Tap and scrape of our trekking poles on the slickrock: could be the beginning of a poem and it is. Poetry of our descent down the Bill Hall Trail, North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Only our timpani of echoes, voices muffled as we look down at the loose rocks with intense concentration, what’s left taken by the wind ragging through the giant cleft below.
Early morning start: we had camped right at the rim, pulling under the tall Ponderosas and setting up tents by the car’s headlights. A curious squirrel demanded his rights on the road, unyielding, tufted ears cocked for our answer. He should: the night-colored Kaibab squirrel is extremely rare, and lives only in this North Rim forest.
After breakfast we tug on packs heavy with extra water for the long dry hike, nine miles until we find a creek. It is a perfect day for the Grand Canyon. Dense clouds shed mesh-thin rain and it is cool, much preferred to the relentless hot eye of the Arizona sun. Below we see a gray thick sleeve of rain drawing across the jagged scar in the landscape, like a secret the earth is reluctant to share.
Everyone living in the Southwest has their Canyon story, if not yet, then one to come. From the story we feel the Grand is ours, earned, as we hike paddle or ride through 2 billion years of geologic history. This was my second visit, 17 years after my trip to the South Rim in the middle of a December blizzard. My truck skidded in the snow, and I stopped in Flagstaff to buy chains for the tires. Nothing was going to stop me. A bubble of pain inside me had to be released and I pictured my descent slow as through water, to the deepest bottom I knew. Because of the storm I was alone on the Bright Angel Trail.
This time we were three: two 50-something women and one young man, each of us weaving this shared adventure. Down down down and relentlessly down, our view first overtaken by a huge red tongue of rock–Bridgers Knoll–made even more beautiful by its shining moist coat. At one point our trail plummets to vertical and we have to scuttle the cliff face like a crab.
Then reprieve as we hike along the Esplanade, a plateau rough with otherworldly rock formations and high desert plants: One-seed Juniper, agave, banana and narrowleaf yucca, Mormon Tea, ricegrass, dropseed. Prickly pear and whipple cholla burst with crinkled pink and yellow flowers.
Five miles down, four to go to our campsite at Deer Creek. Hearts happy, legs quivering as the wind picks up. We descend into Surprise Valley under a darkening sky. It begins to rain again, fiercer, occasional hail slicing exposed skin. Then I fall, white lightning shooting through my left knee. Greg pulls neoprene wraps from out of nowhere, and I bind my joint with a little prayer. I am way behind as my friends hurry on.
Pain rips through my knee again, matching the strokes in the sky. I toss my pack, writhe until the pain subsides. I feel something has broken off–maybe I will be better now? We decide to leave my pack here, get to camp. It is cold and wet and threatening as we go on.
The last descent to Deer Creek is the most difficult. Steep, treacherous as we negotiate boulders and loose scree, and I can barely hobble. Finally two hours later we walk along the creek, looking for a place to camp. It is a primitive area, the only amenity the royal “Throne”. We choose a sandy strip among the cottonwood and willow trees. Greg drops his gear and nobly offers to get my pack, which I can’t believe. We are all tired, cold, hungry but away he goes.
A group of 6 middle-aged men wander over one at a time to greet us. They bring gifts: 800mg tablets of ibuprofen and flasks of wine. Soon I am happy again, numb and delighted. Greg gets back by the light of the first brave star.
In tents for sleep, I wonder if I can make it out of the Canyon. But this physical pain is easier to bear than the one I brought with me those long years ago–the thought that I taken something precious from my young son’s childhood–irrevocably, beyond repair.
On a wintery afternoon a week before Christmas, I picked my son up from my ex-partner’s house, a rhythm we had all gotten used to since we split up. This was about to change: she told our son that she had gotten a job out of state, and would be moving right away. We processed that in the car, and it seemed he understood. Then, seconds later he surprised me by asking, “Mom, are you really Santa Claus?”
My son was asking for the truth, no matter how much it hurt. We had a deal–though I loved to enchant or tease him with made–up stories, he knew he could always ask the truth and I would tell him. But this day he was so sad already from his other mom leaving, and he was not even 6! Far too young to be robbed of the magic of Christmas. I hesitated, then told him. He sobbed until he fell asleep, a young boy with tears I wiped from his soft cheeks.
I thought of the presents I had wrapped and hidden–his toys, my schoolbooks, gaudy cheap paper wrapping a parent’s love. We would no longer waken on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought us. That thought seared into my heart–did I do the right thing, wanting to give him a wonder-filled childhood and in a moment, taking that away? My heart hurt for him. But I had made him a promise, and I knew he was asking: what is real, what can he depend on, what stays?
We wake up at Deer Creek to the songs of canyon wrens. I am stiff, limp out of my tent and quickly down more ibuprofen with morning coffee. We pack up, start on the trail to the Upper Tapeats Creek Campground following the kinks of the Colorado River. It is 6 miles of steep and narrow paths, and there is one intimidating scramble. I look up to the ledge where Greg waits and begin to climb, slipping on the loose gravel. He dangles his leg over the edge and I grab his boot–there are no other handholds as he hauls me up.
I earn my trail name. The group of men passes us, calling me the “bionic woman”. The pain has shrunk to an infrequent ache, always on the descent. Going up or straight I am fine, thanks to determination and a 2400mg dose of drugs.
A giant yellow swallowtail butterfly hitches a ride on Greg’s shoulder for 20 minutes, choosing the gentlest of us. There is a glow from the rain as sunlight skims the high cliffs. We walk the canyon corridor in awe. Huge bellows of barrel cacti grab right into rock. The tattle of the stream becomes the thrum of the river and the whoosh of great winds scouring over its waters. Red-veined granite boulders are smeared with bronze and golden lichen. The stones beneath our feet wear these colors, red brown maroon moon white. The day warms us into t-shirts and shorts in spite of piling gray clouds.
We stop for lunch on a sandy river beach, pull on raincoats as the storm comes in. The surging river is its own atlas for the lost loneliness of time. A liquid map where the landscape dreams. The storm passes, and a huge shadow dips over us. We grab cameras–a California Condor! One of the rarest birds in the world, with an estimated 70 in the Four Corners area. My photo catches only a wingtip as the giant bird arcs away, owning the sky.
Back on the trail, we start to climb again, following Tapeats Creek. Young bold cottonwoods line the banks, sure of water. Tamarisk punctuate with their pink wisps of flowers, welcome here in a healthy ecosystem. Bees suck them hungrily, waving their black backsides. Flash of gold: a bright yellow bird over the golden tall spear shot from the leaves of Parry’s Agave. Wildflowers exalt–Joe-Pye weed, candytuft, white aster, penstemon, red scrolls of wood-betony hugging the ground. The air is filled with fragrance, not perfume-sweet but the aroma of the earth exhaling. Wind strokes us with its warm blessing and I know there is no day better than this one.
Before our first stream crossing, Greg stops and points to an opening between two boulders. Inside a pink rattlesnake glares at us, feeling safe in his cave. We search for a crossing but the stream is wide and deep and strong from the winter melt. We tie our boots around our necks, and I cling to Greg’s stronger body as we navigate the fierce current. The water is turning my legs to ice and the current dares me to let go.The rocks under our toes are slippery and uneven, but we make it, joyfully crawling up the other bank. One more stream crossing, worse than the first, but by now we are pros at it.
Our campsite is beautiful, tucked under the brim of sheltering trees.
This third day in the Canyon is our rest day. No packs, we follow the creek up the Thunder River Trail, in some places a 6-inch single track winding around a rocky slope. Lush green envelopes the water, as lacy mesquite leaves throw filtered shadows over the light brigade of submerged stones. There are redbuds about to bloom, and stream orchids and swallows pinching prey bugs before they skip away. Soon we know why it is called Thunder River.
Above us: power.
Gushing from a gash in the cliffs the water breaks on rocks with a liquid roar. We grab exposed roots of gnarled cottonwood trees, haul ourselves up to get closer. A curtain of mist bathes us and the vernal growth along the banks as the water spray vaporizes, touched by the heat of the sun. I feel like I am inside the body of the earth, gushing blood of water and birthing life.
My friends chat 10 feet away, but I can’t hear them. They point to a skink on the trail. His neon blue pin-striped tail flicks as he eyes us, doing pushups to show off his dominance. He sees a big white grub, gobbles it then skedaddles away, his engorged belly dragging on the ground.
On the way back to camp we see a Big Horn buck, magnificent, solitary. He stands still for a moment, then lightly flies up an impossibly steep precipice.
At night, I wake and see the Milky Way, a band of luminescent cotton squeezed between the dark palms of the canyon walls.
I hiked out of the Canyon that December under the light of the 13th moon. It was full, silvering the river and my path. I was eager to go home and pick up my son. I had hammered the out dents in my heart. Bathed in that moonlight, if there were still hollows only I could see them. I went home to create new rituals of family and love.
Our last morning on the Bill Hall Trail we woke early, before the sun. Packed everything quickly, ate a big breakfast, and started–up. A long day of continuous ascent, fearsome to many hikers, but it wasn’t that bad. We got to the rim in 7 hours, walking a leisurely pace as the canyon melted beneath us. Now I saw the signs of its ancient sea in the fossils, the petrified foam on rock, waves of sedimentary layers–sandstone, limestone, shale–inscribed on the canyon walls.
As we reached the North Rim, it started to rain again, full circle of the earth’s perfection. The rain painted our joy and that part of ourselves left behind, like evaporating mist bound to the cycle of time.
On our drive out of the Canyon area the next day, shock. Just 15 miles away we saw this:
It is the Navajo Generating Station, a 1970’s era coal power plant, one of several in the Four Corners whose emissions dirty the skies. The coal lobby in Washington is pushing the EPA and the Administration to delay or weaken the pollution control retrofitting that would lead to cleaner air above the Grand Canyon, more healthy air quality for the residents of nearby towns.
There are other threats to the Canyon: recently new uranium claims were prohibited, but existing mines are still operating on federal land surrounding the National Monument. A lawsuit has been filed by the uranium industry challenging the development limitations. In spite of the restrictions, the US Forest Service recently allowed Energy Fuel Resources, Inc. to begin operating a uranium mine near the Park. The mine is located within the boundaries of the Red Butte Traditional Cultural Property, sacred to the Havasupi Tribe. The Tribe and a coalition of environmental protection groups have filed suit against the USFS over this decision.
The Colorado River is now ranked as #1 on the list of America’s Most Endangered Rivers, due to drought, competing claims, mis-management of water flow and sedimentation risks. Downstream from the Glen Canyon Dam that we passed, near the sign for the “Million Dollar Views” housing development area, Lake Powell shrinks to its lowest levels since the dam was built. It is estimated to be at only 42% capacity.
Too many overflights by small tourist aircraft destroy the quiet soundscape of the Canyon.
I read the NPS Bulletin Board for the Canyon which details sightings of the Condors. It lists 5 dead in the past few months, from “unknown or TBD;” from “blunt force trauma;” from “acute lead poisoning.”