29 October 2011

Below the Rim

Five million people visit the Grand Canyon every year, most of them gawking, jaws dropped, from the South Rim. And yes, it is a truly inspiring vista, beyond the scope of my skills with words. There are other vistas, too, just as sweeping, from below the rim. And there are also small wonders that surprise and enchant me, and whose grandeur seems equally difficult to express with the inadequacy of language. On a recent seven-day hike in the Canyon, we moved camp every day but one. And every new camp, and the trek to it, yielded gems beyond my expectations.

I’ve been to the bottom of the Canyon many times. But before this fall’s hike, I’d only done three different routes to the river. My first was to Supai with my sister and cousins in 1992. I’ve been to Phantom Ranch / Bright Angel twice. The boulder scramble down to Soap Creek Rapids, though, has enchanted my family, and I’ve been there dozens of times, including twice with my age 11-and-under daughters.

This is my first opportunity to really travel within the canyon and to see its many faces. As we begin this adventure to Thunder River and Deer Creek from the North Rim, we drive through a lovely dense mix of pine, oak, aspen, and limestone over a seemingly never-ending dirt road to the trailhead. Embarking on the trail, we walk through scrubby oak just hinting at the changing season, up (yes, up!) and then around and down a limestone section dotted with a few tough piƱons and hardly any places wide enough to remove our packs and rest.

I stop to take a break near a promontory pointing to Bridger’s Knoll, and realize, slowly, that the huge bird flying just below and beyond me is a California condor. It’s so close and so huge, and I can almost read the number tag on its wing. Before I can get my camera out, the soaring bird is some distance away, but no less awe-inspiring.

Somehow, the downhill travel is more difficult than the uphill. Every step is calculated, the quads are straining against the natural law of gravity, trying to slow this body in motion. The sliding scree is tough, more so because we are all carrying extra water to cache on the Esplanade, our first and last nights’ camp. The Esplanade is an immense expanse of relatively horizontal red sandstone with hoodoos and drainages that make it a fun place to explore. We may find rainwater in the shallow tinajas, or depressions, in the sandstone there, or maybe not. We won’t know until we get there. And if there is water, it might not last a week under the sun until our return, since animals and other thirsty hikers will also pass this way.

The first night we’re tired. We don’t yet have our canyon legs and our packs are at their heaviest. We eat, pump water from the tinajas nearby, and set up camp. As the sun sets, the alpenglow casts the Esplanade aflame with a rosy golden light. And once the light is gone, so is the heat, and we call it a night.

Sometime the next afternoon, we can hear Thunder River. We can hear it before we see it. And then, we crest a saddle in the ridge, and there it is. Water bursts directly from the wall of the canyon to our left, more a waterfall than a river. It is a lush oasis, with trees and ferns, icy-cold pools and cascades. It’s an incredible abundance of water contrasted against last night’s supply, pumped from shallow rain puddles. We soak our feet in the chilly spring water until they’re numb, dip our heads, replenish our bottles, and carry on, down to our next camp.

In the morning, we continue, soon fording Tapeats Creek, which is running higher than I’m comfortable crossing. With Dan’s help, I’m the last one – we all make it across safely. As we travel downstream, I marvel at the vegetation. It seems more like the fertile foothills desert of Tucson: mesquite thickets, fat prickly pears and hedge hog cacti, grasses, flowers. It seems opposite from the barren landscape dominated by stone and erosion that is so emblematic of the Grand Canyon. And always, as we walk, the creek rushes alongside, racing ahead of us to tonight’s destination: the Colorado.

By the time we reach the river, we’re high above it and the sun is directly overhead. It’s hot. We snake down a group of incredibly steep, rocky switch backs, ending at a sandy beach strewn with stones smoothed by water. The Colorado is a milky chocolate color today. Where the clear Tapeats water meets the sediment-laden Colorado, there is a clear delineation marking the boundary between river and creek.

As we break camp the next morning and head downriver, it seems my canyon legs have arrived. It’s easy, picking our way through the boulders scattered by ages of floods, and then up and across Cogswell Butte toward Deer Creek. My pack feels good, and for the next two nights, we won’t move camp. It’s probably that thought that encourages me to keep my pace.

From high above the Colorado, we watch for rafters, and finally we are rewarded. A couple rafts and an old-style wooden dory are traveling together. We watch them navigate through Helicopter Eddy, the dory bobbing like a cork. Later, we learn the old man in the dory is O.C., a Canyon river-running legend among the rafting set.

At Deer Creek, we pause. To the right are towering cottonwoods and a wide canyon where we’ll camp. To the left are the narrows, beginning with a room-like area called the Patio. It’s an obvious border, where we stand, and while the dark shade of the narrows tempts us, we opt to go upstream to claim our camp.

And the camp is lovely. Our site is large enough for all of our tents, shady and level, and the creek burbles just meters away. Several times during our stay, I think I hear voices, but realize it’s just the creek. I’ve often heard about babbling brooks, but this is my first experience actually listening to one.

We laze about, splash in the creek, set up camp, and decide to head for the narrows. The narrows of Deer Creek are a slot canyon. A dozen or so people sitting and reading in the Patio. A few more soak in the water flowing across the flat sandstone. We stay to the right of the creek, pass a waterfall, and walk along a narrow ledge of sculpted sandstone. The canyon walls go high above us, the water some distance below. There are places where the canyon tapers and curves beneath our ledge, and we can no longer see the water rushing downstream. We walk, single-file, our shoulders sometimes brushing the edge of the canyon wall as our feet skirt along the lip of the brink.

And then, Dan stops abruptly near an overhang, and gestures to a treasure I would have missed. Three small handprints, probably Anasazi, adorn the wall. My eleven-year-old’s hands are probably larger than these, marked on the wall with blown paint in a kind of reverse-stencil. How many centuries have people walked this path? And in the past century, how many have walked on by this artwork, too concerned with their footing to notice?

Two days later, as we begin our ascent, we stop to refill our water at Deer Spring, near the Throne Room. The Throne Room is a large area under an overhanging cliff where hikers and rafters have built sandstone thrones of many sizes, most with armrests. We try several out, and I’m surprised at how comfortable they are. A week without upholstered furniture somehow makes solid stone chairs relaxing. At the spring, we pump enough water to make it back to our water cache on the Esplanade. There, on the huge stone where we sit, I spy something that doesn’t quite seem to fit. At first, I think it’s a bundle of sticks that someone’s placed side-by-side. I pick it up, brush off a few willow leaves, and I realize it’s a split twig figurine, a fetish shaped like a deer, about the size of my palm. It’s not ancient, of course, but a lovely modern example made by a fellow traveler who passed this way, just days before me. I cradle it in my hands and marvel at the small wonders of this grand place.

That night on the Esplanade, we are again astonished by the splendor of the sun, setting beyond the countless chasms. We watch the stars come out in greater numbers than can be seen almost anywhere else in the world, and quietly point out satellites that cross the sky above us. Here in the Canyon, I've found treasures that will feed my soul until the next time I go below the rim.

08 October 2011


My grandmother had a plaque in her kitchen that stated, “Bloom where you are planted.”

When Gram was a young bride, she followed her husband to different mining camps all over the state of Arizona. Sometimes home was a little mining shack with a packed dirt floor. Sometimes home meant the nearest store or post office was several hours away, over bumpy, wash-boarded roads. I think of how lonely she must have been in those early years of her marriage, when her husband was working long days in the mines. And, of course, she couldn’t stay connected to the outside world by checking in to Facebook or receiving emails or even phone calls. Eventually, my grandfather realized that they’d have a better life if he went to college, and so off to Tucson they went, and after that, there were more moves as well.

But she loved him, and wanted to be with him, and had promised to do so, no matter how tough things got. She toughed it out, made the choice to be happy, and they made a life together for more than sixty years. She bloomed, and he did, too.

My grandmother certainly wasn’t a Buddhist, but she definitely understood the concept of living in the moment, and being present. She and my grandfather always made the best of a bad situation – sometimes to the point of later romanticizing the situation, and turning it into a family legend. This was the Depression, after all, and yet it seemed through their stories to be the Golden Age. Maybe that is the coloring of young love?

I thought of Gram this week, when I read the news of a college friend, who had been in the process of adopting a second child. She and her family decided to stop the process after yet another setback, but she remarked how difficult it was to stay sad for long with the gem of a daughter who made them a family.

Gram would have liked that attitude, saying my friend and her family were blooming where they were planted.

But, man, it’s tough sometimes to bloom with what we’re dealt. I look at my family and friends, some of whom have been facing difficult issues: cancer, infertility, extended delays with adoptions, unemployment, and divorce. I think, though, that we’d choose to keep to the path we’ve each chosen, in spite of each of our relative hardships.

I think, too, of my favorite of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Number 29:

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

It was the first Shakespeare I’d ever read – and I had to memorize that sonnet for Sophomore English so many years ago. That sonnet somehow spoke to my teenage angst, and I still find comfort in it today. And I see how we can choose – or not – to bloom.

04 October 2011

Come Winter

Scrambling to create lesson plans for the coming week, I wonder again why I’ve agreed to one last camping trip for the year this weekend. There is too much to do to be going camping. I have quizzes to grade. I have emails from parents that I need to respond to, papers to copy and file, reminders to post. And that’s just the work side of my life. At home, where my family awaits me, the house needs a thorough cleaning, there is shopping to do for an upcoming backpacking trip, and my never-seeming-to-grow-shorter to-do list awaits. Plus, I can’t quite decide if that achy feeling in my shoulders and that scratch in my throat mean I’m coming down with something.

One last camping trip before we winterize the trailer for the coming cold. And yet, I can’t help thinking that we should just winterize it and put it away, and get to work on what we need to do. But Dan and the girls really want to go, and since we’re leaving the girls with grandparents while we go backpacking, it’s really something we should do. The girls love to camp so much – they ride their bikes and play together in ways that they don’t always agree upon when we’re home.

Finally, I am ready to leave school, and as I walk out of the building late on Friday afternoon, I notice the skies are dark with clouds and it is just beginning to sprinkle.

At home, there’s the final frenzy of last minute packing before we hook up the trailer and take off. We don’t go far – just to a small campground nestled among the granite boulders in the ponderosa, juniper, and manzanita a few miles from home. It’s one of our favorites, partly because it is so close to home, and partly because it really is strikingly beautiful.

The rain is moving in, and we quickly set up camp while the girls ride their bikes a few laps around the campground. Thunder, lightning, and the large drops begin to fall just as the trailer is ready to be home again for all of us. The girls return and stash their bikes just as the downpour starts in earnest.

A few moments later, we sit with a snack and drinks while the rain steadily pounds the roof. We all love that sound – the rain on the trailer roof – and my mind turns to other camps set up in a hurry, especially cranking up our tent trailer during a short-lived June snowstorm in Yellowstone back when Arden was not quite four.

After a sunny morning’s hike, the clouds build up, and it rains from Saturday afternoon into evening. The weather is chilly, and really finally feels like fall. We read, drink coffee, and laze about, enjoying the rain on the roof and this fleeting time to just sit and do as little as we want. By Sunday morning, I realize I’ve slept more than twenty hours since Friday night, and those aches I’d felt have disappeared. I feel lighter and calmer. The view of the granite and trees from the trailer door is exactly what my soul required to recharge. And in spite of my vague resistance, one more camping trip before winter is just what I needed. Sometimes we don’t recognize what it is we need – and luckily, sometimes those we love know precisely what will make us – all – whole again, and that will sustain me come winter.

02 October 2011

Vacuum of Silence

The other afternoon, Arden was struck by another of her headaches. These bad boys seem to come out of nowhere, and from time to time, really knock her down. We’ve been documenting when they happen, and what activities precede them, what she eats and drinks, and even how she reacts to the headaches. So far, though, no patterns are emerging.

By 4:30 that afternoon, she was in bed with the shades drawn, and a compress on her forehead. A whimper-y, tear-filled half hour later, she was asleep. At dinner, the rest of us remarked at the gloomy silence left in the vacuum of her absence. Later, we tiptoed through the dreary evening, sad for her and sad for us, too. Without her spunky cheer, the three of us fall into boredom pretty readily.

The night stretched long with worry. Silence always seems to lengthen the period of time it occupies.

The next morning, when I went to wake her to see if she was able to go to school, she stretched and sighed and smiled. She sat up, rubbed her eyes, and asked, “Did I eat dinner last night?” She laughed when I shook my head no.

I could see her reviewing the events of the previous afternoon, and she cautiously moved herself, trying to determine if her head was still hurting.

“I feel lots better,” she pronounced, and hopped out of bed to begin her morning routine.

Relief flooded over me, and each of us was consumed by the frantic morning pace that somehow gets us out the door each day. That night, though, the typical commotion of our family dinner swirled around us, and my heart beat to its usual cadence once again, the tempo set by the lovely, ordinary noise.