Plateau Point path, 65 minutes to IG. Peasants and boors here. Plus lots of trash. Also new smells: perfumes and colognes. A mule train arrives. Then another. And another. The clients do not look amused. A young stud hiker impresses his tubby ladyfriend by exhorting confidence: "The river? Let's go for it!" They both sport souvenir GC straw hats and carry a bota of water. Let 'em learn! Ten years ago, I, too, was a younger and immensely denser hiker, as I hobbled to Plateau Point and back, but just barely. We fill our water bottles, cook soup and cider, urinate in private chemical toilets, repack, head out at 11:08. Slow going. Numerous rest/scenery stops. Hundreds pass us, many muttering in German. More trash on the trail, becomes tiresome and aggravating picking it up. We leapfrog an older daypacked couple and a pair of bluejeaned rotundities with big backpacks, eventually leave 'em in the dust, but every one else passes us easily. As do two of the aforementioned mule trains. The two-mile sign is missing; where are we? Makes the trek psychologically harder. We reach the top after four hours and 30 some minutes, delayed on the penultimate switchback by some chatty oldsters who wonder where we've been, looking as disheveled as we do. We immediately tromp over to Bright Angel Lodge, plop down on the front bench. There's that whistle again, closer now, as the GC steam train chugs by. I switch to Tevas (relief!), go inside to buy bus tickets. We pay the bellman a buck to watch our packs, then we change a few more clothes, hobble to Hopi House, 1/4 mile away. Not far, but any walking at this point demands a good reason. Amidst expensive Indian curious--a $4,500 dish!?--we find the mother of a Burlington clarinetist, pass along greetings. Amble back along the rim walk, shorter and scenicker. Buy a GC newspaper, a display of GC rocks, cactus candy, and a dish of blueberry cheesecake ice cream--not the usual end-of-hike tuna salad sandwich but perfectly acceptable. Late now, we reclaim our packs and board the bus. It roars out of the park and heads south. En route I have an unencumbered view of a stereophonic western sunset, the clouds changing colors from white to purple to gray. We debus at the Amtrak station, phone Jan. She'd been rear-ended in an auto accident, so M.A. picks us up. We eat Jan's pesto and pasta, bathe for real, chat briefly about life and the Canyon, finally turn in at--late for us--9:00, to the accompaniment of acorns dropping thunderously onto the back deck.

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I walk to Macy's for coffee, 10 minutes; hobble back, 20 minutes. A downtime day, we wash clothes, empty and clean camping stuff, repack to make room for souvenirs. We zoom off on borrowed mountain bikes, go maybe half a mile. I feel terribly vulnerable, also we're abusing previously unused muscles. We turn back. Have to walk the bike the last two uphill blocks because I forget how to shift gears and my legs ache too much. We trade in the bikes for feet, which are at least much easier to steer, and head for food, Cafe Espress, my first Flag eating adventure years ago. Food's still good and so's the waiter, a chatty guy named Tal who's the local KNAU d.j. Seems interested in our non-corporate lives, so we return to Carpenterville to fetch him a cassette of my recentest tunes. But Jan is gone, the door is locked, and our house key is in Bob's Mazda, somewhere near Lake Powell. The Beware Of Dogs fence door is open, but Concho, doggie carnivore giganticus, is inside staring at us. No choice, we go in, hop over the electric wire, try the back sliding door. Also locked. Leaves only the teensy dogdoor. It's a close fit, but I make it, as the dogs watch in puzzlement. Well, better than in hunger. We get the tape, rush it back to Cafe E, then head out for more shopping, thanks to that ol Visa magic. Later, we stay up late to really screw up our somehow still jetlagged bodies and also to delay getting into the cold cold bed.

More lower back pain, so S yanks on my right leg as the holistic acupuncturist demonstrated. Must've worked; my discomfort increases. With a fluid agenda, the day passes slowly. We walk to the post office, mail postcards, walk downtown, browse through a blissninny store, return to the house. A former rafting acquaintance stops by with a new mandolin he's built and a defective kidney. We return to Cafe E for espresso, then on to this guy's house to play new music and gawk at his woodworking shop. He drives us back to Carpenterville, no one's home, back through the dogdoor, we eat salad and read ... now it's 6:00. Gracious, where does the time go? An hour and a half somehow passes, we accompany Jan to a pizza tavern. Too noisy and smoky. Meet another river personage. Go to another pizza establishment, they're lined up outside. Finally wind up at a third such eatery, away from the university crowd, plenty of room, decent product, plus the World Series is televised in the background. Forgotten dreams follow short.

Jan gives us the key to the Isuzu, a Coconino Forest map and directions to Locket Meadow: follow 89A 11 miles northeast of Flag, take the first left past Sunset Crater, just after you crest the 7,282' pass. The rutted, washboard road goes up up up the mountainside, still further up, sheer drop-offs to the east past which is a spectacular panorama of the Painted Desert in the distance. After four miles, the road turns, descends into a picturesque alpine meadow, the caldera of an ex-volcano. The wind whistles through the trees, a photographer sits in the middle of the meadow waiting for the sun to best illuminate the clouds and white bark of the aspens in the mountain saddle. Pretty astounding. Cameraless, we stay for ten minutes. Then down the twisty road, hugging the inside a bit more this time, and back to town. At the Flagstaff Mall we find another Grand Canyon souvenir: a battery-operated Skeletor Death Mace. On to a farmers market, we skip the produce, grab instead a bag of raisin & cinnamon bagel-things, each wolf one down. Now we're ready for Lola J's, a highly touted Mexican restaurant. Tiny, with plastic plates, freshly cooked food, inexpensive. Too bad we didn't discover it earlier! S has enchiladas of spinach and chicken; I have a G (i.e. a chicken taco, chicken enchilada, rice & beans); we share a quesadilla. All great, all for less than 11 bucks. Later, we return to the chiropractor, who twists and turns me some more, diagnoses S's knee pain. Then we clean Jan's house and I do back exercises, as the guy suggested. Still later, salads of egg and regular, chit chat about apocryphal future endeavors, and so to bed.

Pointy Rock Pointy Rock vs. Red Sky

A hard night, back touchy, airport anxieties, at least we're packed, having squeezed souvenirs and canyon rocks into the four bags, supplanting the gift plates and trail food we brought out. We're out the door by 5:50, and Jan deposits us at the airport 15 minutes later. Same tiny prop plane, loud as hell, takes us south. I watch the Arizona geology unfold 13,000 feet beneath us; the red rock canyons of Sedona, a remnant of the Mogollon Rim, some more mountains, the plunge to desert scrub. Then, suddenly, irrigated green plots of the Phoenixburbs, so out of context in this aridity. We deplane into 70 degrees, the only folks carrying warm coats, and head for the United terminal to exchange aircraft, a real jet to Washington with real breakfast food: Frenchlike toast. OK, maybe not really real. High clouds make ground viewing difficult, soon we're over Kansas, with only dull flatness beneath us now. Four hours after MST, DC. We board a futuristic bus which unplugs from one terminal, travels 1/4 mile, plugs into another. We race to the farthest gate to swap planes again, the last to board. We sit in the front, near Angie, a flight attendant who's engrossed in her Cosmo and Shape mags, briefly glancing up from them to advise us of emergency exits. It's another noisy prop plane, and she's barely understandable. But she gives good snack, as she later passes out juice and nuts. North now, over Maryland and Three Mile Island and New York and up along the shoreline of Lake Champlain, out the window in the setting sun a snow covered Camels Hump gleams, not a good omen. We land in Burlington at 6:10, 15 minutes late, at last glad for our warm coats. Our arranged ride's there waiting, joined eventually--amazingly enough--by our baggage! We're back in Waterbury by 7:00, send out for pizza, make good coffee, unpack the gift souvenirs and clinging canyon sand, exhausted, the end of another Survival Hike.


The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.


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