Backpacking into the Grand Canyon: Part III… My Muscles Go on Strike!

I am sitting on the edge of the Colorado, red with mud. (Peggy took this and the following photos when I returned down the Tanner Trail into the Grand Canyon several years later. I didn't have a camera on my first trip.)

I am sitting on the edge of the Colorado River, red with mud. (Peggy took this photo when I returned with her down the Tanner Trail into the Grand Canyon several years after my first trip. I didn’t have a camera the first time.)

 

At the end of my last blog on my backpacking trip into the Grand Canyon, I was getting ready to hike up the Canyon to the Little Colorado River. The day before I had made a strenuous descent from the rim to the Colorado River that had left my downhill muscles screaming for mercy.

I hoisted my backpack and mentally prepared for the day’s journey. On the edge of my campsite was a 20-foot section of small boulders I needed to negotiate to rejoin the trail. Normally I would sail through such an obstacle course, stepping on or between rocks as the situation called for. Not this time. I wobbled uncontrollably when I stepped on top of my first rock; I had absolutely zero balance. My muscles were refusing to function. They had gone on strike! While I didn’t reach the insane-cackle level brought on by exhaustion the night before, I did find myself giggling. Dorothy’s Scarecrow was a paragon of grace in comparison to me. I actually made it a whole hundred yards before declaring that my backpacking day was over.

An overhanging rock provided shade and a scenic view of the Tanner Canyon Rapids. I spent the day napping, reading a book on the Grand Canyon by Joseph Wood Krutch, snacking, and watching rafters maneuver through the rapids. The most energy I expended was to go to the river and retrieve a bucket of water. There was plenty of time to let the mud settle.

I made it as far as an overhanging rock a hundred yards from my campsite. Thirteen years later I pointed out my hideaway to Peggy. It may hold the record for the shortest backpacking trip in history.

I made it as far as an overhanging rock a hundred yards from my campsite. Thirteen years later I pointed out my hideaway to Peggy. It may hold the record for the shortest backpacking trip in history. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Peggy tried out my seat where I sat and read all day and watched bats come though in the evening.

Peggy tried out my seat where I sat and read all day and watched bats come through in the evening.

The view I had of the Tanner Rapids from my 'cave.'

The view I had of the Tanner Rapids from my ‘cave.’ Eventually I rafted down the Colorado River and would pass through these rapids.

That evening I sipped a cup of tea laced with 151-proof rum and watched bats flit around my ‘cave’ as they gobbled down mosquitoes. They were close enough I could have touched them. It was like I was invisible, as I had apparently been to the Mousy and his stalker the night before. Strange, unsettling thoughts of nonexistence went zipping through my mind. Being alone in the wilderness is conducive to such thinking. The Canyon adds another layer.

Day three arrived and it was time to explore my surroundings and whip my protesting muscles into shape. I still wasn’t ready for primetime backpacking, so I took a day hike up Tanner Creek Canyon. Whatever creek had existed was waiting for future rain, but the erosive power of water was plainly evident. This was flash flood country where a dry wash can turn into a raging torrent in minutes. Dark clouds demand a hasty retreat to higher ground. I had nothing but blue skies, however, so I hiked up as far as I could go. The canyon narrowed down to a few feet and traveling any further called for rock climbing skills I didn’t possess. I sat for a while enjoying the silence— and the thousands of feet of soaring walls. The isolation seemed so complete it was palpable. I was alone but not lonely. Nature was my companion. Reluctantly, I turned back toward my camp.

I spent the next two days hiking along the River. I backpacked up the Colorado following the Beamer Trail to Lava Canyon Rapids the first day and then worked my way back down past Tanner Creek to Unkar Creek the second. My general rule was that if the trail appeared ready to make a major climb up the canyon, it was going without me.

At one point where Peggy and I were backpacking up the Beamer Trail we came to a fork in the trail and went left. (Yes, we did find the fork in the trail.)

At one point when Peggy and I were backpacking up the Beamer Trail we came to a fork in the trail and went left. (Yes, we did find the fork that someone had humorously placed in the trail. I was reminded of the Muppet Movie where Kermit came on a similar fork.)

I am not sure the fork provided good advise. (grin) We had to scramble.

I am not sure the fork provided good advice. (grin) We had to scramble.

The only real excitement came toward the end of the second day when I discovered my left foot poised a few inches above a pinkish Grand Canyon Rattlesnake that lay stretched across the trail, hidden in the shadows. He was a granddaddy of a fellow, both long and thick. My right leg performed an unbidden, prodigious hop that placed me several feet down the trail. There is a very primitive part of the brain that screams snake. No thinking is required. As soon as I could get my heart under control, I picked up a long stick and gently urged the miscreant reptile to get off the trail. He wasn’t into urging. Instead, he coiled up, rattled his multitude of rattles and stuck out his long, forked tongue at me. He was lucky I didn’t pummel him. I did prod more enthusiastically, however, and he got the point, crawling off the trail rather quickly. I memorized the location so he wouldn’t surprise me on the return journey.

My leg’s miraculous leap suggested that my body was beginning to tune up. There would be no more malingering and feeling sorry for itself. The next day I camped at Tanner Creek again and the following day out I hiked out. The trip up took me three hours less than it had taken to hike in. I was tempted to go find the Sierra Club fellow who had demanded that I use a more civilized trail, but opted out for a well-earned hamburger and cold beer instead. My body was demanding compensation for its forced march.

I’ll return to my Grand Canyon adventure next week when a friend joins me to hike back into the Canyon a few days after I returned to the rim. Hostile spirits from another realm join us. Or at least she believes they do.

NEXT BLOG: I start my series on my recent trip up the North Coast of California. First up— Olompali State Park. Located just north of San Francisco, it has a fascinating history stretching from the Miwok Indians to the Grateful Dead to a hippie commune.

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..