October 15, 1984. New Jersey to Indianapolis. Cynical natives call it Indiana No-Place. You'll get no argument from me.
The Middle-Aged Hiker
First Extended Grand Canyon Jaunt
& California Election Fiasco
16th. No Place to Denver, seventeen and a half hours. In Illinois, some trucker calls this the ugliest car he's ever seen. I return the compliment, adding a reference to his mom and dad. The guy tries to run me off the road! Where's his sense of humor? A blizzard is forecast for Colorado, surely an exaggeration. Au contraire! In Missouri, I drive through a fierce storm as an armada of geese cruises blithely overhead in pursuit of an enormous rainbow. News bulletins warn of meteorological chaos to the west. Sure enough, while a grooved road makes my tires sing Nearer My God To Thee, a tornado touches down nearby in Kansas. Then the snow flurries begin. It's still 350 miles to Denver, for Pete's sake! The more west I go, the more snow falls. By the Colorado line, mere survival on this slippery road is of more than passing interest. I-70, shut down due to glare ice covering the surface, reopens, and I kinda slooze my way into Denver, but not before passing a sobering heap of 56 tangled cars near the airport. But I avoid it all and slip calmly into Aurora. Well, not exactly calmly ....
17th. More snow. The roads over the Rockies are closed. The friends with whom I am staying encourage me to relax, wait it out. I bake a chocolate thing and pace a lot.
18th. Still more snow. Hell with it, I'm tired of pacing. And chocolate. I bundle into the car as a 5.1 earthquake tremor rocks the Rockies, an omen. Hell with omens. Up up up I go, visibility fading. A sign near 12,000 foot Eisenhower Pass flashes
WARNING, SNOW CHAINS REQUIRED! Hell with chains. Hell with signs. Hell with Colorado! Hell with common sense, up I go some more. Slide slide slip whoops watch out uh-oh the damned road's over there hope no one's in this lane what lane get outta the way you @%$*! slide slip ... and so on. Really, not so bad. Half an hour into the downhill side, sun and dry pavement. The mountain ambience calls for a Beethoven symphony, number seven. The terrain changes dramatically as I reach the Colorado Plateau: red rock mesas and no diners. A magpie says howdy near the Utah line. I abandon the interstate for Route 128, which follows the wiggles of the Colorado River to Arches National Park, a grand land of wrinkled rock and whopping hoodoos. I park the car and stand quietly in the enveloping silence.
Then I hike to Delicate Arch, a giant ring around which the rock has eroded and through which can be seen the La Sal Mountains at sunset, a glorious vista. Back at the campsite, my cookstove catches fire, warming my hands. Midnight, the stars gleam down brightly. It's 45º and dropping.
19th. Wake up at 3 am, glaciated and longing for Dr. Dentons. A mere ten-degree drop has turned me into a giant goosebump. I'm still new at this tent business, remember. Four hours later, I summon the will power to move out of my fetal scrunch and put on warm clothes. Outside, thick clouds are gathering, harbingers of snow. A raven circles the tent, looking for Godot. My hands are too cold to light the stove or pack the sleeping bag or fold the tent. I just leave everything in a heap and begin walking. Scenic panoramas are everywhere. Even with numb feet, I like this place, a wonderland of bizarre, wind-sculpted monoliths. Nevertheless, as soon as my timbers have ceased shivering, I pack up and leave, drive fifty miles to Canyonlands. The access road is primitive, dirt, rutted, like driving an amusement park bumper car into a wall. Canyonlands is so vast and uncommercialized that I don't know where to begin. I check out a couple vistas, then leave. Next time I'll look at a map first. Never figured this outdoorsy stuff could necessitate so much preparation!
I drive to Natural Bridges National Park, another Utah scenic locale. The tent and sleeping bag are still cold from this morning, so I sleep in the car. The only way I fit is by aiming one foot through the steering wheel and the other part way in the glove box. Not unlike a motel!
20th. Back on the road, heading south. A sign warns
Danger, Precipitous Drop-Offs Ahead, shades of the New Jersey Turnpike! In dense fog, I begin a narrow switchback descent along a canyon wall into the Valley of the Gods. The sign doesn't lie, there's no time to gawk at scenery, just focus on the road, wherever it is. At the bottom, I drive off into the brush, looking for gods. If they're here, they're not doing interviews this early in the morning. I drive to Mexican Hat, named for a sombrero rock formation, then into Monument Valley, where I recognize monoliths past which Gene Autry and Tim Holt rode into the sunset. I pick up a hitchhiker who claims he burned his sleeping bag to keep warm last night--he must've known I needed an apocryphal journal entry. I turn west again and enter Grand Canyon National Park. At Grand Canyon Village, 30 miles from the entrance, I'm greeted by snow, crowds and a speed trap. At the Backcountry Office, I pick up my hiking permit, which'll allow me to camp below the rim for three nights. This is my first overnight hike in the canyon, so I can only guess at what I'll need to take. I'll guess wrong.
I set up the tent in Mather Campground amidst trees and picnic tables. The snow returns, dampening my spirits. What happened to last year's balmy weather? As if to answer, a sudden squall blows over my tent.
21st. I wake up cold, naturally. Snow all over. What I've guessed to take along is nearly everything I brought, and my pack is incapacitatingly heavy. At 9:00, I find a parking space next to the Bright Angel Hotel, strap on my pack and attempt to hitchhike to the South Kaibab trail. No luck, and not the kind of hiking I had in mind. After a mile of hobbling, I reach the visitors center and hail a cab. Four bucks to Kaibab, a deal. Too bad the cabbie can't negotiate the next six descending miles, but I guess I gotta test my hiking shoes sometime. Yeow! The trail's slippery from the snow and it's rocky and my legs are throbbing and the pack's cutting into my back and I keep stubbing toes and twisting ankles and stumbling into canyon walls and I'm all out of breath and by the time the snow dissipates there's mule spoor to keep the trail slick though I don't know why these guys call this thing a trail. And so on. Down down down, more out of control than I'd like, by now I'm really cranky. And then, quite suddenly, a transformation: I'm on a ridge with an unencumbered view of the Canyon as far as I can see; a sweet breeze sweeps across the abyss, threads of distant hikers' voices, chirps from fluttering swallows, caws from soaring ravens. The scent is difficult to describe. Canyony. Not so difficult after all. The moment expands to a minute, then another. I am wholly at peace, utterly content, at one with the universe and the Canyon. I take a step forward, stumble, fall down, lacerate my leg. Things are back to normal. The miles pass slowly, like time doesn't when you're having fun, or perhaps I have that backwards. But eventually I reach the narrow suspension bridge across the Colorado River, and over I go. A quarter mile further is Bright Angel Campground, civilization with a good view. A campsite consists of a spacious dirt floor, picnic table, 6' high packbar from which to hang food out of reach of hungry critters, plus trees and a river and a canyon and a creek named Bright Angel to observe.
And I do a lot of observing, like at Phantom Ranch, five minutes down the road. Dozens of cute stone cabins with window curtains, flower pots, and a mess hall with aromas of real food. Reminds me, I'm hungry. Back at my own campsite, I crank up the cookstove, dump rice pilaf into boiling water, stir for 15 minutes. Hmm, the photo on the bag suggested it would've tasted better. I also have this white powdery milk stuff called Klim. Just add water and mix. Trouble is, it won't. No matter how hard I stir and shake, I still get white lumps suspended in tap water. Snow is forecast for the rim, but it's 55º down here. Bright Angel Creek rushes past with great noise, as do hikers in a hurry. My feet hurt something awful, but my spirits soar as I spend my first night in The Canyon.
22nd. Bright Angel to Cottonwood Campground, seven miles. Up early, thinking I'll be off before anyone else, but it takes me an hour to wash the Klim out of the cooking pan. The trail follows Bright Angel Creek all the way. I pass a hiker wearing a Walkman, another toting a video camera and battery pack, yet another with a small recording studio. Technology on the trail. By noon I'm settled comfortably at Cottonwood, where there really are a zillion cottonwoods. Without the Marquis de Sade backpack brutalizing my latissimus dorsi, I'm in much finer fettle, so I backtrack a mile to Ribbon Falls, a whole lot of wet water pouring out of the red rock cliff, a nice place to visit but ... well maybe I would want to live here. If I could get take-out, that is. Back at Cottonwood, a stunning sunset: The Canyon glows red and orange and a couple of other colors I've not seen before. Again, the food and related stuff goes on the packbar, but this one's too high for me to reach, so I stick everything on a nearby low bar. Still, what sort of critter could possible reach it?
23rd. Well, squirrels, maybe, or mice or antelope or bisons. I don't know, but something did, and helped her or himself to a crunchy granola breakfast. My breakfast. The route back to Bright Angel is downhill and I'm there in only three hours. By noon, the tent's up, the pack's suspended, I'm looking for adventure. Thermometers: downstairs, 47-64º and sunny; upstairs, 24-45º and snow. The stove runs out of gas, but not me. I walk over the Silver Suspension Bridge, a different one, the way out tomorrow. Then down to the beach to stare into the river turbulence. Back at camp, a fisherperson lands an 18-inch something. A fish, I believe, covered with Bright Angel Muck.
Mules on South Kaibab
Every evening, a park ranger gives a nature talk at the Phantom Ranch amphitheater. Ranger Tim asks how many have been here before. Most hikers have, most mule riders haven't. This is one guy's ninth trip! But later, as I saunter down to the river's edge in absolute darkness, listening to the water act upon the canyon, I think this might not be such a weird place to head towards, year after year after year. Suddenly a shooting star disappears over the rim. An omen? Nah, just a shooting star. But a good shooting star.
24th. Awake early, but so is everyone else. Not in too great a hurry to leave, I don't get underway till 8:00. I'm instantly in with a bunch of 14 others, and we pass and repass another for an hour to the top of Devil's Corkscrew, a tiring series of switchbacks. On and on, tromping behind mules, in front of rodents, beside scenic vistas that I'm too pooped to appreciate. But by midmorning I'm at Indian Gardens, drinking refreshing tap water straight from the nearby water treatment facility. Four and a half miles to go, with little rest kiosks at 3 miles and 1½ miles. But now there's less shade, more steepness, less spring in my feet. I speculate that it wouldn't be so bad if I weren't lugging this pack and if I weren't going uphill. After five hours and 35 minutes, the rim. I'm a physical wreck, but that doesn't stop me from reserving a seven day hike next year. Seven days? What am I, a masochist?
Perhaps, because my next stop is California, where the campaign trail awaits. A friend, Jan, is running for mayor of Garden Grove, the 55th largest city in America, a position for which I suppose she's as qualified as the next guy who, come to think of it, isn't running. There aren't any big issues--none with which our candidate is familiar, anyway--and the mudslinging to which I was looking forward has been scrapped due to low funds. The media blitz begins. We cut out maps of city precincts and attach them to computer print-outs of registered voters. A weekend before the election, two dozen people who owe Jan favors walk through these precincts and hang campaign ads on the doorknobs. Seems harder on my feet than the canyon was! Two days later, the results:
Chief Rival 14,884
Spoiler (spent zero money on campaign) 2,003
Jan, Our Personable But Naive Candidate 3,345
I think this is what's known as a beating. Down but not out, I bag my annual Disneyland fix and instead drive to nearby Knott's Berry Farm, a chicken farm-cum-theme park. Macadam and parking lot gates have replaced the rustic roving chickens, and it's a lot more built up than last year, a disappointment, as is watching Attack of the Killer Tomatoes on TV. Must be time to be movin' on.
November 19th. I always have mixed emotions about heading east. Today I'm mostly hungry, if you want to call that an emotion. But I'm digressing, as I often do when I get in the car ... digressing, in fact, all the way to Utah. At dusk, I encounter cows crossing the road and I instinctively take defensive action: I freeze. Luckily, the cows don't, and I somehow squeeze between cows #5 and #6. I drive on to Zion National Park, a good place to digress for a while. The night sky is brilliant, full of stars, though they have to compete with lights from the nearby lavatoria.
Desert Walls on Burr Trail
More Burr Trail Walls
Last Views on Burr Trail
20th. I've heard about sunrises over Zion Canyon and I can't wait to see one, but I miss the crack of dawn by two hours. The road out of the canyon is steep and serpentine, gloriously so, so much so that it's closed between 9 pm and 7 am. Sixty-five miles later, I remember setting the combo thermometer-compass on the rear bumper the night before. I stop to retrieve it, but it isn't there. On through the corner of brilliantly red rock Bryce Canyon, another national park, then onto Burr Trail, a 69-mile long east-west dirt road which cleaves Capitol Reef and concomitant canyon country. Soon, I wind down into a small serene canyon where a cottonwood-lined stream gurgles past crimson and orange striated cliffs, the absolute antithesis of a housing development. Later, more precipitous switchbacks lead through Muley Twist Canyon--no way I could've made it heading west. When the road levels out a bit I step on the gas. Ahead I spot a pothole in the road. A pothole? More like a ditch, a gully, a place through which to (a) drive very slowly or (b) drive extremely cautiously or (c) avoid altogether. Ahh, but there's only time for (d) none of the above, and I hit it at breakneck speed, KA-WHOOPH! My life history flashes before me; more importantly, my car's history flashes before me. But I survive, the car survives, and so on we go, even faster, what the hell.
Bryce Canyon Pedestal
Three hours later I happen upon a paved road, a novelty in these parts, and follow it to Lake Powell. This used to be another spectacular canyon, now it's just a boat parking lot. Some guy pulls up in an RV towing a barge the size of Connecticut. Is he gonna launch that thing or sell lots off of it? I don't wait to find out, instead head north, pass Natural Bridges, reach Canyonlands at sundown. I can't locate a water tap so I break into the emergency water jug I've carried since New Jersey. Surprise, it's anti-freeze.
21st. This time I do get a sunrise snapshot, then off I go in search of Hiking Country, and there's a hell of a lot if it here. Also, Jeep trails, one of which touts a 60% grade. Sixty percent, are you kidding? In a roller coaster, maybe, but in a Jeep? Wait, where's my car! I start off on a 10.2 mile jaunt to the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers when better judgment--surprise!--triggered by an absence of food and water, prevails. I put it off for next time.
Now eastward again, past Newspaper Rock--a boulder covered with Anasazi pictographs and empty Coors cans--and back to Arches, which by now is beginning to look familiar. I strap on my pack and walk to Turret Arch, Window Arch, Delicate Arch, Fallen Arch--great arches all, even the last one which I just made up. Quite a few people at the campground this Thanksgiving Eve, presumably to get a better start arching in the morning. Crowds or not, it's absolutely still: no wind, no clamoring ravens. All sounds seem to be blanketed by the thickening snow clouds. Sn ... uh-oh.
22nd-23rd. Arches to Indiana, with brief stops in between. It didn't snow after all. I think I'm disappointed. By 8:30 I'm also out of camp, out of Arches, and onto Route 128, wishing I was headed in the opposite direction. I stop in Cisco, a town 75% ghost, stroll through a deserted shed, a dilapidated house trailer, then drive east without looking back. Twenty-two miles to Colorado, four hundred and forty-five more to Kansas, four hundred twenty-nine more to Missouri--it just flies by, though by the 19th straight hour I'm hallucinating. In Illinois I dream a premise to a satirical radio show, WBOB, Bob's Radio, sponsored by Hen House Cosmetics, Discount Turtles and Snake Security Systems. Hey I said I was hallucinating. Blame it on Illinois!
24th. I'm still in Indiana at Grandmother's House, obviously still mentally incapacitated. Otherwise, why the hell would I still be here?
25th. Okay, I'm awake now, and before any more relatives stop by, I slip out. The Sunday After Thanksgiving is not the best time to be on the road, but 355,000 other Pennsylvania Turnpike motorists don't seem to realize this. How can I get my point across? Ahh, by jumping off the turnpike and taking an alternate route! Oops ... there isn't any.
A number of wrong turns and some hours later, I approach Philadelphia and the famous Schuylkill Expressway. The eastbound road surface puts even Burr Trail to shame, no surprise there. The adventure ends at 9 pm, after--the envelope, please--8,130 miles. And the winner is ... well, you be the judge.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.