There and Back Again

The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom.  They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice in joyful song.  The glory of Lebanon will be given to them, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.  Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak, say to those who are frightened: be strong, fear not!  Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.”
— Isaiah 35:1-4

I was stuffed with Navajo tacos and beer as we left the old Cameron Trading Post and jumped in my buddy’s Ford pick-up truck.

A warm wind buffeted my face through the passenger window as we rumbled over Tanner’s Crossing, a one-lane swayback suspension bridge spanning that stretch of the Little Colorado River.  I could feel the side-to-side movement of the bridge while squinting at the river 100’s of feet below. Never one for man-made heights, I was ill at ease. Fortunately I was fine with natural heights, because we were on our way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to hike miles of steep terrain to the Colorado River far below.

Past Bitter Springs, Marble Canyon and Jacob Lake, a long series of primitive forest roads wound their way southwest through pristine alpine wilderness to the Bill Hall trailhead at the edge of the North Rim. We arrived an hour or so before sunset, so had plenty of time to set up camp and enjoy the spectacular views of the Canyon.  Another half dozen in our expedition arrived a short time later, set up their tents, and joined us for steaks, beans and beer.

It was early September, so I had only packed my sleeping bag and left the tent at home.  As the other guys zipped themselves into their tents for the night, I tried to unsuccessfully to relax while gazing up through the pine tree canopy at the uncountable stars twinkling in the heavens above.  Considering that I was in the full fury of a major storm in my life, being able to relax seemed virtually impossible.

I awoke before sunrise, stirred by the gentle rustling of branches.  I squinted in the dim light through crusty eyes at the surrounding forest. There were plentiful elk and deer within a stone’s throw, but it was the sight of my sleeping bag covered in a thick layer of frost that really caught my attention.  It was also as stiff as a board.  Naturally I was shivering, so quickly popped up and got busy with preparations for the hike.

Tents or not, the other guys were subjected to the same cold snap as I was, so took my lead and got busy with breaking camp and securing their large packs.  Thirty minutes later we were dropping down steep switchbacks that clung to 1500 feet of vertical rock face.  In spite of the meticulous planning, packing and repacking of my gear prior, I spent the first hour or so wondering how I could have possibly overburdened myself with so much weight.

In sharp contrast to the cool alpine at the top of the rim, the Canyon’s desert terrain blasted us with 100+ degree temperatures.  I did my best to cache extra water for the trip out, but was getting a bit worried at the rate I was consuming my limited supply.  We were making for the Esplanade above Thunder River Falls which would take us most of the day.  I would have to start conserving water if I was going to make it there to fill up.

I was 25 years younger at the time, and in pretty decent shape, but the long hot stretches and heavy pack was taking its toll.  Even so, that provided a practical excuse to avoid a lot of chatter with the other guys, which was fine as far as I was concerned.  I was still struggling to relax and feeling mostly alone in my personal storm.

Seven miles in, my thoughts did start to quiet a bit, the internal chatter slowly giving way to the crunching rhythm of my boots on granite, the occasional breeze ruffling desert brush, a hawk’s call overhead… until a sudden ruckus from my buddies broke the peace.  A large rattler coiled up under a mesquite bush was the culprit.

Well, I didn’t want any part of that, so continued on down the trail after the briefest of glances. I already had enough on my mind without risking another venomous bite.  It’s kind of interesting to recall that now, because that rattler was the only one I’ve ever seen in the desert wilderness.  Considering the amount of desert hiking I’ve done in the years since, I just consider that another blessing.

If nothing else, I’ll credit the encounter with that old snake for snapping me out of some pointless, brooding thoughts. The Esplanade was just a couple more miles ahead and looked like it would be an adequate place to rest and camp for the night. Early the next morning, I’d make for Thunder River Falls.

The next day found me stretching out the last of my water supply with a relentless heat pummeling my aching body and wavering will power which was stretched to the limit. I was out in the lead, my buddy just behind, and the rest of our group straining about a mile further behind. We were dropping down yet another set of switchbacks, but at least the falls were in reach because I could see them about a half mile away off to my left.

I rounded a sharp bend to the right and temporarily lost site of the falls.  The path was extremely narrow in that stretch, but there was a picturesque panorama beckoning off to the right.  I paused briefly to take it all in and to give my buddy time to catch up.  Unfortunately, I got a bit too curious about the view below, so edged a little closer to have a good look.  Yikes!  I was staring directly down at a 500-foot-drop.  The next thing I noticed was the thin, loose rocks I was standing on at cliff’s edge.  Of course it only took a second for the panic to set in as I assessed my precarious footing. One false move and I was going to plummet over the edge.  Sweet, Jesus.

Right then my buddy rounded the bend and I noticed the high-tech hiking stick he was using… the one that I had been razzing him about so much, as well as all his other high-tech gear.  “Stop,” I whispered. “Grab on tight to that rock, hold on to the other end of your pole, and extend the handle end with the strap on it.”  He was oblivious at first, but I suppose the look on my face said it all. It sunk in, so he got right to it and slowly pulled me back up and off the ledge.

Honestly, that episode from the hike really rattled me, and I would say it was some kind of definitive turning point for me.  My buddy decided to wait for the other guys to catch up and warn them of that dangerous spot in the trail while I pressed on in earnest for the falls and some fresh drinking water.

I was elated to finally reach the pool, a glorious little oasis at the base of the falls.  What an awe-inspiring sight! I knew instantly where it got its name, as a steady stream of clear, fresh spring water thundered out of the rock face above me.  I was so hot and exhausted that I just walked right into the pool… boots, clothes and all. Ahhhh.  Praise God.  I drank deeply, slowly pulled my boots off and just rested in that little pool, letting the cool water soothe my aching bones.  I stayed there like that for some time until the rest of group finally caught up.

I replenished my water supply, which meant that my pack got considerably heavier again, but that didn’t seem to be such a bother moving forward.  I was just happy for the fresh supply that was essential for surviving in the Canyon.  More importantly, God was already working the miracle in my soul with the Living Water that was truly life giving.

Towards the end of day 2, we finally strode into the intended camping spot along the Colorado River. The rest of the group was setting up tents and making various plans for fishing and side excursions that they would take the next day.  I wandered up river a bit to find a calm spot and simply plunged in the frigid waters for a good scrubbing off and change of clothes.

Back at camp I ran into some other hiking groups who had arrived there along different routes. There were some hardy souls, but also some folks that were very sick from drinking some bad water. They were in such a sorry state that they had sent others back up the trail to arrange for a medical helicopter to come pull them out.

While all that conversation was going on, I was quietly peering off into the distance at the faraway rim of the canyon.  My buddies may have been getting ready to make some dinner, but I was already securing my pack and taking measure of a new strength that was clearly resolved and peaceful. Truly, I couldn’t imagine anything I wanted to do more than climb out of that chasm.  Yes.  It was time to go.

Understandably, the rest of the hiking group thought I was nuts, but that didn’t stop me from wishing them well and setting out at sunset.  I pushed on hard until I got just past that dangerous ledge and slept in a narrow, sandy ravine.  Before sunrise the next morning, I was long since on the move, past the Esplanade, and ascending the final cliff face. Eventually I pulled myself up and over a boulder to reach the top of the north rim near the truck.  What could I say, but “praise God!”

I was essentially out of trail food, so kept right on going to a log cabin diner down the road where I ate a healthy breakfast with all the trimmings.

In a very real sense, I kept right on going after the diner and never looked back.

The storm ceased… the waters calmed.  The heavy baggage was gone. The drinking buddies were gone.  I still had quite a bit of real work ahead, so launched that effort by returning to Mass and practicing my Catholic faith in earnest.  A short time later, God worked the miracle on my alchohol dependency and ended that for good as well.

I found a good woman.  Married.  We had three wonderful kids and do our best to raise them strong in the Catholic faith.

Of course I still hike in earnest as well…  sometimes with the family, but often by myself, or rather on a grace filled hike with Our Lord who is ever present, ever watchful, and loving beyond compare.

Leave a Reply