Grand Canyon Odyssey, Part I… The Wilderness Cure

The Grand Canyon is a world treasure. I've backpacked into it several times and rafted the Colorado River through it. Once I even rode a mule into the Canyon.

The Grand Canyon is a world treasure. I’ve backpacked into it several times and rafted the Colorado River through it. Once, I even rode a mule into the Canyon. The mule carried me over the trail you can see right front center.

I followed Highway 50 east out of Sacramento, cut off at Pollock Pines and picked up the Mormon-Emigrant Trail. Soon I was on Highway 88 climbing up and over Carson Pass. Newly dressed aspens, snow-covered mountains and frothy creeks reminded me that summer was still two months away.

Kit Carson came through here in February of 1844 along with John C. Fremont. The snow was deep and food was limited. They ended up dining off of their horses, mules and the camp dog. The dog apparently went quite well with pea soup. Later, the trail they discovered would become a major entry point for the 49ers and run through the foothill town of Diamond Springs where I was raised.

By evening I had driven down the east side of the Sierras and made my way into Death Valley. I was setting up my tent under a convenient Mesquite tree when the sun sank behind the Panamint Range. Coyotes howling in the distance lulled me to sleep.

I walked out from my campsite in Death Valley as the sun set and listened to coyotes howl in the distance.

I walked out from my campsite in Death Valley as the sun set and listened to coyotes howl in the distance.

By ten thirty the next morning I was in another world, investing quarters in a video poker machine at Circus Circus on the Las Vegas Strip. Luck was with me. Two hours later found me crossing over Hoover Dam with an extra hundred dollars in my wallet. It represented two weeks of backpacking food. I zipped across the desert, picked up Interstate 40 at Kingman and cut off toward the Grand Canyon at Williams.

Circus Circus Clown.

A little treat for those of you with Coulrophobia, the Circus Circus Clown. No wonder people fear clowns.

I wasted little time checking in at Mather Campground. The Canyon was waiting. An unoccupied rock off the trail near Yavapai Point provided a convenient spot for dangling my legs over the edge. Nothing but several hundred feet of vacant space existed beneath my hiking shoes. A slight breeze on my back reminded me of my mortality.

Sitting on the edge of the Canyon isn't for the faint-hearted. One can fall hundreds of feet.

Sitting on the edge of the Canyon isn’t for the faint-hearted. One can fall hundreds of feet.

My musings were interrupted when a fat Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrel poked his furry head up next to me and demanded payment for my front row seat. I recited the Park’s rule on feeding animals and told him to go eat grass. He flipped his tail at me and squeaked an obscenity as he scrambled off in search of more gullible victims.

Twilight was painting the Canyon with a purplish tinge but I could still make out the distinctive colors and shapes of the rocks. While my right-brain admired the beauty, my left-brain was busy considering eons upon eons of earth history. The dark, tortured walls of the inner canyon, now obscured by evening shadows, reached back over a billion years to the very beginnings of life on earth when our ancient ancestors had frolicked in even more ancient seas.

While the sun still touched the rim of the Canyon, the inner walls turned a dark purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

While the sun still touched the rim of the Canyon, the inner walls turned a dark purple. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Erosion had given these Precambrian rocks a flat top, shaving off some 500 million years of earth’s history and creating what is known as the Great Unconformity.  Since then vast seas, Saharan size deserts, lakes and rivers had patiently supplanted one another as they marched through Paleozoic time depositing layer upon layer of the canyons walls.

My present perch was made of Kaibab limestone created by an inland sea some 250 million years ago. Dusk slipped into dark and my thoughts turned to my impending backpack trip.

I had backpacked into the Canyon several times. My objective this time was to explore the Tanner Trail on the eastern end of the South Rim road.

The next day was devoted to careful preparation. Seventeen years of backpacking in all kinds of terrain and climate had taught me that there was no such thing as being too careful. I approach compulsive when it comes to backpacking alone. Had I resupplied my first aid kit? Was my stove still working? Did I have adequate fuel? Did I have my flashlight, signaling mirror, whistle, compass and maps? Did I have enough but not too much food, water, reading material, etc. etc. etc.?

Safety, comfort and even entertainment are important but weight is always an issue.

Having satisfied myself that I could survive seven to nine days in the Canyon, I headed off to the backcountry permit office. The more environmentally inclined within the Park Service are seriously into minimizing impact and promoting safety. Requiring wilderness use permits is their primary tool in achieving these goals.

I patiently waited behind six other would-be canyon explorers and had memorized the minimum impact lecture by the time my turn was up. The ranger frowned when I mentioned the Tanner Trail.

“The trail is poorly maintained, rarely used, 10-12 miles long and arduous,” she cautioned strongly.

“And that,” I replied, “is exactly what I want.”  I was especially enamored with the ‘rarely used’ part.  I had no desire to share my experience with dozens of other people, much less armies of cantankerous mules that leave lakes of fowl smelling pee on the trail. If I had to face a particularly tough physical challenge and be extra careful to avoid a tumble into the Canyon, it was a price I was happily willing to pay.

I was leaving the office when a skinny guy wearing a short-sleeved khaki shirt, blue shorts and hiking boots stopped me.

“Excuse me,” he announced, “I am with the Sierra Club and I couldn’t help but hear you are headed down the Tanner Trail. Given your condition, I would strongly advise against it. You should hike down the Bright Angel Trail. It’s a lot easier and there are lots of other people hiking it in case you get in trouble.”

Now I confess that having just emerged from nine months of hibernating in Alaska I was pasty white and pudgy. I will also allow that the guy was operating under good intentions.

But his arrogance, especially in announcing his Sierra Club membership as somehow making him a wilderness expert, irritated me. Over the years I had known and worked with lots of Sierra Club folks. I am a strong supporter of their efforts to protect the wilderness. I have even run into some who have had more wilderness experience than I. John Muir, the Sierra Club founder, is one of my all time heroes.

Had my unofficial advisor started off with something like, “I have been up and down the Tanner Trail several times, would you like some suggestions?” I would have been quite willing, even eager, to hear what he had to say. But his uneducated assumptions about my lack of knowledge absolutely turned me off. It was everything I could do to maintain a civil tone of voice as I thanked him for his advice and politely told him to screw off.

At 8:30 the next morning my pasty white pudgy body was having an animated discussion with my mind over why I hadn’t listened more carefully to the Sierra Club ‘expert’ the day before. I had started my day by splurging for breakfast at the elegant El Tovar Hotel and then driven out to Lipan Point.

I was now poised to begin my descent into the Canyon. It looked like a long way down. I gritted my teeth and banned any insidious second thoughts.

They came rushing back as I struggled to hoist my 60 plus pound pack. It was filled with seven days of food, extra water and all of my equipment. I had cursed the day before as I struggled to find room for everything. Now I was cursing I hadn’t left half of it behind. I had the irrelevant thought that my journey down would either kill me or cure me.


Sorry to leave you hanging here as I begin my descent down into the Canyon, but I am going to take a break from blogging for a couple of months. It’s going to be tough. I love blogging and I enjoy keeping up with all of my Internet friends. It’s a special group. But five grandsons are descending on our house and I think Peggy and I will be a little busy (understatement). After that I am going to do some traveling— who knows where? (Peggy will be off in London with her sister Jane.) I also need to spend some time marketing my book. Time simply hasn’t allowed me to put in the effort I should.

And finally, I received two notices from Word Press this past week. One congratulated me on my fifth anniversary with Word Press. The second congratulated me on posting my 500th blog. I realized I hadn’t taken a break from blogging since the beginning. So it’s time I did. I will be off Word Press until the second week in September when I will once again be posting blogs, catching up with the folks I follow, and making comments. Have a great summer and thanks ever so much for following me. —Curt

A final view of the Canyon with its multiple layers that represent deposited from oceans, deserts, rivers and lakes.

A final view of the Canyon with its multiple layers that represent deposits from oceans, deserts, rivers and lakes over hundreds of millions of years..

39 thoughts on “Grand Canyon Odyssey, Part I… The Wilderness Cure

  1. What a cliff hanger. We’ll find out if the Sierra Club member had to come to your rescue… that would make a lovely story! 🙂

    Congratulations on your 5th year on WordPress and 500th post!

    Enjoy your holiday.

  2. I’m so way behind, you’ve probably clocked off by now, but if not enjoy a well-deserved break. I did recommend The Bush Devil Ate Sam to a blogger the other day, so you are getting some publicity, but that rarely translates into sales in my experience.

  3. Talk about a cliff hanger. =) T wants to know how you made it through and back. He learned the SWest geography 6 months ago so he was well versed on your route. Congrats on your milestones, and the book looks great, buddy. Enjoy family and the sights.

    The Holistic Family

    • Thanks D. 🙂 Tell T I will add a map of the Grand Canyon in September. As for my route over and back from Sacramento I went up Highway 50 out of Sacramento to Pollock Pines, cut over to Highway 88 on the Mormon-Emigrant Trail (the Mormons followed it to the California Gold Rush), went up and over Carson Pass to Highway 89 and followed it to Highway 395, which is a gorgeous drive down the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. I then followed Highway 136 into Death Valley, eventually picking up #190 in the park to #374 coming out at Beatty, Nevada and Highway 95 into Las Vegas. I followed the Boulder Highway out of Las Vegas to Boulder City and then crossed over Hoover Dam picking up Highway 93 to Kingman, Arizona. From Kingman, I followed 40 up to Williams where I followed Highway 64 up to the Grand Canyon. After that the route got even more complex as I wandered into New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, etc. 🙂 I’ll include more details as I continue the story. –Curt

  4. Congratulations Curt, 500 posts,…well that’s just amazing! To both of you, enjoy making memories with those grand-kids, safe travels, and cheers to unplugging for the summer! -Ginette

  5. Once again….bravo!! What Artists you and Peggy are with the camera. The pics leave us speechless. As if you took us to the edge of the world and beyond. We just shared these on Facebook so that our friends can enjoy these beautiful Canyon pics. As for the time off, we completely understand. Ging used to say to me, when your Facebooking more than working on your own book it’s time to reevaluate. We can’t wait for you to finish your book and will be first in line to grab our copy; being fans of yours and Peggy’s we know it will be brilliant!!! Give those grandsons a big hug and hold them tight. Enjoy your time off and we’ll see you in September. 😉 xoxo

    • Appreciated… as always. 🙂 Hugged the last grandkids this morning. And I have been appreciating the break. Not that there has been much time, given the five grandsons. –Curt

  6. I just found this in a CNN report on the Burning Man dust storm, and laughed and laughed. Punctuation counts!

    The annual event on a remote playa two hours north of Reno is renowned for its near-total lack of commerce, art, music and performance events, and an anything-goes attitude.

    Yep, that’s why I’d go to Burning Man — for that near-total lack of art, music, and performance events! Can I buy a colon?

  7. I’m so glad you wrote this post, even though it’s taken me a while to catch up with my reading. You are a polished writer, and your observations are keen. You have a memory for locations, names, and geography that I envy. Loved the little squirrel interlude as well as the second thoughts you had about carrying a heavy backpack with or without the warnings of an arrogant Sierra Club member. Of course, my reading follows the last two movies I’ve seen: A Walk in the Woods (fair, but hits on some of the second thoughts you had) and The Martian (superb movie that hints of your desire to “go it alone,” even though the protagonist was dealt that hand involuntarily. Can’t wait to move on to installment Number 2 of Grand Canyon adventures.

    • Thanks for your kind comments. They are much appreciated. Our Book Club just read A Walk in the Woods and Peggy and I went to watch the movie. Hilarious. We also watched Wild, a very different movie but worth seeing. Peggy just read the Martian and loved it. I’m up next. And we both plan on seeing the movie. –Curt

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