Canyon memories and desert dreams

When I turned 20 in 1983 I got it in my head that I had to see the Grand Canyon. Not just see it, but experience it, top to bottom.
I was a college student, and instead of taking a January interim class, I borrowed my mom’s Datsun and drove south, sleeping in a rest stop on the way to Oklahoma City, then heading west on Interstate 40 to Flagstaff.
The 30-year-old memories are faded and diluted by other trips to the southwest, but those of my descent to the Colorado River are as stark, colorful and unique as the canyon itself.
I wasn’t a very smart backpacker at the time, so my old blue Jansport — a high school graduation present from Mom and Dad — was loaded down with Campbell’s soup cans, the exact wrong choice for a steep 7-mile drop, including a mile in elevation, from the snowy forests of the rim to the swinging bridge over the roiling river.
Along the way I was utterly alone, the only sign of life the switchback trails and donkey dung. The trek was a 7-course feast for the eyes as the trail dropped from one color to another, one era to another in the incomprehensible geologic past — the Kaibab layer, followed by the Toroweap, Coconino, Hermit, Supai and so on.
I couldn’t imagine the millions of years it took to create those layers, but I could almost picture the river carving it out like the hand of God in a great sandbox, gouging and scraping the finest sculpture ever seen.
At one point I sat down to rest, my gluteus muscles burning from the jarring descent and the weight of the soup cans. I still remember the orange I ate and the scenery I drank, and the realization I had that this was my first experience of utter silence — a sensory shock as dramatic as the blue sky against white clouds and red and yellow rock.
During my day at the bottom I hiked toward the north rim for a few hours up the North Kaibab trail to a waterfall. Back at the civilized area around the campground, I headed to the ranger station where they sold drinks and treats in the evening, and a ranger with a mandolin led us all in a singalong — a memorable round of human fellowship during four days of desert solitaire. “This land is your land” never sounded so good.
I spent two nights at the bottom and a third halfway up. On the hike out I learned my lesson about soup cans when I met another hiker who had done the entire walk down and up with nothing but a bag of gorp. No stove needed, and no empty cans to pack out. By the time I reached the top, which is about 7,000 feet in elevation, I was stopping to rest every few hundred yards, but like any physical exertion in the great outdoors, it was worth every labored breath and painful step.
I’m reminiscing about my Grand adventure because I’m planning a repeat come spring.
I had just turned 20 the first time I went, and in January I’ll hit the big 5-0, so my gift to myself is a return trip to the Grand Canyon, this time with wife and kids in tow. Diane’s excited and the kids are apprehensive, but I’m certain it will make as profound an impression on them as it did on me.
A permit to the canyon in the busy month of March is no sure thing. I sent in my application on Nov. 1 — the first day March permits are doled out.
It may come as a surprise to those who know my political leanings that the best news I received on Nov. 6 had nothing to do with politics. That was the day I got my ticket to paradise.
Brett Larson is the editor of the Messenger.


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